Volunteering events

Take part in a community arts project in Leicestershire celebrating volunteers

Volunteering during lockdown is one of the best things I have ever done. I felt like I was doing something positive and important and I got to meet people and feel connected. I have seen just how hard volunteers worked to keep our communities together during lockdown (and continue to do so now) and I want to celebrate their work through creativity and sharing. I’m working with Voluntary Action Leicestershire to collect stories of local volunteers and to create a collaborative artwork at events co-designed by Laughing Cactus Printmaking Studio.


I’d love to hear your stories if you volunteered and bring you into our events to make commemorative rosettes which will be shown locally then shared out to volunteers to mark their amazing work. We have free events in Leicester on 5th, 7th & 9th June (weekend, weekday & evening) and I would love to see you there. Please pass on to anyone you know who has volunteered and ask them to share their story online or at an event. 

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.

Woodgate Wellbeing

Creating art projects with and for communities is a huge part of my creative business. For years I’ve worked on projects to support creativity and wellbeing for those with limited access to the arts for various reasons. Recently I’ve been creating projects myself rather than just working for other people and one of those is the Woodgate Wellbeing project I’ve developed for the users of the foodbank I helped establish in 2020. I’ve brought together a group of local artists and practitioners to create activities and events that are creative, accessible and relaxing and which also link to the local area of the city. To make the activities as accessible as possible, I’ve put together this magazine with loads of activities and an accompanying materials box to go with it. Workshop activities start later this month too. I’m so excited about this getting this project launched and hopefully supporting people to have a bit more creativity and wellbeing in their lives. 

The cover of Woodgate Wellbeing magazine is one of my Foodbank Stories embroideries. I created this project concept in early 2021 and applied for two different funds through the foodbank. The second was successful (Places Called Home fund from The National Lottery & IKEA). I have created the concept, commissioned the content and designed the magazine and kits. I’ve been supported in this project by Mandeep Dhadialla. She is also delivering one of the workshops for the project. Mandeep is also associate artist with my Community Spirit project.

I’d love to keep this project going and replicate it elsewhere. If you are interested in supporting creativity and wellbeing for underserved communities in a similar way, please get in touch.

English Smocking

It’s been fascinating recently seeing smocking pop up in my Instagram feed. It feels like there’s been a flurry of new interest in this old technique recently.

Traditional English smocking has a very fine history from farming smocks of the mid-19th century to to Aesthetic Liberty gowns of the late 19th century as well as a revival in the 1970s.

I first experimented with traditional English smocking for my book Fabric Manipulation, and of course, being me, did quite a bit of research too. With most of my textile history research, my focus is on learning the technique, seeing historical examples and then experimenting to understand it myself. I love to then break the rules, try new approaches and see where the technique takes me. A few years ago I was involved in an academic research project to explore how smocking might be revived in contemporary practice, could it be mechanised, how could it be adapted to make it easier. It was fascinating.

I used smocked fabric to create these two experimental pieces in concrete during my collaboration with Bethany Walker which remain some of my favourite works we created. We went on to use the ideas from this to create Urban Growth with a group of young people.

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A short history of smocking

Smocking, like so many textile techniques, has a rather secretive history. From what I can find out, the technique of smocking is often confused with the garment called a smock. For centuries, women’s main undergarment was a nightdress-like linen smock, which could be decorated, were she wealthy enough, but often was not, and there’s not much evidence of this garment being decorated with actual smocking. There are a number of Tudor portraits which appear to show smocking on smocks necks and cuffs but it is impossible to say for sure if they really are made by smocking – which is a decorative stitching on top of previously pleated or gathered fabric.

This Spanish child’s smock, dating somewhere between 1700-1800 has what looks like proto-smocking; gathers overstitched with black thread for decorative effect. The garment most commonly called a smock nowadays used to be called a smock frock, which sort-of helps distinguish it. This practical, although decorated, garment developed during the 18th century as a protective, enveloping apron-like shirt worn by manual and agricultural workers to keep their clothes clean. It may well have developed from the voluminous, washable, linen undergarments that men and women continued to wear to keep their outer clothes clean from body odour and sweat.

