2013 in Review

(Belated) happy new year all! And sorry about the lack of blog posts towards the end of 2013… I don’t really know what happened. My new year’s resolution is to blog more regularly, although it seems I haven’t got off to the best of starts.

The life of a PhD student is a strange one. Often you feel like you achieve very little, plodding into the office every day, reading a bit, and then plodding home again for dinner (and a knit). As we moved into the New Year I didn’t feel as if 2013 had been particularly significant for me. It was that ‘middle stage’ of the PhD, the bit that doesn’t have the freshness and excitement of starting but also the bit without the panic and pressure of writing up and getting-it-done. But actually, when I stopped and considered it 2013 was alright. More than alright in many respects, and quite eventful!

At the start of the year I was busy throwing myself into interviewing local makers. I met some wonderful people – including basket weavers, fabric artists, a ceramicist, mosaicist, silversmith, and a metal sculptor – who welcomed me into their workspaces and allowed me an insight into their craft worlds. I also spoke with Matthew Partington from UWE about interviewing craftspeople and the on-going project he is involved in called ‘recording the crafts’. This was useful, not only for the interviewing work I had already been doing, but for the archival practice I was about to embark on at the University of Southampton.


As many of you know I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘In the Loop 3.5’ conference in Shetland over the summer, which marked my first ever visit to the northerly Island. The scenery was stunning, the conference fascinating, and the wool plentiful. Needless to say I came back with a case stuffed full of yarny goodness. In the Loop was organised by the lovely, and totally inspirational, Linda Newington. Linda is based at Winchester School of Arts and curates the Knitting Reference Library (KRL). After hearing about this veritable treasure trove at In the Loop I arranged a visit to delve through some of the books and patterns held both at Winchester and in Southampton. Oh my gosh, it’s a wonderful collection! Everything you can think of to do with knitting is here – from Victorian patterns to yarn samples, letters between famous knitters to needles, and drop spindles to toilet roll covers. It’s just jaw-dropping, and such a privilege to be allowed a glimpse of craft history. Longer blog post to follow dedicated solely to the KRL, I promise.

994228_10153105547705534_151050738_nA Shetland Knitting Circle

I’ve also been spending an increasing amount of time at Paper Village and getting involved with their community projects. In May we unveiled the coral reef – a fab crochet project that involved 38 local crafters making a woolly underwater wonderland that went on display for a month or so and got some great feedback from crafters and non-crafters alike. The next project is the City of Briswool – a mission to knit, crochet, and needlefelt a fibrous representation of Bristol. I’ve been tasked with making Beese’s tea rooms and some trees for Arnos Vale cemetery. It’s going to be massive and I can’t wait to see the finished piece! Going to Paper Village isn’t all about project work though; I’ve also been going to the weekly knit and natter group there and enrolled in a few courses. As a result I can now make my own (cotton, not knitted) knickers!

971408_628315547181681_1907177861_nThe Paper Village Coral Reef

Vicky from Paper Village was also kind enough to collaborate with me in a recent conference we did on crafting at the University’s ‘Thinking Futures’ event. We spoke alongside other academics and practitioners at what was, overall, a relaxed, fun, and interesting evening discussing a range of craft-related issues. On the subject of conferences, 2013 was my first visit to the annual RGS-IBG conference in London at which I also presented in a session on the geographies of comfort. It turned out to be a great few days actually, helped in no small part by some glorious weather, where I got to meet a huge range of geographers and generally mingle with people working in similar fields. My paper went much better than I expected it to (given how incredibly anxious I’d been about it in the weeks leading up to the event) and the conference as a whole was a bit of a summer boost.

In terms of yarn bombing this year I’ve largely kept my head down, excluding one or two big events. My absolute favourite commission was being asked to decorate the surroundings for one of Bristol’s Gromits over the summer for Hotel du Vin. The team were so lovely and welcoming and helped me cover their courtyard in bunting, pom-poms, and a giant bone. It looked great, and I had lots of positive feedback on it too. I also did some work for AXA’s graduate scheme again, this time making pom-poms to adorn Warwick University’s campus during a career fair. Apparently though the wrap from 2012 is still doing the rounds and has been displayed all over the country! Nice to know it’s holding up ok. I was also sent a link to a yarn bombing documentary a few weeks ago which I was interviewed for. The other participants are Spanish, but this version of the video has English subtitles if you fancy a watch. There’s some very impressive work going on!

