Stitch with something to say

Before I visited Festival of Quilts earlier this year, I was thinking about another world where something other than quilts were on display in a huge, annual competition. I was inspired by Fashion Fictions which Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd introduced in Making Meaning Live where alternative versions of the world are explored where there are restrictions on clothing or fabric production as a way of creatively imagining ways to address over-production and over-consumption.

First of all I pondered a world where it wasn’t possible to buy new fabric to cut up and sew it back together into patchwork… where we had to use scraps to make patchwork for practical purposes if cloth wasn’t so over-abundant and little-valued like it is here and now.

I was also thinking about alternative cloth / sewn things that might have become popular to make other than quilts. Why have quilts become the thing we make for pleasure, creativity or retail? What if patchwork had never grown into the art form it is now? What other large-scale textiles might there be on display? Flags? Sails? Banners? Unique handmade garments? 

That led me down a route of thinking about protest banners and political or social banners which were so important in the 19th century and how they are such a small part of our textile world now compared to quilts. Banners were an extraordinary art form in the 19th and early 20th century and an important means for women to use their skills and creativity to further a cause or social issue or promote a sense of belonging for a community. It’s something I keep coming back to myself for my own work – and I’ve started in a miniature way with my Protest Pincushion, a tiny sort of banner! (This was not in the Festival of Quilts because it’s too small and it’s not a quilt.)

Community quilts and group textile project, sometimes with a political or social message, were such a big thing during the pandemic and this demonstrated just how powerful and meaningful collective message-making.  I found it so interesting to explore this in the Textiles in Lockdown podcast which I’ve republished as Making Meaning episode 18.

Thinking about this has made me appreciate group quilts and projects more and I’m really interested in exploring what is out there in the world of textile with a message. I visited the banners exhibition in the Textile Biennial in 2019 which was really amazing but it makes me sad and frustrated that banners aren’t as well-explored art form as quilts and there isn’t a place for banners to be shown annually, to be awarded prizes and publicity and where we can come together to make textiles that have a positive impact and use resources consciously. 

So let’s imagine a fictional world where using precious textile resources was only acceptable when the finished piece had to say something. It had to be activist, community-made or share a message. Imagine those halls of the NEC full of protest banners or social group banners proclaiming their important social message. There is a competition for the best banner in a number of categories such as activism, community groups, human rights, image-based, text-based, political… and then I thought why aren’t they the groupings that quilts are entered into now? Why isn’t there a ‘statement’ category at Festival of Quilts? I really think there should be.

So with all these thoughts in mind, I visited the Festival of Quilts with the intention of seeing just how many pieces in the open competition had an obvious political, social, personal or community message. I know there will be some I didn’t see and I’m sure there were plenty of others that had a message but it wasn’t visually immediately obvious and was maybe more apparent in the artist statements in the catalogue, but I didn’t have one and very much didn’t have time to read them all.

I was so delighted to find so many with a message ranging from very subtle commentary within quilts to pieces overtly political or with a powerful, meaningful statement. I expected to find pieces made by groups with a strong meaning or message and I was amply rewarded. Quilts have a great history of being used by groups to come together and share emotions or to make a point or a message, partly because of their ideal format for individuals to make a piece which is then assembled into a whole. It really is a great vehicle for community practice and one which I have used myself many times.

The Grenfell Memorial Quilts were by far the most impactful pieces at the show, partly due to the size of them but mainly due to the impact and meaning behind them. I can’t help feeling though that they didn’t get the space, prominence or display impact they deserved, maybe because they are wonky and imperfect and very much community-made which is always a contrast to the perfection of competition quilts. There’s a place for both of course. I would LOVE to see community arts practice given the stage it really deserves in galleries and in society but that’s probably another blog post / life’s work. 

The Sophie Hayes Foundation was a brilliant example of this kind of work done really well, and clearly with a bigger budget and structure behind it than the grassroots Grenfell Quilts. These really combined powerful messages, excellent craftsmanship and really good marketing. I don’t mean that I thought they were in any way ‘better’ than the Grenfell quilts, they are just differently produced and presented. 

I really enjoyed hunting out pieces with a political, personal or social commentary within the competition quilts. As this isn’t a category of quilts to enter, they were dotted around and I am sure I missed lots.  The group quilts category is a good place to look for statement pieces, there are still some covid-related pieces and I am sure I will have missed many of these shown last year when I didn’t attend. There are a number of them in Textiles in Lockdown and I know there are hundreds of them around. What fantastic records of life experience during 2020 they are.

