Gwen Hedley: Stitching distress and repair

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.

Gwen Hedley: Blueprint Patch, 2011, 7 cm x 8 cm, Old cloth, inked and printed onto calico, with stitched rectangle. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Blueprint Patch, 2011, 7 cm x 8 cm, Old cloth, inked and printed onto calico, with stitched rectangle. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

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.

Gwen Hedley: Restoring, 2015, 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Restoring, 2015, 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

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.

Gwen Hedley: Restoring (Detail), 2015, 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Restoring (Detail), 2015, 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

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.

Gwen Hedley: Fractured (detail), 2017, 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Fractured (detail), 2017, 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

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.

Gwen Hedley: Found shoe and sketchbook drawings, coloured pencil on paper, 2020. Photography credit: Electric Egg
Gwen Hedley: Found shoe and sketchbook drawings, coloured pencil on paper, 2020. Photography credit: Electric Egg
Gwen Hedley: Material change: Shoe (detail), 2020, 35.5 cm x 19.5 cm. Intaglio prints on paper and cloth, hole punched papers and stitch.  Photography credit: Electric Egg
Gwen Hedley: Material change: Shoe (detail), 2020, 35.5 cm x 19.5 cm. Intaglio prints on paper and cloth, hole punched papers and stitch. Photography credit: Electric Egg

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.

Gwen Hedley: Fractured, 2017, 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Fractured, 2017, 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

War-torn plans

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.

Gwen Hedley: Integrating (Detail), 2020, 31.5 cm x 16.5 cm, Found cloth fragments from the beach, fused with stitch. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley: Integrating (Detail), 2020, 31.5 cm x 16.5 cm, Found cloth fragments from the beach, fused with stitch. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

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.

Gwen Hedley
Gwen Hedley

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

Tuesday 03rd, August 2021 / 05:48

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9 comments on “Gwen Hedley: Stitching distress and repair”

  1. Glen Gerrard says:

    Inspirational interview. Just started 2 weeks holiday on Yorkshire moors and as usual ~Gwen has kick started my imagination. Thank you

    • Gwen says:

      Enjoy the Yorkshire moors! Gather some good marks – rubbing? Drawings? Would love to see what marks you have time to make!

  2. Therese says:

    Wonderful to hear about your current inspirations and interest of work. I bought your book Drawn to Stitch a number of years ago….it continues to feed my own creative practice and is my go to book when I need inspiration myself…thank you…

  3. Gabrielle Theano says:

    Wonderful interview. Gwen’s work on Aleppo reflects the despair that many felt but could not express. I’m grateful for her work. Gwen’s work is always inspiring and I often go back to her book when I’m feeling a bit lost. Also it’s lovely to see her with her textiles and books – how many of your viewers spotted a book they also have. It’s nice to see that artists we admire read the same books as we do. 😊

  4. Dominique Miller says:

    Gwen Hedley has been an inspiration. Her book “Drawn to Stitch” expanded my drawing and stitching world. Allowing me to “see” the possibilities of blending the two together rather than having two separate ways to create. Fantastic interview and look at her latest work.
    Thank you

  5. Kit Sutherland says:

    Thank you for the notion of repair. I have already created watercolour paintings following the Kintsugi philosophy and now, in my very first textile art piece I am seeing how the repair notion can form a basic or included element.

  6. Tina says:

    Thankyou, great read. I also spend time patching, repairing, reconstructing.
    And you reminded me of a visit to the British War Museum with my sons & how I felt looking down at the photos of the aerial bombardment of Bielefeld….. of which I had to point out to my sons ( & the museum staff member) that their Grandmother & Great-grandmother had survived that night of horrendous bombing.

  7. How I enjoyed reading about Gwen’s work. I dont dare to buy her book, as not to be influenced. I am immensely drawn to drawing from patterns found on fabrics and intend to construct from there. I love hearing and reading about the process.

  8. Mary Jane says:

    I too have collected and saved bits and pieces from found objects to sewing scraps. I store them in color coded bags to easily find potential pieces for my work. I especially like this discussion with Gwen about her triptych of Aleppo as I am currently in an on line class where we are encouraged to develop a series. Thanks for triggering some ideas Gwen.

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