Developing a body of work

Maker Membership with Ruth Singer, for textile makers who want to be inspired, creative, imaginative and make work with meaning.

When I was starting out as a textile maker, I really struggled with the reality of making a consistent body of work. I made all sorts of things in all kinds of designs, textures, patterns, colours and materials. I just wanted to make what I wanted to make. I don’t have a textile degree or any formal education as an artist / maker and really hadn’t had to create a consistent style for myself. As things progressed I became more and more aware of this being a problem and that it was holding me back from making an impact with my work. Fabric manipulation became my trademark and that helped me refine my style quite a lot. I used one technique on each piece of work and mostly used the same fabric throughout which really simplified and toned down all my colourful and textural excesses. I also fixed on making pieces on frames / panels which again slowed down my need to make clothes, bags, cushions and ALL THE THINGS.

Even while making this work I had other creative outlets including designing for books and magazines, so I did get to use some of the extra ideas without confusing my actual exhibition work too much. I never really got the hang of a consistent colour palette though, using the excuse that I worked with recycled fabrics and had to use what I could get rather than buying within a colour range. It was a slow development from this kind of work to what I do now but there were two projects which really forced me (in a good way) to change the style of my work for good.

These pieces, Monumental Folly, were pivotal in changing the way I worked. I chose to work with fabric manipulation techniques but add in a few other materials and processes and work with a very subtle palette. Above all though, these pieces had a narrative and meaning for me and that was what really worked. It then took me years to show these to anyone and exhibit them as I struggled to know if they were good. I was lucky to get some amazing feedback from the brilliant Emma Daker (Craftspace) who encouraged me to show them and later awarded me a prize for this work. That really helped me press on with the idea of making narrative work with limited colour palettes and with a strong underlying thread of history, building on my previous career in museums.

Around the same time I also started on the first Criminal Quilts pieces, directly as a result of making the Monumental Folly pieces. It was a huge creative challenge to create work from a criminal justice building rather than purely textile inspiration but it was a steep learning curve that has set up my career for the last 10+ years and helped me find exactly the right niche in textile art where I belong.

This process of creative challenge, revision, limitation and experimentation has helped me find my unique creative voice and allowed me to be consistent and considered in my ongoing work. I diverge and do slightly different things, bring in new techniques and sometimes colour palettes, but I feel now that I have a recognisable style and theme which brings all my work together.

Maker Membership is my new online programme which I hope will take textile artists (and aspiring artists) towards finding this special place themselves. Creating work which is meaningful, consistent and imaginative.

What is Maker Membership?

It’s about tapping into your own interests, researching, thinking, considering, editing, testing and rejecting lots of ideas until the right one filters out. My approach to teaching in Maker Membership is about growing your confidence in exploring and refining your ideas. It’s about seeding those ideas with research prompts and exercises in exploration and investigation and then refining your thoughts to filter out all the excess to get to the thing that’s important. 

This programme is not about learning to make what I make, it’s about learning to think like I do and applying textile skills that make sense with the meaning of your work. 

What will it be like?

Each month I will create resources (audio, video, written – it will vary) around a theme which fits into a quarterly over-arching topic. Members can then develop their own ideas, sketchbooks (if they want), samples and research in a way that works for them. There’s no testing, no right or wrong and no fixed outcome that you have to produce. Everything is digital so you can join from anywhere in the world. There will be a monthly live ‘thing’, probably on Zoom but I will tweak that as we get going and adapt to what suits the members best. You can fit it in around your commitments and make it part of your daily /regular studio practice. The membership runs through the established membership platform Patreon, which I have been using for over a year and you will get emails with all the content. You can find out more here.

Are you ready to learn and grow with me?

Membership is £21+vat per month and you can stay as long as you need. But the first quarter has limited membership and will close on 30th June at 6pm BST or when the remaining 11 places have been taken. If you would like to be part of this group, please click below to join.

Criminal Quilts Exhibition at Erewash Museum

A new version of Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts exhibition is now open at Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, Derbyshire until 15th June 2021.

