Thursday, 31 January 2013

Let’s All Go to Our Happy Place

To celebrate my 40th post I thought I’d show you something a little bit different. It is this, my Three Tiers of Happiness coffee cosy.

I know, I know, a coffee cosy is not that different from a tea cosy but at the time of making it, it sure felt pretty different I can tell you. After receiving all the relevant information from the person who wanted this creation, my mind was reeling with the important things I wanted to include in this piece and how I was going to put it all together.

The stand-out inspirations for the cosy were; the sea, archaeology and cake. I was a little confounded to begin with. How would or could I make these things relate to each other and also how would I make it look manly because the commission was a present for my clients husband.

I started, as ever, with getting the foundation right. I had never made a coffee cosy before so I set about designing a pattern for the coffee pot. When I make up my own patterns I always write them down. I have notebook after notebook full of things like: Coffee Cosy Attempt 1
5mm needles    2 strands of wool
Cast on 32 stitches
Knit in stocking stitch for 68 rows
(Too long, not enough stitches across, increase by 10)
This is always accompanied by hand drawn boxes with crossed off rows, like you might see in jail cells when prisoners are crossing off the time the have done in cheesy prison films.

For this piece I made a whole test cosy to make sure I worked out all the kinks before starting on the real thing. When I was happy that I had the foundation sorted, I moved on to the concept behind the piece. As you can tell from the title I settled on making this cosy into a shrine to happiness. This is how all the different components were interrelated; they give pleasure to the person this cosy was being created for.

So I designed three layers that, hopefully, all flow into each other to create a cohesive and visually appealing whole. I knit the base in mottled wool with tones of blues, browns and greens. This was to represent the earth for the archaeology layer. I then used one of the brown tones from the wool to create the colour of the cake for the top layer.

I made felt arrow heads and stitched them to the base. I had to put these on first because I wanted them to appear as if they were coming up from under the sea. Not literally out of the sea, I didn’t imagine little archers swimming in the waves, randomly shooting arrows into the air. I mean that I wanted the sea to be the first layer and because the arrows were underneath it in the design, they had to be applied first.

I love the stylised waves created by Japanese print artist Hokusai and I used these for my inspiration for my felt sea. I made a template and cut out my design from different tones of blue felt. I then sewed them into place.

At the top, I ironed some cream coloured felt into pleats and then sewed it around the perimeter of the lid of the cosy to create a cupcake case. The dome of the coffee pot created the body of the cake and then I added a circle of pink and red icing, also made of felt, to complete the cake.

I think this is certainly an unusual design and if it wasn't explained to you or you didn’t know the person well that it was made for, you might be more than a little confused. But I guess that is the unique pleasure of having something specifically designed for you. It doesn’t have to appeal to everybody; it just has to appeal to one person. I don’t think you can really describe the experience of receiving something that has been made just for you.

Luckily for me I have had some very artistic friends and family and I have received some of my most treasured possessions from them. They are treasured because they were made with me in mind and there is so much thought and consideration gone into them.

I highly recommend commissioning original art work, not because I’m trying to get a job out of it, you don’t have to hire me. I recommend it because there is nothing like receiving the work when it is finished and it is, in my experience, worth every penny that it costs. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. There are great sites out there selling one of a kind or customisable pieces that are worth investing in and they can suit many different budgets. Check out Etsy to get you started and there is a whole world of artists and creators that can be discovered from there. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It?

When I was finished this Snug I decided I would try something a little different when taking photographs of her. As you have seen with a lot of my work, I have taken photographs with a plain, neutral background. I was taught in college to use as much natural light as possible (not an easy task in a perpetually over cast country like Ireland) and a white or plain background to put the emphasis on your work rather than anything else. I think these rules or guidelines were advised to help our work to look professional and also, so as not to cause any confusion about what is being shown.

This all makes absolute sense to me and I am really happy with that style of photograph that I have taken. There are great “how-to’s” on the internet these days to show you how to make DIY lighting set-ups for taking pictures of your work. I am absolutely going to take advantage of such resources in the future for documenting my art.

But as I was saying, with this Snug I felt like trying something a bit different to capture her. I decided I would try to photograph her in my work space surrounded by all the tools and materials that went into making her.

