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.

Orchard, Found

I caught up with Philip Parr again in the waste ground opposite the model village at the bottom of Stanley Park.

Not only is it a dog walkers paradise, it is the Lost Orchard Found. According to Philip?s expert eye there are about 40 trees here, with maybe 500 apples a piece, making for 20 thousand apples for the taking in central Blackpool. And what?s more, they?re apples unique to Blackpool, ?volunteers? grown from the compost of an old green tip, here at least 40 years ago, apparently. I can vouch for three very different sweetly full flavoured apples.

When I arrived he?d just finished two hours of clearing brambles and undergrowth from a particularly tasty red russet, giving air to the trunk and freeing up a path up to the jewels hanging there. His plan was to pick the higher apples, with his makeshift apple picker, so leaving lower hanging fruit to attract more pickers. And not just dogs. Alfie clearly knew all about the orchard, and, according to his walker, enjoyed a couple of apples every day in the season.

In the six weeks since I?d first met Philip he?s been collecting apples with a variety of people. He spent half a day at Mereside?School?working on a tree just next door to the school then drying the fruit in his dehydrator for everyone to savour the intensification of the sugar. This and works best on larger apples, and was perfect for the tree there. Only two out of the thirty children had ever picked apples before and he?s hoping the school will now make it an annual jolly to strip the tree

Sad that scrumping has gone out of fashion. He recently picked with an older man who used to scrump as kid, although not quite, as he got permission from the tree?s owner. Still, the boy took all the apples he picked and sold them for a penny down at the cinema. Ahh, the good clean enterprise of olden days ?

Philip contributed to the ritual by gaining permission from another tree owner to pick in his garden. The owner, a retired landscape gardener, had bought the land, with apple tree, and built his house there. He then grew another five apple trees in the back garden. These trees he still harvested, but was happy for Philip to take the front garden fruit.

There seems, to Philip, a real sense of growers in Blackpool. It?s what people do here to supplement their income. And the knowledge of growing is passed down, like an heirloom. And certainly, I?ve witnessed at Cherry Trees and Chepstow Gardens with Grow Blackpool a real wealth of knowledge for growing and eating.

I left Philip welding his bag up in the tree ? height being a definite advantage to the job. He had two wheely suitcases to carry the fruit back in. Carrying the apples would force him to discern the best ones, to enforce a selection process so his enthusiasm couldn?t get the better of him.

He?s quite confident he?ll have plenty to share on his stall in the Winter Gardens Food Hall Saturday 24 October. He?s already got ten different varieties stashed in the Left Coast Office. And alongside the apples, there?ll be apple jellies, sweet dried rings (nothing like the sulphated ones you buy in the shops) and a map of where the orchards can be found. This is a map that?ll never be finished ? after all, there?s always another apple tree?

Apple Picking. Gallery

Philip Parr rounded up children from Mereside School to discover the delights held in the apple tree just next door to their playground

The Teachings of Clay

Terracotta is the most abundant clay in the earth. It starts off in rock, then, as it?s carried through waterways, it travels. As it travels more and more it picks up impurities before being deposited back into those waterways. It?s the impurities that give terracotta its beautiful rich colour.

Working with clay teaches you about yourself, according to potters Emilie Taylor?and Victoria Dawes. Clay contains and honours impurities. Making pots offers us the chance to shed our obsession with perfection and the belief there is only one way of doing things.

Handmade pots celebrate difference.

Difference is what makes a community: the variety of people living together. Pottery sits with that variety and holds it.

Each pot, plate or bowl, functions as a container. Emilie is interested in exploring the trust that is formed as people prepare the tableware, the stories told and how they might be sealed into the clay. Pottery has always told the history of people: what is found in fragments is how archaeologists understand a society, perhaps more so that what is written?

Victoria?s approach to making comes from her early transient life. When she started making pots she meditated on what home meant to her. She was making functional pieces for people to take home, for them to become a part of people?s life. At her wheel, she thinks of the furniture that have been passed down through the generations of her family that have moved from house to house, crystal glasses and candlesticks and dinner services collected by different members of her family. All these elements of her familial home feed into her pottery.

Both potters believe craft making is where conversations start, where meaning slips out sideways, through our fingers, through that connection with the earth. These conversations are then drawn into the white slip covering.

