A Glorious Week Of Teaching At Crafty Retreats, France Part one

Turn left at the hole in the tree!

Crafty Retreats in France

A couple of years back I received a most exciting email from Philippa & Fran of Crafty Retreats inviting me to join them in France in 2018 for a week’s teaching. Of course I absolutely jumped at the opportunity and planning began. Now, sadly, it’s all over except to reflect on a glorious week, lovely new friends and the satisfaction of seeing some beautifully thoughtful Patchwood Samplers coming to life over the time we spent together.

I got really excited when I started thinking about the actual programme for the week as I realised that we’d have time to make  one of my full size Patchwood Samplers. My problem was the amount of equipment and materials involved and the thought of packing everything onto Ryanair seemed a bit impossible. Husband Paul quickly came to the rescue and suggested we both go, pack everything into the back of my mini clubman and have ourselves a road trip. So with the help of Tom Tom and several stop-overs en route we drove from Edinburgh to the Limousin region of France until, finally, we ‘turned left at the hole in the tree’ and arrived in the tiny hamlet of Mallety.

Craafty Retreats the beauty and the pooches

Any ‘nerves’ left as we went through the gate and a smile hit my face that I don’t think left me for the entire week. Gorgeous welcomes from Phil & Fran , as well as the lovely Lee & Jackie, a couple of ‘early arrival’ participants, and introductions to ‘Tutu and Oscar’ the pooches followed by a  perfect cuppa outside in the courtyard.  We were then shown to our ‘home’ for the week and the all important studio. I have to tell you that this place is stunning – I really am still grinning!

Crafty retreats studio in france
The second farmhouse, Paul & my ‘home’ for the week and the gorgeous studio!

So time to get to work (still grinning). We got the car unpacked and everything into the studio. Phil, Jackie & Lee set to work hanging Patchwood Samplers onto every available wall space as I unpacked the boxes of vintage materials that I had brought from The Purple Thread Shed. I made up everyone’s ‘party bag’ and we were ready to go. Paul deserves a seat by the way having not only done all the driving but also having cut about 300 patches of wood before we left home!!

Studio at crafty retreats
A beautifully tidy and prepped studio, exciting ‘party bags’ and a smug looking husband

I always love unpacking the materials at the start of a course. I’d brought along everything needed to make ‘sewing box’ inspired samplers – vintage buttons & haberdashery, old floral French fabrics, handmade lace scraps that I’d found in the Textile Tent at Newark, old paper patterns and lots of other lovely treasures! Materials are really important – for me they have to be old and used, tatty and torn before they are of any interest, each tiny scrap embedded with its own hidden story.

materials from Ali ferguson's studio
Gorgeous vintage materials from my studio in Scotland

The rest of the day passed in a blur of sunshine, food and cups of tea until it was time for Phil to do the airport run and pick up the new arrivals for the week. Paul and I explored our farmhouse – yes it was actually big enough to ‘explore’, unpacked our bags and generally wandered about feeling pretty smug.

I was heard muttering ‘this place is completely stunning’ – a lot!!

Did I tell you that there is a hot tub outside next to the studio?? There is actually even a hot tub outside next to the studio!

Suddenly everyone was here and we were all meeting for the first time, glass of fizz in hand munching on delicious canapés made by Fran. Our furthest traveller was Trine who had come all the way from Newfoundland and not for the first time either, such is the lure of this place! Everyone was shown to their rooms and before we knew it, we were all sitting round the beautiful farmhouse table having our first meal together. Gorgeous food, wine and chat with the loveliest group of women that I could imagine. Mostly people travelled alone, two friends travelled together and one brought her camper van, her husband and her dog setting up camp outside our farmhouse! With only eight participants everyone gets to know each other pretty quickly and something I really did love about the week was sitting round the table at mealtimes, sharing stories.

Making patchwood samplers with Ali ferguson
Prepping our wooden ‘patches’ and starting to play with layout

On the first full day we woke up to gorgeous sunshine (as we did every day) and everyone made their way to the studio for an impressively early start. I explained about my Patchwood Samplers and the story behind them and also pointed out that it was not only a week of making but also a week of listening and telling stories, of reminiscing and thinking. I gave everyone a simple handmade ‘sketchbook’ to capture some of the thoughts and information that we would be gathering over the week ahead.

