Willemien de Villiers: From conception to creation
Willemien de Villiers is a South African artist and member of the 62 Group. Her long career spans sculpture, painting and stitching. In her work, she often explores the themes of connectedness through nature as well as gender inequality, misogyny and patriarchy.
In her stitched work, Willemien creates detailed, intricate and interlinked pieces based on her feelings of our deep interconnection to the world at a cellular level. Creating through a slow, meditative practice to mimic the passing of time in nature, she chooses to work on pre-used fabrics with obvious signs of wear. Her attention to the reverse side of her work enhances the feeling of interconnection by raising the importance of what is hidden behind the surface.
She is intrigued by the patterns found in biological cells and uses repeat patterns, integrating them with existing marks and stains on old fabrics. In her latest works, she expresses strong feminist statements about the power dynamics in a marriage.
In this article, Willemien shares how she developed her recent Subversive Bride series based on the concept of a trousseau. These works are abstract representations of a bride’s trousseau dreams and hopes. She sews onto used tablecloths and other domestic fabrics, incorporating their stains to explore patriarchy and the restrictions on women that still exists in most cultures.
Name of piece: Bride 1
Year of piece: 2018
Techniques and materials used: Hand stitching, staining of used vintage domestic textiles including lace and cotton embroidery floss
Size of piece: 76cm (w) x 74cm (h)
Inspired by the life of an old tablecloth and its previous owner
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Willemien de Villiers: The Subversive Bride series was inspired by a very large tablecloth my sister-in-law gave me that once belonged to her grandfather’s first wife. She knew that I would love the look and feel of the old, soft fabric. It was a cotton-linen blend that was probably hand-spun and woven in Germany.
She was hoping that I could make something to honour the life of this woman, who had captured her heart and imagination. Her name was Martha Lochte and she left Germany at the turn of the previous century to join her fiancé, who was already stationed as a missionary in the dry, arid Western Transvaal region of South Africa. They were married for over twenty years and she died childless age 54.
The fabric was made up of four panels, joined with broad bands of crocheted cotton lace. The moment I first spread open the vast cloth in my studio I tried to imagine the life of this missionary’s wife. She was so far away from friends and family, in a place very different from her home. The stains and small mended areas spoke to me of frugality, generosity, duty and love.
The word “bride” kept entering my mind. I started seeing the tablecloth standing in for a bed sheet and with the food stains, stitched in red, becoming the monthly bloodstains the barren Martha must surely have resented.
I wondered whether I was presuming too much.
What research did you do before you started to make?
I started reading widely about marriage rituals in various cultures. I became intrigued by the tradition (which I had all but forgotten) of collecting domestic kitchen and bed linen for the bride’s ‘trousseau’, ‘bottom drawer’, ‘hope chest’ or ‘glory chest’.
Old fashioned as it might seem to most young brides today, it’s still very much in use in many societies.
Deconstruction and rebuilding; incorporating the fabric’s history, stains and all…
Was there any other preparatory work?
I tore away the crocheted lace and divided the plain areas into several smaller pieces. I dripped various stains onto the lace and draped it over the burglar bars of my studio to dry.
I had managed to deconstruct Martha, reducing her life to a tidy pile of frayed cloth and stained crocheted lace.
When I posted the first image of this emerging series on Instagram, using the tag #subversivebrides for the first time, I asked people to share their feelings about the word “bride”.
I was overwhelmed by the response. Clearly, I had hit a nerve:
“There are so many centuries of layers of experiences bound into that one word. Highly charged and evocative.”
“I know it says bride… but I fleetingly thought it said bade … as in bade farewell. Nice double meaning.”
“This really stirs up emotions in me… There is something about the combination of old linens, embroidery, soiling, and the red stitching that really gets to me. It’s like the fairy-tale promises made to young girls meeting gritty reality.”
“All those stitched down edges, the over sewing with ‘the feminine’. Like a mask or makeup.”
“Because I’ve been married twice, I appreciate how you covered the word bride in lace after stitching it in red thread. The word bride has many layers of meaning for me, and many emotions as well. I would say I actually felt most like a bride when I danced with my dad at my second wedding. I felt sacred and ready and aware of being a woman with a relationship with self and with others.”
“Disappointment, vain hopes…”
“Bride; this magical and round word contains dreams and hopes, the project of a life. Youth, fairy, unreal, brightness are words that for me go with it. This same word in French needs just a little accent on the “e” to make “bridé” and that means limited, restrained…for some women that can be the day after the wedding ceremony…”
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?
My latest works in this series are abstract representations of these trousseau dreams and hopes. In my home language, Afrikaans, trousseau translates to “Bruidskat”, the bride’s ‘treasure’.
I view these small works as meditations on marriage and the power dynamics entrenched in such a union.
I chose a range of pink embroidery floss to stitch with pink. My current obsessive use of pink is also in long overdue defiance to my university art professor who once told me that no-one will ever take me seriously as an artist if I don’t “stop using so much pink”.
The process of making my work is very simple and straightforward. I always use vintage domestic linen such as napkins, tablecloths, tea tray cloths as my base cloth. The more damaged and soiled, the better. I find them in charity shops or from friends who know me well.
I sometimes add more stains by using foodstuffs like red wine, turmeric, tea and coffee.
The idea of the Instagram tag #domesticstains excites me, as a metaphor for the habitual sanitising of women’s messy, and often devalued, lives. And of course, women are still mainly responsible of dealing with the stains (literal and figurative) of day-to-day domestic life.
Using pink thread as a statement
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage
Once I’m satisfied with the level of staining of and damage to my base cloth, I tack it to a bottom layer. This helps to add texture to the stitching of the final piece. For this backing layer, I use a plain piece of calico or muslin.
I like to linger at this beginning section of the work for as long as possible. I spend time smoothing the fabric, folding and unfolding, fraying the edges and searching through my very large collection of torn bits of lace and old embroidered cloth.
Immersing myself in this tactile experience, my mind seeks patterns, colours, texture.
At the moment, I’m using a limited palette of dirty pink, walnut browns and deep red. I sometimes dye the more pure, bright pink embroidery floss with walnut ink to mute the colour. And so the Instagram tag #mutedpink was born; an apt reference to the narrow, toned down lives so many women are still expected to live.
I use a combination of mending-stitch, cross-stitch and blanket stitch in my work, allowing the process to develop organically.
I don’t do preliminary sketches or any other kind of planning, except for finding the perfect smaller items to appliqué onto the base cloth.
Stitching by hand remains the best form of meditation I know. Slowly but surely, through the repetitive action of one stitch at a time, my hand and mind connect to my heart and a new work is born.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
The first two works in this series, Bride 1 and Bride 2, were exhibited at the Pretoria Art Museum in Gauteng (South Africa) as part of a group show (Unfolding Fibre).
The Subversive Bride Trousseau series was exhibited in October 2018 at the IsArt Gallery in Franschhoek, Western Cape (South Africa).
For more information visit www.willemiendevilliers.co.za
How does this article make you feel? Willemien makes a strong feminist statement through her work and by repurposing used and stained tablecloth linen. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.