An embroidered record of a Covid year

My friend Jon Rainford flung down a gauntlet on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, in the form of a challenge to document this strange Covid year in just one image. I’ve been thinking a lot about maps, charts, diagrams, data visualisation, all rendered in stitch, so it seemed logical to stitch my interpretation. I have chosen to include a mix of the micro and the macro to reflect the fact that while we have all shared a common experience of some form of loss, so too have we have all felt very specific individual impacts as we’ve travelled through the year.

The image is 50cm x 50cm (unmounted and with unfinished edges at this stage), using perle cotton, coton à broder and stranded cotton threads on a cotton poplin base.

A reflection on the opportunity cost of nearby hills, or, the fear of squandering chances

Vintage Ordnance Survey map of Beinn Eighe hills, Torridon, Scotland

I’ve been thinking about uncertainty a lot recently.

I’m a mature student. I came back to academic study at 38, after several years spent working in various roles in the creative and cultural industries. I came back because I felt that I was at a crossroads, sure that what I’d been doing wasn’t moving me forward, but at the same time feeling unsure about what possibilities might lie ahead. One thing led to another and I’m now in the fourth year of a PhD, at 44. I’m in the ‘writing up’ phase, an innocuous term for what could reasonably be likened to that process whereby rough stones are turned and rolled again and again until they become smooth, polished, perfected versions of themselves. 

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ as a side-book1 as I ponder uncertainty within the making process. I’m researching my own experiences in amateur craft classes, rifling through notes and photographs, holding up artefacts to observe the traces of their making, and hauling forth the self that attended the classes, with all the attendant baggage of previous creative experience. This, and thinking about Tim Ingold’s ideas about ‘wayfaring’, that is, finding a way through, is all leading me to think about the path I’ve travelled through the doctoral experience thus far. I’ve scaled various peaks on my journey, and a fair few marshy bogs of the sort where one’s foot can suddenly give way into a stinking heavy mass of peat – what the Thesis Whisperer aptly describes as the ‘Valley of Shit’. For the first time in months I feel as if I’m on some sort of reasonably clear path at the moment, even if it’s only a path whose bearings are drawn from what Ingold describes as ‘attentionality’2. I can’t yet see the summit, but if I can trust the sketched map I carry in my head, I should reach it at some point in the middle of 2021. 

As much as I’m looking forward, placing each word in front of the last, I’m also trying to look around and to remember to look back too, at where I’ve come from (the best views often being the ones behind you). As I reflect on the landscape, thinking about uncertainty, I consider the journey I’ve undertaken, wondering about those cliched paths not taken. This is the thing about sitting with uncertainty; it is sometimes exhilarating, but is more often uncomfortable and destabilising. Have I done what I set out to do? Should I be creating more opportunities – to extend the metaphor, should I be bagging those adjacent peaks whose summits require barely any loss of height? With six months (or thereabouts) of funding left, and an uncertain future ahead in 2021, is it wisest to stride forward, head down, in pursuit of that final summit, or should I take a moment to grab the chances that still being in this rare position might afford a person? 

1 These are the books I read in bed at night to distract myself from the books I read at my desk during the day. 

2 Ingold, T., 2015. The Life of Lines. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge. p.133.

On tuning in and tuning out


I don’t often write blog posts, but things bubbling away seemed worthy of articulation.

The best way to describe my anxious feelings is that it’s as if there’s a very loud clanging bell or the sound of roaring traffic inside my head, which, as a noise-sensitive person, I find pretty unbearable. I noticed that despite all its myriad complications and devastations, one good thing that came out of the lockdown back in March and April was that it felt as if the volume knob had been turned right down on the world, and consequently my anxiety became more manageable – the clanging and roaring and clattering stopped, albeit for a while. Recently the clanging has become quite intense, and I’ve found myself longing for that function once again. I decided I’d make a stitched panel about it, as a way of thinking through the idea.

As I put the panel together, however, I found myself reflecting on the wider context of wanting to ‘turn down the volume on the world’, and how problematic it is. In the face of  the multiple impacts of coronavirus or the failures of education policy, atrocities in Belarus or the explosion in Beirut, the suggestion that one might want to muffle this comes from a position of extreme privilege, to suggest that one has the option to be able to somehow set the world aside instead of being forced to confront it.

Perhaps, then, it’s about finding ways to better differentiate between the signal and noise – toning down, for instance, the relentless performances of brilliance and of rage in the vacuums of social media (I’m looking at you, academic Twitter), and finding ways to quell the clanging in my head so I can concentrate on the work in front of me.

