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.