My work area, at this time, was in what was supposed to be the dining part of our house. We were living in a townhouse. It had a separate compact kitchen but the living room and dining room were all part of one long space at the back of the house.  I used the dining room table as my work station. I had one of those long fabric storage shelves for storing my wool and an end table was choc-a-bloc with boxes of beads, threads, sewing kits, drawing materials and old odds and ends from my art tool box.

There was also a computer in this area and a whole wall of photographs, postcards and inspirational images to help with the creative process. I liked working in that space I have to say. It was part of the house and you could be always in the thick of things even if you were working. The double doors in the back were also facing full south so if the sun was shining the room was always bright and warm.


I have mixed feelings about how these photographs turned out. I don’t think they are bright enough or clear enough to use in a professional way, for example, for postcards or prints of my work. But I do think they have some personality. She sits in the environment in which she was created and so, looks comfortable and part of the whole scene.

I did go back to shooting my photographs in a more neutral background after that but later on, I think it helped me to loosen up and create some set-ups that were not only about show-casing my work but were also about setting a scene. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

“Press Play again, I Missed That Whole Thing”

While looking through my archive photographs over the weekend, I realised that I had gotten totally out of sync with showing you some of my work. The piece I am showing you today was made way back, in fact, it was made three house moves ago.

As I was saying to you before I can tell how long ago I have made each piece by what house I was living in at the time. This Snug was made in the early days. I can tell by the colours of wool I was using. I can see by her make up that I was still in the early days of experimentation. Everything about her says “Early Snug” to me.

Sometimes when I have made a lot of something, I have found that I feel tempted to disparage my early incarnations. I have talked warmly here of the First Fat Bee and our first Snug, Greg, but it’s not really the firsts that are the problem. It can be more the seconds, thirds and fourths that cause the real discomfort. It can be like the difficult second album for musicians. Everybody liked the first thing that you made but now how do you follow it up?

I have found the first idea to be so exhilarating. You get something into your head, your inspiration hits and you are moved to get out of your seat and to go and physically make something. I have experienced the feeling of being totally consumed by making a piece of art, happy hours of being “in the now”. Time can be gone in a flash. You can put on an album and without hearing anything the last song is playing and your favourite track has passed you by.

That kind of experience is what is so addictive about the creative process. That is what makes you compromise on some other material pleasures in life, the pursuit of creation itself.

Those days are wonderful. They are the kind of days you hope for when you take those first tentative steps to becoming an artist. But, alas, not every day is like this. On those days it feels like I have tuned into something bigger and I can run off that energy. My ego seems to take a back seat and I find I don’t question my decision making as much. I use my intuition with confidence and it shows in the final piece.

But that can be just the starting point for a whole collection of work I want to make. The challenge or difficulty after that is to continue making when the first flash of hedonistic inspiration is gone. I cannot live in a perpetual state of exhilaration; the cold light of day will eventually dawn. As an artist, I have found that one of my challenges is how to keep making after I move out of that first rush.

The problems can be one of confidence. I may start questioning the work. What came naturally in the beginning can now be over-analyzed and picked apart. In contrast, I may be so pleased with the first thing I made that I can’t imagine anything else being as good as it.

This is where the messy, plodding, uncomfortable and scary work begins. Consciousness, ego-interference, questioning and emotional baggage all come to the surface now to play their parts.
I think the success of these early pieces is that they get made. Their beauty lies in the risk it took to continue making something when it feels more challenging, when you have more to lose in terms of reputation and personal expectations. To keep making with the risk that it will turn out crap!

For the record, I don’t think this Snug is crap. I like her experimental knitted bustle and I’m proud of the bead work I did on her head piece. She is complete. Did I go on to make something more accomplished? Probably! But only because I made her first. I had to make and make and make in order to improve, improve and improve. The full story will never get told unless you keep on telling it.  

Monday, 28 January 2013

..……And Then There was Light ….... (A challenge) (Maybe not as big a challenge as creating a whole universe, but everything is relative, right?)