Museums are open again! I’m so pleased to have got this version of the exhibition open just a couple of week’s later than it should have been. Erewash Museum is a lovely old building, just perfect for showing a smaller version of Criminal Quilts in an intimate domestic scale space. With social distancing in place, I installed this entirely by myself so the small gallery space was welcome! I have added a time-lapse of putting up one of the piece at the end of this post for your entertainment. The exhibition is free and the museum is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays 10.30am-3pm. You will need to book in advance with the museum.

I’m pleased to have been able to fit in most of the larger exhibition pieces but I have now retired the small framed mini quilts from the show to make space for new 3D collaboration work, some of which is shown for the first time. I’ll add more information about these works to the website soon so those further afield can also enjoy them.

Protest Pincushion

Protest Pincushion is a craftivist approach to activism and protest, making clear my objection to the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. I have used textile techniques and a gentle kind of object to make my point. I wanted to use text in textile, reflecting protest banners but in a small and personal way. I took my inspiration from historic pincushions with text made in pins giving in remembrance and as gifts at a birth. This approach also works for me as decorative pincushions are folk art, created at home for creative expression, not commercial pursuit. I’m also influenced by the new Craftspace exhibition We Are Commoners which explores collectivism and community. This piece is part of my commitment to making work which has social justice at its core and will, I hope, give viewers pause for reflection, consider the issues, research and investigate and form and express their own opinion, and take action where possible.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill went through the first stage of parliamentary approval a couple of weeks ago, but there has been huge opposition to the bill which seems to have surprised the government. Civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about the proposed changes to police powers and there is widespread anger that the bill would impose 10 year sentences for damage to statues, which is considerably harsher than many sentences for violent sexual offences against women. And then there was the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil in London. I recommend this article in the Guardian for a simple outline of the issues. There are also issues with this bill about trespass laws which will have a huge negative impact on Gypsy and travelling people.

I have a complex relationship with public protest and have been to a few events over the years but I don’t personally like going to protest events. But it’s not about what I feel comfortable doing, it’s about our right as citizens to express our feelings about policy, laws and government activities in a meaningful and public way. I wholeheartedly believe that we should be able to and that they should be policed proportionately. Violence and criminal behaviour is what gets the press attention but it really is only part of the story. Peaceful protest is incredibly powerful and meaningful.

As a child, I watched tv coverage of Greenham Common protests with both pride and fear when my mum and her friends were there. It has become one of the most important stories of UK protest of the late 20th century. I’m interested in other people’s relationship to protest and what we take a physical stand for. Do you have a protest story you would be willing to share? I hope to create a piece of work reflecting on our feelings about protest.

Find out more about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the implications of it.

As well as the Guardian article above, there are petitions galore including this one from 38 Degrees.

For the law around trespass, there’s an article from the Ramblers Association here and I recommend Nick Haynes ‘The Book of Trespass’ to find out more about what rights we have already lost and what more is to come.

EDITED

What you can do if you believe in the right to peaceful protest

There are plenty of petitions, I have linked to one below.

Write to your MP and the Prime Minister.

Go to a local protest if that’s possible for you.

Support other protesters – share the information, tell your friends, take cups of tea, print posters.

Create your own textile or other creative work and share this online and images with your MP.

Talk to your friends and family about why this matters to you.

Donate to relevant organisations (a bit of research should find an organisation who you align with).

Caring for unframed textiles

I’m currently selling some of my archive pieces of my older work: manipulated textile wall panels and hoops, as well as newer embroideries and other pieces. The question I am always asked about is how to keep them clean and safe. I’ve had many of these on my studio walls for years with no damage so I thought I’d explain the principles I follow to keep them in good condition. My first career was working in museums and I specialised in textile curatorial work so I’ve learned a lot about this area. 

Light. UV light is the greatest risk to textiles in your home. If you’ve got old curtains that have shredded where the sun hits them then you know the problem. UV light weakens fibres and dyes so to keep your textiles in the best condition you need to protect them from direct light. Either hang them on a wall which doesn’t get any sun or keep blinds closed on sunny days. The only other solution is to install UV filters on your windows. 

