Many Hands

Many Hands is one of two pieces to be installed at National Centre for Craft & Design in February as the first part of my residency towards the Narrative Threads exhibition later in 2015.

This piece is designed to be touched. My aim is to create a contrast to the usual no-touch rule for galleries and actively encourage visitors to touch this artwork. I worked in museums for many years, where the general rule is no touching (as it damages the objects) but with an acknowledgement that touching is fundamental to how we understand and engage with the material world. Children learn by playing, by touching, and it remains hard as an adult not to touch things that we like the look of. It is a fundamental part of how we engage with the world, particularly with human-made objects. Museums often provide certain objects which can be touched which are sacrificial, to aid engagement and understanding about the objects that must be preserved and not touched. Usually these handling objects are ‘unimportant’ or replaceable. They might be replicas or modern versions of the older, more precious pieces. They might be old pieces without inherent value or provenance so they do not need to be preserved forever.  I was once responsible for sourcing and replacing such items in the various museums I worked in.

As a maker of time-consuming textile art works, I want to protect them from damage so they will remain looking the way they were when I made them, so I can continue to exhibit them in galleries or to sell them. The work I make isn’t intended to be used in the same way as a scarf or mug might be, but the use of objects is part of their story.  For this exhibition, I wanted to create something different: a work which exploited and celebrated the act of touch, that fundamental engagement with art, with the past, through our fingers. I wanted to turn things around and say yes, this piece can be touched, in fact your touch is what makes it. I have merely assembled it, but you, the viewer, the toucher, become part of the narrative of this piece when you engage with it through touching it.

The title Many Hands refers to all the people involved in making this piece, from cotton-growers, weavers, dyers and printers, as well as me, the maker of this construction. It also refers to the viewers, the touchers, whose dirty and oily hands will create a new version of this work every time they touch it.

Over the course of the year, Many Hands will be photographed monthly, as well as mended, altered and adapted by me, creating a record of the changes, the narrative, of this piece.

The piece includes, from top to bottom:

  • Industrial wool felt (new)
  • Silk curtain fabric
  • Striped woven silk (new)
  • Wool felt dyed by me using vine leaves from my garden (new)
  • Vintage linen tape with printed text ‘Exhibition 5’
  • Lining from old curtains
  • Vintage lace
  • Silk dyed by me with local walnuts (new silk)
  • Antique floral printed cotton, probably 19th century
  • Worn quilted fabric from a modern (well worn) cushion cover
  • Vintage boned petersham ribbon
  • Scrap of vintage French linen with seam

Pieces are joined by hand using insertion stitch, herringbone and other hand stitches.

I’ve added stitch and other details, as well as leaving any lose threads from the fabric’s previous life.


Part of the work has been printed with an embroidery transfer, a technique I first used in Metamorphosis. Embroidery transfers are intended to be ephemeral, to wear or wash off, leaving only the threads covering the lines. Instead of making the design permanent through stitch, I will investigate how well the transfer lasts being handled and touched. The print took well on the silk but where it overlaps the lace there are merely faint spots of blue markings.

I will update this page monthly, charting the changes and recording the new narrative of this piece.

One thought on “Many Hands

  1. Pingback: Textile Memories | Ruth Singer

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