On 20th April I’m giving a talk for a symposium at De Montfort University, Leicester. The programme is full of fascinating talks and presentations about biographies through objects. My presentation description is below. The event is free and all are welcome.
Emotional Repair: personal stories in cloth and stitch
My artist practice is entirely tied up with my first career in museums. Since my Museum Studies MA 25 years ago, I have been intrigued by our reverence for objects and the power of objects both to fascinate us and to embody stories. This has become a fundamental part of my research-led textile practice, in which I often work with historic garments as source or material. My work stems from my museum training of exploring objects from different angles and my passion for textiles and the stories we create around them. My artistic practice is counterpoint to museum practice by considering irreparable textiles as valuable. My work with old cloth is a thoughtful and considered interpretation of conservation and preservation methodologies and practices.
In this paper I plan to present two bodies of work which come from the same core interest in how cloth holds life stories. Garment Ghosts is an ongoing body of work created from badly damaged and irreparable antique clothing, to which I give new life by remaking. I unpick clothing and textiles beyond repair and the fragmentary cloth is brought back to life through trapping the disintegrating garment between transparent layers, keeping the outline of the piece but also opening up seam allowances and pleats to take the fabric back to its original form.
Imprint is a commission to make a new piece of work inspired by a family textile collection, where I was asked to preserve the garments intact which presented me with an intriguing challenge of working with a textile collection without cutting anything. Unlike much of my work using garments divorced from their humans, I had a clear provenance and stories to go with these pieces. I created an archive box of small pieces telling stories of damage, use, fragility and human experience.
I was thinking yesterday, on a museum visit, of the power of personal stories in heritage and in art practice. I often use objects as my source material but the stories about real, named women are what has made Criminal Quilts so impactful. It’s been important to me all the way through this 12-year long project to emphasise that the women in the photographs were real, troubled women with multiple challenges in their lives, in a harsh system which tried to remove their individuality in prison. Their stories deserve to be told and remembered. My Criminal Quilts book has short case studies of 37 women and I have added extended biographies to my website since the book was written which you can find below.
Criminal Quilts is my first self-published book and it’s been a joy to share it across the world. It’s 80 pages full of prison photographs, the background to prison photography and details of the 500+ photos of women in the Stafford Prison archive. It also covers all the textiles I made up to 2018 and much more besides. It’s £16 available directly from me here.
I’ve been asked a thousand times how I got into this project and how I got from prison photographs to the quilts and other work I have made over the years. It’s almost impossible for me to define my long, slow working process, but I have been working on ways to share my research and development processes with others. My Maker Membership is designed to do this: helping other creatives who want to build in more research, meaning and connection into their practice. It’s an online group with resources and workbooks to help you define your practice and a friendly group to share and connect with. Members always tell me just how brilliant it is to find your people – others that understand what you are trying to do with your work and are properly interested in your ideas and want to support you to do your best work. I am really proud of this amazing space I’ve created and I want as many of you as possible to benefit from the support and development it offers. I have some free Find Out More events coming up soon but you can always find info here.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.