Omicron. Yes, the latest variant of concern has brought with it the return of compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport in England. A point to note here is that the rest of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (devolved for matters of health from the UK’s Westminster government) had not joined England’s laissez faire approach. Since, 19th July 2021, the so-called English freedom day, one has been encouraged to make a personal choice to wear a mask or not based on one’s own assessment of the Covid risk. And, naturally, following the example set by the Prime Minister as well as seeing the government benches stuffed with maskless Tories, many people simply assumed Covid was done and dusted and had stopped wearing face coverings.
Mmmm, I could embark now on an intense rant about the rinse and repeat poor leadership together with the sporadic wishy-washy messaging from our government, but instead it’s time for me to calm down and get out the silk and the dyes . . .
Find the last few rectangles of backing silk
Dig out the black elastic from the bottom of my sewing box
Slowly, but surely we are heading out of the third lockdown. Easter may have come and gone and it may still be chilly, but at least we have spring sunshine to accompany the odd foray into the wider world. And, if you’ve already been out and about and visiting the shops or enjoying a little outdoor hospitality, physical distancing, wearing a mask and gelling those hands still applies.
With this in mind and following a comment from a repeat customer, I’ve painted and made some more masks.
And, unsurprisingly, I have felt like using some bright colours to go with these more optimistic times.
As I think I have mentioned before, I don’t always start with a plan when painting and this selection has most certainly arrived courtesy of the springtime, colour muse.
Having painted all ten blanks and steamed the lot, it was then time to switch from the frame to the sewing machine, make the masks and then pop them on the shop.
Like most people before the pandemic and the restrictions and the lockdowns, I used to go out. I went out locally as well as further afield to visit churches, museums and galleries always looking for inspiration for my work. Medieval sculptural details and the patterns painted on Victorian stained glass, so common in our parish churches, have been a great resource. However, for the time being most churches are locked and entry is not permitted.
Naturally, like many people working from home I have turned to the Internet and have found viewing online Fine and Decorative Art Sale Catalogues very worthwhile. These catalogues often have great photos with good colour showing off the beautiful detail that can be found on unusual antiques such as this Carlton Ware vase by Violet Elmer (1907-1988). (And, to my surprise, Violet had a link to Suffolk as her great-grandparents had lived in Scotland Street, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, in the early 19th century. There is an interesting article in the East Anglian Daily Times about a couple of collectors from just outside Ipswich who have filled their home with Carlton Ware and hunted down some biographical details for Violet. She was born in Oxford in 1907 and moved to Stoke-on-Trent in 1928 to work as a designer at the Carlton Works. Sadly, for us, she stopped work in 1938 when she got married.)
This fine example of her work is vase decorated with exotic birds (disappearing round the top righthand edge), flora and foliage on a pale plum ground. I think it is both beautiful and charming and you could imagine that perhaps Violet Elmer had herself been inspired by a Victorian millefiori paperweight. The shape of those little flowers is so typical of millefiori.
Inspired by or maybe stealing from artists from the past has a long tradition and I am happy to join in and make my own reinterpretation in a different medium.
It is just a pity that the silk I have painted was for those unglamorous, yet currently necessary, face coverings.
PS – I actually painted these silk pieces during the second lockdown and have only just made them up into masks. Lockdowns have seemed to roll one into another. Sigh. And, now I hear they’ve cancelled Glastonbury and UEFA are also proposing this summer’s tournament to only take place in one country (and I have tickets for a game in Glasgow) and, well, Easter? 🤞🏻 Who knows!
Spring cleaning is one of those jobs that I never quite manage to begin let alone complete in spring and this year, well, as we all know life took on all kinds of other new directions. Eventually, however when the second lockdown came along, I found myself sorting out my understairs cupboard. This is where I keep all my craft fair paraphernalia and as this November there was no ‘British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn’ I thought I’d take the opportunity to reorganise all the gear.
Of course with any sorting, cleaning and clearing-out there comes that moment when you find something tucked away you’d completely forgotten about. As you may have guessed I have a fair amount of fabric stored around my house. Most of it is in boxes and despite my attempts to keep track of what is where, my hastily labelled boxes approach has much to be desired.
I am appalled at the time I waste looking for some offcut I know I have somewhere, opening and digging around in boxes and wishing I had kept the contents list up-to-date, but then comes the moment for a nice surprise.
One of the understairs boxes contained a favourite silk I painted in 1980s. I have long since stopped wearing uber-short, sleeveless shift dresses, but have not been able to part with this one.
When I rediscovered it, screwed up at the bottom of a box, I thought, oh yes I’d like to work with these colours again. However, when I came to use the pattern and colour combination I didn’t think it worked for a large scarf, so I scaled it down and instead painted silk for face masks.
Last week with all the recent positive vaccine news there was a sense of relief and from some folk a hint that it’s nearly all over. However, although there is most definitely a strong light at the end of the tunnel, there is still a long way to go dealing with this virus.
Today, following government presentations and briefings it appears that it’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 for most of England. It is only the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight that will be in Tier 1. There are also, we now know, rules for Christmas and all those that are going to do Christmas this year they can go ahead with preparations for their own ‘Covid safe’ arrangements.
