Marianne Crosslé: Becoming a textile artist at 70
Marianne Crosslé grew up in rural Northern Ireland and always thought she would have a career in art. As a teenager, she applied to the School of Art in Belfast but was rejected. It was a blow to her confidence. So much so, that she didn’t make ‘art’ again for a very long time.
Having a successful career as a stage and production manager in theatre, on her 70th birthday Marianne decided it was time to re-engage with her artistic instincts and signed up for a two-year City and Guilds (C&G) Certificate in Fine Arts Textiles. She poured all of her passion and commitment into the course and graduated with Distinction in all four units.
‘By this point, I was a big fan of TextileArtist.org, so when the Exploring Texture & Pattern with Sue Stone online course started to be mentioned, I practically stood at my computer, waiting to hit the registration button as soon as it went live.’
‘I loved every moment of the course. It’s not an understatement to say I’m a completely different person because of what I learned in terms of confidence and inventiveness.’
Marianne has a newfound confidence in her artistic ability and has embraced freedom in her approach to making textile art. ‘I could always sew. I was good at “engineering” textiles to work in a particular way, such as for magic and illusion acts or special effects. And now I can make art with a needle and thread.’
Now Marianne is also using what she’s learned to teach others; a series of short courses in a variety of textile techniques. And she has two new textile art projects in the pipeline. One is based on the style of the Bayeux Tapestry and the other is a series of self-portraits drawn with thread, a skill she honed during her time as a student on Exploring Texture & Pattern.
In this interview with Marianne, which is part of a series featuring members of the TextileArtist.org community, she tells us how textile art gave her a new lease of life at the age of 70.
A rebel with needle and thread
TextileArtist.org: Tell us a bit about your history with art and hand stitch
Marianne Crosslé: Drawing and sewing have always been a part of me, they feel instinctive, and they feel connected. When I was very young my mother gave me a book, Drawing Horses, by John Skeaping, and I did…on everything. And most of the time when I should have been attending to schoolwork. I drew horses in my version of the style of John Skeaping, and I still do.
In the 1950s, aged eight, I would run down our glen to a little public elementary school where Miss Adeline Ellison taught me to sew toys, garments and domestic textiles – and all painstakingly stitched by hand.
We learnt how to knit, darn and repair various types of damage to clothing (who, of my generation, doesn’t remember mastering the hedge tear darn?) and to do it beautifully.
At that early age, we learnt how to make a silk, or more probably rayon, full-length slip with rouleau straps and scalloped edges worked in blanket stitch. Mine was pale green, and ever the rebel, I insisted that my scallops would be worked in bright red thread!
Later, at grammar school, the tuition continued and we made samples, which were pasted into a book and annotated for future reference.
I was benefitting from the tail end of the Needlework Development Scheme and I owe my skill with a needle and thread to Miss Ellison’s exacting tuition.
When I returned to needlework all these years on, I was greatly amused and interested to find the same teaching techniques in Constance Howard’s books and in the Exploring Texture & Pattern course – Sue Stone having been taught by Constance Howard. I have been taught to sew by the best, and in the very best way.
Throughout my teens, I was able to reconstruct my clothing to more closely resemble the styles produced by Mary Quant, styles which were unavailable, and unseen, in rural Northern Ireland. I cut up my boring conventional skirts and reconstructed them as minis with sassy wide belts that sat on the hip; I bought string vests, dyed them red, or navy blue and added a contrasting lining to make a hippy top to wear with jeans; I added embroidery to skirts and waistcoats made from old jeans – sewing and making came as easily as breathing.
(The Needlework Development Scheme (NDS) was a collaborative project between art and design education and industry. Originally established in Scotland in 1934, its aim was to encourage embroidery and to raise the standard of design in Britain. Source: The V&A: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/n/needlework-development-scheme/)
Starting again at 70
Tell us a bit about your personal journey and why you decided to take the Exploring Texture & Pattern course?
I thought I would earn my living in art and set off, brimming with youthful confidence, to enrol in the Belfast School of Art…and was not offered a place.
So I pursued my second choice, the professional theatre, where I was to spend the next fifty (mainly) very happy years working in stage management and production. In this environment, I had opportunities to sew and make: upholstery, props and repairs, and more interesting projects in magic and illusion – a lot of black lycra was involved!
Occasionally I wondered how a career in art might have turned out had I pursued it, and on my 70th birthday, I decided the time had come to return to that aspiration and give it another go.
I don’t know what prompted me to approach it through textile art but I found a City and Guilds Level 3 course in Fine Arts Textiles at my local college and went back to school part-time. I had no idea what to expect, nor where it would lead, but for the next two years I spent one glorious day a week studying art in the morning, and needlework in the afternoon, and graduated with my precious City and Guilds Certificate, specialising in hand-stitched embroidery.
I didn’t find it easy; there was resistance, and angst over my ability to understand and to convert the understanding into inspiration. There were exercises, in the fine art classes, where I just didn’t get it, didn’t enjoy it and felt inadequate.
One day, at work, I mentioned this to a very much younger colleague who came from a Fine Arts background and she said the magic words which got me on track. She said ‘Just do it, and by the end of your course you’ll find that you never look at anything the same way again…and you’ll know why you did those exercises’. She was right, absolutely bang on, a light came on at that moment and I didn’t resist again.
By this time I had discovered TextileArtist.org, so when word of an online course began to appear I knew I was going to jump right in the minute the enrolment button went live!
I very quickly realised that to make the most of the opportunity I should go back to college to add a Decorated Textile unit to my certificate. This gave me a deadline for completing the Exploring Texture & Pattern course so I worked hard, and consistently, and completed the night before the start of term.