Over the summer they?ve run weekly workshops at Groundwork?s community gardens: Cherry Trees and Chepstow Gardens. Groundwork have developed these spaces as inclusive, safe and gentle spaces for people to grow plants and meet people. Homeless people, users of nearby artist studios and young families have all enjoyed these places where Emilie and Victoria explored the thoughtfulness and patience of pottery.

One participant found his own rhythm over the months, drawing everything on the allotment, then translating these drawings onto the plates. He made three plates, three bowls, his own service.

In another workshop two sisters began to draw their recipes and favourite meals (Jamaican lamb, rice and peas & chicken korma) on a piece paper, nervous, uncertain how to distinguish a kidney bean from sweet potato. Mistakes were made, but there was no rubber. They were told, clay is forgiving. And at this stage, on paper, anything could be reshaped or relocated in the final design. With some ideas sketched down they took the pencil to the slipware with a tentative confidence, a bolder leading of the line, scoring ridges into the plate. By the end of the workshop they each had recipes of their favourite meals designed into the plates, ready for firing.

Forgiving at the making stage, perhaps, but clay turns merciless at this point. Anything can happen when the pot goes into the kiln. Some embrace the unexpected, others are unsure at developments.

There?ll be a harvest lunch for everyone who has taken part in the project so far, where the fates of the plates will be revealed, alongside some of the stories and faces behind the pottery. Come back in a couple of weeks to read and see these stories.

In Search of the Lost Orchards

Everyone has a story about apples. Adam and Eve. Snow White. Isaac Newton. William Tell?Philip Parr. Philip, a theatre maker running Lost Orchards of the Left Coast for Banquet, has plenty. The one he told me is quieter, with many branches that curve and bend towards the light, each carrying another story that had its own seeds that will grow into another story.

Phillips Apples Banquet (4)

Philip grew up in Sydney, Australia, next to an empty plot of land. It was left empty because the row of houses had been built from either end of the street, and where they were due to meet, the last plot, it was six inches too narrow for the final house. This vacant lot was attached to the neighbouring house. The one his parents bought. There were apricot and peach trees along with a grape vine on the lot, but completely overgrown. So they cleared the overgrowth and added lemons, mulberries, red grapes, more. Everything was transformed it into pies, jam, chutney, preserved and relished. So much so, fruit equals food in Philip?s head, real food that is as much an art as anything made.

Wyre Salters at Mereside. Banquet Aug 2015 (2)

When he was looking for a house to buy, many years later, he found one in East London with a huge apple tree spreading across the width of the twelve foot garden, in fact beyond, as it overhung the neighbouring gardens. Whether this was the sole reason Philip wanted the house I don?t know, but I suspect it played a key role in his falling for it?

All the houses in this street had had apple trees planted in the back gardens when they were built, making a community orchard for the inhabitants of the street. When Philip found the house, there was still one other apple tree two gardens down and a crab apple further along the street, not as old as the one in Philip?s garden-to be, but a wonderfully ancient pollinator all the same.

Wyre Salters at Mereside. Banquet Aug 2015 (6)

The house had been owned by just one family since it?d been built, and was for sale because its owner had died in an accident. Nobody else in the family wanted it. They just wanted it sold, and offered Philip a quick sale if he took it with all its contents. Philip agreed and moved in. Nobody had been in it since the day the previous owner had stepped out into his fate. So in view of this enormous apple tree that had grown alongside the family?s home, Philip read through the history that was stacked, shelved and boxed away in the house, learning of the rich life of his predecessor who had left school at 14, travelled the world, been a boxing promoter in Rhodesia, worked on cattle farms in Australia before returning to London to work as a motorcycle courier.

There are 600-700 apples on the tree this year. Philip?s already begun stewing them. They?re cookers which turn into eaters later in the season, soon they?ll be ripe for eating straight from the branches. Each one will form part of a new meal, a new story, a point at which to savour what life offers, a reminder to be open to the world around us.

Meanwhile he wants to pick apples from the trees he?s found in Blackpool and the Wyre. He wants to pick and cook these apples together with others, to share recipes and stories, to celebrate the ritual of people coming together to prepare food, to acknowledge the pleasure in the one thing we need to do: eat.

Wyre Salters at Mereside. Banquet Aug 2015 (21)

*If you have an apple story you’d like to share, or want to know more about the project, get in touch

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