Dust. Dust in itself isn’t too much of a problem, it’s only a disaster if it’s damp or greasy. So don’t hang textiles in the kitchen unless you can wash them. Textured textiles like mine do gather dust but it’s easy to remove. You have probably seen videos of National Trust conservators gently vacuuming tapestries on walls once a year before covering up for the closed season. The same applies to my work. I take the piece off the wall, go outside with it and bang on the back to dislodge most of the dust. A soft dusting brush can also be useful, again outside is best. I use a goat hair brush from Objects of Use. Make sure it isn’t too stuff and scratchy as that might damage fibres. 

Vacuum. You will need a soft brush attachment as shown. I keep one for textiles only and a separate one for cleaning the house. Check for any loose threads on the piece before you vacuum. The top edge is usually the worst spot for dust so start there and work your way down. If there are loose threads or things that may get pulled off by the vacuum, cover the nozzle with fine cloth or netting, so the dust goes up the nozzle but the threads, beads etc can’t. Have a look at the National Trust recommendations here.

Damp. Hanging textiles on a damp or cold outside wall can be risky as mould can develop and there’s nothing you can do about this once it’s stained the fabric.

Moth. Silk and wool can be susceptible to moth attack. It’s wise to be vigilant about keeping your home moth-free if possible. Vacuuming and banging off the dust will also remove some moth eggs. If your textile clearly has moths, find a friend with a large chest freezer, wrap the textile in plastic bags and freeze for a couple of weeks. Let it warm up out of the plastic bag and air thoroughly. Then shake and/or vacuum. That should solve the current residents but avoidance is best. 

Spills and dirt. The best way to avoid this is to hang your textile away from food and drink areas and keep them high up. Don’t hang anything fragile where people or furniture movements or doors rub against it or where pets can get near (my new cat thinks a fabric panel is great for scratching!). Wet spills are pretty serious for textiles that can’t be washed. But if the worst happens, contact me and I may be able to rescue it by taking the piece off it’s internal frame and washing or covering the damage. 

Rips and tears. Some of the techniques I used can be vulnerable to knocks and curious little fingers which can pull stitches out. Contact me for repair advice – most things can be fixed by you or I will take back for repair. 

That should keep your precious textile pieces going for many, many years. Do you feel more confident about rehoming one of these textile beauties? Find them in my shop and make them yours right now! 

Green Pebble Hoop £35
Polonaise Panel £199
DNA Repair Embroidery £75
Cloth and Concrete Bowls £25 each
Amelia Wall Panel £85
Blossom Wall Panel £299

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Prints from Textile

I’m pleased to say I’ve now got some of my print pieces available on the lovely Made by Hand Online shop, the home for amazing craft.

The prints are part of a continuing research project to find ways to preserve and record textile processes. I use print as a way of taking a record of the patchwork with the tacking and papers still in place. The sepia ink gives the print a feeling of an x-ray and the details of loose threads, weave and paper texture invite you to look closely and see patchwork in a different way. I’ve also created a series using embroidered textiles, some of which also have am altered textile piece alongside the print. You can see more of my print work here. If anything that’s not in the shop catches your eye please get in touch and I can let you know what is available.

Keep in touch

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Membership

Get more of this kind of insight, exploration and discovery about my work by joining my membership on Patreon. This is where I share my current work in progress, behind the scenes in the studio and what’s on my creative mind. Members also get discounts on workshops and products, and it costs just £4.50 a month.

Foodbank stories in textile

Textiles and social justice work combine in a new body of work using data from a volunteer-run emergency foodbank in Leicester.

A new piece of work: 1292 Foodbank Visits in 18 Weeks, Ruth Singer, 2020. Hand stitch on cotton.

One thousand, two hundred and ninety two people supported by the emergency food bank my co-volunteers have created on my street this year. It has been an intense and powerful thing to be part of and given me lots to think about around food poverty, period poverty and hidden deprivation in this city I love. My aim in making this work is like most of my work: to make you think. To use artwork, soft, lovely textiles to help engage people with the harder stories that matter so much. I hope it will encourage you to find out about food poverty where you live. To support the volunteers who make foodbank a happen and to add your voice to campaigns and policies that work towards ending the need for foodbanks in this highly wealthy country.

