Monday, 14 November 2016

In a jar, part two

    After my visit to the Gordon Museum I went to the Hunterian museum on Lincolns Inn Fields. This is a public museum but still not to be taken lightly. As I mentioned in the previous post I knew that I would find this difficult .
    I had come to see the Evelyn anatomical tables.These are seventeenth century wooden boards with the veins,nerves and arteries of a body laid out on each like a strange piece of lace.So delicate and so unnerving, you are looking at the wiring of a human who walked and talked set against a dark wooden board with knot holes looking out at you from between the vessels.The rest of the body had been dissected away from them rather like cutting away the fabric from the seams of clothes instead of unpicking them.
   Much of the museum consists of displays of wax topped glass specimen jars with beautiful hand written labels and it was these that moved me most. I found that I was mourning the puss moth in a jar and thinking of the hyacinth flower that never was, floating like a strange jelly fish with its' long white roots.I kept asking myself if it was necessary to truncate so much life in order to study it but answered straight away that it must have been.
    Knowledge is made up of tiny stitches, like Charlotte Waite's cross-stitch celebrating her survival of chloroform. And like the film I watched three times upstairs of  a coronary bypass. And the latex skin pads for students to practise suturing which resemble trapunto quilting. Fragments of knowledge made from lives and sewn together.
 The next day I sat in my studio and sobbed.

Monday, 7 November 2016

In a jar, part one.

    I was given the opportunity the other day to visit the Gordon Museum in London. This is a large pathology museum not open to the public but as artist in residence at Imperial college I was allowed. 
    For a sensitive soul whose emotional field often extends over to others this was not something I undertook lightly. In fact I was on emotional lock down so that I could process what I was to see. A pathology museum is no freak show, all is regulated and specimens are all displayed anonymously in glass vitrines.It is however a museum of pain where everything you see is an example of disease in every organ of the body. 
   I had come to look at the vascular corrosive casts. This technique is similar to the lost wax process in silversmithing whereby something very delicate can be cast without damage, in this case blood vessels.On their own arteries and veins resemble ferny seaweed floating in a jar of water.
  It was difficult however to walk past faces and hands in jars and not think of the lives attached.So many people have given their bodies to science and it was very moving. At times I had to dive into the nextdoor Life Sciences museum for a break!
   Here was a beautiful little natural history museum with wooden cabinets and birds nests and bones. You can look at a row of skulls showing the evolution of man and blithely consider millions of years of time sitting on a shelf in front of you.
  What lies between the two museums is a corridor where a piece of medical 'folk art' lives. Wood carvings done by bored medical students as they waited on call in a maternity unit, some of them explicit, all celebrating new life. It was a between world.
  There was so much to consider it was dizzying and also an emotional slalom. There was a strange removal of emotion about it all and yet I kept wondering who here was unloved and who beloved.

Monday, 24 October 2016


aortic stent graft
  One of the most beautiful things I have found whilst in theatre are the live angiograms that the surgeons use to insert stents.These are live x-rays of the procedure which involves inserting a very expensive expanding tube into a main blood vessel to prevent it becoming blocked.
  Rather like a Christmas decoration that once unfolded you can never get back in the box, this type of stent is a hand stitched metal mesh onto gortex which is expanded once inside the body.The procedure is done by watching the x-ray on screen .Not only can you see it expand but you see the shifting shadows of the bones and tissue around and behind it which is what I found beautiful.
  The sharpness of the metal and its gold marker points against the stormcloud softness started me thinking about how to do a lace version.I would have to bend some techniques to do this but it would be just like when I teach drawing.There would be no difference between learning how to use the flat of the pencil to shade and then the sharp point to pull out details. Lots of 6B and 2B I reckon, just in thread!

