Stitch with something to say

Before I visited Festival of Quilts earlier this year, I was thinking about another world where something other than quilts were on display in a huge, annual competition. I was inspired by Fashion Fictions which Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd introduced in Making Meaning Live where alternative versions of the world are explored where there are restrictions on clothing or fabric production as a way of creatively imagining ways to address over-production and over-consumption.

First of all I pondered a world where it wasn’t possible to buy new fabric to cut up and sew it back together into patchwork… where we had to use scraps to make patchwork for practical purposes if cloth wasn’t so over-abundant and little-valued like it is here and now.

I was also thinking about alternative cloth / sewn things that might have become popular to make other than quilts. Why have quilts become the thing we make for pleasure, creativity or retail? What if patchwork had never grown into the art form it is now? What other large-scale textiles might there be on display? Flags? Sails? Banners? Unique handmade garments? 

That led me down a route of thinking about protest banners and political or social banners which were so important in the 19th century and how they are such a small part of our textile world now compared to quilts. Banners were an extraordinary art form in the 19th and early 20th century and an important means for women to use their skills and creativity to further a cause or social issue or promote a sense of belonging for a community. It’s something I keep coming back to myself for my own work – and I’ve started in a miniature way with my Protest Pincushion, a tiny sort of banner! (This was not in the Festival of Quilts because it’s too small and it’s not a quilt.)

Community quilts and group textile project, sometimes with a political or social message, were such a big thing during the pandemic and this demonstrated just how powerful and meaningful collective message-making.  I found it so interesting to explore this in the Textiles in Lockdown podcast which I’ve republished as Making Meaning episode 18.

Thinking about this has made me appreciate group quilts and projects more and I’m really interested in exploring what is out there in the world of textile with a message. I visited the banners exhibition in the Textile Biennial in 2019 which was really amazing but it makes me sad and frustrated that banners aren’t as well-explored art form as quilts and there isn’t a place for banners to be shown annually, to be awarded prizes and publicity and where we can come together to make textiles that have a positive impact and use resources consciously. 

So let’s imagine a fictional world where using precious textile resources was only acceptable when the finished piece had to say something. It had to be activist, community-made or share a message. Imagine those halls of the NEC full of protest banners or social group banners proclaiming their important social message. There is a competition for the best banner in a number of categories such as activism, community groups, human rights, image-based, text-based, political… and then I thought why aren’t they the groupings that quilts are entered into now? Why isn’t there a ‘statement’ category at Festival of Quilts? I really think there should be.

So with all these thoughts in mind, I visited the Festival of Quilts with the intention of seeing just how many pieces in the open competition had an obvious political, social, personal or community message. I know there will be some I didn’t see and I’m sure there were plenty of others that had a message but it wasn’t visually immediately obvious and was maybe more apparent in the artist statements in the catalogue, but I didn’t have one and very much didn’t have time to read them all.

I was so delighted to find so many with a message ranging from very subtle commentary within quilts to pieces overtly political or with a powerful, meaningful statement. I expected to find pieces made by groups with a strong meaning or message and I was amply rewarded. Quilts have a great history of being used by groups to come together and share emotions or to make a point or a message, partly because of their ideal format for individuals to make a piece which is then assembled into a whole. It really is a great vehicle for community practice and one which I have used myself many times.

The Grenfell Memorial Quilts were by far the most impactful pieces at the show, partly due to the size of them but mainly due to the impact and meaning behind them. I can’t help feeling though that they didn’t get the space, prominence or display impact they deserved, maybe because they are wonky and imperfect and very much community-made which is always a contrast to the perfection of competition quilts. There’s a place for both of course. I would LOVE to see community arts practice given the stage it really deserves in galleries and in society but that’s probably another blog post / life’s work. 

The Sophie Hayes Foundation was a brilliant example of this kind of work done really well, and clearly with a bigger budget and structure behind it than the grassroots Grenfell Quilts. These really combined powerful messages, excellent craftsmanship and really good marketing. I don’t mean that I thought they were in any way ‘better’ than the Grenfell quilts, they are just differently produced and presented. 