I posted this on Instagram in December, and the app offered me the option of fundraising. Our foodbank is tiny and not a registered charity so can’t fundraise via Instagram. Instead I chose to support the Trussell Trust, a national foodbank charity. It was an interesting experiment. In the first few hours of posting, this image got more engagement (likes & comments) than I expected. Hundreds. Yet only a couple of donations. Within a week I’d met the modest £75 fundraising target through 4 donations. It’s been so interesting. I didn’t intend this outcome but it’s a useful learning experience towards how I can combine my volunteer work with my practice and grow both. I’m the treasurer for the volunteer group so have been heavily involved in fundraising and negotiating with the council for support for the last 6 months.

This work is also in my shop and 25% of the sale price will be donated straight back to the foodbank as 100% of my effort to keep feeding people in need this winter and campaigning for an end to austerity and cruel, unnecessary Tory policies which have led to this situation. Our foodbank continues to support our community during this lockdown and is almost entirely supported by personal donations. If you want to help us, please have a look at our fundraising page here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about food banks, food poverty and what needs to change.


This work was created for the Leicester Society of Artists annual exhibition which you can see online. LSA members have supported this project by donating their exhibition fees to the foodbank and one lovely member donated the entire sale price of her work straight to us. Support like this is amazing and so heartening.

Fifteen Years

This summer I marked (but not really celebrated) 15 years of running my own creative business. I was hoping to bring out a new book this year covering what I’ve done in those years but this year has of course not gone remotely according to plan! I should have it ready next year. In the meantime, every month, I share a 10 page PDF letter / mini magazine with my Patreon supporters which covers a lot of the same behind-the-scenes studio insider stories as the book eventually will. The September issue is a focus on those 15 years of working as an artist /maker. I love writing my Patreon letters and twice-monthly blog posts as I selfishly get to focus on my own practice and share behind the scenes in my studio (and often my office) life. If you would like to delve more into my life and practice, Patreon is the place to do it. Over the last 6 months I’ve written about creative collaborations, fabric manipulation, my 2019 solo exhibition work, self-publishing, work in progress, behind the scenes at a photo shoot and much more. Every subscriber gets a discount for my online shop too and over the summer I gave away tickets to my online Criminal Quilts talk. All the previous content is free for new subscribers too, so there’s masses to explore which should keep you going until my new book is finally ready!

Online Exhibition for Festival of Quilts

Today is the launch of Beyond the Festival of Quilts – and online version of the huge event which would normally take place this weekend. I have been part of it every year, one way or another for the last decade or more. I launched my Criminal Quilts book and exhibition there in 2018 and won the Fine Art Quilt Masters competition in 2016, and I have taught so many workshops there that I have lost count. This year I have created an online exhibition featuring some of my pieces from my 2019 solo exhibition Textile Traces. I’ve recorded a talk about the work available alongside the images.

Screen shot of online exhibition website.

What it means to be an artist in 2020

At the end of May 2020 I was offered the chance to share my images and words via the Instagram account of Contemporary Visual Art Networks – East Midlands. I created a week’s worth of posts exploring my experience of being an artist in 2020, both before and during the time of Covid. I have brought all these posts together here, along with the text of the interview questions I wrote for CVAN’s website.  You can also join me for a live conversation with the Director of CVAN-EM on Thursday 18th June 2020 at 11.30am. This is a free event, via Zoom. Book tickets here. 

Ruth Singer is an artist-maker with 15 years professional experience and a previous career in museums. Her work comprises exhibitions, projects and residencies as well as collaborations and commissions, mainly working in textile with print, mixed media and installation work. She often work with heritage and draw heavily on a previous career in museums, using the skills learned and concepts studied. She is also a writer, tutor, consultant and mentor.

