Stitches in Time

Harriet Riddell, a textile performance artist, travels with her sewing machine to stitch portraits of people. When she first started in Hatfield she went into a greasy spoon and asked if she could set up her machine. The owner agreed but said she?d have to pay for electricity and anyone complained about noise he?d chuck her out. She took a sit in the corner and stitched words she overheard then started on Errol frying chips. By the time she?d finished him and he?d seen his face on the cloth he was pinching her cheeks and welcoming her into the family with free food. That, apparently, happens quite often. A machine is a placid, soft tool, more so, she feels, than a camera, saying, ?You can get under people?s skin with sewing?.

 

Certainly it seems so in this latest project she?s worked on with sewers from Blackpool Embroiders? Guild. They were just tacking the final pieces in place on a bustling tablecloth for Banquet when I met them last week.

 

The tablecloth is a collection of previously embroidered napkins and smaller tablecloths, each containing hours of work in themselves, with hand-sewn flowers and lace decorating the cloths. Many of which were collected by members and from charity shops around Blackpool, releasing them from disuse and abandonment in drawers and cupboards.

 

Each member of the Guild chose a cloth or and, apart from the one rule of writing in black thread, everything else was up to the individual: some hand-stitched and others machined. All the quotes on tablecloth are from people with dementia who they visited, from conversations around memories of food. Some people spoke in riddles, but sentences and coherent memories did emerge:

?Rabbit was good it was off ration? stitched alongside an appliqu?d Rabbit. And four portraits: ?All our gardens were dug for food?, ?War made it hard to buy anything?, ?Ginger biscuits and things like that, pies, sponge cake?, ?We had to supply all the army rations?, ?Fish and chips, any day, any time, any where?, ?I like fun, I?m a Blackpool girl? These are all from exquisite portraits Harriet made live in the nursing homes she visited in the early days of the project. She sat with them and simultaneously stitched the residents? portraits and fragments of their conversation around them.

?I?m full of beans? Roy was the most upbeat optimistic gentleman of his age Harriet has ever met. He still had it, ?cheeky winks, little bit flirty?.

Gail, who had never written in machine embroidery before, met Alan and Ann over lunch. She ended up making the most moist rascal I?d ever seen, glistening with currents and cherries and almonds in buttons and beads. ?Sold by Alan and Ann in their bakery?.

There are so many lives in this tablecloth, so many hours of work ? in the original cloths, in the conversations had with the embroiderers, in the memories that formed those conversations, in the thinking of the stories and then in their recreation of them in appliqu? and stitches.

Janet?s cloth tells the story of Rose and Patrick with an organza cow and ?ooh cow heel it was sticky?. Rose and Patrick were from Oldham originally and came to Blackpool to retire. Sadly Rose got dementia which developed into Alzheimer?s so she?s in a home. Patrick lives in the flat they bought for their retirement and picks her up to take her to the Empowerment Club.

 

Janet took notes as they talked, then she agonised about how to represent the food. She decided on the cow?s face because cow heel looks ?absolutely disgusting?. The model for the cow came from her holiday in Lincoln where she?d taken pictures of the cows in the field next door to where they were staying. More hours. More life.

Cow heel: the lower part of a cow?s leg. Gail loves it. She used to cook it when first married, chopped it with stewing steak into a dish with water and onions into the oven, then thickened with Bisto. This was back when there used to be tripe shops.

Janet ate tripe for Sunday tea every week, as a child, cold with salt and vinegar and tomato and brown bread, like you?d put vinegar on chips. Apparently, it doesn?t taste of much, it?s more about the texture, chewy, jelly-ish, much the same as raw jelly cubes, bouncy. She didn?t think about it being cow?s stomach, just accepted what was put in front of her. Mind you, since she?s thought about what it is she?s not so keen.

This project has followed another one the Guild had undertaken for people with the same issues ? tactile textiles. When people have Alzheimer?s they can get very agitated and need something to keep their hands occupied, so the Guild made some little lap mats with beads, or zips, things to fiddle with that can be put on your lap and messed with. It?s very soothing.

Janet spoke of someone who was having problems feeding her husband. He kept knocking things out of the way because of his confusion. She got one of these mats and that meant she could feed him. ?They were just our scraps and left over bits and this tied in really nicely and followed on, working with people with the same issues, instead of us sewing isolation.?

