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The tortoise and the cake

Having got myself deeply embroiled in discussions about passion in textiles both on and off this blog (thanks for those who emailed me directly) I return to a safer topic this time, or is it?


One of the main aims of Textiles 1 is the structure, the framework which constitutes the design process, which will then becomes embedded for life as students adopt professional attitudes and good working practice. Naturally the process usually becomes more organic with experience – but the cake won’t even rise if the ingredients are not right and steps missed out.  By the time the recipe becomes second nature, its safe and a whole lot easier to throw new things into the mix, to create sumptuous new dishes. I say this (and here comes the controversy) because I still get asked why its important to work through these early exercises in  the first assignments slow careful, tortoise pace steps, why don’t we get straight into making something or concentrate on technique instead? Students often ask me to photocopy or draw examples to  illustrate progression through the design process.  I couldn’t do better than show you the work of Judith Smith, a student on Textiles 1. Judith has quite extensive prior experience  of various textile techniques, so please don’t be phased, her work is excellent, but its the actual process I want you to look at here. Judith is fascinated by patterns, quite strong ones like the patterning on this large species tortoise, which she fell in love with.
One of the first thing Judith did was to do quick sketches of textures, colours and shapes in the tortoise shell. Notice how (as taught in the exercises) a drawing can be a paper collage, anything which captures the feeling of the texture for you. She records the colours she observes as blobs of paint and describes shapes in the same way. Doing initial studies like these are an important step as they help to anchor down our reactions and feeling early on. A  few written notes always help with this process as well, in fact the more you can say at this stage the better, really try to pin down what it is you love and why and isolate these factors clearly – its really all about having that point of view and carrying it through in the work.
After playing around with lots of ideas, placing the patterns within shapes, etc and thinking over some initial ideas of what to make, Judith tried splattering bleach onto fabric to get the feel of the pattern marks (not direct imitations note).
There followed lots of sample making trying different techniques. Alongside this, Judith was beginning to have some ideas about the final shape of the piece, thinking in terms of interlocking plates reflecting the shell structure. Often these ideas do unfold gradually as you work, in quite an intuitive way connections and associations feed into one another. Recording these thoughts as and when they arise is quite important, its a matter of trying to make those unconscious elements come to the fore so we can work with them alongside more practical considerations like technique – hand, heart and head all working together.
Here is just one page of sample making – I would stress this is very competent work on the technical front, we don’t seek virtuosity for its own sake, samples can be quite simple to be effective. Their function is as a test bed to see if ideas work (before you begin work on the actual finished piece) visually and on a practical front (even in an art piece) can that material actually be attached without fraying or be stitched through or will it tear, etc. They can be two fabrics quickly stuck or sewn together, they don’t need to be beautifully finished pieces, think of them as models of how things work (or not) and write notes about just why they do or don’t work and if not how things could be improved, where you might go from here.
At last, the final piece, a very decorative wall-hanging, as it happens, beautifully executed. The chances are, yours won’t look like this the first time, mine certainly didn’t – no matter, its learning that process which is so important at this early stage. You will improve, I guarantee you that, once those good foundations are set in motion – even if at a very slow, tortoise pace.


Posted by author: Trisha Goodwin
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13 thoughts on “The tortoise and the cake

  • That’s really great seeing how the work got to where it did, I’m sure it also applies to the other visual arts. Personally I’ve always enjoyed the creative process much more than the end result which can be a help as trying out different things in pursuit of something comes quite naturally to me – but also I think its a bit of a hindrance when it comes to actually make some finished work for an assignment or assessment. Knowing where to stop with one phase and start on the next one is an issue. In printmaking I was always having to force myself to stop exploring and start making something more finished instead, but then even in that phase things would still keep on developing and changing as I worked, so actually coming to a point where I feel I’ve finished something never really happens. I just have to stop at a certain point otherwise I’d never get through my coursework:)

  • Thanks for your kind comments!
    Penny, yes to start with at least, you need to be a tortoise, although the process usually speeds up and becomes more intuitive with practice. The tortoise patterning is quite superb isn’t it? An element of big cat patterns there as well, I feel.
    Tricia, have a look at my last piece regarding finding subject matter you love, if you haven’t already seen it – but more about that soon, as its area which often foxes people (more animals, sorry!)
    Anned, yes I think the process must be very similar for all the creative arts. Many people do enjoy the process along the way to the end product, much more than making that itself. Others coming perhaps from a different angle (they may have made lots of things previously, but never designed anything themselves) find it hard to get into, understand or enjoy to begin with. I don’t think a piece is ever fully resolved and the more professional you become, the more this probably feels so, ironically. A lecturer at art college told us that hobbyists are just happy they have made something and it looks kind of alright, but the rest of us are always testing ourselves to see how it could be done better or any number of different ways. Sounds like you are in the later catergory to me!

  • Thanks for this article – I am a (very) new student with OCA, about to embark on Textiles 1 so found this really helpful as part of understanding what the course will be about ….. its definitely whetting the appetite to get going! Thanks Tricia!

  • Hi Claire,
    Glad the piece was helpful to you; you will find the course leads you very carefully through all the steps you need, it really is excellantly written. Good luck and hope you really enjoy it!

  • Hi Robin,
    I do not have a blog or a website. If you want to leave me your website/blog or e mail I would be happy to keep in touch. I don’t know anyone in my area doing this degree, so it would be good to have a contact.

  • Hi Robin,
    Lovely to see your own work for this section! Looks like you’ve got some great ideas there; hope you found these blog pieces helpful too. Good to see the male presence in textiles, and from NZ if I’m not mistaken? Hope you enjoy the rest of the course.

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