Opinion : handcraft and community ~ it’s not as good as you think

sewing circle - photographer unknown

sewing circle – photographer unknown


There’s something quite lovely about getting together with a friend and making stuff. Sewing, knitting, cutting, filing. Your hands are busy, and your mind has space to enjoy the peace and conversation. And there is the added bonus of a fresh set of eyes and ears to toss ideas around with. Share tips and tricks. Learn from each other. Offer suggestions for improvement. And there is the opportunity to pass on skills (like mother to daughter, but to a broader group).

There should be more of it.

We used to do this much more often before the middle of the 20th century, before the consumer age really kicked in. Before we became ‘self-sufficient’ and self-focused. Craft groups are having a small revival, but it is still small. With the resurgence in handcrafts around the world, are our lives that busy that we can’t meet up?  It seems to me that we are too easily lulled into a false sense of ‘connectedness’, and instead we are insulated by the internet. Youtubes and e-courses have their place, but there’s nothing quite like the tactile, one-on-one experience.


Because other people’s opinions are valuable, and
because not everything you make is wonderful.


True, some crafts are more suited to this than others; embroidery, knitting and crochet are highly mobile; jewellery and ceramics might be a bit trickier. But there are always aspects of every craft that are mobile. Could you set up a co-op to cater for jewellery, woodworking, or participate in an existing open access workshop? Instead of saying “my craft (sewing/jewellery/woodwork/ceramics/whatever) is not portable enough”, try and figure out ways to make it work. Or just invite a friend over to your workspace.

Watch and do, immediate feedback – what better way to learn a craft is there?


Go on, it’ll be fun.



grrlandog - vaucluse house guerilla knit

grrlandog – vaucluse house guerilla knit

{grrlandog via here}


The crafted object : Karen Richards ~ textiles


I must admit I am mesmerised by the textile works of Karen Richards. I first came across her through another artist friend of mine (Vicki Mason – you can find my interview with her here!), and was just a tiny bit amazed by the breadth of her practice, and the depths of her skills.


karen richards - sculpture (Flora Non Evidens)

karen richards – sculpture (Flora Non Evidens)


Karen’s most recent large scale pieces use a hi-tech reflective thread which is machine embroidered to create a lacy vignette, which includes trees, water plants, orchids, creepers, shrubs and more. This was made as part of an exhibition called Flora Non Evidens, which was a show commenting on the vulnerability of some Australian native plants. Karen was lovely enough to send me a catalogue, and I can tell you, the show was incredible!

The reflective thread is dull grey in normal light, but shows as bright silver when illuminated directly in dark spaces. Along with common species constructed from normal thread, it was utilised to highlight delicate flowers throughout the vignette that were otherwise invisible in daylight. The whole effect is stunning and truly lovely. Karen describes it like this –

“This is a light reflective installation of machine embroidered endangered plants from around Victoria. Visitors to the installation must wear a head torch in order to illuminate the embroidery which flares silver and disappears as the light moves. The beautiful and elusive quality of the image is intended to reflect the fleeting nature of the plants themselves many of which are vanishing, and may never have been seen by anyone apart from scientists specialising in the field.”


karen richards - sculpture (ruined forest)

karen richards – sculpture (ruined forest)


Her worst experience as a maker was when she was making a lace stop motion animation, Secret Forest for Love Lace. “I had never made a stop motion animation before and it seemed simple – especially when I made a 6 second trial film for the selection process.”

“Toward the end I had 10,000 photos and  I quickly realised I knew nothing about editing, that I had no story and that my computer just wasn’t up to it. I was pretty stressed. I got my graphic/web designer friend Tim to help with assembling the final file.