Time and scraps that might be ignored or overlooked by some have been cut and stitched and pressed and paired into the most vivid and vital tablecloth I?ve seen. Harriet plans to set up her machine in the Winter Garden next Saturday, stitching portraits of people there, with the tablecloth hanging up on display. Well worth a few hours of your time.

Pallet Therapy

 

Each Wednesday volunteers gather at Cherry Tree Allotments in Blackpool to grow vegetables in raised beds, drink tea and share healthier lives for themselves. They meet on an allotment run by Grow Blackpool where as much as possible is upcycled. Including the people who come…

Planters, plant staging and the raised beds are made out of pallets. The untreated wood has approximately a four year life span, longer if treated. Conner is currently building a tropical pond and greenhouse out of pallets (treated with used engine oil provided by garages, so all the chemicals are burnt off, it stains a nice dark brown). They also make play cookers which they donate to nurseries around Blackpool. The plant staging in the greenhouse, Connor says, would normally cost ?20-?40 per unit. Here they could build ten with that money, and they?d probably be stronger.

 

A newcomer is activist Sarah Hall. She can only grow plants in tubs in her own garden because of the cats, so comes here to supplement her learning on growing and sharing food. When she?s not here, she collects food for Streetlife https://www.streetlife.com/, keen to promote healthy eating habits not just in her kids but in as many young people she can*. Her aim is to grow fruit trees across Blackpool, where people can help themselves to food. She makes her own jam, and knows how easy it is. If it doesn?t set, you can eat it with yoghurt.

 

Debbie got an allotment in St Anne?s after a three year wait only to lose it the same day because she moved out of the catchment area. She?s just started coming to Cherry Trees and loves it. ?The muckier I am, the happier,? she says, and hopes to get her own allotment here to share produce and knowledge with this good group of people.

Talk moves to the winter and sightings of Siberian Swallows ? a sign of a hard winter, which will at least kill of the slugs. Sarah marvels at how they manage to squirm themselves inside her home. Debbie can?t believe she gets them in her flat on the third floor. Julie suggests they take the lift?

It?s hard to find community these days, they reckon, but there?s one here.

 

Enter Michael Powell of Treehouse that runs projects focusing on creativity and the outdoors. He?s here to build the planters for the fourteen banquet tables http://www.leftcoast.org.uk/banquet/, and in doing so, hopes to build confidence, self esteem and trust in himself and those helping him.

 

Watching George, Andrew and Tim rotate the crowbar and mallet around themselves to prise off the slates of a pallet (donated by various local businesses) I see that trust. They take it in turns to stand on the pallet, weighing it down, while another levers the crowbar, swings the mallet, wood splintering and flying. And another hammers. They?re making the planters for the Banquet tables, and are quietly confident in the job. George only has a backyard at home and while he can grow cabbages in tubs he comes here to grow more and bring the veg home. His suggestions for the planters are mint and radish, both still growing now, or beetroot leaves. Sarah likes the idea of richly scented herbs, like garlic chives or rosemary on the table. There?s talk of having salad leaves in them too.

Michael is making the tables out of pallets too. He spends much of his life driving around scouting for piles of pallets and then building up the courage to ask for them. People are, generally, only too happy to give them away. The table and planters he?s making for Banquet are influenced by his passion and awe of the natural world. He began working with wood and recycled materials, about two years, as a response to a growing interest in nature and its different connections, movements and relations. It is an attempt of interpreting and explaining the world around himself through the physical act of making something, out of something either discarded or gathered from the natural world. He has become increasingly interested in natural building techniques and permaculture over the past few years. This project has been influenced by his research and experience of these. As an experienced community support worker and workshop facilitator, as well as artist he?s enjoyed how this project has allowed for a collaboration of these two worlds, leading to the co production of the banquet table for this event.

Tim, now welding a saw on a fresh pallet, was part of the People?s Pottery project. His plate detailed a game pie: grouse and other birds. He comes to the allotment because he likes getting outside, and not just for his food. His arm moving smoothly back and forwards, blade cutting through the soft wood. The only weather he doesn?t like is the wind with rain. If it does rain when they?re all down here, they head to the poly tunnel to sow seeds. However, it?s rarely as bad outside as looking at outside from inside?

Today, luckily, the sun shines down on them. They?ve fourteen planters to make and plant up and, with some already finished, their focus is sharper than the saws they?re using. The Banquet Table and its makers is a union up there with home grown tomatoes and onions for chutney.

