Stitching together – difficult questions

We are delighted to share with you our first Friday guest blog post! We want to use this space to open our discussions about participatory textile making to a wider audience. Today’s guest post comes from Lynn Setterington.

This post comes not in response to Emma’s, as I was almost done writing this when her comments appeared on the site, but still I think it is relevant and having practiced in this area for many years and with many different groups and organisations, I want to question and probe rather than provide answers.

My first thought as I worked my way home from the event at Clayhill Arts was, given the range of people I had met and variety of activities explored, were we any nearer knowing what type of skills, knowledge and understanding (if any) are required to stitch together? This query in part stems from the huge surge in interest in collaborative textiles over the last decade with people of all different backgrounds embracing textile methods. Indeed, I have been to many conferences exploring arts engagement including one led by UCL’s geography department in which stitch was key. At the same time, a number of ex-students use textile strategies in community-based initiatives ranging from work with adults with learning disabilities to a group making carnival costumes for outdoor events in Manchester and Trinidad and a current student asked me for tips recently as she has been invited to run a stitch workshop.

Whilst this is positive for textiles with an increase in numbers exploring these methods, it also brings challenges and uncertainty. I, for one, was drawn to the outsider status of embroidery and chose to study at University of London (Goldsmiths) as it seemed that, in the early 1980s no other University offered such a rare award. I also liked the fact that this way of working offered a counter narrative to the dominant market-driven art world. Now it seems the opposite is true and stitch-based methods are ubiquitous, but is that all positive? Where are aesthetics and ethics in this heady mix?

Craft, and textile processes especially, have, it seems, always presented a unique entanglement of amateur/professional, skilled and unskilled makers and so determining what is good collaboration has always been complex and with the increase in participatory strategies, this is even more problematic. One of the key conundrums then is how do you critique such initiatives, which are varied and widespread and, as Grant Kester (2004) suggests, cannot be grasped by ‘conventional art critical methodologies’. How too, do you position a project that is worthy and worthwhile and may have many positives in terms of health and wellbeing but does not tread new ground? Similarly, what part does specialist knowledge of textiles and its history play in informing this debate? Is the rise in interest linked to the lack of creative provision in state education or is it simply a counter to what is happening in our fast-paced world where screen-based communication is commonplace and tactile engagement is more of a therapeutic need? I learnt to sew many years ago at primary school, not from a family member, yet this was a formative experience, so I am saddened by the paucity of creative subjects of all kinds in education and the link to a rise in mental health problems, especially for the young. Something we should strive to address for the sake of all our futures.

My PhD built on my longstanding experience in this field and explored the hidden values and points of tension in shared stitching, both of which I suggest need to be taken into account in critical debate along with the context of the work being undertaken. What, I wonder, as a final question, constitutes bad stitching together, and where does Pablo Helguera’s (2011) ‘knowing when not to be an expert’ sit in this evolving framework?

Lynn Setterington blog.jpg

Image from Radical Locks (2019), a commission for Tameside Council to celebrate women of the borough, past and present. The image taken in Ashton market hall features students at the Manchester School of Art: Lucy Kent, Lucy Hilton and Amina Khan.

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