CASE STUDY: East London Textile Arts – Explorations around John Frederick Lewis and Orientalism

This case study explores a participatory textile making project by East London Textile Arts. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

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Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa

Title of case study project or workshop

Explorations around John Frederick Lewis and Orientalism

Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any

Lead artists Sonia Tuttiett and Celia Ward worked with East London Textile Arts, which included a learning-disabled group, in partnership with The Watts Gallery and The Art Workers’ Guild.

Context for project

The project originated in discussions with The Watts Gallery who wanted to do an education project in East London. We were given a choice of 3 exhibitions to choose between and chose the Orientalism theme because it involved designs from Muslim countries (we had Muslim women in our groups), because Lewis’s work featured inspiring North African and Turkish textiles, and because the political theory of Orientalism gave contemporary relevance to the work with the ongoing conversation around post-colonial politics.

The Art Workers’ Guild became involved because they wanted to do outreach in East London and collaborate with The Watts Gallery.

The project mostly took place in four community settings in Newham – Little Ilford Baptist Church, and East Ham, Canning Town and Green Street Libraries. There were also day classes, talks, a fashion shoot and exhibition at The Art Workers’ Guild in Central London, and workshops and an exhibition at The Watts Gallery in Surrey.

When did the project take place?

2019 – 2020

Background(s) of the practitioner(s)

Sonia Tuttiett and Celia Ward have been running East London Textile Arts, based in Newham, for over 10 years. Sonia came from a teaching background and one of professional sewing workshops for high-end fashion. Celia Ward came from a painting background and had set up an Art Centre in Bucharest, Romania, and had run community arts projects before on a housing estate in Oxford. East London Textile Arts has about 70 participants, mostly older women from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, mostly from low income households. There was a weekly group of adults with learning disabilities from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Many members of ELTA have been coming to our classes for over 5 years and have become skilled embroiderers. Some had textile training in their own countries before coming to the UK. Some worked as machinists in London. Others were complete beginners. Some adults with learning disabilities had over 7 years’ experience of our workshops and had become independent sewers. We had 3 visiting craftspeople from The Art Workers’ Guild (AWG), while about 20 members of the AWG participated in the final exhibition at the AWG.

Aims of project

The aims of the project were to:

  • Teach textile skills and design
  • Learn about John Frederick Lewis, Orientalism and Islamic design
  • Work collaboratively to make beautiful textile works for exhibition
  • Work collaboratively to build a supportive and harmonious community of makers
  • Create an exhibition of professional and community crafts
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Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa

Description of project

The project continued over 18 months with four 2-hour classes meeting weekly during term times. Two classes were taught by Sonia Tuttiett; the adults with learning disabilities class was led by a student Occupational Therapist; and an evening group had no teacher, preferring it that way. Most teaching was in embroidery with a few bookbinding classes. Many participants took work home where much was completed. There was a project director with paid time for publicity and marketing.

There were many outputs. The centrepiece was an oriental gown decorated with over 200 hand- embroidered octagons made by over 70 people. Other garments and hangings were made by individuals and small groups. Printed fabrics were designed from photographs of the octagons and more clothes made. Paper designs were printed for cards and decorated papers, and our bookbinding classes made Japanese bindings.

Why did you choose to work in this way?

We chose to work in this way as we have found much time is needed to create work of a high standard for museum exhibitions. There was a year of making, three months organising the exhibition including time for the publicity photoshoot and making the project booklet. The exhibition continued for 3 months.

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Photographer: Elle Sillanpaa

What did you learn from the project?

The format of the project worked well with enough time to do justice to everyone’s work. The political questions surrounding Orientalism failed to engage our participants, though they did engage a few craftspeople from the Art Workers’ Guild. Previous project themes of health (dental and diabetes) and themes about the environment succeeded in involving participants more than the probably too theoretical topic of Orientalism.


We have developed many long-term projects over the busy 10 year life of ELTA, feeling that with time, participants have more opportunities to develop their skills and interests, fully engaging with all aspects of the project. Central to our philosophy is the idea that our projects are developmental, each one breaking new ground. An inspiration was the V&A’s 1990s large participatory textile project, The Mughal Tent. One of my inspirations was Horia Bernea, Director of the Romanian Peasant Museum, who focused on superb presentation of work by non-professional people. Sonia has been influenced by Kaffe Fassett, Jacobean stumpwork and haute couture garment design and construction.

Further information

For information about East London Textile Arts go to:

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