It probably goes without much saying that I did a fair amount of knitting in 2013. Not as much as I would have liked, but I did manage to get through over 7 miles of yarn – just in my personal projects! Not too shabby. I doubt I’ll get as much knitted up in 2014, but watch out for a few upcoming posts I have planned on some exciting projects I’ll be embarking on shortly. It’s going to be an exciting year by all accounts – I’m off to Australia for three months starting in February having been awarded a grant by the ESRC to work with a professor at the University of Newcastle. I can’t wait! Then it will almost be time for another RGS-IBG conference (at which I’m co-organising a session), before getting the thesis written and finished. Lots to look forward to then! 

RGS-IBG 2014 CFP: Geographies of Skilled Practice and Co-production

RGS-garden (1)Myself and my supervisor Merle Patchett are organising a session to be held at the annual RGS-IBG conference this summer on the theme of skilled practice and co-production. If you’d like to take part then we’d love to hear from you! Details below: 

Call for Papers: 2014 RGS Annual Conference, London 26-29 August 2014

Geographies of skilled practice and co-production

Session abstract: What is the place of skilled practice in the 21st century? Does the frenetic pace of life and availability of new technologies augur the death of skill or are we simply becoming skilful in different ways, in different settings and through different means? Where past conceptions of skilled practice have focussed on notions of the solitary artisan refining techniques alone or under a master in the workshop, geographers are increasingly paying attention to the ways in which skill is co-produced between different actors (both human and non-human), technologies and materials in and across a variety of temporal and spatial scales, contexts and settings. In this session we thus want to make space (and time) for papers that offer theoretical reflections on skilled practice and processes of becoming-skilful, as well as papers that showcase committed empirical engagements with skilled practice and its geographies of co-production.

As such we invite papers exploring, but by no means limited to:

* The place(s) and relevance of skill in contemporary life

* Theoretical reflections on skill and becoming-skilful

* The learning and refining of skills – i.e. how is skill co-produced?

* The ethics and/or politics of skilled-practice as a form of co-production

* Ethnographies of skilled practice

* The influence of technology and the non-human within skilled practice

* The use of ‘skill’ as a geographical research tool

* Challenges of witnessing and articulating skilled practice

* What counts as ‘skilled’ practice?

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Joanna Mann (Joanna.mann@bristol.ac.uk) and Merle Patchett (Merle.patchett@bristol.ac.uk) by Friday 7th February 2014.


Longer version: Geographers have long worked with skilled practitioners to co-produce research in a whole variety of contexts. Recent examples include DeSilvey et al’s (2013) stories of menders in Southwest England, Richard Ocejo’s (2012) examination of cocktail bartenders, and Patchett et al’s (2011, 2012) collaborative re-workings of taxidermy specimens. In all of these instances, the work carried out is trying to access knowledge which is rooted in deep practice and elucidate it for means of preservation, theoretical exemplification, or the passing on of techniques.

Meanwhile, theoretical insights from outside of geography are changing understandings of what it means to co-produce skill itself. Anthropology, for instance has shown how skills are generated in fields of force and through circulations of materials that cut across boundaries (Ingold, 2013; 2000). Sociology has highlighted how skills develop within processes, and become highly attuned to problems the more it is honed (Sennett, 2009). Meanwhile academics working within the theoretical realms of new materialisms have emphasised a move away from these romantic inflections to look at the capricious and unruly matter of matter, further enabling geographers to look at the materials of co-production without negating new technologies as forms of skilled practice in themselves (Bennett, 2010; Connolly, 2013).

Furthermore, the recent turn towards practice-based inquiry has witnessed academics using their own skills, both new and existing, as part of their research. James Ash (2012; 2013) uses his existing skills of video gaming to theorise affect, temporality, and technicity, whilst Tim Ingold (2000; 2013) often draws on his experience of cello-playing to illustrate arguments. The task of becoming proficient in such skills has also proven to be strong academic fodder whilst interrogating topics as varied as glass blowing (O’Connor, 2007) and corncrake counting (Lorimer, 2008). Yet, the skilled practices involved in academic work itself – both of writing and research methodologies – can also provide a fertile ground for thought, as evidenced by recent insights on archival methods (Lorimer, 2010), innovative phonographic work (Gallagher and Prior, 2013), and performative writing practices (Dewsbury, 2014), amongst others.