Explanations over, work started in earnest as people started sanding their 24 ‘patches’ of wood. I showed how to start playing around with layouts for their Patchwood Samplers and then all the patches had to be  painted and finished. This was a lovely social way to get the week started and this activity took up a good chunk of the day.

We planned an afternoon visit to ‘Marie-Helene’ the local Brocante and spent a lovely hour or so rummaging there for little bits & pieces that we could include in our samplers.

Yes I do realise that I have the best job ever!!

Visit to local brocante
A visit to the local Brocante

Back to the studio and to the really exciting bit of starting to design our ‘patches’. I love when everyone starts to produce their own little collections of ‘treasures’ that they have brought along with them. I always, always get ‘the envy’ at some of the beautiful bits and pieces. Boxes, tins and bags started to emerge with everything from real collectable pieces to the plastic top of a beer keg – memories of entertaining 70s (I think) style!

Lots of playing around. Lots of arranging and rearranging and rearranging all over again. Great progress made on the first day and by the time dinner was ready around 7.00pm, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was addicted! Another gorgeous dinner by Fran accompanied by lovely conversations left me feeling that Day 1 had been a good day.

Turns out that it wasn’t to end there though as just about everyone piled back into the studio after dinner. Entirely voluntary I hasten to add – there were no thumb screws used or even any threats (my favoured method of coercion). I left them to it and wandered off back to our farmhouse to fall straight into bed.

This pretty much formed our pattern for the week! Up early – delicious food – studio time – coffee & cake – studio time – delicious food – studio time – coffee & cake – studio time – delicious three course dinner & wine – back to studio for most but home to bed for me!!

making patchwood samplers
The long process of planning and layout

The second day started with a catch up and then a lesson in planning and marking our patches for stitching and a lesson in using the drills including a health & safety warning about using drills after dinner and accompanying wine! I have to say that A LOT of drill bits were harmed in the making of these pieces, so much so that we enrolled Paul as official ‘drill tec’ and it’s fair to say that it was a role that kept him on his toes throughout the week.

I think people are amazed at how long these Patchwood Samplers actually take to make – so many hours of work go into them. I think they’re also amazed at  just how addictive it all becomes. And all the more enjoyable for being able to wander in and out to work in the glorious sunshine.

Whenever things start to seem difficult my advice is always ‘put it down, step away and then come back with fresh eyes’.

The hamlet of Mallety, france
Exploring the gorgeous hamlet of Mallety

A little wander round the hamlet of Mallety is just the remedy and Paul and I snuck off for a wee explore with Oscar the pooch as a willing companion.

The hamlet of Mallety, France
A sobering reminder of times gone by. The symbol of the resistance and a V for Victory painted on a barn door.

The upshot of people choosing to spend so much of their time in the studio meant that some really intricate pieces started to emerge in the first few days and develop throughout the week. There is ‘thoughtfulness’ behind each and every patch and once confidence starts to grow, so does ambition. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for these – we’re continually problem solving and working out how best to go about things. I have no idea how best to attach a ‘plastic beer keg top thingy’ but if you give me a minute I’ll come up with ideas!

The lovely thing is that everyone soon starts to come up with their own ideas  – most work, others not so much but the trick is to work out which it’s going to be before holes are drilled!

Making patchwood samplers with Ali ferguson
Text added with a 1960s typewriter and ransom notes cut from vintage magazines.

A bit of instruction on the writing of ‘ransom notes’ ( I let slip my ‘day job’ with that one) and Paul’s mum’s old typewriter allowed us to add text onto the patches. ‘No soggy bottoms’ accompanied a rather lovely pastry tin found at the brocante and those of us of a certain age may know the phrase ‘sides to middle’ – Lee tells the story:

‘Bed sheets tend to wear thin in the middle of the bed – sometimes an unwary foot can go right through! Instead of buying new ones, women would cut them down the middle then re-sew them back together with the worn parts at the sides and the less worn parts in the middle – hence, “sides to middle”. I can remember my mum doing this by hand – with a French seam! All this after a full day at work and with three kids to take care of!’