 

Meet the Artist: Ruth Singer

The words ‘I am an artist’ are not always the easiest to say out loud. It took me a few years to feel confident saying those words. I started my working life in quite another sphere, but 15 years ago I left my job and started a studio practice alongside freelance teaching. Through that time I have been through radical changes in my practice from designer-maker producing handbags and cushions to comfortably calling myself an artist. The difference to me is that I now make what I want to make, in the materials and techniques that are appropriate to the story I want to tell or the research I want to explain. I work to exhibition deadlines not to fashion trends. I make what speaks to me and not what sells best in a craft fair. This change has given me the scope to explore personal stories of love and loss, to collective stories of genetics and human identity and historical stories of women incarcerated for stealing shoes. My practice explores and illuminates the hidden corners of our lives and our histories, all very much influenced by my previous career working in museums.


Garment Ghost. Photo credit: Joanne Withers

Garment Ghosts are created from badly damaged and irreparable antique clothing. The fragmentary cloth is brought back to life through trapping the disintegrating garment between transparent layers, keeping the outline but also opening up seams to take the fabric back to its original form. Garment Ghosts aim to make you think about how we preserve and present textiles, and what a garment might tell us about its past and the people who made, wore, kept and passed it down. Bodice, 2015. Hand stitched antique silk and lace between modern netting.

Studio practice

I don’t spend a lot of time in my studio. Even during lockdown I have hardly produced a thing. I create new work when there are deadlines, exhibitions to install, commissions to complete and book content to be photographed. My work is thoughtful and slow, contemplative and very extensively researched and explored before making. The actual making can be the fastest part, despite often taking weeks of intense hand stitch. The thinking process is what takes the most time and while I don’t have an exhibition deadline, my studio practice has taken a back seat to other work. COVID-time has made it harder for me to think of new work, to envisage the future exhibitions where this will be seen and to find a new research path which sits comfortably with me while so much is chaotic. Sitting with the stillness of my work space and slowly sorting, arranging, compiling and cataloging things is enough for now.

 

Tablecloth with stains of wine and tea stitched into with hand embroidery.

This piece: The Beauty of Stains, 2018. These embroideries are old tablecloths which I have placed in cafes and at gallery events to gather the marks of wear and use. I then embellish them by stitching the stains, preserving them like memories or tales being handed down through generations. Visitors and participants have a real impact on the work: it does not exist without their input. Llantarnam Grange Art Centre exhibition preview 2018. Hand embroidery and appliqué.

 
 

Public-facing practice

Until lockdown, I would have said that public-facing practice is a huge part of my work. Some artists and makers talk about teaching as a way of supporting their practice financially, and although that is often the case, I like to see public projects as supporting and growing my practice, as much as providing the necessary funds to enable it. I have chosen over the last few years to focus on funded community workshops, projects, residencies and socially-engaged practice and reduce the number of one-off adult workshops I run. Working in collaboration with communities and meeting their needs has enabled me to stretch my own practice in ways I would never have done if I hadn’t worked with them. Contributions from communities can range from work made by others (more of this next) or to shared stories like this memorial sampler of lost loved ones. This piece is now in Gawthorpe Textiles Collection Museum. Hand embroidered, 2018-2019, part of my Emotional Repair solo exhibition.

Current projects / Criminal Quilts

I chose to take 2020 as a quiet year, after producing 5 solo exhibitions in five years. This has turned out to be a collective action, as exhibitions, events and projects I might have been taking part in have of course all ground to a halt. My Criminal Quilts project is, however, ongoing, albeit in much changed form. The exhibition, which should have been touring all of this year, was first launched in 2018 following 18 months research residency at Staffordshire Record Office where I developed my previous work around Victorian Women Criminals. I created, developed and funded this project including a multi-venue tour which will continue to 2021 and a book of the project which I self published and will be printing a second edition soon. I have a second round of funding from Arts Council England which has included workshops with women in prison and on probation. The prison sessions are currently on hold but the probation workshops are now running through posted workshop kits and online chats via the supporting charity I have partnered with. The work these women create will be included in a zine I will produce over the summer.
This piece was created by my Criminal Quilts project research volunteers in 2018.

