Mechanical Drawing – the Schiffli Project

That’s the title of an exhibition I’ve just been to see at Farfield Mill. The last working Schiffli embroidery machine in the UK is at Manchester School of Art, and for this exhibition fifteen artists worked with the machine, creating pieces that are both hand drawn and machine embroidered.

While I’d heard of the Schiffli machine, I had only a vague idea of the process – it’s actually a pantograph principle where the artist draws the line large using a hand-held device, moving across their design and clicking wherever they want the needle to enter the fabric; and the machine, which has 86 needles, reproduces the line in miniature many times across the fabric.

Each small movement of the artist’s hand is there in the stitched line, so it has a very human quality, a feeling of directness and immediacy. As each needle can hold a different coloured thread, or variations on one colour, or every thread can be the same, or some needles can be left unthreaded, there is potential for exploitation of tone, colour and pattern on a grand scale.

I was very impressed both by the impact and scale of the work, and by the quality of the exhibition. The textiles were well displayed with plenty of light and space; there were samples available to touch; and in the background there was the constant rhythmic sound of the machine at work (the sound was an element of one of the works – Kate Egan’s installation ‘Stack’), which added another sensory layer to the experience. It was a really engaging celebration of a fascinating machine that’s clearly cherished and enjoyed by those who work with it.

It’s difficult to pick out just a few pieces for a special mention… I loved the colour and movement of Rowena Ardern’s ‘Endangered’, which used the repeats created by the machine very effectively; I enjoyed Jill Boyes’ careful exploration of effects made possible by the Schiffli; I was moved by Jane McKeating’s poignant and humorous rag books, drawing on her sketchbooks from a period after she suddenly became single; and I would have loved to go home with Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh’s ‘Armchair Politico’, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The catalogue is excellent, with several essays, plenty of images and detailed text, and a DVD about the technical processes (which was also on show at the exhibition).

exhibition catalogue

Mechanical Drawing is at Farfield till 29 June and is also travelling to the Macclesfield Silk Museum and the Knitting and Stitching Show. Really worth seeing if you can; if not, all the pieces are represented online, along with excerpts from the catalogue, and a short video, at

TIF Challenge March 1

Sharon’s Take it Further Challenge for March is about small things

Do you ever notice the little things, the small moments, the details in life? This month’s challenge is to do just that, pay attention to the tiny details. Sometimes the small things become emblematic for something larger.

This reminded me of one of my favourite quotes – I heard it on the radio, and later tracked down to an American writer, Donald Windham:

It is ordinary to love the marvellous. It is marvellous to love the ordinary.

However, while I aspire to a mindful, noticing way of living, my brain has never really cooperated. I’m either not paying much attention at all – I wander about in a daze, life gets very black and white and the small things pass me by. Or else I’m getting so focused on the detail that I stop making connections or even remembering why I was there in the first place. Finding the middle ground where I really breathe and look and listen… it’s a struggle, and it takes a lot of energy.

So, I’ve decided this month (thinking small) just to spend a bit of time focusing on two little things I like a lot.

1. dots – look around and find them, draw them, paint them, stitch them. I’d like to join them up too. Maybe I could take my February challenge a little further by experimenting with joining dots by machine.

2. dogs – (actually just one). Tansy, being a Tibetan spaniel, is very little and very much emblematic for larger things – joy, love, faithfulness, for example. Sometimes I draw her and as I’ve been thinking for a while it would be good to have a go at drawing her with the sewing machine, I’m challenging myself to do that this month .


I think, too, during March, I’ll seek out poetry that inspires me to stop and look, starting with the wonderful celebration of difference, Pied Beauty, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Draw Something Every Day


Not quite Monday but I’ve been drawing angels this week so here are some for the Draw Something Every Day challenge. I have an imminent deadline for an embroidered Christmas card swap and I love angels so have been playing with some images that I could stitch. Fresh from delighting in the work of Tilleke Schwarz and Primmy Chorley at the Knitting and Stitching Show (of which more later), I realise how much I’m attracted to embroidered words and would like to explore this further.

Draw Something Every Day

I know it’s not Monday, but I missed last week too, and I thinking waiting for next week is just asking for trouble. I commented on Juli’s Draw Something Every Day posting for this week that my hand and my pen had become disconnected. Here’s an attempt to reconnect them, but I didn’t use a pen! – I drew it with a graphics stylus. I use one for work instead of a mouse but I don’t try to draw with it very often…

hand and pen