In this session we want to move beyond the plethora of methods advocating ‘make-do’ techniques and DIY cultures and make space (and time) for papers that offer theoretical reflections on skilled practice and processes of becoming-skilful, as well as papers that showcase committed empirical engagements with skilled practice and geographies of co-production.

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Joanna Mann (Joanna.mann@bristol.ac.uk) and Merle Patchett (Merle.patchett@bristol.ac.uk) by Friday 7th February 2014.

Crafting: Materials, Ecologies, Economies

tfThinking Futures is a week-long Festival to share and celebrate research from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Law. This year members of my research cluster (Politics and Matter) are hosting the event Crafting in collaboration with local craft practitioners. This panel event will showcase ongoing research and coproduction in the Faculty on questions of crafting, materialism, community economies, and ecologies of thought and action. Primarily the session will highlight what emerging social theoretical perspectives can offer in terms of rethinking the place and power of craft and craftwork in the contemporary world. Is the recent revival of handicrafts a romanticisation of past worlds, or does it tell us something about our contemporary condition? Can past and present practices be shown to resonate? Can craft generate new forms of community activism which allow us envisage alternative economic futures? How does an engagement with the intricacies of craft practices alter the way we understand ecologies of thought, action, and process?

In this event, three dialogues, between theory and practice, will take up these questions and form the basis for an open discussion:


Dr Merle Patchett (Bristol University) and Peter Summers (Taxidermist) on “The Craft of Taxidermy and Re-Drawing an Ethic of Apprenticeship”


Joanna Mann (Bristol University) and Vicky Harrison (Owner of Paper Village and local ‘craftivist’) on “Crafting Community”


Dr Naomi Millner (Bristol University) and Jethro Brice (Bristol-based artist) on “Craft, labour and the commons”.

Chaired by Dr Mark Jackson, the panel will consider the importance of craft and craftwork to broader questions of political, economic and social change. The audience will be encouraged to participate in thinking material futures through craft and to question the craft of experience. Conversation will roll into a wine reception, where further interactive discussion will take place, and practices will be on display.

The event will take place on Friday 8th November 6.00-7.30pm at The Kitchen, The Station, Silver Street, Bristol BS1 2AG. Tickets are free, but seats are limited. Please order yours through the eventbrite system on the Thinking Futures website.

More makers

Since my last update I’ve met up with a further four local makers. The first was fused glass artist (and carpenter) Kim Mylchreest who works from her garden studio to create bowls, plates, wall-art, jewellery, coasters, and anything else glassy you might be able to think of. We talked about the process of learning new skills and perfecting what you do, and making sure the materials are right at every stage. I never knew glass was so versatile and totally fell in love with some beautiful shiny glass called dichroic glass that looked a bit like iridescent fish scales. I also had the opportunity to meet with the basket maker Norah Kennedy in Stroud who told me all about the basket communities she’s become involved with all around the world and taught me loads about different types of basket-making using a wide variety of materials and techniques. Norah also does loads of teaching, and even taught Roy Youdale who I interviewed last year about his basket practice. Visiting Norah was much like visiting a basket museum with her vast collection of baskets from the world over and I was thrilled to be able to learn so much in just one visit.

My most recent interviews were with Sarah Burford and Julian Warren. Sarah is perhaps more widely known as Curious Pip and she makes handcrafted dolls using vintage fabrics and inspiration from 30s showgirls. Self-taught and working from home Sarah started out doing illustrations with the intention to make herself a little pocket money. Two years on and her dolls have become internationally collectable and always in high demand. We talked about the importance of the online community for contemporary makers and where her business might progress next. Sculptor Julian Warren of Metalgnu, on the other hand, has already been welding his creations for twenty years so it was great to hear the contrasts between someone just starting out and someone more established in their trade. Julian’s creations already adorn much of Bristol (in the Botanic Gardens, St Andrews Park, and on Whiteladies Road to name a few locations) and he showed me the latest work soon to be installed at the University. Julian’s sculpture fence is somewhat legendary in the area, and works as both something personal and a free shop-front.

