Textile Study Space is my online school for all things stitch and fabric. It’s a subscription site for just £5 with monthly posts and a growing archive of things like this.
I’ve been slowly building my Textile Study Space over the last year with new content about textiles, inspiration, my work and some techniques and ideas for how to use stitch and cloth.
In the last few months I’ve added a mini video workshop on stitch meditations like these here.
There’s also technique posts about negative space embroidery and about this glorious antique stitched card.
There’s a video lesson on how to make these little irregular patchwork windows (left) and a study of an antique patchwork (below).
There’s a tour of my fabric stash which is quite extensive!
And lots of background posts about my work including my use of digital print and studies of antique textiles.
And it’s only £5 monthly subscription for all of these archive posts and something new every month. Find out more and join Textile Study Space here.
If you are looking for a creative community with ongoing support and resources to challenge your thinking and take your creative practice further, have a look at my Maker Membership. It’s a monthly rolling membership that you can join any time. I create workbooks, blog posts and videos about all kinds of things including research, creative development and reflection. There’s also a lively community who share their work and their thoughts via the members chat and we meet monthly on Zoom for a group mentoring session which is always really inspiring and encouraging. It’s £25 per month to join with no minimum term. Find out more here.
I’ve recently completed a small series of works for sale with the lovely Beyond Measure shop. I don’t make a lot of things for retail so these are pretty special.
The darning cards are £36.50 and you can find them here. This scissors start at £49 and you can find them here. Beyond Measure also stock the very last of my Patchwork Colouring Books.
The darned darning cards and embellished scissors ideas both started life in this exhibition piece I made in 2018.
I inherited my grandmother’s sewing box over 40 years after she died. I never knew her, yet we share a thread of textile inheritance. I spent several years pondering this box of embroidery threads, unfinished projects, tools and bits and pieces before I worked out what I wanted to make with them. I started by unravelling, tidying and sorting her threads and tools and then once I could see everything clearly, I decided to make small embellished pieces. I only used threads that were already started, short lengths and scraps and only used the tools and other things found in the same box.
Wrapping and embellishing scissors and functional things makes them even more precious and turns them into miniature works of art which resonate with stories and past lives. I collect old darning cards with wonderful old graphic design and scissors which have been used over decades and love to select threads and stitches which give new life to things which have languished in sewing boxes for years.
I’ve made a few commissions using these techniques too, details below and worked some boxes full of these kind of sewing tool treasures (I have one or two of these left, please get in touch if you would like to see images).
My new Find Your Focus course starts in January. It covers core values, a realistic review of your year, looking at what matters most and then working on how to build in more of the good stuff and less of the stuff that’s not taking you forwards. The course is delivered through 5 video lessons starting on 3rd January, fresh and ready for the new year.
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.
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.
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.
One of the things I have missed during the pandemic is getting together with others in the same room and sharing textile techniques, ideas, seeing samples and threads, textile treasures and books. In 2022 I’m starting to run a lot more online textile workshops but I wanted to also do something more modest and accessible alongside. I wanted a space where I could share my love of textile techniques in a smaller way. From late January I will host a Textile Study Space on Patreon, a subscription site where I will gather and share fragments of textile. There will be mini tutorials, technique ideas, historical examples, pieces from my work, sketchbooks, samples and also from my historical museum of old and usually damaged textiles collection .
I want this space to be low-key and unpressured, somewhere you can explore textiles at your own pace, pick the things that interest you and explore. There’s no fixed outcome, you don’t have to make anything, it’s just there to inspire. There will be very low minimum price per month of subscription but if you find it valuable and can afford a bit more, the amount you pay will be flexible. I hope that will be nice and democratic, allowing textile enthusiasts who love what I do to be part of my creative world without the cost and commitment of other online programmes.
To find out when Textile Study Space opens, sign up to my mailing list here and I’ll let you know. I hope you will join me, I can’t wait to share some of the textile treasures in my studio.
Online creative workshop with Ruth Singer 29th-31st January 2021. £75
Do you have boxes of precious fabric scraps and tiny treasures like buttons and keys? Would you like an excuse to get these out and make something really special from them? This workshop gives you the ideas and inspiration to create your own beautiful and meaningful sampler using your own personal treasures to keep or to gift. You might want to include family heirlooms and antique textiles or broken china and scraps of dishcloths. The idea of this workshop is to create something out of all those tiny bits you cherish but don’t really know what to do with.
Precious objects samplers are as unique as you are – everyone’s choices will be different. You will learn how to create textile backgrounds with scraps and hand embroidery, how to wrap and stitched into tiny objects and how to attach them. We will also look at how to finish your piece ready for display.