Family and friends that know me well, will know I like to root around behind the managed political announcements and simplistic headlines. I am not sure if any news outlet in the UK has uploaded a similarly helpful sequence, but this ‘Aerosol transmission of Covid’ in English published by El País, is fascinating. This is by no means a peer reviewed science paper, but an enlightening visual representation of how this virus spreads so efficiently inside rooms. I thought it was worth sharing before the Christmas get-togethers.
So when travelling during the festive Covid season it’s wear a mask. And, perhaps with visitors inside it might also be wear a mask. And, it should most definitely be all about ventilation.
Note. I would just like to say thank you to Sophie Mitchell Photography, London, (top three images) taken as part of a commission for UCL.
It is gloomy weather and gloomy times with the Covid pandemic raging again, and it looks as though Christmas this year is going to be a muted affair. And, along with many other changes, Christmas shopping is going to be a little different too.
One difference for me will be that I won’t be exhibiting at the annual British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn as this year it is not running. This is because despite the barn being a large space it isn’t possible to have the crafters and customers physically distanced enough with the required ventilation. I see also that many indoor craft events across the country have been abandoned and the Christmas Markets in Edinburgh, Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and even Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland have already been cancelled. It’s not all negative news though as the folk at ‘Make It British’ have worked hard to offer customers and makers alike a virtual pop-up experience with plenty of Christmas gift ideas.
In these weird and ghastly times it feels strange to me to have temporarily changed from painting silk scarves to painting and making silk face masks. It seems even stranger to me that face masks have become a ‘small gift’ or ‘Christmas stocking’ item, but that is where we are at the moment. In another way I suppose it is about making a bad situation slightly more tolerable.
Anyway, this ‘virtual’ event is on for just three days and many of the participants will be offering special promotions and discounts for all shoppers who register.
Who would have thought a year ago we’d walk down our local High Street and into any shop to find customers and staff alike wearing face masks, and, not find that strange. It appears that for the time being this state of affairs is going to be the norm. Whichever ‘tier’ you find yourself living in, there is going to be the requirement to wear a mask sometime, somewhere, at some point.
Since May there have been articles in the press about masks becoming fashionable and one early adopter of the ‘colourful’ mask has been the American politician and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. However, putting aside the medical and the ultra cheap disposable options, have you noticed, more often than not, chaps where plain masks and most commonly, black ones, especially in public life. Or, is this just a phenomenon of those we see in the spotlight? Does anyone know?
Now, I am not sure about you, but I find there is something slightly menacing about black face masks. They bring to mind highwaymen or special forces and it’s already bad enough simply not being able to see faces fully. In these gloomy times wouldn’t it be more interesting and more fun and, just more cheerful if guys wore coloured ones. There is so much choice out there; every type of fabric, every colour, every type of pattern. There’s bees or trees or animal prints and ones with text, or symbols or musical notes or just plain colour. If it has been a cultural norm for men to wear coloured ties what’s the problem with a coloured mask?
Last week I posted about an inspirational visit to my local museum in Ipswich where I discovered the ‘saz’ motif of Persian ceramics.
As I am always on the lookout for any interesting shapes, designs, motifs that I can adapt and use in my work, this turned out to be a particularly rewarding visit.
The ‘Saz’ motif is a design derived from the natural world. It is a stylised reed and as such I liked the idea of working it up with a stylised fish or two.
Once I have finished painting a block of mask designs, usually about 10 at a time, it is time for the fixing process. That’s two hours in the steamer wrapped in paper.
When the steaming time is up, the silk is washed and cut up into mask-sized rectangles. Then it’s all change in my studio. The dyes and frame are put aside and the sewing machine takes centre stage as I sew up the next batch of masks.
This is a short sequence showing the process of painting silk for masks. And, I will just say right here and now, at the beginning of this post, that I have since steamed this silk, made it up into masks and sold all six. Since the UK government introduced for England, the rule to wear a face covering in shops and on public transport, I have not been able to paint and make masks fast enough.
Painting the silk is not a speedy process and even though I have now made over 100 masks, I don’t seem to be getting any faster at sewing the silk into masks.
It has been both an interesting experience of adapting and a steep learning curve switching from painting silk scarves to painting and making silk face masks.
I am hoping it is a brief interlude as we wait for an effective vaccine – fingers crossed.
Naturally, the painting of the silk is the same, but painting for masks is generally on a much smaller scale. I have found that marking out rectangles is the most efficient and economic way to work. I have just finished a blue series of six different designs.
The sewing of the silk into face coverings has been the adapting and learning part. Making face masks isn’t difficult, just fiddly. Again it’s that scale issue. I have made clothing and curtains before, but nothing on this smaller size. I am not a natural machinist nor a gifted seamstress by any stretch of the imagination, but having now made over 70 masks, I am at least consistent. My early prototypes were ‘interesting’, but wearable, and I gave them to my daughter and my father and I kept a couple for myself.
Now, I am used to the making part it is a case of getting organised with the stock, the processing of orders and getting my books up-to-date.
And, I have just checked- two of the silk rectangles from the above six blue are still waiting to be made into masks. Mmm not quite as organised as I thought I was!