image found here

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


 One thing that does not happen in my studio is death. I may contemplate the immensities and I may suffer anxiety over showing my work but there is usually an atmosphere of things coming into being not the opposite.
   So, I watch a fascinating bit of surgery with a hybrid stent, some lovely angiogram images and some beautiful stitching.All is going well and then it's not. Despite all the good things, the miraculous things that were done it seemed  that this person would not wake up. I went home with a heavy heart and thought about the person on the table and their expectations of the day. Before you  consent to surgery do you consider all outcomes or do you put it out of your mind? Before you operate do you consider that possibility?How do you detach from death ?
  Much of my work in recent years has been about the moment of death and about returning to the earth.I have tried to express this transience through the meaning of the Japanese phrase 'mono no aware'. in a series of  pieces the most recent being 'Lachrimae Rerum'.
 but then another miracle, they woke up and I can stop fretting.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Into the blue

  At my second session of observing surgery I found myself thinking about two things. First was how colourful the body is inside and secondly how like textiles it is.
  The layers of colour as the surgeons went in were a bit like this...
yellow, white, golden yellow like oil, white , dark glaucous red, white, PINK, raspberry pinks, sausage pinks, peach, cut strawberry pink,blue stitches.
 As I focused out onto my surroundings it went...
strawberry pinks,(sausage and peach now hidden under swabs), raspberry, glaucous red, sunflower oil yellow, spring green, turquoise blue, sky blue.
 Then the textiles. I found that I could not see the inside workings of this live body as mechanical but as material. I saw a hand stitched quilt with cotton wadding. Inside the wadding was knitting to cut through and then macrame to avoid cutting. Layers of thick felt cut cleanly and then trapunto to be handled with great delicacy. Finally we get down to mending some stumpwork with needlelace.
A tiny rouleaux loop is fixed in place between two other larger rouleaux and we listen. The sound it makes must be right. Tiny, tiny stitches.
  On the way out layers of holding stitches through the knitting ,big thread and big needles. Skillful flicks of the thread to mend the felt and the wadding. Then finer stitches to seal up the quilt.
  The life support machines make a continuous noise like a distressed blackbird and I can smell roses. .

image taken from this work

Monday, 26 September 2016

Red Thread

 Observing surgery at St. Mary's, a hospital in central London it felt as though I was going down a dodgy back alley to get there. Feeling tired and nauseous from the extremely early start, I am not an early riser by any stretch of the imagination.
  It was a labyrinth. Blank windowless tall walls, the backs of buildings but I get there. I watch as others enter this strange building with its coffee shop and shiny floors like a cross between a shopping mall and a train station. People arrive clutching A4 sheets of instructions and are redirected around the maze. Then it's my turn to enter and I go straight to the heart of it.
  Blues, all in blue cotton clothing and hair nets.
  I look at scans of people's internal structure and watch the beautiful undulations of contours, the waxing and waning as the mouse moves over the image. Light patches and black voids, these are read like words.Decisions,complex choices and frustrations with technology.
  Suddenly we are ready and we go straight into theatre. Gore.They cut through the thick white cocoon  of dressing ,dead flesh and live blood, two stitches.
 I am impressed by the scrub nurses' system and shall never look at hanging 'shoe tidys' in the same way. They seem to use the VAK system and it appeals to my sense of order.
   Another cocoon,it reminds me of when I bought some bumble bees and they arrived sleepy and wadded up for protection.Bursts of compassion through the routine like the blood bursting through,alive. I see the battle between the caring and the struggle with the system. I see emotional lightning as they carry each other,get each other through.
  Surgeons are frustrated when they can't work, like me.
Next a five hour replumbing. Complex, orderly, and intense. I can only see so much of the stitching but the room and it's workings are a dance of people with purpose. We wear radiation protection and the surgeons look like medieval knights going to do battle.
  White light, sea green paper, sky blue scrubs, orange stents and red thread. It ties the clean swabs together and is methodically counted and collected.
I leave after ten and a half hours and the outside world seems ridiculous.