I have so many key takeaways from Exploring Texture & Pattern, but the number one thing the course gifted me was confidence. That came from making the sampling a consistent daily practice – turning up and putting in the hours.
Unlocking creativity through limitations
What elements of making textile art were you struggling with in terms of the creative process before and how has your approach changed as a result of Exploring Texture & Pattern?
I always believed that I was a creative person and was shocked to find that ‘original’ ideas just didn’t flood out of my imagination as I expected they would. It was a humbling experience, it was a sort of artist’s block, sitting down with a piece of white fabric and wondering how to go from there and thinking I haven’t a single artistic idea in my head.
The structure of the units within the course contributed to changing my approach – I found, and find, that the simple device of making the piece of fabric ‘not white’ helps. By which I mean start with some strip weaving, or the application of some paint, and use that as the ground on which to base my design.
I had not come across strip weaving before and I had not thought of using paint in a stitched piece. Discovering these techniques opened things up and generated a lot of ideas, as did the use of appliqué. Once I discovered the possibilities of storytelling in fabric and stitch, using these new found techniques, I began to be free of artist’s block.
Working within limitations in order to fuel the creative process is a core concept of the course. How did you find that limitations affected the way you worked?
This was the key that unlocked my creativity – I love the simplicity of working with just one or two stitches and a very limited palette, maybe just black and white. I found that I could draw with thread, and get very fine detail, with just running stitch, or a combination of running stitch, back stitch and seeding, and have great pleasure in working.
I found that limiting your techniques and colour palette is powerful; acknowledging and accepting that you’re not going to be unique or original, you’re going to be you and that is enough.
And how has your work developed? Has it changed in any way?
My work is changing and it’s a learning process. I am very drawn to wonkiness, the abstract, to big, bold untidy stitching but invariably find myself making tiny stitches, fine detail, creating depth with shading. I am learning and improving all the time, I sew every day, I have a list of projects for the future.
Becoming a ‘textile artist’
What did you most enjoy about the course?
I enjoyed turning up and putting in the hours every day (advice from Sue Stone, and also from an artist whose work ethic I admire – the ceramicist Grayson Perry) I liked the down to earth approach, the flow of the units, the lack of pressure, the fact that I knew that this was a seriously professional course and that an enormous amount of planning had gone in to make it so.
I absolutely loved the interaction with fellow students around the world on the private Facebook page. This was a very motivating and supportive environment and I felt that these were people I actually knew, as the names, faces and styles became familiar. They still feel like my tribe, and I thank them for all their feedback and reactions.
How were you supported on the course by Sue and the other students and did the interaction play an important role in your development?
I felt very supported – it is all part of the meticulous planning and professionalism of the team who put the course together. I felt supported by fellow students, the production team and by Sue.
I know this has had a significant impact on my development and will continue to do so. I cannot think of a single way in which I would have wished it to be different – artistically, practically, technically or in content.
What has been your experience of making textile art since completing the course and which elements of the teaching do you revisit when creating your work if any?
I continue to sew every day and to plan future projects. I set out with the goal of becoming a textile artist and that is how I regard myself now. By ‘textile artist’ I mean consistently engaged in the creation of work pleasing to me, to exhibit and offer for sale, in my own time.
I am currently working on a project which will comprise three individual stitched pieces – with an equestrian theme. I was taught to ride by my mother and for the first 21 years of my life, I rode every day.
There were three significant characters in my life during those youthful years – Poppy, my first pony; Stardust, the teenage stage pony and Moonfleet, my cob and the last horse I owned, the last time I rode regularly. I am creating a piece from photographs of each of them, with me onboard.
I am allowing this to evolve and develop, by planning, sampling and embracing the various little setbacks that are coming from something so personal and from so long ago.
Make do and mend
Tell us about a piece of work you’ve made that you’re particularly proud of and why.
I actually love them all! I particularly like a black and whitewall hanging, one metre square, based on Beatrix Potter’s children’s book, The Tailor of Gloucester. I loved making it and it was an opportunity to put into practice the learning from the course – running stitch, appliqué, a few limitations.
Can you talk us through the creation of this piece from conception to creation.
I have always loved the story, and the descriptions of the fabrics the tailor used, the magnificent colours and the perfect stitching. Of course, the book is illustrated with Beatrix Potter’s beautiful watercolours and I was planning something monochrome and with wonky organic stitching, loose threads and no straight lines.
I am very drawn to ‘make do and mend’ so it would be made from recycled materials, only what I had in the house, nothing new would be bought for it. I’m not precious about what I make – I want my work to invite the onlooker to touch it, handle it, feel the materials, look closely at the detail, turn it over and look at the back. All the things you don’t expect to do with works of art!
I have a reason for that – I have great respect for those women in different parts of the world who, in the past and in great hardship, made domestic textiles with whatever came to hand and still cared to make them beautiful.
My tailor piece is hand stitched throughout, and backed and bound in ticking. It has channels at the top and lower edges – three folded triangular pieces secured within the binding and sewn down with a couple of stitches and a bead – so there is something to please the eye on the back as well.
Have you shown any of the work you’ve made and what has the response been?
Yes, I’ve shown a few things and had lovely feedback. I had a table at two Christmas arts and crafts fairs last year and brought along a couple of bigger pieces to dress the table – the tailor piece got a lot of attention and I felt very encouraged.
Perhaps you can relate to Marianne’s story? Did you make a connection with creativity later in life? We’d love to hear your stitch stories in the comments section below.