 

Collaborations

My own studio practice is very quiet and contemplative. Working with others gives me the chance to work in completely different ways, to expand my horizons and to try new things. I love working with other artists and makers, to see how they approach a challenge or issue and understand their way of thinking which in turn informs my own. I have a long-term collaboration with Gillian McFarland @gillianadairMcf and we worked together in 2017 on a residency at Leicester University Department of Genetics which was illuminating and exciting. I also work a lot with jeweller Alys Power @alyspowerdesign and we are currently completing a collaboration related to my Criminal Quilts project which I hope will be exhibited later this year. Working with makers like Alys and fine artists like Gillian gives me the chance to explore new materials and techniques too. Having started my career as a textile designer maker it is very easy to get stuck in a rut of thinking that there is a rule that I only use textiles. Collaborations have helped me see that my practice can be much more expansive and cross-disciplinary than just working with one media and idea.
Petri Dish project, created during the genetics residency combining work made by the two artists, scientific and admin staff and contributions from the wider public and other artists, 2017.

 

Ruth Singer and Gillian McFarland-Boyle artwork

Professional development

One of the real joys of my portfolio career has been the work I do in supporting other artists and creatives to be the best version of themselves. Over the last 10 years so so I have run training courses, business skills workshops, professional development events and mentoring. I have created exhibiting groups and paired artists with mentors, I have collaborated with organisations and universities to bring artists together to create exhibitions and networks. I really look forward to being able to bring creative people together in inspiring spaces again, and run the symposium I have planned for artists in socially-engaged practice and group mentoring events.
Luckily I have been able to continue my 1:1 work with artists and creative businesses, mentoring them to develop and flourish by meeting online and working with them to build their creative practice and find solutions to the business problems we are all facing.
I am also working with WebinArt, an online professional development programme formed by Creative Leicestershire. @webinart_uk is now including established artists and makers and I am co-ordinating this element, bringing together 30 artists to learn from each other and from industry specialists. The peer mentoring element which I have created from scratch is really exciting and I hope will create lasting support networks for artists who so urgently need help getting through these tough times.
I’m currently taking a break from leadership of Leicester Society of Artists while I focus on paid work but I hope to be back to this soon. I have been working on marketing and development plans for this historic society and look forward to getting back to future planning, seeking sponsors and partners and growing our partnership with Leicester Museums service.

What next?

Surviving as an artist through and beyond lockdown and the changed world will be a huge challenge. My carefully-worked out 5-10 year plans are up in the air as I contemplate the new landscape where group events, community project, residencies and exhibitions all seem unlikely in the near future. Funding looks like being even more hard to come by as many funders have made all their years budgets over to emergency grants and priorities will change radically over the next few years as we try to build our creative economy back up.
I am lucky that I have diverse income streams and don’t rely on just one source. At the start of the year, in a different world, I launched my Patreon membership and have a few loyal supporters already. This model of membership and personal support is likely to became more and more vital to artists who have limited access to their former markets and funding is reduced. In the short term I am sticking with a market I know and am writing a new book, my fifth. I had actually planned to spend Spring and Summer 2020 working on this new publication to launch in celebration of surviving 15 years as an independent professional artists. This book will be retrospective of my work over the last 10 years and a catalogue of my work for solo exhibitions over the last five years. I am also working on funding applications and ideas for very local community-based work looking at community cohesion and recognition of volunteers which has been inspired by my own volunteering locally. I hope that before too long I will be able to go back to exhibition launches, group events and residencies in partnership with organisations and communities in need of creative support.

Forget. Vintage handkerchief with rose embroidery as found, my hand embroidery in silk thread. 2017-18

 

Meet the Artist: Ruth Singer

Text from CVAN website, interviewed by CVAN-EM Director Elizabeth Hawley-Lingham

Ruth Singer is an artist-maker with 15 years professional experience and a previous career in museums. Her work comprises exhibitions, projects and residencies as well as collaborations and commissions, mainly working in textile with print, mixed media and installation work. She often works within a heritage context and draws heavily on a previous career in museums, using the skills learned and concepts studied. She is also a writer, tutor, consultant and mentor.

Find out more about Ruth’s work on her website and follow her on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Where are you based? 

Urban central Leicester although my natural habitat is in the middle of the woods, miles from anywhere.

