Abstract AD 3
Abstract AD 3 Machine pieced felt,
twin needled with pleated fabric,
net and lamé and gold foil

When the V&A Museum first asked me to demonstrate my work and the textile techniques I use, I was delighted. I was slightly less thrilled when they specified my work had to be inspired by Art Deco. I asked if I could be inspired by Art Nouveau instead as I much preferred the style, but the Art Nouveau exhibition at the V&A had taken place several years ago and my demonstration was to tie in with the Art Deco exhibition. Having spent six months immersing myself in Art Deco architecture, I have now become quite a convert.

Abstract AD 1
Abstract AD 1 Machine pieced felt,
fabric, netting and paper,
embellished with sequins

As a style, Art Deco is not defined by one particular look, but relates to certain objects and buildings designed between the two World Wars. It was originally known as Jazz Moderne – and only became known as Art Deco in the 1970s, a much more evocative name, bringing to mind a decadent time with girls in flapper dresses dancing the Charleston. Despite the plethora of Art Deco architecture in London such as the Hoover building on the Westway, the Daily Express building on Fleet Street, and various tube stations, it was of New York’s skyscrapers that really caught my imagination.

Gillian demonstrating
Gillian demonstrating

I love the modular nature of the buildings and the immense amount of detailed thought that had gone into their decoration. Thus inspired, I worked in my sketchbook collaging images together, creating drawings of my favourite details in different media and looking to see how they reacted as a repeat. Art Deco makes me think of opulence and bold flat colour and this suggested manufactured wool felt as a possible material, and limited use of gold lamé and gold leaf. Art Deco can also be a very geometric style and therefore can be immediately translated into patchwork.

Rather than start with the finished product in mind, I find I create more interesting pieces if I leave myself open to what happens when I start playing with the fabric. Happy accidents occur and help build up the final idea into something more exciting than the original drawings. So, setting myself the boundaries of primarily using 4in square blocks, I experimented with ways of getting my ideas onto the fabric. Among the techniques that I tried included twin needling, using a princess pleater on layers of light weight fabric (the felt broke too many needles), boiling pieces of felt tied up with thread, and using net to give more interest to the surface of the felt. Where I liked a piece and thought it was successful, I produced more and soon had a bank of blocks ready to join together.

Art Deco sculpture
Photograph of a sculpture typical of Art Deco style
Lobby of the Empire State Building, New York
Gillian took photographs to
use for inspiration.
This is the lobby of
the Empire State Building,
New York

One of my favourite techniques is to use heavy satin stitch by employing a close-set zigzag stitch on the sewing machine, and this was my primary method of patching. I found that backing the felt with Vilene gave a better stitch mark and also added a pleasing sense of weight. Reviewing the first bigger pieces, I felt that they were lacking in that spark of magic: although the flat colour of the felt was very Art Deco, large areas of it were not very interesting to look at. Going back to my drawings and original photos, I realised that the walls of the buildings are never totally flat; there is always some form of graininess. So some samples were cut up and re-pieced, while others had extra pieces of pleated fabric or net or beads added to them.

Abstract AD2
Abstract AD 2 Machine pieced felt,
with screen printed fabric,
printed paper, pleated scrim
and gold lamé

As usual, I despaired at times of ever having a presentable finished piece. However, also as usual there came a point where everything fell into place and finally I had at least three final pieces resolved.

In Abstract AD 4, the orange and red felt work well together, with the small area of blue just adding complimentary interest. The blue beads help emphasise the vertical nature of the piece, harking back to the skyscrapers that had inspired it. The change in intensity in the red of the circles was created by varying the amount of net added by free machine-quilting.

Abstract AD3 comprises nine felt squares machine-pieced together. All of them have twinneedled lines on them. These lines create small ridges on the surface and were done in two threads, one matt and one shiny for added interest.

Paper collage from Gillianís sketchbook
Paper collage from Gillian’s sketchbook

The demonstration took place in the textile gallery of the V&A on the first weekend of the Art Deco exhibition. Although it was beautiful weather, the museum was very busy, with the exhibition selling out by lunchtime both days. It was great fun to show my work to members of the public (my eight-month old son is not a very discerning critic) and to demonstrate a variety of techniques I had used. I had borrowed a princess pleater machine and this created a great deal of interest as I fed the fabric in one side and it magically came out the other side pleated. Children liked seeing how the gold and red foil had been applied to the fabric, and there was general amusement as I explained how I had managed to create the variation of colour on the felt: I had boiled several different colours together as I was impatient to see if it would work and commercial felt is not colour fast at 100ºC!

Now back in my studio, I am already thinking of the next stages of this series. Although the project is finished in the sense that I have completed the demonstrations, there is always another bigger, better piece lurking at the back of my mind, just waiting to be made.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Number 6 - July 2003