Mechanical Drawing – the Schiffli Project

That’s the title of an exhibition I’ve just been to see at Farfield Mill. The last working Schiffli embroidery machine in the UK is at Manchester School of Art, and for this exhibition fifteen artists worked with the machine, creating pieces that are both hand drawn and machine embroidered.

While I’d heard of the Schiffli machine, I had only a vague idea of the process – it’s actually a pantograph principle where the artist draws the line large using a hand-held device, moving across their design and clicking wherever they want the needle to enter the fabric; and the machine, which has 86 needles, reproduces the line in miniature many times across the fabric.

Each small movement of the artist’s hand is there in the stitched line, so it has a very human quality, a feeling of directness and immediacy. As each needle can hold a different coloured thread, or variations on one colour, or every thread can be the same, or some needles can be left unthreaded, there is potential for exploitation of tone, colour and pattern on a grand scale.

I was very impressed both by the impact and scale of the work, and by the quality of the exhibition. The textiles were well displayed with plenty of light and space; there were samples available to touch; and in the background there was the constant rhythmic sound of the machine at work (the sound was an element of one of the works – Kate Egan’s installation ‘Stack’), which added another sensory layer to the experience. It was a really engaging celebration of a fascinating machine that’s clearly cherished and enjoyed by those who work with it.

It’s difficult to pick out just a few pieces for a special mention… I loved the colour and movement of Rowena Ardern’s ‘Endangered’, which used the repeats created by the machine very effectively; I enjoyed Jill Boyes’ careful exploration of effects made possible by the Schiffli; I was moved by Jane McKeating’s poignant and humorous rag books, drawing on her sketchbooks from a period after she suddenly became single; and I would have loved to go home with Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh’s ‘Armchair Politico’, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The catalogue is excellent, with several essays, plenty of images and detailed text, and a DVD about the technical processes (which was also on show at the exhibition).

exhibition catalogue

Mechanical Drawing is at Farfield till 29 June and is also travelling to the Macclesfield Silk Museum and the Knitting and Stitching Show. Really worth seeing if you can; if not, all the pieces are represented online, along with excerpts from the catalogue, and a short video, at

TIF Challenge March 1

Sharon’s Take it Further Challenge for March is about small things

Do you ever notice the little things, the small moments, the details in life? This month’s challenge is to do just that, pay attention to the tiny details. Sometimes the small things become emblematic for something larger.

This reminded me of one of my favourite quotes – I heard it on the radio, and later tracked down to an American writer, Donald Windham:

It is ordinary to love the marvellous. It is marvellous to love the ordinary.

However, while I aspire to a mindful, noticing way of living, my brain has never really cooperated. I’m either not paying much attention at all – I wander about in a daze, life gets very black and white and the small things pass me by. Or else I’m getting so focused on the detail that I stop making connections or even remembering why I was there in the first place. Finding the middle ground where I really breathe and look and listen… it’s a struggle, and it takes a lot of energy.

So, I’ve decided this month (thinking small) just to spend a bit of time focusing on two little things I like a lot.

1. dots – look around and find them, draw them, paint them, stitch them. I’d like to join them up too. Maybe I could take my February challenge a little further by experimenting with joining dots by machine.

2. dogs – (actually just one). Tansy, being a Tibetan spaniel, is very little and very much emblematic for larger things – joy, love, faithfulness, for example. Sometimes I draw her and as I’ve been thinking for a while it would be good to have a go at drawing her with the sewing machine, I’m challenging myself to do that this month .


I think, too, during March, I’ll seek out poetry that inspires me to stop and look, starting with the wonderful celebration of difference, Pied Beauty, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

TIF Challenge January 3

I spent some time this weekend sampling and exploring my ideas – I was planning to stop with the visual journal and not make a textile piece but one is emerging anyway. Here I’ve tried out some ways of representing the darkness. (The idea I’m starting from is admiration of people who’ve “confronted their particular darkness by allowing something bright and fierce and tender and courageous to grow in their lives”.)

samples of darkness

samples of darkness

I found that hemp yarn, though difficult to knit with, leaves behind lovely curls and tendrils when you unravel the knitting.


I decided to weave a base fabric of colour and brightness, and I think I’ll use an overlay of painted scrim or plastic netting for the element of darkness. Painted with acrylic or ink it keeps a shape and can be shades of black and grey – I want it to net itself over the coloured fabric like some dark, strangling thing – it should have an ugliness yet the overall effect be one of beauty. I’d like to use the plastic netting because it has intrinsic destructive qualities in the environment, the way it literally overwhelms living creatures. But I think the scale of it is too big. I have smaller nets but they’re more stiff and difficult to distort and I want the darkness to gather in some parts and be stretched thin in others. I should play around with that a bit more, but time is short….

This is the beginnings of my fabric. The warp is wire, and I plan to use the ends to form tendrils of colour growing out from the centre, through the netted darkness, an affirmation.

beginning to weave

TIF challenge January 2

I’ve got my first ideas down in my sketchbook.

January mindmap

One of the images that’s playing in my mind is tendrils, and serendipitously we were tidying up a mass of clematis this afternoon so I rescued some to draw later. The next step is to do some painting and drawing and think about what aspects to focus on and what textile techniques will lend themselves to expressing them. The only thing I’ve decided on so far is to knit something dark, maybe with wire, and see how introducing colour/light will transform it. I want to end up with a series of related samples in a visual journal format that is integrated and ‘designed’, at least more so than my usual messy random sketchbook work.

Draw Something Every Day

I know it’s not Monday, but I missed last week too, and I thinking waiting for next week is just asking for trouble. I commented on Juli’s Draw Something Every Day posting for this week that my hand and my pen had become disconnected. Here’s an attempt to reconnect them, but I didn’t use a pen! – I drew it with a graphics stylus. I use one for work instead of a mouse but I don’t try to draw with it very often…

hand and pen