Not long after I had finished the second of the sweat lodge tea cosies, which I showed you on Friday, I again was asked to make something that was a little outside my comfort zone. It was another structure but this time, at least, I did actually know what it was. I was asked to make a lighthouse tea cosy. For the third time I was taken aback (you would think I might have gotten used to strange requests by now). I considered it for a moment and then said yes, I had grown in confidence since doing the other commissions and this was to be my new challenge.

(Let me also note that the person I was asked to make this for is extremely dear to me and I probably would have given the Taj Mahal a go if it had been requested.)

I very luckily had spotted a tea pot when out shopping that might fit the shape of a lighthouse very well. It was cylindrical and tall. It was wider at the bottom then it was at the top and on its own, it was a very handsome tea pot. I bought this tea pot as the first task so I could build the structure around it,

I decided that rather than just make the lighthouse on its own, I would try to give it some context. I wanted to situate it in its environment. So I designed three layers; the lighthouse itself, the rock it would sit on and finally, the sea all around it.

I started with natural looking wool for the rock. I knit it in a garter stitch to make it look textured and rough. When I moved on to the lighthouse I switched to a stocking stitch, which is smother and flatter by comparison, to create a contrast to the rock. I knit the part of the structure that holds the light separately and attached it after the main body was complete and secure.

The real fun of making this piece was all the extra details I was able to put on it. Adding the decoration is my favourite part. I love thinking up ways to make each piece as individual as the person I am making it for.

I made a felt sea that I encrusted with seed beads to represent the spray. I sewed it on in layers; I wanted it to look like those waves they create for stage productions, where there are people on either side of the stage moving them back and forth to create the undulating water. I made a tiny boat to sit in the water. Hopefully the lighthouse is guiding it to port or to safe waters.

I made small windows and a door. I decided I would go traditional nautical and accent the navy and white stripes with red. I made a platform up on top with a red railing going around it. I used beads and wire to construct it. I used two large yellow buttons to create the light, the most important detail of all! I also made a bird to perch up on top of the light house. When he was finished I thought he looked like a bit of a mythical creature. I see him as the guardian of the place, who keeps a look out for trouble.

In the end, it turned out that the thought of this project was much more challenging than the actual making of it. I was gratified to find I made it in good time and overcame any obstacles quite easily. If I had any advice to give about starting something similar where the thought of it is intimidating, I would say, just start. Just start and see where it takes you. I will always do small experiments at the beginning to figure out the more difficult parts and once you know where you are with the hard bits, the easy bits just flow (in my experience). Other than that, I would say, do what you know. You don’t have to learn a new stitch or a new technique in every project. If a concept is challenging, try to take it into some sort of familiar territory for yourself and once you are situated then you can afford to challenge yourself a bit further. Finally, if at all possible, try to enjoy the process. I had great fun making this piece. I loved it when it was finished (I secretly wanted to keep it for myself).

Alright then, that is all for today.

Class dismissed!
(I was starting to sound a bit like a primary school teacher) 


Friday, 25 January 2013

One for Sorrow (well not really sorrow, lets say one for challenge), Two for Joy

I’m showing you two Snugs today and frankly, I never imagined I’d be making such a thing once never mind twice. These are Sweat Lodge tea cosies. I had no idea what a sweat lodge was when somebody came to me with idea of making one for a couple for their wedding present.
(Firstly let me apologise for the quality of the photographs. In both cases, I didn’t have a proper set up and I was just trying to get shots to document the work before they had to be delivered)

I listened tentatively as this project was proposed to me. I didn’t know what a sweat lodge looked like, I didn’t know if I could make one out of wool and I didn’t know if my abilities would be up to scratch. As I said in a previous post, I was in a place where I was challenging myself to say YES to new ideas, new commissions and new tests to my capacities as a maker.

I was brave in the moment and said that I would research sweat lodges, look for images and get back to the person if I thought it was possible. The day you are asked to make a sweat lodge tea cosy is the day you are grateful for Google images and Wikipedia. I’ll add the Wiki link below if you want to read for yourself in a bit more detail about what a sweat lodge is. I would also recommend putting sweat lodge into the Google image search to get a range of images to see what they can look like.

