Sumptuous stump work.
My first encounter with the art of needlework was with my great aunt Flo who lived along with three other aunts in the top floor flat of my grandparents’ house. She had been a court dress maker but now in retirement stitched wonderful silk work pictures and dressed dolls for charity raffles. On our arrival at my grandparents I would be whisked off by Aunt Flo at the earliest opportunity to show me her latest creations. A large white painted Edwardian chest of drawers contained all her fabric offcuts and making materials. As she open each drawer the ever familiar scent of lavender billowed out but it was in the bottom drawer that the real treasure lay, wrapped in tissue paper was the latest finished doll dressed in the most intricate and heavily petticoated costume, every item of which could be removed with the smallest of buttons. On her bed nestled in lace cushions was her old wooden doll which I still treasure along with one of her little silk pictures.
During my days as an antique dealer I admired the extra ordinary skill and beauty of 17th century stump work but could never afford it. Only after five years of being up on the isle of Lewis did I decide to try sowing with yarn left over from some of our six local Harris Tweed weavers. After several years of collecting discarded bobbins of wool from the local weavers and charity shops I started my first picture and was delighted to find friends describing it as painting with wool. The dying process and mixing of wools before spinning for tweed yarn is such that the wool does not have a solid uniform colour and so lends itself well to pictorial work. Needlework is by its nature slow and whereas I could paint a picture in a matter of days stitching one takes me months. Experimenting with stump work (the padding out in order to raise areas of the picture) brought another dimension and depth to the images as I started on a series of six tapestries inspired by animals in the bible. The work took three years to complete and as such remains work to be seen rather than sold. Each image carries with it a story of its creation during the months they took to evolve. They were of a size that proved easily transportable and so I worked on them wherever I happened to be, in Western Australia, Brittany, Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides. So given that they take so long to stitch for me they are also images that capture my time. I can see a tiger that I worked on during a long haul flight to Perth and remember the young man sitting next to me enthralled by the intricacy of the work. Camping on the island of Bernara a weather beaten elderly shepherd wandered across the machair intrigued to discover me stitching a blackface sheep. While waiting to catch a homeward flight at Doha airport the entire cabin crew gathered round as I sat cross legged on the floor stitching the background of Daniel in the Lion’s den. Then in the midst of a Breton winter there are countless hours sat under an angle poise lamp with the roaring warmth of the wood burning stove, or early summer mornings stitching at the bedroom window of the croft house on the isle of Lewis; the neighbour walking his two sheep dogs, the school bus passes while others head off to work in Stornoway.
After three months working the image is well and truly imprinted so much so that I have to make a conscious effort to eradicate it from my vision I order to proceed with other work. The final of the six biblical stump work images was finished at the end of this summer and now seems a fitting season’s greeting card.
More often than not I already have in mind the next project however I try to make myself take a break between major works, however this latest project has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past three years, to make a stump work casket in the 17th century manner. I estimate this will take a full six months and will incorporate images of birds inspired by Audubon’s birds of America. The box is made and I’ve started work on the two side panels and am loving the sumptuousness of the work.