Making patchwood samplers with Ali Ferguson
Personal stories start to emerge on each and every ‘patch’

The gorgeous coloured stitching in the above picture is a pattern in bell ringing – seriously! The white plastic tube thingy and little bicycle charm is a reminder of a story that unfolded on the first day involving a husband (who is an expert cyclist), a bike ride on the scale of no normal person, a sat nav with no signal, phones with no signal and a random ‘don’t worry about me but if you could work out where I am that would be splendid ’email.  This led to discovering he is over 60k away absolutely in the middle of no-where and trying to get directions to him (with barely any phone signal remember), darkness falling and finally a rescue mission. The white plastic thingy – a breathalyser from Paul & my ‘RAC driving in France kit’ was to check that Phil could drive after having wine with dinner. Luckily she could and the rescue was made and husband was grateful having already cycled around 80k and was at the point of looking for a barn without a dog in it that he could bed down for the night!

I told you there were stories a plenty and you couldn’t make them up!

Part Two of this blog with tales of our excursions and our final finished Patchwood Samplers to follow.

 

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These are a few of my favourite things! Part one

These are a few of my favourite things…

Definitely brown paper packages tied up with string but apart from that I thought I’d write a post showing you some of the  materials that I regularly use and that just make me smile. However when I started thinking about it I quickly realised that there are so many that I can’t possibly write about them all  – so here really are a few… and still so many that I’ve split the blog into two parts!!

Wherever possible I use old and used materials for my artwork – often the more tattered and worn the better. I know that they carry their own stories with them all wrapped up in their own history. Sometimes I will ‘imagine’ these stories and this will become part of my piece but often I am perfectly content to let the story remain ‘hidden’ and no less present for that – I know that it is there captured in the layers of my art.

Like so many textile artists, I am a bit of a collector. I wouldn’t say ‘hoarder’ because I am quite specific. There are some things that I know I would never use because they just don’t ‘speak’ to me and they happily get passed on elsewhere. I am a huge fan of Ebay and online sellers of vintage textiles, I love flea markets, I’m not hugely lucky in Charity shops but I am very lucky in that many bits & pieces seem to find their way to me when people are having clear outs. My favourite words ever are ‘could you use?’ – I literally hold my breath until I hear what follows.

‘Could you use some old table linen – it’s a bit marked and stained?’ – Yes please!

‘Could you use these old scissors – they don’t work anymore I’m afraid’ – Yes, yes, yes!

‘Could you use a bit of bling – I’ve some vintage sequins & beads?’ – No sadly not for me!

A few weeks ago I let photographer & stylist Carole Fitzgerald of Lazy Sunday loose in amongst my stash and here is just some of the gorgeousness we uncovered.

Old French table linens
Beautiful old French linens & tea towels

Lets start with vintage linens – old cream table cloths and tea towels. I find white a bit stark but it can, of course, be dyed or tea stained. I just adore french linens with their red stripes – cream & red is one of my favourite colour combinations and probably in the proportions it is used here and all the more gorgeous when it fades through time and use.

Vintage French linens
Frayed edges & woven selvedges

I love the edges and corners of linens – whether ripped and frayed or a beautiful woven selvedge and they are often the first pieces of the fabric that I will use. I’ll buy a piece of fabric just because it has a fabulous edge!

Vintage table linens
Why was I never finished?

I love finding stitched table linens or even those not yet started but have the pattern transfer with that gorgeous blue line. I wonder why this one was only just (beautifully) started? A life too busy? I really quite love finding very badly stitched pieces – I just imagine someone being forced into the pursuit of embroidery under duress and a little bit of ‘ill humour’ going into every stitch. Apologies I know I’m over using ‘I love’ in this blog but I just can’t help it!

Personal markings

Vintage handkerchiefs are another fabulous source of fabric. Often with a small piece of embroidery or edged in lace, monogrammed, washed & worn. Just imagine the emotion that these little squares of fabric have mopped up or helped conceal.

I’m always excited when I find something with some personal markings stitched in – initials or sometimes just seemingly random marks. Always check the back of stitching – it may look more intriguing than the front.

Old & darned cotton organdie
Edges, corners & holes

I often choose to use the most vulnerable parts of the textiles – edges that have been ripped & torn, pieces that have been worn almost threadbare. I look out for different weights of fabrics – cotton organdie is a beautiful very light weight fabric which can be used where you want just a wisp or just a suggestion.