I really enjoyed hunting out pieces with a political, personal or social commentary within the competition quilts. As this isn’t a category of quilts to enter, they were dotted around and I am sure I missed lots.  The group quilts category is a good place to look for statement pieces, there are still some covid-related pieces and I am sure I will have missed many of these shown last year when I didn’t attend. There are a number of them in Textiles in Lockdown and I know there are hundreds of them around. What fantastic records of life experience during 2020 they are.

Here are some of the pieces I spotted. 

 

I would love to hear from makers of these or other quilts or textiles with a message. Where do you show and share your work? What’s the place for this kind of impactful textile?    How would you change the textile world to allow more space for stitch with something to say?

Working for free

Artists and freelancers regularly get asked to do unpaid work for organisations and institutions. In this blog post I discuss one of the common scenarios, share some thoughts on how things need to change and suggest some actions you can take.

Photo by kevser on Pexels.com

Should I say yes to unpaid work?

This is a perennial complex problem for those of us working in the arts and one I regularly want to moan about. So instead I’m giving it some thought and offering some alternatives to approaching this thorny question. Opportunities to give away your artwork, time, expertise, knowledge, potential earnings and wellbeing are bountiful. The creative world is full of ways for you to not earn any money. Finding ways to do the opposite and make an income is one of the greatest challenges of creative practice.

There are some things in the sector that pop up again and again which involve working for free and I have been thinking a lot about about how to make these decisions for yourself and how to try and make changes in the sector so this happens less.

There is no one simple answer to whether or not you choose to work for free as it all depends on:

  • where you are in your career
  • what you are being asked to do for free
  • your own financial situation
  • the financial situation of the organisation offering the thing
  • what else you might get out if it

The main thing to remember and to focus on is exposure does not pay the bills. Artists cannot live on goodwill. Those of us that have to make a living cannot keep being undercut by those who can afford to work for free. What ends up happening is those who need to earn a living say yes to unpaid things because it’s presented as ‘good for their career’ and they don’t have the confidence or leaderships skills to say no and why.

Choosing to work for free is a different thing – writing a speculative application, a proposal, responding to an open brief, donating work for a charity etc is a matter of choice. The problem really is when artists are asked to do work which really should be paid, such as running events, providing design or creative work or giving up their time & expertise to help a funded organisation do their job. It’s the latter I am focussing on here.

Over the 17 years I have been self employed, I have done plenty of unpaid work and I still chose to do some now, but only if I don’t feel exploited by the organisation and when it is otherwise beneficial for me. I choose not to work for free when it is mainly beneficial to an organisation with paid staff.

I do consultancy work for organisations on artist support and development activities as well as offering mentoring, training and business support to artists and creative businesses in partnership with organisations. Please get in touch if this is something your organisation would like to develop.

In the last few months I have been asked to be on a selection or jury panel for open exhibitions, both run by organisations with local authority funding support and salaried staff. With exquisite irony, this is exactly the thing I have been writing a report about for Artquest – for which I have been paid a professional consultancy fee. The report I’ve written is about artist Open Calls and making them more equitable and fair for artists. There’s a lot in this project about unpaid labour for artists, about paying fairly, about appreciating the value that artists and freelancers bring to an organisation, and paying them fairly for their work, including those on selection panels. So in both these cases, I have declined to do the work. In the first case I asked about fee as it was not mentioned and then declined in a vague way citing busy on the day. But more recently I’ve tackled the issue headlong and said why I can’t do the work for free, that I understand their budget restrictions etc and why it is important to value artists time.

My own work in my Narrative Threads solo exhibition 2015

In both cases I’ve felt vulnerable doing this and sad not to do the work – it’s something I would really enjoy doing, but I have to practice what I preach and not take on unpaid work in order to (hopefully) further my professional relationships with the organisations involved. That’s the issue I’m weighing in the balance every time I consider some unpaid work –

Will there be other benefits to me in doing this?

What is the non-financial value to me in this transaction?

Is there a value to me in this transaction at all or is all the value benefitting the organisation?

Why should I give up several hours of my potential income-generating time in order to benefit their open call exhibition? They are not charities. The people asking me have salaried jobs. Would they do it for free?