From my understanding, a sweat lodge is a hut like structure that is used for ceremonial purposes in Native American, Scandinavian, Baltic and Eastern European cultures. In the example I worked from, heavy blankets cover the lodge and stones that have been heated in a fire are placed inside the hut. Water is poured over the stones to create steam. Traditional prayer and song can also be part of the ceremony. The sweat lodge practice holds special significance for the couple this gift was being made for and so the client wanted to commission this unique tribute to them.

When I saw the images for the first time I was still feeling sceptical about my ability to make something that just didn’t look like scraps of material sewn on to a tea cosy. The images of the real lodges looked very rustic to me. It seemed whatever was going on in the inside of the sweat lodge was much more important than the aesthetic quality of the outside of it. But there would be tea on the inside of my sweat lodge and I found the challenge was how to convey the emotional and spiritual resonance of the practice of the sweat lodge onto the visual aspect of the exterior of it. I also wanted to make it personal to the couple for whom it was being made for.

I decided I would make a natural looking basic cosy to fit over the tea pot. Although it would never really be seen I wanted it to be representative of the foundation structure that had to be built for the sweat lodge. I then decided to make individual blankets, each one a little art piece in itself. I used the personal information the client had given me about the couple to pick the colours and to create some symbols. I embroidered these images onto the small blankets.

Then the experimentation began. I laid the blankets over the basic cosy in many many different configurations, trying to settle on the most visually pleasing arrangement. I finally picked the arrangement I liked the best and sewed the blankets into place. I used one of the blankets to create a doorway into the lodge and I embroidered the couple’s initials inside as a little secret surprise to be discovered later.

As you have seen from my other work I love to bead and embellish but with this piece I tried to use a restrained hand. I only used some tiny shell beads I had collected to compliment the themes of nature and being in the wilderness.

When I was finally finished this piece I was over come with relief. It was so different from the other things that I hade made, that I don’t think I knew how to evaluate it properly. I just had to go with my gut and my gut said I had done the best I could with the challenge presented. I had thought about the piece long and hard, I had problem solved and tried to be creative.

I’m very happy to say that the client was delighted with the work and again I felt flooded with relief. I had undertaken a challenge and by all accounts it had proved successful.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when somebody else who knew I had made this tea cosy asked me to make another one.

She had done a placement with a Native American group who work with sweat lodges as part of a recovery programme. She wanted to send them the tea cosy as a thank you present for having her over with them and sharing their experiences with her.

Although I had already made the aforementioned sweat lodge, I felt a new kind of pressure. I was making something for people whom this practice meant so much and was part of their culture. I wanted to be totally respectful and handle this new commission with more than my usual care. I decided with the client that I would research symbols that held meaning in the Native American culture and use these to convey how the client felt about her experience and what she had learned from it. I embroidered these symbols onto the blankets and also a shamrock to represent the client herself. I slightly changed the structure this time to include a more defined doorway as well.

I never imagined that my art archive would include two sweat lodge tea cosies. Looking back now I feel glad that I said yes and accepted the challenge. It helped me in little ways to be more confident about my abilities and to trust that I can come up with something for even the most unlikely of commissions.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A Snug: Thirty Years in the Making

This is Dainty Dewberry. She is one of those commissions that were inspired by the work I was already doing. The customer wanted this Snug for a good friend of hers. As with the Threadbare Bug Collection, I discussed colours and tones that the person might like. Because the tea cosies are also practical/household items some people liked to match them to the kitchen interiors while other people preferred to go with colours in relation to person themselves.

Dainty’s colouring was chosen in regards to the person she was being made for. She is in shades of pink, purple and midnight blue. I gave the Snug clean lines with this strong statement bow on the back. I also gave her a decorative hat with details of buttons, beads and feathers for femininity.

So many people have asked me over the years about how I come up with my ideas. A lot of the time the conversation is sparked because the person themselves can’t imagine being able to come up with anything like it.

I try to say in my most reassuring voice that I can that I have been trained from a very young age to come up with these ideas. My parents, seeing I had an aptitude and an interest in art, took the risk and invested in extra art classes for me. I have been very fortunate that I never had to fight my parents on my chosen career unlike many other artists.