 

* If you?d like to donate food for Streetlife you can leave it at the Lighthouse http://tristans-lighthouse.co.uk/

Grow Blackpool is a charity and welcomes donations of tools or plants. Just take anything you don?t want to the New Enterprise Centre Lytham Road, Blackpool. They don’t have the skill set to repair broken tools just yet, so only unwanted usable ones please.

Dishing the Dirt

I?ve been sworn to secrecy over this meal.

Actually environment artist Kerry Morrison and FoodRiot chef Gill Watson?haven?t divulged any details about their banquet. All I know is there?ll be six courses ? related to hunger, soil, pollinators, intensive farming and foraging. Each will have an informed introduction, alongside film and sound to plump out the sensory experience. And there?ll be you.

The plan is for Saturday 24th October, 12-2pm to be a memorable feast. And, like all great banquets, for it to be a communal experience, one where everyone shares their joys and concerns about the food we eat.

Going on what I did learn about the pair, I suspect it?ll be far more than the sum of those parts. Let me introduce you.

Kerry Morrison claims she?s never done anything like this before. Although she has done this and is involved in this, so she?s clearly fascinated by our relationship with nature and how we farm it for our food. She?s an ecologist who believes in the value of everything from slugs (what else, but earthworms, does the job of getting rid of our crap so efficiently?) to dandelions (edible from root to petal). Her interest lies in reconnecting our eating habits with the natural world, and making them responsible, sustainable.

Her own diet includes ?feral? food that is shot locally because of the way we farm; rabbits, deer and pigeons, considered pests and seen as a nuisance to farmers, end up on her plate. From time to time, she has grey squirrels delivered in her local veggie bag. Two years ago it was illegal to release a grey squirrel into the wild if you?d caught it, because they are non-native and considered invasive. Today, to release a grey squirrel you need to apply for a licience. If you are a landowner, the Governmant will fund you to kill grey squirrels. Another example of the paradox what is seen as ?belonging? is the honey bee. This ?national treasure? is actually ? apart from the native black bee – is from Italy. But we love honey, so it must be given a higher status than many other pollinators. Flies on the other hand?

There are no flies on Gill Watson. In the film she talks about the importance of delivering food directly to those who need it rather than relying on food banks. And that falls to her, driving around her area with bags of fruit, veg and bakery goods from Lidl. She?s just acquired a hut, where people can come, without registering or giving personal information, to pick up perfectly good, often prized food that?d otherwise be chucked in order to make space for the next delivery.

While the UK still feels a long way from France where it is illegal to throw away decent food, Gill is convinced every supermarket knows they need to do something to change how they deal with ?waste? food. Through her work with Lidl, since 2014, it?s now company policy that all UK store managers don?t have to get head office to okay the give-away of remainder produce. It?s a big commitment from the supermarkets and from people, like Gill, who are willing to sort through the food to redistribute it: one that asks people to think more deeply about food, what?s out there, what they can eat, and the cost of convenience.

It is this passion, commitment and food knowledge that?ll be served on Saturday 24th October in the Pavilion Theatre in Blackpool Winter Gardens. How can those six courses be anything but delicious, food at its most gourmet: made with love, care and conscience?

For more info and to book a place at the table, phone?01253 477973 or book here

Common Ground

I’m particularly struck by the sustainable and ecological nature of the work. The ethos of all the projects I’ve visited so far is to draw from the resources of the area – either literally – in terms of making salt from the Wyre or finding orchards for apples – or metaphorically in terms of inspiration that comes from the stories of the participants. While many of the participants were not necessarily aware of the other strands of the project when they first embarked on, say, designing their own slipware plates and bowls, the overlapping of the artistic drive of celebrating what we have where we are is reinforced every time I visit a project.

This is perhaps most evident in the apple picking project, the salters and the people’s pottery project – all three making space and time for the sheer creative joy of making things from the earth. Once time is made to work with and handle the most basic of elements, more value is inevitably placed on the element. The increased sense of wonder that comes from excavating the source of something, making connections between what we take for granted, is boundless.
And nourishing. It adds the x-factor to any recipe, just as much as eating food you’ve grown yourself. In an era that mixes a cooking programme virtually every night on tv, spiraling food prices and increasing obesity, it feels imperative to have such community based projects that encourage this knowledge and build it into enjoyable and inclusive events. Beachcombing along the Fleetwood seafront, anyone?