Old garments with darns
Seams & darns

Perhaps my favourite thing to collect is fragments of old garments  – for me in creams & neutrals. I take them apart and use the shape of the garment piece, carefully unpicking the seams so that the stitch holes remain. I also use the seams themselves  – combining someone else’s stitching in with my own. I think above everything else I treasure patches, mends and darns (though I will probably say that about everything – I have a lot of ‘very most favourites’!

vintage sewing sample
Buttonholes & bands

Buttonholes and button bands would have to come into this category of very favourite things. This pic is a real beauty as it is a sewing sample made at school by someone probably in their domestic science classes. I don’t use these in my own sewing but keep them as little masterpieces in their own right – but I do wonder about the life of the stitcher.

Perhaps more mundane but really useful are buttonhole  & button bands from any old shirt. I love deconstructing shirts revealing the seams & shapes and using these as a background to personal stories. The piece below uses a wonderful vintage detachable shirt collar (very high up on my favourite things list) but the cuff comes from a very ordinary man’s white shirt – actually not so ordinary because and old friend of mine gave me some of her dad’s white shirts when he passed on. She discovered, while clearing out his wardrobe, no less than forty identical white shirts all hanging there – now therein lies a story I’m sure!

Artwork by Ali Ferguson
Collars & Cuffs

I’ll talk more about garments pieces in part two of this blog in a couple of weeks time  along with quilts and haberdashery so do check back. In the meantime you can see how I use some of the materials mentioned in my series ‘HiStories Uncovered’.

I’ll leave you with the gift of a couple of my favourite sellers –  but do, please, tell me more:

Sallie Ead who travels the Uk selling at fairs & shows and also regularly on Instagram

Joan – a lovely friend of mine – is on Etsy at Mamaisonfrancaise

and in the USA  – The Cherry Chic. 

 

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The Story Behind The Piece: Not Just Blue

Not Just Blue

Fragile cot sized quilts expressing experiences of postnatal depression

The inspiration for this series came from a creative art project that I delivered several years ago with Midlothian Sure Start working with groups of parents within their six family support centres in Midlothian. Titled ‘Hear Me Out’ the idea was that I would hold discussion sessions with groups of parents encouraging them to speak out about issues that were important to them. We would then go on to create some expressive artworks which would be displayed in an exhibition to which we would invite health care professionals, local MSPs, local councillors as well as the general public.

During the very first session with the very first group I asked if there was anything anyone would like to discuss. One woman said ‘I’d like to talk about postnatal depression’ …and she did. After she shared some of her experiences so then did several others in the group and one of the most emotional discussions that I have been involved in began. I told this story to each subsequent group that I worked with and one by one women opened up and told their stories.

Ali Ferguson Feeling such a failure

During the sessions we wrote down everything discussed. We then went on to create not only several individual personal collages but also a patchwork paper ‘quilt’ as a joint project across all the Sure Start centres. Each patch contained the words that had been spoken during the sessions and the patches were then joined with selotape, staples and safety pins. The finished rather haphazard and scrappy quilt was titled ‘Barely Holding It Together’ and it became one of the centrepieces of our exhibition.  As a result of this work we also went on to publish an accompanying booklet titled “So Why Do I Feel Like This’ which became a resource for new mothers used by health visitors in health centres across Midlothian. Some of the work travelled round the health centres to be exhibited in the waiting rooms and feedback from health visitors revealed that having it displayed in the baby clinics had helped to open meaningful conversations about some of the issues raised.

I’m incredibly proud of this piece of work and the words spoken by the women never left me. In 2016 when I was considering the title ‘Another View’ for an exhibition with Prism Textiles the thought that immediately came into my mind was to explore ‘another view of motherhood’.  I revisited the notes that I had made a few years previously and found them to be just as powerful and just as moving as I remembered. Inspired by our original quilt ‘Barely Holding It Together’ I went on to make my two fragile, scrappy quilts, the first of which was exhibited with Prism Textiles at the RBSA Birmingham and Hoxton Arches, London in 2017. You’ll find more about this series of work under Cloth Work

Experiences of postnatal depression

Now in 2018 I’m returning to this series to start work on Part two. This will comprise of three vintage baby dresses each stitched with one mother’s  story. On the front will be the words that are presented to the world such as – ‘I’m fine’, ‘I’m just tired’ etc.  We’ve all heard people say them. Hand stitched on the back of the dresses will be the real story, the one that tends to get hidden from view. Displayed with the dresses will be three pairs of vintage baby shoes

Vintage baby dress

It saddens me that these stories still go untold and that behind closed doors woman still feel isolated, ashamed and that they are the only ones to be feeling this way. I can’t help but feel that the pressure to be ‘happy’ and to be ‘coping’ must be even higher in these days of social media.