“Tim suggested what I had done was the equivalent of him making an eighteenth century ball gown with a hammer and nails.”



karen richards - decorative (purses)

karen richards – decorative (purses)


Digital machine embroidery, as used for Flora Non Evidens, has allowed Karen to open up the scale of work achievable by one embroiderer, such as being able to make the hundreds of leaves which can sit together to make a tree. And while she appreciates this advantage and finds it satisfying, her true passion still lies with free motion machine embroidery. “Whereas digital embroidery is controlled – it has no surprises – with free machining you are creating the work in the moment just like painting or drawing.”


karen richards - narrative (adrift)

karen richards – narrative (adrift)


karen richards - narrative (the gramophone tree)

karen richards – narrative (the gramophone tree)


karen richards - narrative (red riding wolf)

karen richards – narrative (red riding wolf)


Her smaller scale works are richly narrative, colourful and whimsical. Sometimes these take the form of small wall pieces, and she also produces work for purses and small brooches. It is her little snippets of sketches on brooches that I find the most intriguing, for their odd collection of miscellaneous ideas and suggestions – bar codes mix with bandaids, fish, smokestacks and trees.


karen richards - decorative (brooches)

karen richards – decorative (brooches)


Originally doing a degree in politics and sociology after finishing school, Karen decided she couldn’t face a career in the Bureau of Statistics; it was always a battle between making things and having a stable job. “In my mid twenties we discovered that my brother and I had a 50% chance of having a degenerative disease and this motivated me to think seriously about what I really wanted to do with my life. I went to RMIT and studied Textile Design, majoring in weave but have worked more as a textile artist using embroidery rather than a designer over the last 10 years.”

“Even when I was at Uni the first time I was making things, going to craft markets and consigning stuff to galleries.  I think this gave me confidence about my work – that I could sell things.



It also showed me the reality of the time that goes into making things vs what they can sell for.


“I did work in the public service for 6 years and the job got me through studying at RMIT.”


Karen currently teaches in the Studio Textile program at South West TAFE, and is also a long-time member of the Melbourne-based textile art and embroidery group, Hurrah! She has exhibited extensively and won numerous awards, including the PFAFF International Embroidery as Art Excellence Award in 2009  for her piece Ruined Forest, and the Australian Cotton Expo Machine Embroidery award for her piece Minhamite, also in 2009.

You read more about Karen and see more of her work on her website, karenrichards.net.


The crafted object : Meredith Woolnough – textiles


Meredith Woolnough’s textile works are just so goshdarn beautiful. Inspired by nature and old lace, it is their intricacy and fragility that draws me in, and it is their vibrant textures that hold me there.


meredith woolnough - ginko study (square) - land series

meredith woolnough – ginkgo study (square) – land series


meredith woolnough - ginkgo (detail)

meredith woolnough – ginkgo (detail)


It is the ephemeral nature of things that is so elegantly conveyed in these delicate pieces; one of Meredith’s stated purposes is to explore the interconnectedness of living things and communicate ideas of environmental degradation.

Based in coastal Australia near Newcastle, she uses things found in her immediate environment as the basis for her pieces. She often works in series based around a theme, and has recently completed a large collection themed around ocean life, featuring a wide variety of corals and shells.


meredith woolnough - black lace circle - 2010

meredith woolnough – black lace circle – 2010


Meredith uses her sewing machine as a drawing tool, and the embroidery threads are densely stitched together to gradually built up into a richly textured surface. The water-soluble base cloth is washed away, and the resulting freeform sculptures are then carefully pinned to paper and framed, or set in resin to preserve them as delicate handmade artefacts.

She works out of her home studio, “a sunny room full of all my favourite things where I lock myself for hours to create. Unfortunately more often than not it’s a big mess and I can’t find anything when I need it.” [I’m kind of empathising with you on that Meredith. A lot. – JG ;)]

Part of the studio also houses her collection of old glass. She confesses to a bit of an obsession with it. “There is something really appealing about old bottles and containers, all those colours and cast labels. Nothing excites me more than finding an old, dirty glass pharmaceutical bottle in an op shop that I can clean up and bring back to life.”


meredith woolnough - star coral circle in white - ocean series - 2012

meredith woolnough – star coral circle in white – ocean series – 2012


meredith woolnough - cluster coral circle - ocean series - 2012

meredith woolnough – cluster coral circle – ocean series – 2012


meredith woolnough - coral (detail)

meredith woolnough – coral (detail)


meredith woolnough - coral (detail)

meredith woolnough – coral (detail)


