Making Meaning Podcast Episode Two – Gillian McFarland

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.

Artist Gillian Adair McFarland and I met in 2014 when she moved into our shared studio in Leicester. We immediately found common ground with our work and became great friends. We have collaborated a lot on projects over the last few years and continue to work remotely now Gillian has moved back to Scotland. In this conversation, we talk about the areas of interest where we cross over, starting with stains and marks of time, land and human experience. We also talk a lot about the process of making art, comparing our experiences in very different fields – Gillian more in fine art and me in craft / textiles. We also discuss the idea of value in art-making and the challenges of working in a capitalist world where financial value is placed above other kinds of value. We both collaborate a lot with other artists as well as each other so we also talk about the importance of working with others, including scientists. We talk about the difficulty of focussing on just one idea out of so many and how this works so well in our collaborative work.

We have worked together on art-science projects as well as other collaborations. We have recently finished a new Criminal Quilts collaboration and are just starting a co-creation project with the Hutton Institute, Dundee which you can get involved in. Please sign up to my mailing list to find out about that when it’s ready.

Listen here

Gillian and her recent work


Images below of Gillian, Gayle Price glassblower at University of Leicester and photos from our genetics residency

More images and information about our Genetics Residency can be found on our website McFarland & Singer


Gillian Adair McFarland

head and shoulders image of Ruth Singer, white woman with short dark hair and glasses

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Download the transcript here

This is an auto-generated transcript, which I have edited a little but may still have mistakes and unclear bits.

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.

Criminal Quilts and food poverty

Criminal Quilts tells the stories of women who fell through the cracks in Victorian and Edwardian England.

Bridget Warrilow struggled to make a living and ended up in prison so many times after stealing small things to sell to buy food. Over 100 years later and millions of people still struggle to make ends meet when wages and welfare are too low and living costs are too high. I’ve just shared a case study of Bridget, along with the stories of 5 other women. I’m also fundraising for my local food bank where I volunteer as treasurer and on the committee. We are trying desperately to stop families falling through the cracks but we shouldn’t need food banks in such a wealthy country. Find out more in this Guardian article and support us or your local food bank if you can. They need volunteers, funding and campaigning, as well as food donations.

New Edition of Criminal Quilts Book

Two years ago I created Criminal Quilts exhibition and self-published the accompanying book, alongside each other. Looking back, I am not sure how I managed to do both in a few short months as well as my other work. But somehow I did. It’s has taken a couple of years for the first print run of the book to sell out so I have revised and reprinted this year. The new version has a couple of extra pages and some new images as well as (hopefully) no more page reference errors!

The first print run was only ever sold directly by me online, at events and alongside the exhibition in gallery shops. The new version has an ISBN number and is already listed on Amazon and I will be selling wholesale to bookshops too. Self-publishing allows me total control of the book production and sales. Both editions are printed on recycled paper with no plastic coating of the cover, for maximum sustainability. This has cost me more but fits with my values. It is also printed by a small (female-owned) local company, a few minutes from my house so I can walk to the printers to check things. My brilliant graphic designer Sophie has done a great job as always. The downsides of self-publishing are that all the copies have to be stored in my (small, already crowded) house! Please help me make space to move by purchasing a copy (or 10) of this book.

It’s been an amazing couple of years with this book. The best part of being both author and publisher is that I know exactly where this book has been sent. It has travelled all over the world which amazes and delights me. It has been devoured by textile enthusiasts, criminologists, historians, Stafford residents, prison, probation and community work professionals, schools, photographers, universities and academics. It’s been reviewed in an academic publication too as well as in textile press.

The back cover blurb reads:

Criminal Quilts is an art & heritage project created by artist Ruth Singer which explores the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. This book covers the research which Ruth and a team of volunteers undertook in the development of the project, including many of the personal stories of women in the archives of Stafford Prison.
It also covers additional research around clothing in the photographs as well as daily life in a Victorian prison.

This book is also a catalogue of the textiles pieces which Ruth has created alongside her research, giving the full background from the initial commission in 2012 to the work created in 2018 for the touring exhibition. This is a revised edition for 2020.

Ruth Singer is an established British textile artist with a background working in the museum sector. Her training and first career continue to influence her artistic practice through her interest in heritage, narrative, material culture and society. Ruth’s work is focussed on research and personal exploration of stories, resulting in subtle, emotive and sensitive work. She creates exhibitions, commissions, community projects and undertakes artist residencies to explore subjects and places in detail. She has presented a number of solo exhibitions as well as Criminal Quilts and was awarded the Fine Art Quilt Masters Prize in 2016, and written several books. She also works as a consultant, artist mentor and tutor.