Describe your practice for us

My personal practice explores human experience expressed through thoughtful and emotionally- engaged making, mainly in textiles. My subtle and delicate work references loss, memory, fragility and damage in both the cloth itself and in our personal lives, and the places in which we gather memories. My background as a textile historian and museum curator is woven throughout my work; I create pieces with a sense of history and a look of antiques but with a powerful contemporary story.

I mainly use slow techniques of hand stitch and traditional textile processes to express ideas including hidden stories, creating visual records of ephemeral experiences, change and decay as well as intensely personal and emotive stories around loss and remembrance. I often work in collaboration with other artists and makers which allows me to be more expansive with my ideas and experiment with new materials and techniques to explore narratives.

My public-facing practice is more collaborative, working with communities to co-create emotionally-engaged artworks or to design projects which allow participants to express their creativity. My writing work is mainly around textiles as well as historical research projects. I am also heavily involved in artist development and support through various consultancy projects, mentoring and running professional development courses.

How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?

I’ve been fully self-employed for 15 years, after seven years working in the museum sector. I haven’t followed a traditional route into artist practice; my university education was in medieval history followed by an MA in Museum Studies. I worked in museum curatorial and learning roles for several years before setting up my own studio aged 30. For the first half of my time working as an artist-maker, I was more maker than artist, creating products and stock for shops, galleries, interior designers etc. Over the years my work has changed dramatically so that now I create work purely for exhibitions, residencies, commissions and project and creating purely what I want to make.

How has your background in museums and heritage settings influenced or shaped your work?

I am fascinated by material culture, history and the power of objects in human lives, which is very much how museum curatorial / research practice operates. In my work I aim to explore and illuminate narratives about people, places and objects, and how we respond to and interact with things, tools, materials and the traces and stories we leave behind. My way of looking at the world, and particularly the way I research around a subject, seems to be influenced by my museum training. I also choose to work with museums, archives and heritage for projects because I love museums and what they stand for. We can learn so much about ourselves and our times from understanding the past. Art inspired by museum collections gives viewers a new way to engage with and understand history.

Tracery. Photo credit: Paul Lapsley

You’ve said of your work that you find yourself drawn to creating work with a narrative, often based around objects, history, people and places. Do you identify a narrative and select a technique to suit, or does a narrative come from using techniques such as appliqué, quilting, embroidery?

Usually with my work the research comes first, then I define the area or narrative I want to explore and the materials and technique choices come later. Sometimes the material comes first and sometimes the technique, but usually only when I am deeply absorbed in the subject I’m exploring and connections are made.

You work a lot with old, often damaged and worn, cloth. Do you reveal an intrinsic emotional value to the material, repurposing it in the objects you make, or are you creating a new value through the new work?

It’s more about revealing the hidden stories within the cloth. I don’t think about value or repurposing; it’s not about recycling for the sake of it. The story of the heritage or damage of the cloth is what I love about it and how we as humans feel about old and damaged materials which should be treasured. This links both to my belief in the value of museums to tell stories and allow us to learn from the past and to sustainability expressed through repair and reuse. I want to honour the resources, effort, ingenuity and skill that went into making cloth, rather than see it as a material commodity.

Stretched. Photo credit: Paul Lapsley

What is important to you in maintaining and motivating your practice? 

Well, I am 100% self-supporting, so making a living is my main motivation in keeping going!  In terms of creating my own work, I am very goal-focussed, so I am most productive when I have an exhibition or a deadline. It’s the same with writing projects or workshops – I prepare for what needs delivering next.  With a more long-term view, I look at developing my practice through exploring stories or issues that intrigue me and playing around with how to make those narratives into a cohesive body of work or engagement project. I am always thinking about the next project even when in the middle of one. Until recently I was very focussed around funding application deadlines and thinking 2-3 years ahead, though now I am concentrating on what I can get done in the next few months and how I might be able to finance projects again in the long term.

What have been your biggest achievements since establishing your practice?

The most personally important thing has been changing my practice from designer-maker to exhibition-led artist practice. I found my right place and voice, and have found a way to make a living from that practice. To have survived 15 years is a huge achievement too. Externally, I have won a significant prize (with big impact in the textile world) which gave me a huge boost to push forward with my Criminal Quilts project. I’m very proud of the way I have grown this project over several years, toured the exhibition to a lot of galleries and museums and sent the project book across the world.

