Gwen Hedley: Stitching distress and repair
The art of observation might well be Gwen Hedley’s super-power. She begins any new project with careful scrutiny of her subject.
But it’s not perfection that she seeks. Instead, Gwen is drawn to the textural details and flaws of the worn surfaces she finds so fascinating. Her work is centred around restoration using hand stitch.
Walking along the local coastline near her home, Gwen’s eye is drawn to the dilapidated objects she finds, and the beauty of natural degradation.
Textured scars and eroded objects show the passage of time, and this inspires a process of abstract mark making and stitch.
Often using a limited colour palette, her abstract marks reflect the essence of the time-worn surfaces that she studies so closely.
In 2017, affected by the war in Syria, Gwen made a bold move. She switched her focus from the small-scale changes caused by natural erosion, to the sudden and destructive devastation being suffered by war-torn communities. Her work Fractured, made for the Textile Study Group’s DIS/rupt exhibition, explores the theme of conflict.
Taking a mixed media approach, Gwen draws, prints and makes marks on paper and fabric, unifying these layers of materials with stitch. Every stitch is used to gently restore, allowing her to explore the concepts of fragmentation, distress, repair and integration.
Signs of wear and tear
TextileArtist.org: Tell us about your chosen techniques and inspirations.
Gwen Headley: Living a stone’s throw from the sea, it is easy to access objects with changed surfaces and structures. I regularly walk along my local shoreline. This activity sharpens my senses, and enables me to see and think with greater clarity.
I collect ‘beach stuff’, such as pieces of wood, stone, metals, or faded and torn fabric scraps. All are transformed, showing the marks and scars from endless battering by the elements. These become my reference materials.
My sketchbook is where I begin. It’s the repository for my thoughts, observations and responses. It’s a written and visual diary. I draw an object from all angles and then 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, a printmaking technique using a press, to transfer colour and marks to cloth and paper. I continue to enjoy the freedom of piecing and patching, before unifying and enhancing with further stitch.
How do you create your work?
My references have always centred on surfaces and structures showing signs of erosion and disintegration. I’m interested in how objects and materials are transformed by the elements over time.
In the early days, I visited museums to find ancient worn pottery 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 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. For this exhibition, I developed ideas from my drawings of these braids.
After several unsuccessful samples, I eventually found a process that gave me the results I was looking for. I pieced together cotton rag paper and fine cloth onto soluble fabric, added stitch, to suggest traditional Swedish embroidery patterns, and then soaked and gently abraded the resulting cloth.
Tell us about a piece of your work that is particularly important to you?
Fractured was personally an impactful work in several ways, not least in using my work to express thoughts on very dark issues.
In 2017, the Textile Study Group staged DIS/rupt, an exhibition concerned with disruption, covering a range of themes.
The project ran during the aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo, Syria. Television coverage gave daily aerial views of the devastation it was causing, 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.
For this project, a change in scale and my approaches to working developed.
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. I worked 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. It became a totally fragmented and broken city plan. I made two more pieces to accompany it.
The piece entitled Formerly is light in colour and markings, referencing an aerial plan before the war. Fractured represents the devastation from constant bombardment. Finished depicts the 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, Narrative of Ruin, with Fractured being the central panel.
What currently inspires you?
Recently, I was out looking for material changes made to metal. But it was the disintegrating surface and form of a little leather shoe, tangled in seaweed, that really grabbed my attention.
Holding this small, single, 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.
Knitting and mending
What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
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 enjoyed the repetitive nature of knitting, and the satisfactory feeling of being a maker.
I can still remember how, after knitting a certain length, I was shown how to drop every fifth stitch from the needle. I would watch it run all the way down to the cast on row, making a ‘magical ladder’ appear.
My mother taught me reparative stitching skills. I suspect this was because she disliked mending of any sort, preferring to embroider household linens. In just a few years 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, which is simply a rectangle of stitch on cloth, 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 school, art was rewarding but my sewing class was a failure. It resulted in a crooked and unwearable blue poplin blouse, with non-matching and unusable buttonholes. There was no scope for choice or creativity.
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, exploring techniques like felting, weaving, stitching and binding.
I was in my element, with a renewed love 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. From then on, my teaching opportunities broadened, and the rest is history.
How has your work developed, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
While my working processes have gradually changed and developed, the underlying theme carries on.
The underpinnings of my work are related to an enduring concern with repair and restoration. Each work is a continuation of thoughts and ideas, but with new perspectives.
For instance, I have begun using some of the many scraps of weathered cloth collected from the shore over a long period of time. I aim to join these disparate patches, using stitch to blend and fuse them together to create cohesive units.
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.
Mending and repair is a theme many textile artists relate to. Discover two more of our featured artists who work with this theme, in our articles Brooks Harris Stevens, Mindful mending and Shelley Rhodes, The art of repair.
- Take the time to observe the details of marks and scars on eroded and weathered objects. These observations can become a useful reference source for mark making.
- Think about combining fabric scraps to give them new life. Textiles lend themselves perfectly to working with the themes of repair and mending.
- If a found object has a profound effect on you, then use it as the basis for a meaningful piece.
- Be bold when attempting changes in your scale and approach, as Gwen demonstrated by switching her focus from representing slow surface changes, to depicting the sudden devastation being inflicted on war-torn communities.
Gwen lives and works on the Kent coast in the UK. She is a respected teacher and exhibits her work all over the world. She has written two books, Drawn to Stitch (2010) and Surfaces for Stitch (2000). Gwen enjoys a long-standing membership of the renowned Textile Study Group.
Do the themes of repair and integration inspire you, too? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.