photo (5)

Above top left to bottom right: Kim Mylchreest’s fused glass heart, Norah Kennedy’s basket-weaving studio, two of Sarah Burford’s dolls, and a sculpture by Julian Warren

It’s nice to have such a variety between the things people are making, whilst at the same time starting to draw out themes that run throughout. For instance, the importance of time is something that comes up a lot, not only in the sense of time taken to learn a craft, but in thinking about how much time goes into each piece, and the impossibility of accurately charging for time. Many creative practitioners, particularly those working from home, have stressed the difficulty of separating themselves from their work, thus making it difficult to define ‘work’ time from ‘free’ time. Following this, then, how does one price something that might have taken 14 hours of actually interacting with the final piece to make, but also had endless hours of mentally planning the work, and years of practice to hone specialist skills? Different makers I’ve spoken to have dealt with this in all sorts of ways and it’s been fascinating to learn about the intricacies of their businesses.

Something else that’s really run throughout each and every interview is the real passion people have for the things they make. An enthusiasm for skill, materials, tradition, and innovation has been at the foreground of our conversations, and there’s been a strong sense of community lying underneath as makers recommend other artists and craftspeople to talk to and visit that they might have worked with, trained under, or simply admired themselves.

To make a start on analysing these themes I’ve been using my new favourite technique – word clouds. By pasting the text you want to analyse into a programme such as wordle you can produce snazzy-looking visual representations which instantly highlight the key issues that came up when talking to someone. The bigger the words appear, the more often they were mentioned. For instance, here’s the word cloud that resulted from my conversation with Sarah last week:

sarah word cloud

As you’d expect, words such as ‘dolls’ and ‘fabric’ loom large, as this is what Sarah’s craft is based around. We can also pick out the themes most influential in her work – ‘vintage’, ’30s’, and  ‘showgirls’ amongst others. I find it interesting that ‘things’ and ‘people’ are two of the largest words, indicating a stark bifurcation in thinking between maker and made which is at the heart of craft discourse. It is precisely this bifurcation that I’m interested in investigating, and potentially flattening out somewhat through drawing on theorists such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour. I’ll save that excitement for another blog post though, this one is plenty long enough as it is.

Meeting the makers…

This post is seriously overdue….I’ve been promising myself (and others) that’ll I’d write about what I’ve been up to lately with the old PhD, but never actually getting around to it. I’ve been fairly busy lately with meetings, writing conference abstracts, attending knitting circles, visiting pop-up gallery spaces, and, of course, reading, but I’m going to dedicate this post to talking about some of the lovely makers I’ve met over the course of my PhD research so far.

Just to re-cap – my research (as it stands) is around the geographies of craft and crafting practices in Bristol with a primary focus on the pro-am (professional-amateur) movement. As such I am currently in the process of meeting with various artists and craftspeople around the city in their studio spaces (which vary from rented spaces in ‘official’ arts studios to bedrooms and garages in homes). The study overall is based on people with an enthusiasm for materials and I am using this as my way in to look at what a non-human perspective can bring to the characterisation of the craft movement and collective economies more broadly.

To date I’ve met with 7 makers, all of whom have been able to share some fascinating insights into what constitutes the so-called ‘contemporary craft movement’, and have been more than happy to introduce me to their materials, techniques, and work-spaces.

My first crafty conversation was with Jenny Hall (a.k.a. the Mistress of Monsters) and her fabric art creations at the end of last year. We chatted about creative expression, balancing work with crafting, makers economies, and sources of inspiration. Jenny’s a self-taught maker and it was fascinating to talk to her about the drive to create and have the ability to express yourself through assembling materials, rather than simply using words.


Jenny’s Monsters and Felicity’s Mosaics

Shortly afterwards, I met with Felicity Ball of ‘Just Mosaics‘; another self-taught maker who came across mosaic art on holiday in Venice. After experimenting with different tiles, grouts, shapes, and textures, Felicity has managed to develop a unique and exciting style in her work which she promotes online. Our conversation highlighted the importance of networking, of knowing the limits of your materials when designing, the ‘buzz’ one can get out of making, and the distinctions between art and craft.