In the studio. Photo credit: Geoff Broadway
Sewing Box. Photo credit: Paul Lapsley

What have been the biggest challenges to your practice?

Funding is of course the biggest challenge in the way I work from project to project. I have been successful with a number of funding applications over the years but for each success there are twice as many (if not more) failures. Rejections are a huge challenge both emotionally and financially and I have had to abandon some brilliant ideas which is really disappointing. Applying for funding takes a huge amount of time as well as mental energy and successes are the tip of the iceberg with the hard work and failures going unnoticed under the surface. It’s impossible to know the future of arts funding now so I have an even bigger challenge going forward.

What is the most interesting or inspiring thing you have seen or been to recently, and why?

At the end of February I had a trip to London to visit both Collect, the Crafts Council fair and Fine Cell Work’s exhibition at Sotheby’s. Both were interesting and inspiring in very different ways. Collect showcases some of the best contemporary craft from across the world. There’s very little textile which I find frustrating (it is often at the bottom of the pecking order in craft) but there was lots of amazing art jewellery which I love. Fine Cell Work commissioned a number of well-known fine artists including Ai Weiwei to design textile pieces which prisoners then stitched. The finished works were to be auctioned by Sotheby’s to fund further work with prisoners. The sales catalogue has interviews with artists, prisoner-stitchers and volunteers which was fascinating.

Which other artists’ work do you admire, and why?

My preference is always for artist-makers whose work tells a story or has a deep-rooted meaning or research behind it. I enjoy purely decorative too, but I am often left wanting more. Edmund de Waal is by far my favourite because of his writing about his work and the importance of objects in his non-fiction writing. Cornelia Parker also explores issues I find intriguing and I have grown to love her work over the years. In the textile world I have huge admiration for my friend Alice Fox who works closely with nature to create intensely thoughtful work.

Where do you see your work in the next 5 years?

I hope to be able to continue creating socially-engaged projects, working with communities and sharing stories. I have had a lot of solo exhibitions in the last 5 years so planned a break from that for a year or two but I will be working on the next body of work for a new show in 2-3 years, all focussed on social justice which will be even more relevant and important post-pandemic.

Who would you most like to have visit your studio?

At the moment, any visitors would be exciting! I would love to be able to have a group of artists to visit and to be able to talk about my work, my planned work and my ideas with other people who understand where I am coming from. Collaboration and peer mentoring are a huge part of what I do, so keeping in touch with other artists is really important to me while I can’t exhibit or work in groups.

Where can we see your work? Have your plans had to change as a result of measures taken in response to coronavirus?

Obviously there is nothing in galleries at the moment. Criminal Quilts was due to be touring this summer but the next pencilled-in date is for September, with more planned dates into next year which I hope will go ahead. I have created an online version of the exhibition which will give people a taste of the work. I am still working in collaboration with three artists to create new work for the eventual exhibitions and I will add images to the website as soon as they are completed. I also have a couple of films about my work on my website, one on Criminal Quilts and one more general about my practice, plus plenty of images of my work. I also have a membership community on Patreon where I share my behind-the-scenes work through blog posts and I also produce a mini digital magazine every month with studio stories, textile history, exhibition reviews and other things that interest me.

I am continuing with engagement work with the project too and am currently putting together resource packs for participants to work at home, and eventually their work will be incorporated into a Criminal Quilts zine which will be available from my website.

Freelance-wise, I am currently working with WebinArt to develop the Establish professional development programme for mid-career and established artists.

Ruth was interviewed in May 2020.

Mini Prints

I want my work to be accessible to as many people as possible, so I have started producing mini prints from professional photos of my pieces. These are professionally-printed on high quality archival paper and each print is around 6x8inches (or a little smaller depending on borders) so somewhere between postcard and A5. These three are now in my shop, although two are almost sold out. They are priced at £15/16.

Each month my Patreon Silk members get a print posted directly to them. It does work out slightly cheaper to get this through Patreon and you will also get my monthly digital letter / mini magazine. Original one-off mono-prints are also in my shop too.