As ever, the act of making doesn’t silence the noise, but rather, it offers a time-space in which I can reflect, sit with the discomfort for a while, and find ways to tune in – and work out what to tune out.






An embroidered organogram

I spent half of August and September in Aarhus, Denmark, undertaking a Researcher Employability Project as part of my WRoCAH doctoral scholarship. This involved spending time at the Godsbanen cultural production facility, observing interactions in the Open Workshops, with the aim of producing a creative output and a report on my findings.

The embroidered organogram I created shows the structure of the staffing in the workshops, and will be used to show how the spaces function. The video-collage below offers a view of the development of the piece.

The process has built on methods used in my stitch journal, and has employed ethnographic research techniques such as participant observation for its content. It has inspired further thoughts about embroidered data visualisation and interpretation, and I’m now thinking about other opportunities to use this approach.

In Aarhus

(after letting this bit of my website gather dust for a year or so, I thought I’d try a spot of blogging. Next time there might even be photographs.)

I told myself I’d write a blog about my experiences here.

So here I am in Aarhus, for one month (only). I’m doing what my scholarship organisation (the WRoCAH AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership) call a ‘REP’, a researcher employability project, which is intended to give us reckless PhD folk some work experience outside the academy, to show us wider horizons and give us more options when we realise that either academia isn’t for us, or, more likely, that we’re not for academia. I already have a fair bit of work experience, some twenty years’ worth, so I’m treating this as an opportunity to do things a little differently.

I’m spending time in the open workshops at Godsbanen, a cultural production facility located in the town’s old railway goods depot. The workshops are of unusual scale even for Denmark, where there’s more of a culture of craft and making; this is their third iteration, from beginnings as Huset (translation: house), set up by the city council in 1971 after youth demonstrations demanding craft facilities. Imagine. Imagine people on the streets, with placards and chanting and ‘What do we want? Woodwork facilities! When do we want them? NOW!’ After a spell above a supermarket, the facilities were relocated to Godsbanen, which opened in 2012. The premise behind my project involves investigating interactions between users of the spaces – some volunteers, for instance, have been involved with the workshops since the start of Huset, and semi-professionals mix with amateurs, amongst whom there might be very experienced practitioners as well as complete novices. The workshops consist of a metalwork space, a woodwork facility, a big laser cutter, a ceramics workshop and a textiles/printmaking space. On Saturday I hung out in the textiles space, pleased to be in my comfort zone; today I’ve been in the ceramics (form) workshop, observing interactions. There is, of course, a language barrier, and I feel very grateful that the Danish people I’ve encountered thus far are able to speak English.

I sat in the workshop for three hours and these are some of the things I noted: The queue of people waiting for the workshop to open at 1pm, to take up one of the twenty or so places in the workshop; the way in which anyone can wander in, no membership or details required, and get stuck into clay activity; the volunteers on hand to help with technical problems; the equipment and oxides drawn from behind a series of anonymous plywood-faced cupboards; test tiles glazed in every clay and glaze permutation; everyone seemingly focused on their own work, in a convivial atmosphere.

Getting into the groove is proving a little tricky, but there’s plenty of time ahead – I’m reading a paper about shyness in qualitative research(1) at the moment, and reminding myself that it can work in one’s favour sometimes. The intention is that I will create some sort of embroidery to reflect on the relationships between different user groups, along with a report and some photographs. It’s a chance to test out some ideas about creative methods, but it’s very much an experiment, with all the attendant risks.

A month away is quite a thing, once you’ve reached a stage in life where there are pets and gardens and washing to be sorted. I lived alone for years, and though I thought I’d appreciated the solitude, the time to get on with things, I now realise that I squandered so much; but then, don’t we all, sometimes, for want of a crystal ball? Only four days in, and I’m finding that I don’t quite know what to do with myself, with all this time made available through not having to let the dog out, let the dog in, let the dog out, let the dog in, supervise the cats’ dinnertime so the dog doesn’t snaffle it, sort socks, load the washing machine, unload the washing machine, nip out for groceries, let the cats out… and so on. I have a little work to do whilst here, a short paper to write and some thinking to do, but I’m determined that the work won’t fill all the available time. I’ve come here full of good intentions to learn some new habits, to unpick and understand some aspects of academic practice that I daren’t admit out loud to not knowing. I think I’m hoping to believe that a month can transform a person. Failing that, I have embroidery, writing, drawing, lino cutting, swimming attire, and running things. Heaven forbid that I might be bored.

(1) Scott, S., Hinton Smith, T., Harma, V. & Broome, K., 2012. The reluctant researcher: shyness in the field. Qualitative Research, 12(6), pp. 715-734.