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. 

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 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.

Making Meaning Podcast Episode Eleven – Reflections with Ruth Singer

Graphic image with the text: Making Meaning in a swirl logo. Additional text saying A Podcast by Ruth Singer exploring the meaning behind what we make.

I’m an artist & maker exploring personal and collective narratives through textiles. I create for exhibitions, commissions and projects. I also write books, support other creatives through mentoring and consultancy / research work and I love generating my own projects, artist residencies and making things happen. 

All of my work, across all of these different aspects is centred around making with meaning. I am fascinated by the hidden stories in all our lives and in historic objects and places. My work grows from research and contemplation and from collaborating with others.

This end of series episode of Making Meaning is just me. I wanted to reflect on the series, to share my thoughts and feelings about the amazing conversations I’ve had. I also wanted to add a bit more context about my own work and share more about myself and some of the projects I have worked on in the past, present and future. The themes that come up again and again in this series are about connection and collaboration, about the creative impulse and the value of our ideas, about research, about materials and making and about change, movement and belonging. I also introduce some ideas for the new series of Making Meaning, including a live event and longer, even more in-depth conversations.

And of course, there’s more of me asking for you to support the podcast with a contribution towards my crowdfunder to cover the costs of the new series and make it even better.


Play here


Recent work


Support the podcast

My Making Meaning podcast of conversations with creatives is coming to the end of 2021 series. I want to make the new 2022 series of Making Meaning even better. If you have enjoyed these episodes, please consider making a donation to my crowdfunder campaign before it closes on Monday 13th December at midday GMT.

So many of you have loved listening to Making Meaning over the last 6 months. It’s been a wonderful project for me too. I planned and recorded most of it while we were still in lockdown as a way of connecting with others and now being able to share these rich and inspiring conversations is a joy.

The podcast has really resonated with you, enabling you to learn more about your own making or creative work and to understand how artists think and work. It’s made connections across creative work and within and outside of my own textiles discipline. I’ve been able to share stories from museum work and other kinds of creative practice as well as craft and they are all so relevant and inspiring to hear. 

I’ve been doing this out of my own pocket for the last year but really need to make it financially viable for 2022. I have to pay hosting fees, editing and marketing costs and then there’s my own time.. and I would love to be able to pay my guests something too as they have so generously given their time. There are a range of rewards including episode and whole series sponsorship.

Maker Membership

My Maker Membership is now open for all makers wanting to explore their motivations and to build meaning and research into their practice and be part of a supportive creative community. We meet once a month and I share resources, tips and research to help you develop your own work. Find out more here.

Wellbeing project

It’s taken months and several funding applications to get off the ground, but I am pleased to say I have at last got my wellbeing project for foodbank users in Leicester up and running. I’ve been part of the foodbank / community hub volunteer team since early in lockdown last year, and I’ve had this dream of adding more than just food to what we can offer to support people. I wanted to use my community arts experience to create a programme of activities that support the wellbeing of people who are struggling with poverty, poor housing, insecurity, isolation and many other challenges brought on by or worsened by the pandemic. Volunteering during the pandemic really focussed me on trying to develop arts activities which really impact those who don’t have the privileges and access to the arts that I have.

I’ve now got a small pot of money for some consultation with foodbank users and to try a few different activities to see what people like & want. I’m also working with a local school who will help me create local history guides and walks and add their own touches to the wellbeing packs I plan to give out to those who sign up. Once the weather warms up, I will run some sessions in the foodbank too (it has no heating!) and involve local artists, writers and community practitioners to share their expertise too.

I only have 6 months of funding and I am already doing more than I am being paid for, but I have great ambitions to make this a long-term project and to support more people in the city, not just the foodbank users. I’m working with partners to find additional sources of funding and making use of my extensive funding application experience! It’s been such a great challenge to establish this new way of working and combining my volunteering / community work with paid project development work. I’m really excited to see where this goes and how it works with the community. If you would like to support the foodbank and the work we do, you can donate to our winter crowdfunder here. If you let me know I will ask for your donation to be put aside for the wellbeing work I’m doing.

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. I don’t have one at the moment, it has tended to be when I am doing a lot of design work and exhibition planning and that’s not what I am doing these days. 

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.