My next maker was, in some ways, quite a contrast to my other two. Architectural glass artist Stuart Low trained at Swansea school of art and has since been focused on commissioned projects in the public realm – including churches, hospitals, schools, and restaurants. More recently he’s been selling smaller glass pieces through guilds and local shops. We talked about the importance of process, selecting materials (for example, a preference for hand-blown, rather than machine-rolled, glass), and creating your own style. I couldn’t help be fascinated by the role of tradition inherent in stained-glass architecture, and the way it can be given a modern twist to fit in with contemporary lifestyles.


Cartoon’s for Stuart’s glass work and one of Kim’s necklaces (and studio space)

Jewellery designer Kim Thomson was my next port of call. Like Stuart, Kim trained professionally at art college after having a long-standing fascination for making. After graduating Kim set up her own Jewellery business, which is now based in her back garden. I was stunned by the range of materials Kim uses in her jewellery making, and especially loved the use of old sweet wrappers to create shiny and eye-catching pieces. Kim also does a lot of teaching (especially at the Bristol Folk House) and it was really interesting to hear about how that feeds back into her own work.

My first ‘duplicate’ maker was Dora McCormack, another architectural glass artist. She too trained at Swansea after deciding she needed a ‘skill’ in life and chose glass work. I learned the importance of getting the balance right between doing your own thing for the love of it and doing what others want you to in order to make a living. Practising and tradition were both topics that came up again, as well as the necessity of passing on skills to ensure they stay alive in our rapidly changing society.

In mid-March I met up with Emily Ketteringham – screen printer (and giant play-house painter) extraordinaire. Once a teacher, Emily took evening courses in print-making before deciding screen printing was what she really loved and decided to ditch teaching and embark on a masters in print work at UWE. Emily specialises in creating intricate screen prints, usually using about 8 different screens per print. We talked about the importance of the local arts trails that run in Bristol, as well as the difficulty with categorising yourself as either and artist or a craftsperson.

My most recent meeting was with the ceramicist Jennifer Orme. She too took a print course at UWE and quickly established that printing on ceramics was the route for her. I had no idea that clay was such a complicated material to work with and remain in awe of the delicate creations she was making. Her garage based studio was the perfect setting for a long natter about the state of craft, and the decisions faced by people wanting to make a living out of their creations.

ImageEmily’s screen print, Dora’s glass, and Jennifer’s ceramic bell 

As you can probably tell, it’s been really interesting talking to some of Bristol’s makers. It feels a bit like I’ve lifted a blanket to find swarms of people busy crafting away underneath. I’ve got a few more meetings lined up in the coming months so I’m hoping to learn even more about what’s going on. I shall endeavour to update accordingly!

A very woolly day out

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending my day surrounded by, and talking about, my favourite material – wool. All in the name of research, of course, I left sunny Bristol and caught the train into London for the day. Stop one was the ‘spring knitting and stitching show’ at Olympia. I’ve never been to this venue before, and as I approached I felt a sense of growing excitement as the imposing frontage came into view and I joined a trail of people also destined to the halls of crafty goodness. Upon entering I was greeted by two huge exhibition halls stuffed full with stalls selling all manner of crafts-stuff; beads, fabric, cross-stitch kits, books, buttons, sewing machines, and wool. Actually, there wasn’t anywhere near as much wool as I was anticipating, but that was probably a good thing given my tendency to buy and hoard the stuff.

My favourite stall there was ‘black sheep wools’. They specialised in selling heavily discounted branded yarns (Debbie Bliss, Sirdar, Noro, Rowan), all bagged up in packs of 10 and priced with sale stickers. They’d gone for the interesting tactic of just piling all the bags up on the floor and letting people scramble through them. I stood to one side for a few minutes and watched the scene. It was nothing short of hilarious as I witnessed women pushing others out of the way to get hold of the yarns they wanted, others grabbing random bags, throwing them across the stand to one another, and calling out to their friends. Some even decided to wade through the bags in order to get to the ones at the back.  The frenzy the combination of cheap yarn and induced panic of seeing it piled in such vast, random packages really did epitomise the enthusiasm people have for yarns.