Thursday, 1 September 2016


 Vascular surgery is founded on some lacemaking techniques and so it seemed obvious that I should be showing a senior vascular surgeon how to do a single brussels stitch. The focus was on the importance of tension of thread and spacing of stitches in the cordonnet. With this stitch you also need to go backwards with every alternate row. Unlike knitting where you turn the work over and always work from left to right (if right handed) with needlelace you have to turn the stitch. This is where all my insistence of using the less dominant hand and thinking about things differently comes into play.

   I had focused on embroidery stitches which have similar hand movements or techniques so that the muscle memory was there to cope with the mental rigour of the exacting repetition of lacemaking. There is little room for mistakes with needlelace as it is not always easy to unpick and the thread must not run out mid row .You must be thinking ahead to observe the condition of the thread and all thread ends must be hidden away and evenly hidden away at that !
  The twisting of the thread must be kept in mind and it was the revelation to some surgeons that a quarter turn to the needle every few stitches keeps the thread from buckling or twisting which began this project. Most embroiderers can just let the needle spin out when it becomes too twisted to work with but when that is not possible you turn the needle 'back'. This is also useful when you have a patient! but it is not taught as standard. This is referred to by Prof. Kneebone as 'reciprocal illumination' and is the gold of this project that we are looking for.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016


   Before the first lacemaking group began we talked about exercising and warming up the hands before work. I knew from the previous 'thread management '  and 'craft of surgery 'meetings that puppeteers warm up their hands and fingers before working but did the surgeons? I had been thinking about what it was that I did and realised that of course every day I worked my fingers by plaiting my hair.
   It takes me ten minutes every morning to brush out and then re-plait which is a really complex task if you watch it being done. The control of loose strands, the small twist to each section with every move to make sure they are tight and smooth and the management of the lower un-plaited strands only covers the basics! If you do two plaits you begin one with the right hand dominant and the other with the left hand dominant. Each plait begins as a 'reflection'of the other with one hand dominating the tension and then as you work down the plait your hands are working in tandem.
   The complexity of movement is not something that we give much thought to but I have observed that a lot of textile artists have plaits ! and that we say 'do' rather than 'make' a plait (rather like the zen gardeners just 'do' instead of think when they rake the gravel in straight lines).

Friday, 26 August 2016

Still life and surgery

   Another drawing session this time with a still life group to draw. This combined a hand carved wooden curve, a pear and two glass vase 'frogs' so we had hard lines, soft curves and refracted light to tackle. We were looking at how to attempt all of these with just pencil marks and a rubber plus how to think through the problems they presented.
   The glass became the challenge as it was confusing and changeable to look at so I went through some ways of looking at the light and the structure it was shining through by using a layered surface approach with mark making (scribble/shade/rub out/add detail). It was certainly something that you have to demonstrate not describe!!!! Sometimes just dragging the rubber(eraser) through the drawing with a rapid directional  movement suddenly gave it 'light'.
  It was all about looking and really seeing ( of course !!) Do you see the cut surfaces or the curves, the light or the shade in the carved parts.Where does a pear sit when it is not on a flat surface?
  Then I suggested that everyone drew left handed (all right handers) and it worked really well. In fact the drawings were more relaxed and expressive because with a small loss of control it meant that no-one was fighting their pre-conceived ideas of wood/pear/glass.

Sunday, 21 August 2016



So far two things have occurred to me whilst working on this project. Sometimes there may be an idea floating in your head and it is only when someone else brings up the same subject that you find that you want to do something about it !! I always think of these moments of serendipity as markers. They show you the way on the path to your next work.
  The first thing is my trying to unravel the idea of reflected movement, going backwards, left versus right bias and twist. A student asked me if it mattered with a french knot which way around the needle you wrapped the thread........I said yes and no and yes. I then needed to talk to a friend who is an anarchist knitter and she said it mattered when you knitted a raglan sleeve with the decreasing and that you can't crochet with string very well. She then had a dream about it and so we may move towards some writing on the matter !!
  The other thing was whilst watching one student make an indescribable mistake on a piece of needlelace (more on that session in another post), I found myself thinking about how I could incorporate that mistake into a new technique !!