I worked hard in my secondary school art classes; it was the most important subject to me. I had a very good art teacher who gave me fine skills and a good kick up the you know what when I needed it. I succeeded in getting into art school and again worked very hard the three years I was there.

I have continued to practice art every year since I left college in big and little ways. I am an artist because I make art. When you do something on a regular basis you get better and better at it.

I think art is very often sold to the general public as a gift that is dropped on you like fairy dust and then you are granted talent and ability. It serves a small group of people (generally the people with the money) to promote artists like mystics who see through the veil and are not like “regular” people. It serves a lot of artists too, don’t get me wrong. It can be a real ego boost to feel like a “chosen one”.

But rather paradoxically, I have found disappointingly and encouragingly that people are not really “chosen” in that sense. I think in many cases, people work really really hard and are artists because they make art every day. The hard work aspect seems to get over-looked quite often. You are told how lucky you are to be creative every day. I don’t always feel so lucky; sometimes I would love to get my kicks out of chemistry or law. A pre-ordained career path would be nice sometimes (though some lawyers and chemists may disagree with me).

But unfortunately for me the art bug has bitten and an undefined career path it is. I wouldn’t really give it back though. I’m not complaining, I guess I’m trying to explain something. Being an artist is a job like any other, totally un-mystical I know, but true I feel. 


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Woolly Political Theory

 The materials I used were very important to the finish I wanted to achieve with this Snug. I chose quite expensive yarns for the body of the piece and for the decoration. I think I used real wool rather than a synthetic one and a Mohair yarn for the trim and ruffles. I wanted it to feel plush and tactile.

You can achieve quite a lot with acrylic wools in terms of colour options and affordability. I know a lot of knitters knock them for various reasons (reasons which I am sure are totally justified) but I guess I am a bit more of a democratic knitter myself. I would love to have an “Only Real Wool” motto on my knitting bag but unfortunately, living on an artist’s wages means you can’t always get what you want. Real wools are beautiful, natural and so warm but they can come with a hefty price tag. I totally admit I still haven’t gotten the knack of buying wool on-line which I’m sure makes it much more affordable.

I’m more a buy-a-ball-as-I-need-it kind of girl. Sometimes, when I see things like “Real knitters only use Real wool” I feel like it is kind of exclusionary. I think if someone has two euro to buy a ball of wool and they make something fabulous with it, where is the harm in that? Even if they make something terrible, who cares? Children could learn to knit the basics with cheap wool to give their parent’s budget a break and if they really get into it then they could move on to the hard stuff.

I don’t really want to knock anybody here but sometimes I would prefer if people wouldn’t be so absolute about things. I don’t want to have to hide my acrylic wool like a bad secret in a knitting circle or worse, let what I can afford in terms of wool stop me going at all because I don’t or can’t buy the real deal. There can be extremists in everything but I don’t think they should always get the last word. I think I will be a rebel and put on my knitting bag “I use all kinds of wool, I’m on a budget”.
Rant over!

As you can see, even knitting has politics. Someone will probably tell me tomorrow how terrible acrylic wool is for the environment or something and I’ll have to take the whole darn thing back. Don’t be surprised if you see a “I’ve been converted, I use real wool” sign on my post tomorrow.

I have gotten totally side-tracked and all riled up. Sorry about that. I wanted Constance Curio here to have quite a sophisticated look to her (even if she is a tea cosy with googly eyes) I chose rich, deep colours and I layered her bustle with frills lace and feathers. She also has a decorative feathered flower in the front and a Venetian mask. I think she is the kind of snug who has sumptuous dinner parties with dancing afterwards.

It takes all kinds of wool and all kinds of people to make the things I make. A colour will inspire me one day, a texture the next and sometimes, it is something beautiful someone has said about a loved one that will turn that light bulb on in my head. It all comes to the same end though; a unique and personal art piece to be treasured.  

Monday, 21 January 2013

Saying Yes

 Today I will start to show you the commissioned snugs that I have made. I have talked before about my commission process in relation to the Threadbare Bug Collection. The Snugs really lend themselves well to commissions. They are a practical item plus they can be made in any colour (well, any colour that is available in wool) and they can be personalised in many different ways.