Here are some of the pieces I spotted. 

 

I would love to hear from makers of these or other quilts or textiles with a message. Where do you show and share your work? What’s the place for this kind of impactful textile?    How would you change the textile world to allow more space for stitch with something to say?

Community Spirit of Leicestershire launch

My project celebrating the Stories of pandemic volunteering in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland is going on tour

I’ve been working on this project most of the year and even longer in the planning and development. It’s finally almost out in the world! Back in 2020 when volunteering to help run a local foodbank, I realised just how important volunteering was to me and other volunteers. We felt useful and engaged and were making a real difference. I wanted to capture that energy and celebrate it and make sure that volunteers got a proper thank you for their incredible work.

Eventually I turned this into a funding application and created Community Spirit of Leicestershire with support from Arts Council England and Leicester city community funds.

From 5th September the resulting work, created by volunteers, will be shown in libraries and community centres as well as the foodbank where it all started for me. And you can also see the project film here.

There’s details of the tour venues here and a press release here.

I’ve worked with Mandeep Dhadialla as associate artist while I’ve been both lead artist and project producer (plus marketing, admin, funding, workshop-leader!). It’s been a real joy to see this come together and to be able to use a creative project to say THANK YOU to all volunteers for your amazing work.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Criminal Quilts out on show

My Criminal Quilts Prison Dress and Prison Portraits collaboration with Tim Fowler are on show in Leicester during May 2022

I was invited to show new work in this year’s Craft Month at LCB Depot in Leicester and chose to display this joint work with Tim Fowler who is also based in Leicester. We met when we both worked in Makers Yard studios, part of the LCB business premises group.

You can find out more about the paintings and the prison dress here. Criminal Quilts is an arts and heritage project created by Ruth Singer exploring the stories of women held in Stafford Prison 1877-1916.

The work is is on show at LCB Depot, Rutland St, Leicester until 1st June. Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. It’s free to visit. The main body of work is just inside the main entrance with one piece out in the courtyard. There’s a few other pieces and groups of craft work around the building, along with a student exhibition in the main gallery.

Find out more about Criminal Quilts

The Criminal Quilts exhibition tour has now concluded although I will continue to show individual pieces in group exhibitions. The final part of the project is an online conference called Making Meaning Live which takes place in July 2022 and is free to attend.

I’ve made a series of pre-recorded talks about different aspects of the Criminal Quilts project which you can stream and watch now.

And finally, my book of the project is available now, and can be sent anywhere in the world.

Words about Women co-creation artwork

Would you like to stitch part of a collaborative artwork for my Criminal Quilts project? Throughout the years I’ve research women in Stafford Prison, I’ve noticed the words used to label women. The nature of the prison documents means the words are quite judgemental and absolute.

With this project I want to reflect on the words used to describe and label women then and now. The artwork will be made of stitched words, both positive and negative, created by women participants through community workshops and women working on them at home. Being part of a collective project about women’s lives and the perception of women is really powerful. I’d love to hear your voice in this work. Find out more and how to contribute your stitched words on my website here.

I’ll be running free drop-in sessions at Llantarnam Grange on International’s Women’s Day 8th March, stitching words for the artwork. You can book yourself a space here.

Criminal Quilts talks & workshops

I’ve got a short series of Criminal Quilts talks coming up in March. These are online live talks on Wednesday lunchtimes at 1pm, but they will all be recorded so you can watch later too. Each talk is £8 or you can book the series for £20. There’s also a discount for the Embroidered Images workshop when you book any of the talks or you can get a bigger discount if you book all talks and the workshop together. Book here.

Wednesday 2nd March Introduction to prison photographs and my research for this project

Wednesday 16th March. I’ll be talking about the textiles I have made in detail including the techniques and materials of my pieces

Wednesday 30th March. This talk is about my research into the clothing worn by the women in the photographs including prison uniform

Online workshops

I’ve got two workshops coming up in March and April.

In the Shadows teaches the technique I used to create my Fine Art Textiles Prize winning piece Criminal Quilts Hanging.

In the Shadows, reverse appliqué in sheer fabrics, 19th March. £75

Take applique and layering to the next level with this exciting technique of using transparent fabrics layered and cut away. Using sheer fabrics, you will learn how to prepare and hand stitch a design by hand and create the subtle shadow effects by removing layers of fabric. This is a one-day equivalent workshop with pre-recorded videos for you to watch from 10am GMT and a live Zoom at 4pm GMT to share with others.


Embroidered Images workshop includes a digital printed image of one of the prison photographs, ready for you to stitch into.