Thursday, 18 August 2016



For a couple of our stitching gatherings we have been looking at embroidery stitches, some flat some raised. I wanted to lead students who may have no experience of needle and thread through various techniques which related to each other and ultimately to needlelace.
  Firstly everybody did a plain running stitch. I gave them the history of how in centuries past this was a vital stitch for all women as it gave them the means to make all their family's clothes.For many it meant they were marriageable!!!! I wanted to look at needle handling with everyone first before we moved on. That done I demonstrated how to make the stitches smaller and closer together so that they could be used for seaming. Those that were already experienced had to do theirs with the less dominant hand!!Rhythm is an important factor in stitching and I wanted to try and establish this from the beginning too.
  From here we went onto chain stitch so that we could look at the loop through required to make the chain work. This directly relates to buttonhole stitch and so ultimately to lace making so it was important to get the feel and the rhythm of this right.
 Over two days of embroidery the students (medical students and surgeons) practised right and left handed embroidery, stitching in circles and a range of raised embroidery stitches. We finished with putting them all together in a small design so practising not just the individual stitches but also how to plan a complex design and how to literally place raised stitches close together without catching the others as you go.
  One aim was to look at managing your thread rather than just focusing on where the needle is.A twisted thread can really hinder your work and it is so easily avoided by simply turning the needle counterclockwise every few stitches. It is not always possible to just let the needle hang from the work and unwind itself and it is good practise to keep an eye on the thread condition too.
  My other aim is to examine how useful it is to be able to use your less dominant hand to stitch with. This will be a recurring theme in these sessions as there are occasions where your dominant hand is either shadowing the work or it is just easier to get into a small space with the other hand.

Saturday, 6 August 2016



  The first sessions with surgeons and surgical students have been focusing on basic drawing and embroidery skills. To ease us into the day we have begun with two exercises, drawing and yarn balling. This post will focus on the yarning!!
  To take yarn and roll it into a ball seems easy enough but if you watch yourself do it and then try and describe it to someone else it becomes very complicated! The joy of our hand -eye-brain coordination which we take for granted. (For the purpose of understanding I refer to the hand you use most often as the dominant hand, DH, as left and right handedness is a subject for discussion in itself.)
   With your DH you wind rhythmically and with even tension observing all the time the wrapping around to create the ball. It is the other hand that is doing all the work ! The thumb is working in counter tension with the little and ring finger to rotate the ball, whilst also acting as a thread guide. Your index and middle fingers drive the motion of the ball with a small turn so that the yarn spirals. ..and you don't even think about it. Starting off is the most tricky and I taught a very neat 'figure of eight and fold over' method but some prefer to make a sausage of yarn and then fold that with the less dominant hand to create the centre. Surgeons are quite good at this !
   This simple exercise give us time to discuss tension and rhythm and how the twist is vital not only to creating yarn but also controlling it. Rhythm is vital to 'getting the knack' of something when learning new skills and tension is what makes stitch work properly. It was also noted how meditative this was.
  We talk about the idea that 'if it looks good then it is good'. To put it very basically if a stitch is correct and looks neat then it will work whether it be for embroidery or for surgery. Neatness is not just about being pretty it has a necessary working function.
  Some of these ideas relate back to the drawing as we are creating a sphere from a line just like drawing an apple. Rhythm is just as important in drawing as is weight of line and tension of line.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Drawn threads

