We all use our background and past experiences to determine what we choose to sew – they are just part of our psyche. I am an immigrant – came to live in England in 1979 from South Africa and have now lived here longer than I lived in South Africa. When I am asked do I think of England as my home, I always reply by saying England is my physical home, but my emotional home is still South Africa. I think my creative work reflects that – choice of colour, fabric and themes.
A few years ago, when I was still quite new to sewing I decided to create some pictures – in fabric – which reminded me of my childhood growing up in South Africa. I was inspired by a book by Jenny Williamson and Pat Parker, Quilt The Beloved Africa. I decided to do 2 applique pictures – one of a rural scene and one of a township scene. Much of the art I was seeing when I was visiting South Africa was very simple quite naive, often using multi-media. I wanted to echo that simplicity.
I started on the rural scene – I made the background – just green (for the hills) and blue (for the sky) – and put in a few trees and a few huts. Then started working on the people and animals. I used templates for the figures from the book, Quilt the Beloved Africa – I cannot draw. In the main I used cotton fabric – with a few exceptions – a more fluffy fabric for a ‘blanket look’. All the figures were dressed in South African fabric – called Shweshwe – sourced from a shop in Huddersfield. I used a machine button-hole stitch to aplique the figures to the background. The arms and legs and the sticks carried by the woman on the right are done with embroidery thread which I couched in place. I added a few other features using embroidery – such as the fire. I included things which for me are South African – all the figures are women (the men work away in the cities); the women carry their children on their backs in a blanket, heavy loads are carried on the heads of women; added in a pot for grinding the maize and one of the women is smoking a clay pipe. As a child we often went to a place called the ‘valley of a thousand hills’ – in my memory that is the scene I have created.
The township scene has more in it – I think I was getting more confident but townships are much busier places than rural villages.Once again I started with two background fabrics – one which I hope represents the sandy, stony ground in townships and then the sky. I started with the telephone poles (if you google townships images you are likely to find telephone poles) and buildings – which are often very basic made from brick or corrugated iron – all with flat roofs. I tried to find fabric to represent the building materials. I then used templates for the figures – all clothed in Shweshwe fabric. The taxi/bus I traced from a postcard I had. Once again most of the fabric is cotton, but on this one, I used felt for the shoes (because they are small and felt does not fray). Some other variations – shirring elastic for the wheelbarrow and furry fabric for the animals. A friend had some fabric of pumpkins so decided that although the seller would be more likely to be selling ‘squashes’ rather than pumpkins it was too good as an opportunity to not use the pumpkins (artistic licence!)
I had some interesting discussions with people about the sky – many people suggested I put some grey/clouds into the sky when I quilted it – as it seemed too much blue. I resisted those ideas because the sky is just a vast amount of blue and the one thing I love when I wake up in South Africa is knowing when I open the curtains the sky will be a vastness of blue.
Although I used templates for the figures from the book – Quilt The Beloved Africa – the design of the picture is my own and the choice of colour and fabric was mine. There is not the perspective and correct size that you will get in more sophisticated art – the huts and buildings are too small in comparison to the people – but I think a lot of naive or simple art from Africa is like that.
I have these two hangings on the wall above my sewing machine – they remind me of my emotional home and my childhood. I do think we need to create things that feed our souls – for me the creation of these pictures keep me grounded in where I come from.
Some background on Shweshwe fabric:
Shweshwe fabric – is a traditional indigo dyed fabric. In 1840 French missionaries presented Moshoeshoe, the ruler of Lesotho with a gift of indigo printed cloth. The name ‘shweshwe was taken from his name. The production of this fabric started in 1982 in South Africa by Da Gama Textiles in the Eastern Cape. The fabric has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell which disappears once the cloth has been washed.