Family Stories

After my Grandad died (aged 96) in late 2012, I cleared out a huge amount of textiles from his house, along with masses of curios and generations of junk that he had kept. His second wife’s family ran a small laundry business, and it was the ex-laundry buildings where Grandad kept all sorts of interesting stuff. They had masses of top quality cotton sheets and table linen; some abandoned at the laundry, some donated, some simply rescued from far finer houses. Grandad has been a gardener all his adult life and worked for some very wealthy people. When they upgraded their homes, he was asked to take unwanted things away, and it seems he simply took them away to his shed! He wasn’t really a hoarder, the house was very sparse , but he couldn’t bear to see good things thrown away. He wasn’t much interested in the things he kept. Maybe, subconsciously, he knew he’d have a granddaughter one day who would covet the old but fine quality linens, china cups, standard lamps and carved ebony screens that he piled up in his extensive outbuildings before I was even born.

I’d known for a long time that I wanted to do something creative using the family linens. I also wanted to make some work that reflected my modest Grandad and the incredible collections he accidentally created. Over the last 10 years or so, I realised that his house and sheds where almost like a museum to me; full of fascinating stories and interesting objects. The sheds, particularly, were a kind of representation of the man himself. Practical, unfussy, organised, down-to-earth and full of charm. I want to preserve that memory, that sense of the man, by creating work that honours and remembers him. In 2013 I created two collections of work inspired by my Grandad; the Tool Shed series and Metamorphosis. I have plans for more work too, for my forthcoming solo show at NCCD in late 2015.

For several years, I have created work inspired by historic buildings, places, objects and themes, as well as using personal experiences and emotions in my work. By creating work using my own family history, I feel the work has added depth and humanity. People connect with the work in a different way. Every viewer has their own interpretation of my work and each makes their own connections to their own family.

In my Family Stories workshop on 26th April, I aim to share some of the creative processes behind my work and explore how you can use your family history to create unique, personal textiles to commemorate your family. We will look at how to create a sense of the family by selecting colours and fabrics that have significance. I will show you how to create printed textiles using documents and photos such as letters, maps, certificates and official documents and turn these into stitched and appliqué details for your piece. You can also bring along small objects to use as silhouettes or motifs in the work, or actually incorporate them into the work itself. Personal textiles, buttons, trimmings and off-cuts are also great for personalising your work.

This workshop is also available for groups and guilds.

The Making of Metamorphosis


More images of the whole piece here

A few months ago I saw an opportunity advertised locally for artists to make work using the idea of metamorphosis and using an object in the collections of New Walk Museum as inspiration, as part of a conference in the School of Museum Studies at Leicester University.  I decided to visit the World Art gallery at New Walk, which is full of wonderful things (although they don’t seem to have a page about it in their website!). I took photos of lots of intriguing and beautiful objects but couldn’t find something that really worked with the metamorphosis idea. I photographed this Nigerian ‘charm gown’ because I thought the decoration was fascinating. It wasn’t until later that I realised it would work with the metamorphosis concept.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe idea of the gown is that the words, drawings and amulets added to it, make the garment protective. I was intrigued by the idea that by marking marks onto cloth, it can be changed from mere fabric to something spiritual and powerful. I found the following text on the British Museum website, about a similar object:

Curator’s comments

Register 1940: ‘Jibbeh’ W. Sudan (?)

Register 1940 later addition:
[N.Nigeria? (W.B.F.)](LaGamma and C. Giuntini, 2008)
‘Every inch of this simple cotton tunic was inscribed and invested with prayers by an itinerant Hausa artist who sought to transform it into a mantle of invulnerability. The extraordinary measures taken suggest that the garment was made for an important warrior to wear into battle. The Islamic belief in the power of the Koran’s written word is manifested here in a creation configured so its Koranic texts encase the body, affording a line of mystical defence superior to armour’ 

I wanted to explore how the role of the artist can transform a plain piece of cloth into something powerful. In the same way that the artist made the charm gown, I wanted to make a modern, personal charm gown, using humble textile and the hand of the artist to transform its meaning.

Since my grandad died in December 2012, I’ve been wanting to use some of the textiles from his home in my work. When we cleared the house (and extensive sheds) I gathered up all kinds of cloth from old sacking to neatly starched and pressed handkerchiefs, knowing that I would find a use for them. This project seemed like the ideal opportunity.

Initially, I intended to make a small garment, maybe a shawl or scarf, to represent the charm gown, but when I visited the School of Museum Studies, they offered me a HUGE glass case and I couldn’t resist taking it on.  Despite all the perfect tablecloths and pristine white sheets from the hoard, what I kept coming back to was a large, old dust sheet. It must have been a high quality cotton sheet, once upon a time, but had been used for painting jobs for many years. My step-grandmother’s family ran a small laundry and no doubt this is where the sheet originally came from – things were not always collected, hence the huge collection my step-granny acquired. The sheet has laundry marks and even an address in Ealing marked on the edge.

Whiting Laundry

Almost everything else I have used in the piece comes from Grandad’s. The pegs used for display must have been from the laundry too.


Rust dye using tools and scraps from the sheds, encouraged with tea to create a soft, brown stain.


Outline of tools in stitch and appliqué.


Floral embroidery transfer, found in my late Grandmother’s sewing basket. She was a professional seamstress and died before I was born. I had no idea that her embroidery things were still in the house, waiting for me,  40 years after her death. I’m so pleased I could use them too in this piece.


Scans of letters, local maps and war time documents printed onto textile to make amulets and appliqué.


Hapazome or flower-pounding, using flowers transplanted from Grandad’s garden to mine.

flower pounding

Found objects, all but one came from Grandad’s things.


Patterns, embroidered text and details taken from the original charm gown and given a twist.


Details of the original dust sheet with collar stud found in the things.


The work is now installed in the School of Museum Studies and is open to the public 10-4 Monday to Friday. Part of the appeal of this commission was the link to Museum Studies, where I did my MA 17 years ago. There is something very pleasing about now creating art works inspired by museums when my whole adult life has revolved around museums in so many ways.

This is only the start of a body of work using textiles and themes from my family history. I am working on a series related to Grandad’s tool shed for Llantarnam Grange Art Centre for later this year and there will be plenty more, I hope!