  I draw all the time, nothing fancy just what I need to express my ideas and work them out. It is a basic and vital skill if you are creative. At college I was told that if you can't draw you can't design. It's true. If you don't know how to observe, which is what drawing is, how can you know how something works. Drawing makes your brain work better because you force it to be honest and not make assumptions about what you see.
  So with this in mind I have begun teaching my surgeons and surgical students about drawing. It is the first thing we do when we have our embroidery and lacemaking sessions in my studio. There is an apple and there are no instructions other than 'draw an apple'. I leave them in peace for ten minutes and then we try different ways of looking.
  The first thing anyone does when they start drawing is a small picture in the middle of the page. It's all about finding confidence combined with being over familiar with holding a pen to write words. You have to take control of the pencil, the paper,your position, the subject and your brain. That brain is the most important because it is going to tell you lies about what you see !!!!
    To start to break out of the bad habits that your brain has we draw the apple again but really big this time and then we turn that drawing upside down and draw again inside it. Then we move the apple....this may be the first time anyone actually touches it. I suggest another small change in position.....swap hands. Everyone laughs, or groans, but it's okay. To draw with the less dominant hand presents challenges of weight to the line and counteracts the brains' instructions.
  Next is the tricky bit, two pencils one in each hand. This provokes some extraordinary responses;either 1.both hands, one apple, 2. both hands held rigid and two apples drawn in tandem or 3. two apples with two hands !!! So then I suggest they have a look at each others method and try another drawing.
  Whilst everyone draws I talk about really seeing and what that means. We have an interesting discussion about observing patients and how you read a lot before you even speak to the patient. It is interesting for me to see how this plays out in their drawing skills. Those that have creative or craft backgrounds are better at drawing and the more senior they are the better the observational skills. It seems that the art classes at school had an effect even on those who didn't pursue it as a career. They learnt to see. Will students in the future be so able if there are no art classses for them ?
  The last drawing is the first where I allow an eraser to be used, much to the relief of many! I show them how to draw with it instead and how to take control of the paper by lightly scribbling all over it first. When we compare their first drawings with this last one there is a big difference. You can see more dynamism and personality, I can see 'them' in their drawings.
  I read pictures like words and always did as a child. The best picture books had the most sophisticated images, many of them were 'golden age' illustrations, and I relished the details like good food. It felt good to feed my brain .

Sunday, 17 July 2016

What's the difference?

One of the big technical differences between surgeons and textile artists is working at depth which means holding the needle with needle-holders....


not these.........

so the first thing to get used to is the feeling of sewing with cutlery!!

Friday, 15 July 2016


 This was my first introduction (1.5.14) to working with surgeons;
         Imagine you had to sew like this ! I had a go last Saturday and it isn't easy, especially as I was sewing real skin....well pig bowel to be precise. I was part of a an interactive discussion with a group of surgeons and craftspeople brought together by Professor Roger Kneebone. We talked needles, one-handed knots, stitching in the round and what the body smells like inside....not a lot apparently. Embroiderers and surgeons face common technique challenges and some not so common, my material is not slippery and alive and they don't have to worry about what their sewing  looks like. 
      When sewing in a circle either on a hoop stand or attaching a cornea we all have to struggle to turn ourselves and not the 'work'.Some of our needles are the same..'leather' needles are also 'cutting' needles and we all use squissors. Your insides are often stitched with two slip knots and an overhand knot to secure which gives flexibility to a join .I may request a faggot stitch in future !!!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Thinking With Your Hands

 I am a lacemaker and embroiderer, often both together as much of my work is stumpwork or 3d embroidery. This is all usually posted on my main blog The Glass Pingle. This blog is to document my work as artist in residence at Imperial College London where I am working with the vascular surgery deparrtment.
  The reason? The short film above explains the thinking but I have been working with Prof. Roger Kneebone now for a couple of years and it is from the sessions held at The Art Workers' Guild with his team that this collaboration was born. It has its' roots way back in the early 1900's with a surgeon called Alexis Carrel who had learnt embroidery and lacemaking from his mother and her friends. This inspired him to develop the techniques of vascular surgery which are still in use now. In short, he worked out how to save limbs from amputation.So... I was introduced to a vascular surgeon and our understanding of each others craft was immediate!
   The aim of this project is to see how we can illuminate each others work so I will be teaching trainee and fully qualified surgeons how to embroider and make lace and they will be showing me what they do! That is a very simple outline of what is a very thorough examination of what very experienced craftspeople from very different areas can learn from each other.
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