Criminal Quilts Embroidered Images 23rd April £80

The prisoner photographs from Stafford Prison are both moving and inspiring. In this workshop you will have the opportunity to stitch your own embroidered image using a digital print which will be sent to you in advance of the workshop (additional £8 postage for outside the UK) This includes: – 6 video lessons – Live Zoom introduction – Digital printed fabric posted to you – Colour palettes & stitch suggestions.

Criminal Quilts Exhibition Launch

My exhibition opens at Llantarnam Grange on Saturday 5th Feb. Join me for a live stream preview event on Friday 4th Feb at 2pm GMT

I’m excited and sad to be showing my touring exhibition Criminal Quilts for the final time. The exhibition is open at Llantarnam Grange, Cwmbran, Wales from 5th February – 2nd April 2022. Monday – Saturday 9.30am-4pm

This final version of the show brings together brand new work with many of the pieces from the last 10 years of this project and is the last chance to see this body of work.

We are hosting a free live-stream preview on Friday 4th Feb at 2pm. Link and further details will be available shortly.

I’ll also be running an in-person creative workshop at the gallery and a short drop-in session for International Women’s day in March. Details to come

Alongside this, I’ll be running a series of online talks and workshops starting in February. To get the details of all of these events, please join my email list.

Criminal Quilts final exhibition 2022

My Criminal Quilts exhibition has been touring since 2018 and after some pandemic cancellations and rescheduling, the last hurrah is coming up in February 2022. The exhibition will be on show at Llantarnam Grange 5th February – 2nd April.

I will be hosting an an online preview event accessible to all on Friday 4th February time TBC.

The exhibition will include lots of new work made in the last couple of years which you can see here as well as other pieces still in progress plus new collaborative community work.

There will be events in the gallery and online during the spring including a collaborative project inviting contributions from around the world.

After the exhibition, I’m creating an online live gathering event with other artists to share stories about making craft with powerful social and historical narratives. If you are interested in sharing your work at this event please contact me.

Gift ideas from Ruth Singer’s eclectic online shop

Do you have someone on your list who likes crime? What about concrete ? Maybe some silk ruffles to beautify a Zoom background? I’ve got quite a selection of unusual gifts in my online shop mainly under £50. A lot of my shop has been hibernating since I moved, so if you spot something that says ‘coming soon’ just drop me a line and I’ll see if I can find it for you! I’ll be posting until Monday 19th December so there’s plenty of time for UK shoppers.

There’s these wonderful concrete and cloth decorative bowls by me and Bethany Walker which start at £15 for a single bowl or can be bought in sets of 3 or more.
For fans of craft and crime, my Criminal Quilts book fits the bill. It’s just £16 for a signed copy
A good stocking filler for the creatives would be my Patchwork Patterns Colouring Book which is £8.50 including UK postage
My bargain boxes of older textile artworks to hang on the wall has some amazing pieces at fabulous prices.
A great virtual gift might be my Gentle Goal Setting course for January 2022. This workshop helps you reflect mindfully on the last year and plan goals that are meaningful, manageable and inspiring.
For those who would like an original piece of artwork, I have some of my print patchwork pieces available now too.
Several of these Pearly Pipes are still looking for the right homes at £50 each
And last but not least, my quilt blocks are a tiny £10 each.

New Criminal Quilts work

Back before I moved house & studio I did a bit of making and completed some new work and then they’ve been packed away and I forgot to share them. So this is one of them, to be shown in the new, and final outing of Criminal Quilts exhibition in Feb 2022.

It seems to have taken me a long time to get this one finished. I had hoped to source more of the patchwork pieces and make this larger, but that hasn’t been possible so it is finished. This work is made from old patchwork pieces, Victorian cloth with original papers still inside. Before I bought them, someone had cut them apart, slightly ruining the edges as the fabric was cut as well as the stitching, making them very tricky to stitch back together 

 I’ve reassembled the pieces together, using a contrasting red thread. The paper inserts include prints of prisoner photos, documents and details as well as some of my own designs, along with the original papers where they survived. The original stitching is tiny white stitches joining the flowers, while my interventions are all done in red thread, both tacking the papers in place and joining the patchwork flowers. It’s important to me to show where I’ve worked, separately from the original work, like in textile conservation where all interventions can be reversed if needed. 

These new pieces will replace some sold works and I am also selling some of the older work from the show and retiring a couple of pieces, to keep the exhibition fresh for the new venue.

