Ali Ferguson: From conception to creation
Textile artist and collector Ali Ferguson draws on the hidden stories in everyday things to inspire her. She is captivated by the treasured items she collects. Reading the words from discarded hand-written letters from the past makes her feel like a guilty interloper. These words were only ever meant for the recipient. Even so, she is intrigued by the glimpses these letters offer into ordinary lives. Each one tells everyday stories of life, impregnated by the emotion felt by the writer at the exact moment that the pen hit paper.
This love of words permeates into Ali’s work. She often replicates handwriting taken from old letters and postcards, by meticulously hand stitching them onto scraps of fragile and discarded old textiles. Each stitched letter becomes a slow and thoughtful process celebrating something long-forgotten; perhaps something insignificant to the onlooker, but bound up in emotion at the time it was written. The stories she tells may be imagined, but the real stories are present, too, as histories hidden among the layers of fabric.
Ali teaches throughout the UK and overseas, and her work recently featured in an article by artist Ellen Bell in Embroidery magazine (January/February 2020) and in the books ‘Textile Travels’ by Anne Kelly and ‘Textiles Transformed’ by Mandy Pattullo, both published by Batsford, October 2020.
In this interview, Ali shares how she created her ‘Stolen Stories’ series. From the first glimpse of letters sent between a husband and wife during World War II, she became compelled to use them. Expressed emotions were captured through her embroidered words on fragile fragments of cloth, stitched and pinned like delicate butterflies in old entomology cases.
Follow Ali’s process of thoughts as she developed this body of work, and gain useful insight into the benefits of using free-thinking and mind-mapping as part of your art practice.
Name of piece: Stolen Stories
Year of piece: 2018
Techniques and materials used: Combined display: 52cm high, 92cm wide, 36cm deep, Technique: hand stitching, Materials: Old deconstructed textiles with hand stitching, antique display cases
Letters of love
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Ali Ferguson: The inspiration for this piece came when I was repetitively writing out a line of handwritten text from an old letter. The letter was one of five that I have in my possession, sent between a young married couple during 1942 and 1945 when they were separated by war.
One phrase fascinated me in particular. The wife writes to her husband saying ‘I just wish each and every hour away’. Intrigued by my reaction to the words, I decided to repetitively write these words out myself. This idea comes from a wonderful exercise I first experienced during a masterclass with artist Matthew Harris.
I started by carefully observing and mimicking the lines of the handwriting, repeating them over and over until they became almost an automatic movement of pencil on paper. At that point my mind was freed up and started to wander and wonder. It struck me that in writing a letter to a loved one, or to anyone, the words on the paper are a physical representation of the thoughts and feelings of the writer at that point in time. Words capture the emotion at exactly the moment where pen hits paper.
I started to explore this thought further, writing down and capturing everything that occurred to me. Mind mapping is one of my favourite design tools! The word ‘capturing’ led me to imagine that there was something physical that could somehow be contained and perhaps be ‘stolen’.
A picture formed of a women sitting at her table writing to her husband, feeling lonely and missing him deeply. I imagined her emotion not only flowing through her pen but also swirling and dancing all around her. I imagined the different colours of love, compassion, jealousy and worry all mixing together, her emotions alive and vividly occupying the space all around and within her.
I wondered if it would be possible for an outsider to ‘capture’ this emotion. What would it look like? The image in my mind was of a shadowy figure, an interloper, creeping uninvited and unannounced into the room where she sat. I saw him with a large butterfly net and with one swipe he captures and steals off with the very essence of personal emotion.
What research did you do before you started to make?
The picture that I was starting to build in my imagination reminded me of Victorian butterfly collectors and their fascination with the capturing and display of these beautiful insects, each beautiful specimen being carefully pinned into a wooden box. I started to research this pastime and found the whole process unsettling and uncomfortable, but captivating.
I discovered more about ‘killing jars’ which were used to kill the insects cleanly and quickly without causing damage. I was completely repulsed by the whole idea, but the more I read about capturing and displaying insects the more vivid my own picture of capturing emotion and displaying it publicly became.