Criminal Quilts Review

My Criminal Quilts exhibition has been reviewed in the academic journal Textile: Cloth and Culture, by Dr Annebella Pollen, Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton.

The article is available free to read or download here and I’m delighted that the editor Dr Catherine Harper (a long time supporter of my work) chose one of my images for the journal cover too.

Criminal Quilts, in its display and book form, is deeply informed by scholarship and made with skill. It is both a beautiful set of works and a call to action. 

The exhibition will be back in September at Shire Hall Dorchester. (4th September – 8th November 2020) and then to Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in January 2021. Keep up to date with events, talks and exhibition by subscribing to my newsletter. And in the meantime, come along to my talk on Friday where I will be sharing the background to the project, my research, the work I’ve made and some of the new collaborations and directions I’m taking the project in 2021.

My Criminal Quilts book has also been reviewed in another academic journal: Family & Community History Volume 22, 2019 but this is not freely available online unfortunately. This review is by Dr Vivienne Richmond, Lecturer,  Goldsmiths, University of London

And what all readers, historians included, will find in the first part of the book and the project as a whole, is an innovative means of bringing to a public audience in an accessible, intelligent, sensitive and thought-provoking way, the largely neglected history of the numerous women incarcerated in Victorian and Edwardian prisons.

I’ve almost completely sold out of the first edition of Criminal Quilts, with the last few copies available in my shop here.

Criminal Quilts talk

Textiles Inspired by Women Photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916.

Friday 24th July 2020 
4-5.30pm BST

In this talk, I will look at the background to this project which I started in 2012, creating textiles about the stories of Victorian and Edwardian women prisoners. As well as showing the textile artworks from the touring exhibition, I will also share some of the historical research which the volunteer team and I put together, including case studies of several women and my own research into prison clothing visible in the photographs.

This talk will be live on Zoom with a recording available afterwards. You will be able to ask questions. Book here.

Criminal Quilts Case Study – Harriet George

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken. Original images and documents courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the third in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Harriet was born in Stoke-on-Trent to a working family. Her father was a miner. The photograph was taken when she was released in 1880 after serving 16 months for stealing a shawl. The document suggests she has previous convictions but I can’t find them. She was released to the ‘Stafford Female Refuge’. I researched this institution and found out that it was officially called The Staffordshire County Industrial Home for Discharged Female Ex-Prisoners and Friendless Women, and was built in 1878 on Sandon Road, Stafford and funded through public donation. It was the first of its kind. The Home was locally known as ‘The County Refuge’, ‘Female Refuge’ or ‘County Industrial Home’, and took in younger women with no families to return to after their release. Women who accepted this support would stay for two years, with a placement as a domestic servant afterwards. Harriet was there when the census was taken in 1881 with 29 other young women between 13 and 22 years of age. I can’t find any further record of her but there is Harriet George who died aged 68 in 1928 and this might be her. It is possible that after her time in the refuge she did not offend again.

History of The County Refuge

Academic journal article by Dr Jo Turner about prisoner aftercare. Dr Turner supported the Criminal Quilts research in 2018.

Criminal Quilts Case Study – Caroline Pulley

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken. Original images and documents courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the second in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Caroline Pulley appears four times in the photograph albums. The first was in 1879 when she was 29 years old and unmarried. Caroline was from Brockmoor, Brierley Hill (Dudley) and was 5ft 3in, with brown hair and grey eyes. This record is shown above.
She had been sentenced to six months hard labour for stealing iron, presumably to sell on for food and essentials. She was also given one year police supervision. She was a repeat offender, often in and out of prison and was photographed for the prison records in 1884, 1885 and 1886. In 1885, she refused to show her hands as required for which she would have been punished. The poor state of her clothes in 1884 shows the state of her poverty. She was sometimes recorded as a charwoman (a cleaner) or labourer, but often had no employment. Most of her crimes were thefts of iron or coal, including 60 pounds of coal from a canal boat. Caroline also appears in a prison record for HMP Wakefield in 1883 and in various other prison records for Staffordshire.

Caroline’s 1884 photo was one of the first ones I used as inspiration when I made the first series of miniature quilts. I haven’t used her photos very much but this quilt (below) now in Staffordshire Museums collection, was named after her. I think it’s time I created Caroline another quilt of her own, with her determined and powerful face.

Criminal Quilts Free Activity Sheets

I’ve recently created an activity pack around Criminal Quilts for community workshop participants who I can’t currently meet up with. I’ve made a couple of the worksheets free for anyone to try. Download the free PDF here. You could use the case study of Fanny & Ada Riddle or Caroline Pulley as your creative inspiration.

The full pack of 16 activities plus resource sheets and background information is now available in my shop for individual use. If you are interested in using this pack with schools, groups or creative workshops please contact me to discuss options.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.