Within a week of making Greg, my sister asked me to make a snug for her friend’s birthday. Then her friend asked me to make a Snug for a friend of her family’s.

This is Kitty. She was commissioned for a couple in honour of their family pet. At the time it was an odd request for me because I had been making all the fantastical creatures with hats, bustles and flowered petticoats. This was much more straightforward and with minimal embellishment. I have to admit that I was a little afraid of it. But generally in life I have found that if you are afraid of doing something, then if you can at all, you should try giving it a go.

Kitty is nothing at all like the other Snugs but I am pleased with how she turned out. At this time in my life it kind of became a policy to try to say yes to all different kinds of commissions. When I said yes, even when I wasn’t sure how things would turn out, it challenged me to come up with something new. Saying yes led to more experimentation and led to me improving my skills. Sometimes it led me to patterns or imagery that I would never be naturally drawn to myself. Saying yes made me think outside the box, it forced me to really think hard about a design and sometimes to get over myself about what I think makes ‘good’ art.

What you will see in the next series of posts is some commissioned pieces that were in line with what I was already making and then some commissions that were very different and specifically tailored with a person in mind. In the end, they are all tea cosies, they were all made by me and every one of them holds not a literal but a stylistic signature of my work.

Monday, 14 January 2013

An Important Message: Could You Change A Snugs Life Today?

Last week I wrote about the late selling Dotty Dandelion and also about taking risks in my art making. I wrote in my last post that most of the risks I have taken had paid off.

Most, but not all. That is the focus of today’s post. This is Billy Jet; he is a snug I made that never sold. He is the weird dog in the pound that nobody wants to adopt, he is an oddity and he is homeless. Of course he is here with me but he is always packed away waiting to go to another market. We have Gregarious as our tea cosy and if I had a bigger kitchen or more counter space I would probably take him out and let him settle in here with us. But somehow, that never seemed right to me.

He is a bit crazy looking, I know that. He was one of the last made and I was obviously experimenting with colours. I think his body turned out like a bad 1970’s jumper that people wear without a collar. Although I have seen that they have slightly come back into fashion of late. When I was finished knitting him I remember thinking, ‘You are weird’. The whole 1970’s thing got me thinking of Elton John in his tripped-out star-shaped glasses phase.

I decided I would go with it. I gave him a bright tux, the star glasses, feathered top hat and even some side-burns over his ears that made him look like he has a bald patch. I named him Billy Jet in honour of the song but I always call him Elton when I am referring to him to people in the know.

When I started writing this section of the blog I got to thinking about Billy Jet. I believe in giving and receiving. I try to clear out things in my house once or twice a year to release the old and make room for the new. I have decided that I will release Billy from his storage prison and try to send him out into the world.

So I am here today to send out a plea for a new home for Billy Jet. He is completely free of charge with no strings attached. All I ask is that you use him; he has spent too much time hidden away.

I would much prefer that he be out in the open, living up to his life purpose of tea warming than stuck at home here in a box.

If anybody is interested in taking him in you can just leave me your name in the comment box below or on facebook. If more than one person is interested in having him I will do a draw and pick a name out of a hat.

I really would love if someone would take him in and make him part of their home. He has a flamboyant personality that would brighten any space.

I include below his label information so you can get to know him a little better.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Gang’s All Here!

To finish the week, I thought I would show you these group shots I had taken of the whole gang together before they went out into the world to find there own way.

We were living in our tiny basement flat in Dublin at the time these photos were taken. I think I was standing on our stairs to get a broad view. It is great for me to see a whole body of work that I have made together like this. On a bad day, I sometimes feel like I have made very little or that I am totally uncreative. A picture like this doesn’t tell a lie though. It is a good reminder of the hours I have spent experimenting, learning and risk-taking. Thankfully most of the risks taken here have paid off and other people saw the value in the efforts I had made.

These photographs not only document the work but are also a reminder of the places I have lived, how I was feeling at the time and where I was in a creative sense. They can hold the life of the work but also the life I was living along side it. One of my on-going goals is to have my art incorporated into life daily and to live life artfully.