This case study explores a participatory textile making research project by Emma Shercliff. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.
Title of case study project or workshop
Name(s) of researcher(s) and university affiliation, if any
Emma Shercliff, Arts University Bournemouth
Context for research
I explored a variety of different ways of stitching together in a group for my PhD research: Articulating Stitch: skilful hand-stitching as personal, social and cultural experience.
When did the research take place?
PhD: 2006-2014 / this series of research workshops: 2011
textiles, craft, social anthropology
Aims of research
The overall aim of my PhD research was to investigate ways in which the relationship between an individual and a group might be articulated through their stitching skills.
This particular workshop explored specific questions concerning people’s perceptions and assumptions about hand-stitching as both a functional and an aesthetic craft. I was also curious about the words that might be used to describe what a tacit knowledge of hand-stitching feels like. I developed a series of tasks designed to focus participants’ attention on the manner in which they make stitches, what they choose to represent using their stitching, and how they might interpret this in words.
Description of research method
This particular workshop was devised for a small group of undergraduate students. Four attended, and the workshop lasted approximately two hours, including discussion. It took place on campus at the Arts University Bournemouth. I asked the participants to execute eight specific stitching and drawing tasks.
I used question prompts to guide discussion with the participants about the experience of doing these tasks, which was recorded. The data produced included the stitched and drawn tasks as well as the recorded discussion. The stitched pieces were analysed on site by the group during our discussion, and the discussion was analysed thematically by me, off site, following principles from grounded theory approaches, and building on analysis from other workshops held elsewhere. I took photographs of the workshop to document the event, but the photographs were not treated as data.
Why did you choose to use this method?
My experience of working collectively on a large community led embroidery project and talking to people whilst they were working had made me realize that exploring questions about making – whilst making – could shed some light on the feelings and experiences that can be so hard to put into words, especially retrospectively. I devised a series of prescriptive tasks that I hoped would prompt spontaneous and intuitive responses to physical involvement in the stitching tasks and thereby provide a closer view of what it feels like to make.
I worked with students because this workshop required participants who would be comfortable reflecting on their experiences of creative tasks in group discussion.
What did you learn from the research process?
For me, one of the most interesting and exciting things to learn about this way of doing research was just how rich and versatile it is. I found devising specific tasks to be an effective way of exploring in depth a variety of perspectives on a precise aspect of my research. The prescribed tasks allowed participants to focus on the simple execution of their stitching whilst discreetly revealing their personal choices. Making together helped to create an open space for the sharing of thoughts and experiences without prejudice. These types of workshop methods offer an advantageous balance between depth and focus of questioning on the one hand and, as hand-stitching is a slow activity, time to respond to particular lines of discussion taken up by the participants on the other. Furthermore, the learning was reciprocal. I think the participants also learnt about themselves and their own assumptions.
Years ago, I attended a drawing workshop led by the artist Celia Pym. I was inspired by the insights into both medium and process I gained from the very specific drawing tasks she asked us all to do. Similarly, the wonderful conversations and collaborative workshops held with my friend and colleague, designer Jeanne Goutelle, inspire me to devise ever more probing and curious tasks.
Other influences on my research methodologies include Trevor Marchand’s work on the cultural value of learning hand skills, and David Gauntlett’s Creative Explorations (2007).
I have worked on and developed a number of different participatory making activities. I participate in some, others I don’t; some are tightly structured workshops, others not at all:
Roll out the red carpet! (2004-2006) was a two-year community-based collective rug-making project I ran in Belleville, Paris. This project inspired me to do my PhD research.
Following my PhD study I have continued to develop workshop approaches to introducing, exploring and generating knowledge in varied contexts, both within academia and without. I am interested in opening the academy to communities and vice versa.
For Our Collective House (2014), a community arts project funded by Awards for All (Big Lottery Fund), I ran embroidery workshops with colleague Jeanne Goutelle. I integrated the prescriptive task workshop approach described above into a process of creative confidence building for the group.
With Stitch and Mark (2015), a research project with students at the Arts University Bournemouth, I expanded the method to explore collective drawing as a means to think about cultures of collaboration.
Shercliff, E. & Twigger Holroyd, A. (2016) Making With Others: working with textile craft groups as a means of research. Studies in Material Thinking. [online]. Vol. 14.
Shercliff, E. (2016) Collectively making thinking spaces using drawing and stitching. Making Futures. [online]. Vol. 4. Plymouth College of Art. ISSN 2042-1664.
Shercliff, E. (2016) Hidden Values and Human Inconsistencies in Hand-Stitching Processes. In: N. Kimulkrat, F. Kane & K. Walton (eds.) Crafting Textiles in the Digital Age. London: Bloomsbury. pp.153-170.
Shercliff, E. (2015) Joining In and Dropping Out: hand-stitching in spaces of social interaction. Craft Research. Vol. 6.2. pp.187-207.
Shercliff, E. (2014) Articulating Stitch: skilful hand-stitching as personal, social and cultural experience. Unpublished PhD thesis, Royal College of Art, London. [online]
Shercliff, E. & Twigger Holroyd, A. (2014)Making With Others: working with textile craft groups as a research method. The Art of Research V: Experience, Materiality, Articulation, 26-27 Nov 2014, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland. [online]