Gwen Hedley: Stitching distress and repair
Gwen Hedley is particularly drawn to the weathered materials she finds in her coastal explorations. Walking the local landscapes, she is drawn to dilapidated found objects and worn surfaces. The textures and scars show the passage of time and this is what inspires her.
Through her abstract printed and stitched works, Gwen has thoroughly mastered the art of mark-making. Often using a limited colour palette, her process of restoration is guided by the beauty of natural degradation. Her works incorporate drawing and mark-making on pieced paper and fabric; each stitch is gently used to restore, while exploring the concepts of fragmentation, distress, repair or integration.
Gwen lives and works on the Kent coast in the UK. She has taught across the UK, in Europe and Japan, and she had exhibited widely. Her work is held in private and public collections and she has two published books on textile practice. Gwen enjoys a long-standing membership of the renowned Textile Study group.
In this interview, Gwen discusses her inspirations and her signature techniques of printing, piecing and patching. She shares how she unifies her chosen layers of material with stitch. Find out more about how she uses the power of observation to kickstart her abstract works; picking out the details allows her to come up with abstract design ideas reflecting the essence of time-worn surfaces.
Knitting and mending
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Gwen Hedley: My earliest memory of any textile activity is when I was seven years old, when I learned at school how to knit a dishcloth with thick white cotton. I can still remember how, after knitting a certain length, I was shown how to drop every fifth stitch from the needle and watch it run all the way down to the cast on row so that a ‘magical ladder’ would appear. And it did! I enjoyed the repetitive nature of knitting, and the satisfactory feeling of being a maker.
My mother taught me reparative stitching skills. I suspect this was because she disliked mending of any sort, preferring to embroider household linens. At twelve years old I had become skilled at darning, patching and hemming, and I happily undertook this enjoyable repair work. I realise now, that these early domestic stitching skills laid the foundations for my enjoyment in working with textiles later in life. This is reflected in ‘Blueprint Patch’, simply a rectangle of stitch on cloth, which is a small contemporary interpretation of my memory of small repairs.
What was your route to becoming an artist and how has your life influenced your work?
In grammar school, art was rewarding but my sewing class was a failure. It resulted in a totally crooked and unwearable blue poplin blouse, with non-matching and unusable buttonholes. There was no scope for choice or creativity, so I decided I did not like sewing!
When I trained as a primary school teacher, with creative arts as my specialist subject, this feeling changed. As well as drawing, painting and printing, I began to work with fibres, in techniques like felting, weaving, stitching and binding. I was in my element, with a renewed loved of textile processes.
Many years later, I discovered a City and Guilds embroidery course. I embarked upon six years of creative stitching, and I was pleased and proud to be a National Medallist. Teaching opportunities broadened and the rest is history.
Signs of wear and tear
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
My references for work have always centred on surfaces and structures showing signs of wear and tear, erosion and disintegration. I am interested in objects and materials transformed by the elements over time. In early days, I frequented museums to find ancient worn potteries and carvings, threadbare worn textiles, or wonderful abraded gilded statues, with the aim of discovering exciting visual references.
I am naturally drawn to artefacts displaying these qualities of organic change. I seek not to reproduce them, but to interpret them in a contemporary way.
Working in Sweden, I was introduced to a wonderful collection of finely worked, traditionally patterned braids. Some were almost disintegrating. The Textile Study Group later staged a joint exhibition in Sweden with Textil 13, a Swedish embroidery group, and I worked with my drawings of the braids, to develop ideas.
After several unsuccessful samples, I eventually found a process that gave me the results I was looking for. Cotton rag paper and fine cloth were pieced onto soluble fabric, stitched to suggest traditional Swedish embroidery patterns, and then soaked and gently abraded.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Living a stones throw from the sea, it is easy to access items with changed surfaces and structures. I regularly walk along my local shoreline, which sharpens my senses and enables me to see and think with greater clarity. It’s where I collect my bits of ‘beach stuff’. This might include wood, stone, metals, or faded torn fabric scraps. All are transformed, showing the marks and scars from endless battering by the elements. These become my reference materials.
Work then begins in my sketchbook, which is the repository for my thoughts, observations and responses; it’s a sort of written and visual diary. I draw the object from all angles and focus on isolated areas, to explore and record its qualities. Magnification reveals previously imperceptible details of mark and texture. Observing and drawing these details opens up possibilities for abstract designs that reflect the essence of the subject.
I have started to work with intaglio printing to transfer colour and marks to cloth and paper, and I continue to enjoy the freedom of piecing and patching, before unifying and enhancing with further stitch.
What currently inspires you?
In a recent work, whilst looking for material changes made to metal, it was the disintegrating surface and form of a little leather shoe tangled in seaweed that really demanded my attention.
Holding this single, small, battered shoe had a profoundly moving effect on me. Artist Paul Klee eloquently summed this up when he said, ‘One eye sees, the other feels.’
A broad definition search on ‘flotsam and jetsam’ included some very disturbing results with references to people, lending a much deeper meaning to my work. The shoe, along with scraps of distressed fabric, became an analogy for distressed people.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
‘Fractured’ was personally a very impactful work in several ways, not least in using my work to express thoughts on very dark issues.
In this project, a change in scale and approaches to working developed. In 2017, the Textile Study Group staged DIS/rupt, an exhibition concerned with disruption, covering a range of themes.
It ran during the time of aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo, Syria. Television coverage gave daily aerial views of the devastation caused, and so I chose to work with the theme of conflict.
My usual focus was on small-scale changes of surface and structure made naturally over time, but these changes were sudden and sinister, made by mankind through armed conflict, with horrific effects on families and communities on a huge geographical scale.
I researched aerial plans, noting lines, grids, symbols and divisions of space. Using simple tools and diluted paint, I drew onto several large areas of calico, working freely and spontaneously making marks representing a city plan. I ripped the drawing into pieces, then rearranged and re-joined it with simple hand stitches into a totally fragmented and broken city plan.
I made two more pieces. The piece entitled ‘Formerly’ is light in colour and markings, referencing an aerial plan before the war. The work ‘Fractured’ represents the devastation from constant bombardment. ‘Finished’ depicts total loss of hope and the final fall of Aleppo; it is composed of patches in different hues of black, with no other colour at all. Together, they form a triptych entitled ‘Narrative of Ruin’, with ‘Fractured’ being the central panel.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I have begun using some of the many scraps of weathered cloth collected from the shore over time. I aim to join these disparate patches, using stitch to blend and fuse them together to create a cohesive unit.
With care and attention, these forlorn scraps can be given new life. This leads me to further thoughts regarding some of the social issues of our times. “Integrating” is a work in progress, and has received just the first layer of stitch marks; there will be many more to follow.
The underpinnings of my work are a continuation of an enduring concern with repair and restoration. Whilst my working processes have gradually changed and developed, the underlying theme carries on. Each work is a continuation of thoughts and ideas, but with new perspectives.
For more information visit textilestudygroup.co.uk/members/gwen-hedley/
Do the themes of repair and integration inspire you, too? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below