1292 Foodbank Visits in 18 Weeks, Ruth Singer, 2020. Hand stitch on cotton.

Its really important to remember that it’s not the fault of the person doing the asking, it’s the fault of the structures they work within who expect freelancers and artists to work for free. There is a pervasive culture of creatives working for free, an established, but unspoken rule that artists will do stuff for free because we need to further our careers and being helpful to organisations who are the gatekeepers of exhibitions and other forms of paid work is seen as necessary.

As a result of this culture of unpaid labour, it falls to me, as the unpaid artist, to explain to them, to pass on to their managers and budget-holders why they shouldn’t ask artists to work for free. If you value my professional expertise in this project, I deserve a professional fee.

I freely admit I didn’t know or think about this properly when I was employed by an organisation. I employed artists but I did expect them to travel across London and come to an unpaid meeting to discuss the 2 days of paid work. That’s not fair. I know that now and I point it out to organisations as often as I can, where they haven’t already addressed it (some have).

In conclusion, the most impactful thing we can all be doing about this is talking about it rather than hiding our frustrations and disappointments and letting bad practice continue unchallenged. We can sign up to campaigns like the brilliant Paying Artists. We can also make conscious choices about what we do for free, rather than just accepting it as the way things are. If you feel able to share, I would love to hear your thoughts about when you are asked to work for free and how you responded.

If you are struggling with this issue, I suggest starting with this: record all the unpaid work you do in a project or in the development stages of a project with an organisation. You may not do anything with this but it is so useful to have some data. If you feel able, you could share it with the organisation and just say “This is the amount of [additional] work I did unpaid in this project, if I was charging, this would be £££ value.” Making our unpaid work visible is a great first step in opening up the conversation.

This is the first in a series of blog posts tackling money issues around artist and freelance practice. I’ll be sharing more soon as this stuff is really important for us to talk about and for organisations to be aware of, and ideally, act upon. Please share this post or my social posts to try and get the message across. It would be great if you wanted to write your own post addressing some of the issues and how you approach working for free / getting paid for your professional expertise. I would also love to hear from organisations about what you are doing on this issue! You can get in touch with me here.


Email inboxes can be full of all kinds of tedious and boring things. Work. Bills. Adverts for things you don’t want. I’d like to brighten your inbox with a couple of emails a month full of inspiration, ideas and ways to see and share what I’m doing. 

Joining my Studio Stories email list is the best way to keep in touch with what I’m doing, more blog posts about creative business and about my work and projects. I’ll share courses and workshops too as well as behind the scenes studio stuff.

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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.


Artist Mentoring

If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.

The personal impact of volunteering

How volunteering at a foodbank changed my perspective on life

Volunteering during the pandemic changed my life. Helping at the foodbank gave me purpose during the height of the pandemic. I have been so impressed by the care and community-mindedness of the formal and informal volunteers I have met over the last two years. I wanted to commemorate their amazing work.

What people said about volunteering

I created Community Spirit to do just that. It’s an arts project I created that focusses on the volunteers themselves. I really felt that volunteering needed to be celebrated and recognised not only for the positive benefits it brings to those we help, but also to those who volunteer.

I worked with Mandeep Dhadialla for this project. Here’s a clip of us talking about why volunteering is so rewarding and empowering. You can find the whole video here.

I wouldn’t have created this project if I hadn’t volunteered during the pandemic. When I first volunteered it was definitely a feeling of altruism, of wanting to help, being useful. As time went on and I became really heavily involved in the development, funding and running of Woodgate Community Food, volunteering became a major part of my life. Not only was I able to make a difference, a real, very tangible difference, I felt so much more in control. At the height of the pandemic I was able to use my fundraising, marketing, admin and design skills for something really positive. I met amazing people and I saw desperate grinding poverty first hand. It’s very eye-opening, and I was acutely conscious of my privilege. I worked probably 2-3 days a week on the foodbank project during 2020, alongside keeping my own business and creative practice afloat and I learned so much about myself and my life that I’ve made some changes as a result. I reasserted my determination to make my creative practice really aligned with my values in social justice. I made artworks in response to my experience of running the foodbank and I created projects to further support foodbank customers beyond their basic needs with my Woodgate Wellbeing project. And then came this one, Community Spirit, which I am really delighted to be taking back to Woodgate on 30th Sept / 1st October to share it with the volunteers there who are still keeping it going and supporting over 100 households per week.