After escaping the pulsating crowd I came across a stand hosted by the Royal Museum Greenwich where some of the cast of their upcoming performance of ‘Quedenraha’ were running workshops to teach people to crochet with plastic bags. This appealed to me for two reasons: 1) I’d not used plastic bags to crochet with before, and 2) I’d get the chance to sit down after 3 hours of walking around. So, sitting down with two wonderfully adorned ladies I managed to produce a flower corsage using carrier bags from Sainsbury’s and M&S.

The scramble for bargain yarn, my plastic bag crocheted flower, and one of the many intricate quilts on show

Other highlights of the show included knitting some bunting with ladies from The Knitter, looking around a stunning exhibition of quilts, and seeing young and old alike get excited about their latest findings. One woman, who stopped dead in front of me down one of the walkways summed it up well when she announced “I’m just too overwhelemed with desire for all this lovely stuff! I don’t know where to go next!” I’m not sure where she went next to be honest, but I had plans for the rest of my day so I left the chaos of the knit and stitch show behind and hopped back on the tube.

Thirty minutes later I arrived at my second stop: campaign for wool’s ‘Wool House’ exhibition at Somerset House. I knew it was going to be good when I was greeted in the courtyard by a flock of sheep! Real walking, bleating wool! Inside the exhibition featured a series of rooms designed to illustrate how wool can inhabit a space, playing with colours, textures, and different usages from carpets to coats, and chairs to wall coverings. My two favourite rooms were complete polar opposites of each other – first the ‘natural room’ by Josephine Ryan which played on wool’s natural, undyed beauty and authentic feel, the second was Anne Kyyrö Quinn’s room which was incredibly bright, vibrant, and orderly. There was also a huge wool runner down the length of the corridor, a crochetdermy bear, and a spinning demonstration. It was a very tactile exhibition – and difficult to restrain yourself from jumping on all the furniture and enjoying its glorious wolly-ness. I seriously enjoyed how good the exhibition smelled as well! A strange thing to pass comment on perhaps, but this wonderful exhibition was a proper treat for all of the senses. The main ‘take-home’ message though was that wool is a versatile, renewable, and sustainable material. Lovely stuff.

Wool House highlights: the sheep, entrance to the exhibition and my two favourite rooms

The third (and final) stop of my woolly day out was Goldsmiths, University of London to attend a seminar by Janis Jefferies on feminist ‘crocheted strategies’. The paper was just as interesting as I’d hoped it would be, and offered an interrogation of how the 1980 feminist ideas and strategies of Sue Richardson have been taken up in the recent resurgence of craft. What was particularly of note for Janis, is how many women recognise these feminist histories but do not feel bound by them, and instead use craft to make statements of empowerment. This has been recognised by much of the craft literature now, but still missing, Janis argued, is an understanding of how textile-based investigations contribute to the construction of knowledge. As a tactile experience, textile work has, historically, been subjugated to structures of power and ideology, and ignores the practical, material knowledge of the knowers – women. Contemporary feminist work is seeking to take account of how the many different worlds which co-exist in different communities, have different ways of thinking, and doing, knowledge.

Janis’s paper also touched on explanations for the recent resurgence in handicrafts, and supported the claim that at the heart of its rise is community. Not only is the notion of community associated with appealing values that people want  themselves to feel a part of, but, contra feminist arguments that craft represses women, craft is allowing for enhancement of the self though active participation. The increased prevalence of technology which has accompanied the rise in craft practices then, is not paradoxical, but an extension of the desire for collectivity. Collectivity might imply crafting together for a given cause – such as making a stand against capitalism – or it might be the more simple desire to just be around others for mutual support, help, and advice.

Our post-seminar conversation covered issues ranging from the sentimental importance of materials used in craft practice, the sustainability of the materials used (linking us back to my earlier visit to Wool House), the influence of technology of modern crafting (blogs, YouTube etc), and possibilities for a day at Goldsmiths to hold a cross-disciplinary craft based event (which would be awesome).

That was a long post! But it was a wonderfully busy day that’s given me loads of ideas to follow up and take forward in my own research. I look forward to sharing the results!

The spring knit and stitch show is on until Sunday 17th March (ticket prices vary), and the free Wool House exhibition runs until March 24th at Somerset House.