The art of display
Was there any other preparatory work?
I continued jotting down my thoughts in my sketchbook, following my ‘threads of thought’ to see where they took me.
A picture started to immerge. I imagined my interloper making a swipe of his net, capturing the writer’s emotion and dropping it into his killing jar. Unlike a butterfly, as emotion dies, the essence of it fades and its beauty cannot be contained. Unperturbed, the collector pins it out for all to see, the vulnerabilities exposed, then sets off once more, net in hand.
I decided to create two collections presented in entomology cases and a series of three killing jars. I used words from three different letters in my collections, choosing the phrases that jumped out to me. I was very conscious that in extracting sentences out of context I was distorting the meaning and very essence of them. Another violation!
I decided to present my ‘specimens’ in the same way as a butterfly collection. I pinned them out with entomology pins and labelled them with the date and location of capture, the date and place where the letter was written.
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?
I sourced the vintage entomology cases from eBay. They arrived containing some rather battered butterflies and moths, which I removed. The moths were completely discoloured and brittle and they became further inspiration for the look and feel of the specimens or ‘fragments’ that I wanted to create. They also provided the perfect source for my colour palette; the essence of faded emotion.
I wanted to use fragile fabrics to reflect the vulnerability of the subject, things that were old and worn, and faded items with rips and holes. I searched through my stash of old and used materials and found the muslin backings of some 1940’s feed sack quilts, the fragile silk lining of a vintage underskirt, and the ripped interlining of a friend’s childhood quilt, complete with stitching holes where I had unpicked some of the layers.
What equipment did you use in the creation of the piece and how was it used?
I rarely use any specialist equipment for my textiles work, other than pins, needles and scissors. I did use an embroidery hoop for these items as I was working on a small scale.
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage
I started by making small stitched samples for my sketchbook. These small fragments were made from torn and tattered layers of my delicate fabrics, stitched with the ‘captured’ handwritten text copied from my letters.
I experimented with different ways to go about this. I couched threads to form the words, and formed letters using tiny stab stitches. I settled on tiny back stitches, my favourite technique for stitching text.
I created each fragment individually, tearing small pieces of my neutral fabrics and building them up in layers. I pencilled the words directly onto the top layer, having written them several times on paper first, so that I could get the flow. I pinned these onto a base of the old muslin feed sack quilt backing which was stretched in an embroidery hoop. Then I used a vintage black sewing thread to stitch my tiny back stitch writing and then I added simple additional stitching in black or cream. When each one was complete I tore the fabric around it.
I pinned the completed fragments into the frames, retaining the background paper from the original collections and reusing it as the backdrop. I created labels inspired by the old ones that had been in the entomology cases.
I decided to include a butterfly in each of the frames and also in one of the killing jars. It made me uncomfortable handling the butterflies so this added to my sense of unease. The only colour in the whole piece, apart from the rather faded colour of the butterflies, is the red writing in one of the killing jars. This reflects a scribbled note in a different handwriting across the bottom of one of the letters, ‘believe him not gentle maiden.’
As I was approaching the completion of this piece I happened to make a remark to my husband about the ‘interloper’ in my story and just how vividly I could see ‘him’. In response my husband looked me straight in the eye and said, “You do know that ‘he’ is you, don’t you?”
I don’t think I ever reach a point of completion in my work. The thinking continues to develop so there’s always the strong possibility of further work. This year I have returned to my young married couple’s letters. Inspired by guilt and my own emotions of separation and anxiety experienced during lockdown, I am currently re-visiting their words and my wish is that the ‘interloper’ can be kinder this time. Hopefully I’m now ‘preserving’ rather than ‘capturing’ their words but then maybe that’s just my own way of easing my conscience.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
For more information visit aliferguson.co.uk
If you’ve found Ali’s research process intriguing or inspiring, let us know by leaving a comment.