Meredith told me her childhood was filled with making and drawing. One special book from that time is still kept with her; it was given to her by her grandfather when she was 7. “I filled this book with ‘special drawings’ over the span of about 5 years. I still have that book and I look over it from time to time – sometimes I cringe at the wonky cats and bad self-portraits that I attempted but them sometimes I am impressed with some of the drawing that my 9-year-old self managed to capture. Perhaps that was a start of something for me.”


meredith woolnough - leaf skeleton (hydrangea) - land series - 2012

meredith woolnough – leaf skeleton (hydrangea) – land series – 2012


So how did she come to this particular point in her career as an artist? “I studied fine art at uni straight out of high school and it was there that I fell in love with textiles, and in particular the freehand embroidery that I use in my artwork. After art school I worked as a secondary school teacher while still trying to maintain an art practice by being involved in the odd group exhibition here and there. Naturally working full time as a teacher didn’t leave much time for my own artmaking so in 2011 I took a huge risk; I left my job, moved to whole new city and began work full time as an artist. It has been one of the scariest, but also the most satisfying choices I have made in my life so far.”

Meredith says that like all artists, she has her ups and downs. She admits the downs can be quite debilitating, like “when you pour your whole heart into a new piece or way of doing things and it doesn’t work – that can be pretty soul-crushing. But more often than not something good eventually comes out of these ‘failures’.”


“Behind every failure is a lesson.”


And of course there are the good days. “Last year a rather large and prestigious company purchased two of my works to include in their extensive art collection – that was a good day.”


meredith woolnough - the glass corner

meredith woolnough – the glass corner


Her very best advice? “Believe in your product – if you believe that you are creating something valuable then you are probably right and this will lead to success.”

Meredith works on commission and exhibits regularly across Sydney and its surrounds. You can find more of her work on her own website – meredithwoolnough.com.au, and on her Facebook page.

The crafted object : Leigh Martin ~ knit

Leigh Martin loves plants. In fact, she admits she is obsessed with them. “My education, career, and artwork revolve around this love, and there are few things that I love more.”

Except perhaps knitting. While she has been knitting since college (mostly garments and gifts) it was only a few years ago that she thought about branching out into more sculptural forms. Given her plant obsession, fungi seemed to be a natural choice.  “I think about nature all the time, since it’s what I work with every day.  When I come home, I think about my craft.  Some women like to buy shoes; I like to buy plants and yarn.”


leigh martin - dyed-in-the-wool project (installation)

leigh martin – dyed-in-the-wool project (installation)


leigh martin - dyed-in-the-wool project (detail)

leigh martin – dyed-in-the-wool project (detail)


Leigh works in urban forestry, so she spends a lot of time outdoors. She told me that one of the reasons for pursuing forestry was for the outreach aspect – to help people become more aware of their natural surroundings, and to understand how nature can benefit them.  This is where the idea for her first sculptural installation came from.

“The Decomposition series (Colony I and Colony II) came about after my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Costa Rica.  We were in the rainforest crouching down next to this rotting log that was completely covered in the smallest mushrooms I had ever seen.  One would think that even up close they would just look like solid white, smooth forms, but even as small as they were there was so much intricacy and so much texture.  I remember thinking to myself, “How could someone NOT be amazed by this?””


leigh martin - 52 forms of fungi - jackolantern

leigh martin – 52 forms of fungi – jackolantern


leigh martin - 52 forms of fungi - yellow house fungus

leigh martin – 52 forms of fungi – yellow house fungus


“I was observing it because I regularly observe these types of things, but how many people just walk by without stopping to look?  After that the idea came to me to knit replicas of different types of fungi, and place them in a realistic setting.  From afar the pieces look like they are supposed to be there, and as one gets closer they realize that the forms are not in fact mushrooms at all, but a fiber installation.  My goal is just to get someone to stop and look, and to think about what they’re looking at.””