This workshop is all about working slowly and thoughtfully so it is timed to run over a whole weekend but you can dip in and out at your own pace
When you join this workshop you can: Come along to a live Zoom introduction and meet other participants. Friday 29th January 5pm GMT (one hour) Join a Facebook group to share your work and thoughts with others around the world (optional) Watch 5 pre-recorded instructional videos from my studio covering:
Exploring meanings and stories in your work Planning, choosing and editing your objects and fabrics Preparing the backing with scraps and stitches Working with tiny objects Finishing and attaching
Come back together with the group to show and share your work Sunday 31st January 5pm GMT (one hour)
You can work at your own pace over the weekend and continue for a week or two if you need to. The videos remain accessible for two weeks, as will the Facebook group.
This workshop does NOT include materials. Packs of treasures and vintage fabric scraps are available separately here.
You will need fabrics and tiny treasures as well as threads and sewing kit. More information will be given when you book. Online booking and payment available here. Please contact me if you need to book and pay a different way.
Alongside my own original creative work I occasionally get the pleasure of a repair job on an antique textile. I love being able to explore the insides, the seams, the reverse and the construction of the stitches. This is an ecclesiastical stole, still in active church use despite being about 100 years old.
The silk was shredded in the most vulnerable areas which I have covered in fine nylon tulle. Working from the back I repaired the damaged embroidery by tacking it down using matching threads. The back of the embroidery is joyfully colourful and messy and a glorious art work in its own right.
There’s so much to learn and to enjoy in close observation of skilled (and sometimes not-so-skilled) making. I started my working life aiming towards working with antique textiles in museum and had the pleasure of working with some really special textile and fashion collections before I diverted into other directions. Later, when I was no longer paid to work with textiles I spent my days off researching medieval textiles and still often yearn for those days of quiet study in museum store rooms. I make sure that in my own contemporary work I do get to work with museum collections and have my own small, growing museum of interesting textiles which inspire.
I’ve repaired some pieces of my own extensive antique textiles collection and plenty of vintage clothing and am happy to take commissions for interesting repairs.
This summer I am running a three day course at the lovely West Dean College, 30 May 2016 to 2 June 2016. Find out more here.
Ruth Singer. The Beauty of Stains
Art Textiles: Creating Cloth with Meaning
Explore a range of slow, thoughtful textile practices to create cloth with meaning. Experiment with local plants and simple rust dyeing to create eco prints on natural and vintage cloth. Introduce hand stitch with fabric manipulation and trapunto quilting to add texture and structure.
People often tell me how patient I am to hand stitch my work. I often counter that I am only patient with sewing, not with anything else (although that’s not really true*). We can all be patient doing something we love. It doesn’t require patience to get to the end of a good book as you are enjoying the act of reading. In the same way, I enjoy the act of sewing:
the feel of the needle pulling a thread through cloth
the patterns it makes
the textures thread makes in the cloth
the connection with the cloth, the thread, the needle
the feeling of putting a bit of myself into my sewing
It isn’t about patience, it is about enjoying the process.
I was asked last week about why I sew by hand rather than by machine. I find this an odd question as my work wouldn’t be my work if I made it by machine. I couldn’t make it by machine. It would be completely different work. It wouldn’t be me.
Today, out walking, I figured out the perfect way to explain this:
It is like choosing to walk on a footpath rather than to drive on a road through the countryside.
Just because there are sewing machines, and faster techniques, doesn’t mean I have to use them. Life isn’t about doing the most in the time available, it is about enjoying the process. I am not a machine. I refuse to confine my creativity within bounds of commercial productivity and speed. I like slow.
*mostly my lack of patience occurs when people make statements about my personality or lifestyle based on the needle in my hand. I am actually a pretty patient person. Maybe that’s because I love slow sewing.
Alongside my Narrative Threads exhibition at the National Centre for Craft & Design, I am running a weekend masterclass on 9th & 10th January 2016 (rescheduled from December). Spend the weekend immersed in creative, slow, experimental techniques inspired by my work. The workshops include simple, experimental natural dye techniques, embroidery and using found objects. You can create a series of samples, pieces to incorporate into other work or art textile pieces to frame.
Ruth Singer: Metamorphosis
Ruth Singer: Metamorphosis
Ruth Singer: Metamorphosis
Eco print with leaves and flowers
Our first task of the weekend will be to manipulate and colour cloth using natural dyes, plants, food, rust and inks. We will experiment with shibori dye, hand painting colour and creating patterns from rusty metal to create original and exciting patterns and marks on cloth. We will also dye threads and other materials to use on day 2.
Using the cloth we have created in day one (or purchased on the day if you have not attended day 1) we will look at using simple embroidery stitches to create marks and patterns on the dyed cloth. We will experiment with layering and cutting away the fabrics to create new textures. We will also explore ways of incorporating found objects into our work to add depth and narrative to the pieces.
£50 per day or £95 for the weekend, including basic materials, with additional materials available to purchase at the workshop. Book with NCCD on 01529 308710 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruth Singer: Metamorphosis
Criminal Quilts – Ruth Singer. Photo by Ashley Brown
Rowan leaves to represent Rowan Ward. Hand embroidery.