Smock-frocks as we know them now, are made from rectangular pieces of cloth (no curves so no fabric waste) with gathering to create shape. Gathering pulls in the fabric which is then released below, to create an easy-to-wear and practical smock. Smocking itself allows the fabric to stretch a little which would also increase wearing comfort. In addition, smocking creates a thick, dense fabric full of small air pockets which act as insulation – a welcome benefit in outdoor work, as well as the protection of thicker layers.

As with many other practical garments, they could be embellished and embroidered. When smocks first began to have decorative stitching is unknown, but those that survive from the early 19th century can be stunning. Of course, the finest ones that were looked after are the ones that survive, and the every day ones, worn out and threadbare, would have been recycled rather than preserved, so we tend to see only the best examples.

By the end of the 19th century, the smock was out of favour – many agricultural workers having had to move to cities and work in factories, for which a flowing garment was impractical. Just as the farmers’ smock goes out of style, the technique of decorative smocking starts to come intostyle in fashionable circles.

The women of the aesthetic movement (closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites) took to wearing loose-fitting, ‘healthy’ garments which didn’t require the wearing of a corset. The style of flowing and comfortable garments were heavily-influenced by smocks, along with other styles of dress, and it was unsurprising that smocking was also used to create shaping and decorative effects. This velvet example at FIT is stunning.

Smocks were also popular for aesthetic children’s wear, judging by this Liberty of London child’s smock, a fancy silk version of the traditional rural garment. Patterns using the techniques appear in women’s magazines too, such as this smocked bag from a 19th century magazine.

Part-worked smocking on light wool fabric, mid-Twentieth century

In the early 20th century, smocking appears in women’s magazines and sewing manuals on garments, domestic textiles and children’s wear, such as this example from the Women’s Home Companion, 1916. The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of patterns and innovative stitch development along with some stunning uses of the simplest honeycomb stitch pattern such as this velvet dress by Maggie Rouff. As with many crafts, smocking was revived in the 1970s when such delights as the smocked plunge-neckline swimming costume was created….alongside Victorian-esque party dresses for women and girls, made popular by Laura Ashley. It is also sometimes seen on folk or traditional costume from Europe. This 19th century Russian blouse makes beautiful use of shaped smocking on the cuff.

True smocking is hand stitched, and incredibly time-consuming to prepare. The reverse fabric is marked with regular dots (for which embroidery transfers were produced) or marked with a grid, then regular stitches are made right across the piece to create completely even rows of gathers. The decorative stitches are worked from the front side and can be as simple as honeycomb stitch (my personal favourite) or covered with complex and varied designs.

Faux smocking using shirring elastic came in during the smocking craze in the 1970s, and it is this much-faster technique that became most commonly used for women’s and girl’s dresses, including many of the Laura Ashley classics.

American or Canadian smocking is a different technique altogether. This type of smocking is all worked from the back, with the gathering and decorative pattern-making all rolled up into one. The earliest example of this technique that I have ever seen is on an 18th century French dress, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ruth Singer smocking

Sewing manuals of the 19th and 20th century don’t seem to include reverse / American smocking, so it may be that it was fairly unknown to the amateur sewer, and only occasionally used by the professional. It became very fashionable in the 1930s and 40s and had a renaissance in the 70s.  The most popular use of this technique was on cushions square, bolster and round cushions in synthetic velvet from the 60s and 70s.  There’s no shortage of brilliant patterns for products using American smocking, some of which I have gathered on my Smocking Pinterest board, along with other historic and contemporary forms of smocking.

As English smocking is such a time-consuming technique, it doesn’t seem to be used that much in clothing, but it does sometimes still appear in couture, like this Versace piece, which is glorious at odds with agricultural smocks! If you are intrigued by these gorgeous techniques, please have a look at my book Fabric Manipulation which explains the basic technique. Do join my mailing list to hear about any workshops or online classes in this technique, and also have a look at my Textile Study Space where I share textile technique snippets.

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.