She worked on the tiny mushrooms for months leading up to a trip to Oregon, and installed both of the collections there.  “It was a very exciting time, and very satisfying to see it come to fruition.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.”


leigh martin - decomposition - stacks

leigh martin – decomposition – stacks


Ironically, Leigh was never interested in knitting as a child, despite the fact that her mother was a keen maker and always had knitting around. “While she taught me multiple times growing up it never really stuck until I was in college.  It’s funny that I’m so obsessed with knitting now. As a kid, Mom would take me to the yarn store and I would be bored to death!  Now I have to control myself because I just want to buy everything…”


leigh martin - 52 forms of fungi - coral fungus

leigh martin – 52 forms of fungi – coral fungus


Despite the obvious knowledge of her craft, or indeed, because of it, she confessed that for most part when it comes to technique she just “wings it”. Firstly checking out the shape, texture and colour of what she wants to make, she then just tests out a pattern on the go. She says sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.


I asked Leigh what her worst experience was with knitting.
She answered, “It took me a little while to understand the importance of knitting a gauge swatch.  I probably don’t need to explain any more about that…”


“Knitting all of the pieces is a big aspect of my work, but for my larger installations the most important part is the setting and placement.  It’s strange spending so many hours working on something and not really seeing it come together until the end… especially not really knowing how it’s going to look when it’s done.  I basically hike along until I find the “perfect” spot, and then place the forms as it strikes me.  It’s almost like a stream of consciousness, or a meditative practice. I think that’s partly what I enjoy so much about doing it; it’s very liberating to not have the ability to control everything about it… I just have to go with the flow.”

Inspiration for each project comes through spending time outdoors, hiking, camping, walking the dog. All the while, she is checking out fungi, interesting plants and trees, and anything else that catches her eye.  “Sometimes I will see a type of fungi that interests me, so I will come home and research it in my field guides and on the internet and then come across something else that’s completely amazing.” Other inspiration comes from artists such as the extraordinary and ephemeral work of Andy Goldsworthy, (another lover of the outdoors and nature) with his installations using natural materials found on site.


leigh martin - decomposition - colony I

leigh martin – decomposition – colony I 


leigh martin - decomposition - colony II

leigh martin – decomposition – colony II


The best thing for her about seeing an artwork completed and installed is the sense of personal accomplishment.  “It feels pretty amazing to have a vision, to work on it for a long period of time and then see it through to the finish.  There’s really nothing like it.”

Her favourite quote is a passage from The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo. She said it has had a big impact on her adult life.

” ‘Well then, why should I listen to my heart?’

‘Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet.  Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you repeating to you what you’re thinking about life, and about the world.’ “



You can find more of Leigh’s wonderful work on her blog, www.bromeleighad.com, which has links to her shop where you can find prints of the photos from the installations.

Colouring my day : Fade to Grey


I’m taking a kind of mini-break from the blog – but not disappearing completely. For the next two weeks, instead of full interviews with artists, I will be sharing a bunch of beautiful craft, surface design and photography, themed around music (thanks Annaig for the suggestion!) ~ songs with colour in the title. It may or may not tell you a little about my musical tastes…

 I hope you enjoy my selections.

 Julie x



Fade to Grey : Visage

I was a teenager when this came out. I loved its ethereal synths and ambient pop sounds,  and that spoken French always sounded so exotic and sophisticated. The music still appeals, and the clip’s got some nice moments, but it would have benefited from Steve Strange keeping his ego a little more in check.





katherine wardropper - neck collar{via  katherinewardropper.com

katherine wardropper – neck collar – textile

{via katherinewardropper.com}



mayumi matsuyama - rings - bracelets

mayumi matsuyama – rings – bracelets – 925 silver

{via http://mayumimatsuyama.com}



ceanirminger - Flight of Pigeons (dark)

ceanirminger – Flight of Pigeons (dark)

{via spoonflower}



robert laska - boys

robert laska – boys

{via http://robertlaska.com}