I actually moved away from Woodgate in 2021 so I no longer volunteer on a regular basis but help with things I can do from home or partnership events I can be part of. I had a manic hour handing out free picnic bags for the Jubilee party in June and I recently designed a recipe booklet to go in special food packs. And Woodgate Community Food will always be part of my heart, my creative practice and my future volunteering choices.

This project has been a joy to run and now it’s great to see it out in the world, being appreciated by the volunteers who it celebrates. You can find the showcase at the following venues and I will be alongside the display at Woodgate if you would like a chat!

Market Harborough Library 24th-28th September. Fri, Tues, Weds 10-6, Sat 10-4

Woodgate Community Food Leicester Friday 30th Sept & Saturday 1st October. 10am-1pm both days

John Storer House Loughborough 3rd – 14th October Mon-Fri 10am-5pm. Sat 10am-2pm

Lutterworth Library 20-22nd October. Hours vary, please check with the library.

Do you volunteer? I’d love to hear what it means to you.

Community Spirit of Leicestershire launch

My project celebrating the Stories of pandemic volunteering in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland is going on tour

I’ve been working on this project most of the year and even longer in the planning and development. It’s finally almost out in the world! Back in 2020 when volunteering to help run a local foodbank, I realised just how important volunteering was to me and other volunteers. We felt useful and engaged and were making a real difference. I wanted to capture that energy and celebrate it and make sure that volunteers got a proper thank you for their incredible work.

Eventually I turned this into a funding application and created Community Spirit of Leicestershire with support from Arts Council England and Leicester city community funds.

From 5th September the resulting work, created by volunteers, will be shown in libraries and community centres as well as the foodbank where it all started for me. And you can also see the project film here.

There’s details of the tour venues here and a press release here.

I’ve worked with Mandeep Dhadialla as associate artist while I’ve been both lead artist and project producer (plus marketing, admin, funding, workshop-leader!). It’s been a real joy to see this come together and to be able to use a creative project to say THANK YOU to all volunteers for your amazing work.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Sanctuary Stories and Research Resonance

A couple of weeks ago Mandeep Dhadialla and I concluded our summer community project called Sanctuary Stories. I wrote a little about the project development here. The work made is now on show at Leicester Central Library until 31st August. Sanctuary Stories was part of the city-wide Journeys Festival run by ArtReach and we worked with participants from Roots Group who are all Leicester-based but from sanctuary-seeking backgrounds.

Mandeep created the project concept and ran most of the workshops while I worked on the behind-the-scenes project producer work. But delightfully, she also invited me to be part of the creative workshop side. The project focussed on print and book making exploring stories of nature, wellbeing and belonging. My part was to introduce slow stitch on the papers and books with the idea of a meditative stitch practice.

The previous week the group made collograph-style collages which Mandeep blind embossed onto heavy white paper to create beautiful textured, simple pieces. We stitched into these pieces and Mandeep later made them in to folded forms.

I created my samples around a theme I’m working on for myself on borders, boundaries, paths and journeys. The stitches represent a border, a path, containment and freedom. That’s where the research resonance of the title comes in – making the samples for this workshop created all kinds of connections with my own work. Talking to Mandeep about her work and the meanings behind this workshop programme also sparked ideas for both of us. She and I will be talking more about this in a podcast due out in mid-September. It was a real pleasure to work with this group and to collaborate with Mandeep on this project and the results are so lovely. I hope plenty of you will be able to see them in Leicester Library in the next week.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Sanctuary Stories Community Project

I’m working on a new community project this summer in collaboration with Mandeep Dhadialla / Laughing Cactus Print Studio. Mandeep is doing most of the workshops including leading this one using print making and book construction, and I’m adding in some textile elements and stitch in future sessions.