It is interesting how much work has become smaller again, now I am working in the confines of my small studio with one table, rather than the larger pieces I made when I had access to university workshops in 2018. But I started Criminal Quilts with miniature pieces and I have always loved the small so this a return to my roots in a way. Having said that, one large Criminal Quilts piece is in development too, also for the new show at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, South Wales, opening 4th Feb 2022.

If you are inspired by the way I create work with meaning and research, you might like my Maker Membership, a group where I share resources to help you develop your own work. There’s also a social side with online chats and zoom meetings. It’s a really lovely community and it’s open now.

Project Books

In my Maker Membership group, sketchbooks come up a lot. Some love them, some are terrified by them and some are just not sure. I thought I would write about my own use of sketchbooks or project books as I prefer to call them. Using books to collect ideas, information, images, notes and samples is something I’ve come to later in my practice but I am so grateful for it now. I love making books about the work I am developing and find them enjoyable and inspiring to make and endlessly useful and fascinating to revisit. 

I don’t like the term sketchbooks as it implies drawing and like many textile makers, drawing is not part of my process. I sometimes do annotated simple drawings but I don’t sketch. I struggled through my A-Level art aged 18 with some additional drawing tuition and have done very little representational drawing since. It’s just not a process I enjoy. I love mark making and creating patterns with pens, pencils and crayons and created a book of patchwork-inspired designs for colouring a few years back. 

My ‘sketchbooks’ are usually created for a specific project. The first one I properly worked on was for a commission called Metamorphosis . The people who commissioned the work were keen to show sketchbooks as well so it was a good exercise for me in creating something I was happy to share. 

I didn’t fill the small sketchbook for this project so it became a more general studio book instead. Studio books are where I keep samples, ideas, notes, fragments and other inspiring things that are otherwise loose in my head or in my studio. I go through phases of keeping these but I never regret it. 

Since that project / studio book, I have created many others. I usually have a very general studio book on the go which has measurements, calculations, lists, sums, designs and working notes for whatever I am working on at the time.

What I have kept up is the project books. For the Leicester University genetics residency in 2017, I used an A3 book which gave me space for lots of drawing, notes, images and mind maps. 

For the first part of Criminal Quilts, I had notes and sketches and ideas in a lot of different notebooks and studio books and really regretting not keeping it all in one place. When I started the 2017-18 Criminal Quilts residency, I knew I needed to keep a project book which I would share as part of the project. It has been to many workshops, talks, events and open days. Although I started making it as a public resource, it is also my working sketchbook or planning book. I have notes of pieces that I have since made or since abandoned, and things that are parked for the future. It has a lot of notes, lists, scribbles, mind-maps and drawings as well as the collected materials of inspiration. It helped me to have all this in one place while I was doing the residency as so little of the project happened in my studio. I was able to carry it all around with me. Having said that, the huge heavy hardback book I chose, whilst being perfect for display, was a pain to carry around on the train / on foot! I used a wheelie suitcase a lot for that project as my sketchbook was too big for a rucksack. 

For the Libraries Live commission in 2019 I made a quilted book and a series of activity kits for library visitors. Throughout the residency I kept a decorative sketchbook intended as a record of my workshops and to inspire workshop participants. I decided to include the sketchbook as part of my commission as I felt it belonged with the other elements. As this was a commission, it was very different to my own work and has quite an unique identity. These photos are professional shots taken for the project and a nice record of the work for me to look back on. 

My current studio books and project books are quite experimental including collage and print work and some gathering of inspirational materials. Before I packed away my studio to move over the summer I started working on a book of things that were lying around but worked well together. Postcards, samples, fragments, old paper and cloth, images and notes. This is not about a specific project but a process for me of making use and sense of the inspirational things I have around which might otherwise be on the walls or getting in the way in my studio. I refer back to this a lot – I simply enjoy looking at it and letting my ideas flow.

I have also got one which is purely for experimental collage and print work which I have just re-found after moving. 

For my textile projects I have two ongoing project books, one about quilts which I started when I did my Fragments exhibition in 2017 and another which I don’t have a name for which is about my long-term research about damage and decay. 

Writing this has made me think more about sharing some of my sketchbooks in a digital form which may or may not happen, but either way it has made me excited about getting back to my project books and adding more to them. Do you use sketchbooks or research books to gather your thoughts and inspiration? I’d love to hear about them.

There’s more about creating and using project books within my Maker Membership site. Membership is open now for anyone who makes and wants to build more depth and meaning to their craft practice, connect with a like-minded community and work with me. It costs £25 a month and you can join for as long as you need to. Find out more here or use the button below to join.