My hope again is that reading these words will open up other conversations and maybe show other women that they are not alone and give them the courage to speak out and ask for help.

Stitched stories of postnatal depression

Embroidered vintage baby shoes

And lastly if a member of your family or a friend has a baby – maybe just check out that they really are ‘fine’.

Postnatal Depression

Gorgeous photographs in this blog by: Michael Graham, The Studio Penicuik & Carole Fitzgerald, Lazy Sunday

 

New Year, new plans , new textile workshops!

FEBRUARY UPDATE: Yikes how embarrassing – several of these listings have changed since I wrote this blog post!!

Do check out my workshop page for an updated programme.

Oh yay to be sat at my desk today after three weeks of working on the building site that is currently our home. It feels great to have bare feet rather than wearing steel toe caps and its bliss not being covered from head to toe in a fine layer of plaster dust! I usually rather grudge ‘desk’ days compared to ‘studio’ days but today I’m feeling pretty content – making plans for the next few months and setting my priorities for the year.

So to start by wishing you all a very happy and successful 2018. I’m excited by my year ahead. Last year didn’t quite go according to plan so that’s made me more determined than ever to make more time for my own textile work as well as developing my textile workshops. I’ll look forward to sharing my news of ‘goings on & happenings’ here on my blog –  I’m  determined to make time to update it and get myself just a wee bit more online savvy!

I do already have some fabulous workshops lined up this year. I’ll be visiting Sally at Needle & Thread  not just once but twice as we have just added a sneaky wee date in June in addition to my two day visit in September. In June we’ll be making Patchwood Tenements and in September we’ll be making Patchwood Samplers: Personal Collections and Scrappy Story Collages. Bookings are already underway and as always places are limited. If you’ve not visited Needle & Thread before it is a gorgeous venue in Lincolnshire where Sally runs a fantastic programme of workshops.

Patchwood Samplers: Personal Collections workshop

 

Scrappy Story Collage workshop

I’m hugely excited to be teaching on my first ever retreat in June this year in rural France with Crafty Retreats. I’m sure I’ll be banging on about this much more in the months to come but if you could fancy spending a week in the sunshine in the most gorgeous studio situated in the Limousin area amid the forests and low mountains of the Monts D’Ambazac then do check it out quickly as I think there are only a couple of places left! We’ll be making Patchwood Samplers – my original full size ones with twenty one wooden ‘patches’ all embellished with your own little treasures. It’s going to be the most gorgeous week of creativity, friendship, delicious food and local excursions and I for one have to keep pinching myself to make sure that it is for real!

Textile art by Al Ferguson
Patchwood Sampler workshop at Crafty Retreats

My own workshop programme is currently listed on my website and I’ve made BIG changes to the way that I am doing things. I’ll be hosting workshops in two very lovely local (near Edinburgh) venues over the next few months. My venues have been carefully chosen as places that have the same quirky vibe as my own studio The Purple Thread Shed. I’ll be starting the year at the Wellbeing Lab within The Restoration Yard at Dalkeith Country Park with my first workshop ‘Patchwood Samplers: Personal Collections’ on Saturday 10th February and then in April we’ll be making  ‘Patchwood Tenements’.

Patchwood Tenements workshop

 

Ali Ferguson textile workshops
Vintage Haberdashery Lampshades workshop

 

Ali Ferguson textile workshops
Scrappy Hand Stitch Sampler workshop

 

Ali Ferguson textile workshops
Stories From The Scullery workshop

I do know that people love visiting my own studio so I will open the doors to The Purple Thread Shed for a few workshops in May & June. There are only four places on each so early booking is essential starting with  ‘Handmade Journals’ & ‘Patchwood Samplers: Natural Collections’ in May and followed by ‘Rusted Samplers in June’.  Hopefully I’ll be able to restore my garden to it’s summer glory by then – it’s currently looking very sorry for itself as it’s been been ravaged by the house renovations.

Ali Ferguson textile workshops
Handmade Journals workshop

 

Ali Ferguson textile workshops
Rusted Samplers workshop

So that’s a wee round-up of what’s going on – I’ll be posting more details & pics of individual workshops as we go along.

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