Sanctuary Stories is a project for ArtReach, working with their Roots group for people from sanctuary-seeking backgrounds. Their work will be shown in Leicester Library as part of Journeys Festival in August.

 The Roots group are local participants from around the world, who come together to learn new skills and engage in cultural activities throughout the year. The project, Sanctuary Stories, is all about inspiring conversations around stories of individuals from sanctuary seeking backgrounds, and their connection to community, home and environment. 

Mandeep Dhadialla

In this project I’m more behind the scenes while Mandeep does most of the workshop side. The project concept was developed by her with project planning and support from me and I’m really enjoying this way of working. I’ve got a couple of decades of experience in running arts projects, exhibitions and engagement activities so it’s great to be able to collaborate and share with someone else. Mandeep is also working with me on Community Spirit project. I’m keen to do more of this kind of project management where I get to be creative and not just admin, and work with great groups on meaningful projects. I also worked for ArtReach a very long time ago on a great museum project so it’s good to be involved with one of their projects again.

I’d love to work on more community projects around my on practice and the themes that inspire me with local and regional groups. Please get in touch if you think this might work for your organisation. You can find out more about the kind of things I love to do here.

Volunteering events

Take part in a community arts project in Leicestershire celebrating volunteers

Volunteering during lockdown is one of the best things I have ever done. I felt like I was doing something positive and important and I got to meet people and feel connected. I have seen just how hard volunteers worked to keep our communities together during lockdown (and continue to do so now) and I want to celebrate their work through creativity and sharing. I’m working with Voluntary Action Leicestershire to collect stories of local volunteers and to create a collaborative artwork at events co-designed by Laughing Cactus Printmaking Studio.


I’d love to hear your stories if you volunteered and bring you into our events to make commemorative rosettes which will be shown locally then shared out to volunteers to mark their amazing work. We have free events in Leicester on 5th, 7th & 9th June (weekend, weekday & evening) and I would love to see you there. Please pass on to anyone you know who has volunteered and ask them to share their story online or at an event. 

Woodgate Wellbeing

Creating art projects with and for communities is a huge part of my creative business. For years I’ve worked on projects to support creativity and wellbeing for those with limited access to the arts for various reasons. Recently I’ve been creating projects myself rather than just working for other people and one of those is the Woodgate Wellbeing project I’ve developed for the users of the foodbank I helped establish in 2020. I’ve brought together a group of local artists and practitioners to create activities and events that are creative, accessible and relaxing and which also link to the local area of the city. To make the activities as accessible as possible, I’ve put together this magazine with loads of activities and an accompanying materials box to go with it. Workshop activities start later this month too. I’m so excited about this getting this project launched and hopefully supporting people to have a bit more creativity and wellbeing in their lives. 

The cover of Woodgate Wellbeing magazine is one of my Foodbank Stories embroideries. I created this project concept in early 2021 and applied for two different funds through the foodbank. The second was successful (Places Called Home fund from The National Lottery & IKEA). I have created the concept, commissioned the content and designed the magazine and kits. I’ve been supported in this project by Mandeep Dhadialla. She is also delivering one of the workshops for the project. Mandeep is also associate artist with my Community Spirit project.

I’d love to keep this project going and replicate it elsewhere. If you are interested in supporting creativity and wellbeing for underserved communities in a similar way, please get in touch.

Words about Women co-creation artwork

Would you like to stitch part of a collaborative artwork for my Criminal Quilts project? Throughout the years I’ve research women in Stafford Prison, I’ve noticed the words used to label women. The nature of the prison documents means the words are quite judgemental and absolute.

With this project I want to reflect on the words used to describe and label women then and now. The artwork will be made of stitched words, both positive and negative, created by women participants through community workshops and women working on them at home. Being part of a collective project about women’s lives and the perception of women is really powerful. I’d love to hear your voice in this work. Find out more and how to contribute your stitched words on my website here.

I’ll be running free drop-in sessions at Llantarnam Grange on International’s Women’s Day 8th March, stitching words for the artwork. You can book yourself a space here.

Wellbeing project

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

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

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