This case study explores a participatory textile making project by Jessica Jacobs, Andrea Morreau and Emily O’Mara. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.
Title of case study project or workshop
Our Hamlets – Counter Mapping Communities in Felt
Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any
Jessica Jacobs, Andrea Morreau, Emily O’Mara, Queen Mary University of London
Context for project
An activity designed for the Festival of Communities, an annual festival in Tower Hamlets showcasing the work of Queen Mary University of London, organised by the Centre of Public Engagement, Queen Mary University of London.
When did the project take place?
In Stepney Park in May 2018 and June 2019
Background(s) of the practitioner(s)
Jessica Jacobs is a geographer and filmmaker, Andrea Morreau is an artist and felter, Emily O’Mara is a community artist and felter
Aims of project
- From Tower Hamlets to ‘Our Hamlets’.
- To show the community a little bit about Geography at Queen Mary University of London.
- Helping people understand how maps inform our thinking and the ownership of places and there are many ways to map a place.
- To show all of this by producing a handcrafted community map made by the community telling their stories of place and home.
Description of project
We held two workshops for the festival in the main tent, from 11-4.30pm. We worked with dry felting, making two dimensional and three-dimensional figures. We tend to give minimum instructions on how to felt and then and mainly act as facilitators, asking questions and talking through ideas. In all about 30-40 people participated in each workshop. Our participants spanned generations, the oldest was 59 and youngest was 4.
Using a pre-cut piece of felt in the shape of the local borough, we invited visitors to felt objects that we later sewed onto the map in the approximate location they lived. Visitors came from all over Tower Hamlets (and beyond). Partly because it is a ‘family festival’ in an inner city park, most participants were women and children. Many of the participants were from the Bangladeshi community. For the first workshop in 2018 we asked participants about their home and what they loved about it and then helped them felt that. We then sewed the felted objects into the map of the borough and added tags with a short explanation of the object.
We then returned in 2019 to the Festival with the map for the second phase of the project. This time we created dioramas of scenes from their neighbourhoods. For the second workshop we asked them what they might miss if it wasn’t there and also what they thought the community was missing. We are now working on how to display these dioramas in addition to the map.
Sometimes mothers worked on pieces together with their children. Muntahi (4) from Stepney and her Mother Sheuli (28) worked together on a piece representing Muntahi’s nursery school.
Why did you choose to work in this way?
The festival is designed to showcase the work of academics. We wanted to show that mapping can be used to include people, not just exclude them, and that maps can be made using a craft more closely associated with women’s work than men’s. Creating participatory pieces strengthens bonds and human connections. Participatory textile-making here is being used to offer an alternative form of visualising people’s past in maps and also their potential futures. Hopefully also the local community have seen that there is a lot more to geography than plotting on maps.
What did you learn from the project?
We have discovered how participants are drawn in by the vibrant colours, and the soft luxurious textures of the merino wool felt tops; the appeal is also that the activity is very tactile. Some hover by the table wanting to know what it is we are doing. We think it is a craft that is not so well known as perhaps knitting or crochet and people are intrigued by it.
We learnt that nearly everyone can get something out of the activity because everyone seems to work in felt in a slightly different way – you can really see personalities come out in the objects being produced. We also found people to be better at felting than they thought they were.
People also commented on the therapeutic nature of the act of felting – the almost cathartic feeling you get from repeatedly stabbing at something with a needle. This is a key part of our research practice at other workshops as we use the activity to trigger thoughts and get people to tell stories and think about things. Watching how people transform tangible objects and intangible ideas into felt is a fascinating process.
Both years we have had participants, and their parents, asking where they can purchase wool and felting needles so they can continue the craft at home.
This work is mostly informed by Andrea’s previous work in felt and Jessica’s previous work with film-making and mapping.
Andrea: I have been influenced by the traditions of the quilting circle where members of a community are brought together to work collectively on a piece which may have ritual significance. Also the medium of needle felting which is often used in Steiner schools to relax the children and allow them to enjoy the haptic and sensual qualities of the wool.
Jessica: For geographers mapping has a long and less than illustrious past as a colonising tool. Using community felting to make maps does not reduce or erase local positionalities. They use reverse scale to increase, not reduce the relevance and importance of these realities.
We have carried out similar workshops over two years with children from Gospel Oak School in Year 5 and Year 6 using felting to help them map the things they would like to see in a large development site in Kentish Town, north London.
We have made a map with Brixton Housing Co-operative in felt to commemorate their 40th anniversary.
We are currently working on a community map for a local museum of archaeology with women from Bedouin communities in Wadi Faynan Jordan.