Gwen Hedley: Stitching Distress and Repair- Continuing Inspirations

Gwen Hedley (2020) Integrating (Detail), 31.5 cm x 16.5 cm, found cloth fragments from the beach, fused with stitch. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

Gwen Hedley focuses upon the construction of contemporary textile pieces, to use cloth, paper, paint, and thread and is concerned with changes in surface and structure, wrought by the ravages of time and elemental forces. That said Gwen Hedley is particularly drawn to the weathered materials she finds in her coastal explorations. Walking the local landscapes, she is drawn to dilapidated found objects and worn surfaces. The textures and scars show the passage of time, and this is what inspires her. From owning Drawn to Stitch: Line, Drawing and Mark-Making in Textile Art (2010) by Gwen Hedley since its original publication date I have been continually drawn back to her work with textiles. Given this textile artists preferred aesthetic, use of aged, reclaimed materials, her creative process, and love of natural wear and tear I can readily relate to such a creative ethos based upon environmental significance with material use. I have used natural linen materials and different types of paper in creative practice especially for a range of sampling processes with print to use hand stitching. I am currently utilising hand stitching to communicate a preferred narrative concerning mental crisis and repair using vintage linen threads on screen printed vintage linen bedsheets, so her creative processes and work have been revisited.

Through her abstract printed and stitched works, Gwen Hedley has thoroughly mastered the art of mark-making. Often using a limited colour palette, her process of restoration is guided by the beauty of natural degradation. Her works incorporate drawing and mark-making on pieced paper and fabric; each stitch is gently used to restore, while exploring the concepts of fragmentation, distress, repair, or integration.

Gwen lives and works on the Kent coast in the UK. She has taught across the UK, in Europe and Japan, and she had exhibited widely. Her work is held in private and public collections, and as stated she has two published books on textile practice. Gwen enjoys a long-standing membership of the renowned Textile Study group.

Screen shot of the Textile Study Group website page for Gwen Hedley which shows some of her artwork

The Textile Study Group is a group of nationally and internationally recognised textile artists and tutors, well known for innovative and challenging approaches to art practice and contemporary teaching. It was first established in 1973 as a support group for embroidery teachers, under the inspiration and guidance of Constance Howard. The objectives of the group are to cultivate and advance the practice of stitch and textile art through a broad spectrum of education – workshops, courses, lectures, publications, exhibitions – and to deliver expertise and excellence in all areas of textile art across all levels and ages of students.

In this artist interview through Textile Artist, Gwen discussed her inspirations and her signature techniques of printing, piecing, and patching. She shared how she unifies her chosen layers of material with stitch. It was interesting to review her hand stitching inspirations, of her overall observation to create her abstract works; of picking out the specific details allowed her to come up with the abstract design ideas based upon time-worn surfaces.

Gwen Hedley (2011) Blueprint Patch, 7 cm x 8 cm, old cloth, inked and printed onto calico, with stitched rectangle. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

Continuing with the artist interview with Textile Artist Gwen Hedley said that she was initially attracted to textiles as a medium through knitting. Gwen Hedley said that her earliest memory of any textile activity was when she was seven years old, when she learned how to knit at school, to make a dishcloth with thick white cotton. Gwen Hedley noted that she could still remember how, after knitting a certain length, she was shown how to drop every fifth stitch from the needle and how she watched it run all the way down to the cast on row so that a ‘magical ladder’ would appear. And it did! She enjoyed the repetitive nature of knitting, and the satisfactory feeling of being a maker.

Gwen Hedley said that her mother taught her reparative stitching skills to encourage her to mend. That said the textile artist preferred to embroider household linens. At twelve years old however she had become skilled at darning, patching, and hemming, and increasingly undertook repair work which she increasingly enjoyed by then. From such reflections she now recognised, that these early domestic stitching skills had laid the foundations for working with textiles later in life. As Gwen Hedley intimated this ‘Blueprint Patch’, a rectangle of stitch on cloth, which was a small contemporary interpretation of small repairs highlighted the textile artists formative stages of hand stitching.

Gwen Hedley (2015) Restoring, 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk
Gwen Hedley (2015) Restoring (Detail), 7 cm x 135 cm, A Stitched Ribbon. Disintegrated paper and cloth, with hand stitching. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

Through training as a primary school teacher, with creative arts as her specialist subject, this passion for sewing and stitching increased to encompass drawing, painting, and printing.  Gwen Hedley began to work with fibres, in techniques like felting, weaving, stitching, and binding and expanded her range of textile processes through further embroidery courses. Later Gwen Hedley discovered City and Guilds embroidery courses and subsequently completed six years of creative stitching, which increasingly led to teaching opportunities. Signs of wear and tear continues to be a core frame of reference for this textile artists creative process especially concerning surfaces and structures showing signs of erosion, and disintegration.  Gwen Hedley has been interested in objects and materials transformed by the elements over time. In early days, she visited museums to find ancient worn potteries and carvings, threadbare worn textiles, or abraded gilded statues, with the aim of discovering exciting visual references. She has always been drawn to artefacts displaying these qualities of organic change to interpret them in a contemporary way.

Gwen Hedley (2017) Fractured (detail), 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

More recently Gwen Hedley relies upon the nearby coastal environments to source inspiration from, of using the salt water from the sea and how it naturally corrodes shoreline objects for her creative process and work which act as primary material for investigation into changed surfaces and structures. The shoreline provides lots of materials and objects including wood, stone, metals, or faded torn fabric scraps to study and create from. Gwen Hedley stated that all such objects and materials are transformed, showing the marks and scars from endless battering by the elements and they invariably become her reference materials.

Gwen Hedley (2010) From a Bothy Wall. Strips of painted cotton were woven together, and patches basted on top. Twisted treated scrims were couched on and the whole piece free machine stitched
Gwen Hedley (2020) Material change: Shoe (detail), 35.5 cm x 19.5 cm. Intaglio prints on paper and cloth, hole punched papers and stitch. Photography credit: Electric Egg
Gwen Hedley (2016) Diminishing Stitched trial exploring tonal values through density of stitching and thread weight, with added black fibres on a calico ground.

The textile artist explained that work begins in her sketchbook, which is the repository for her thoughts, observations, and responses; it’s a sort of written and visual diary. She draws the object from all angles and becomes focused on isolated areas, to explore and record its qualities. Magnification reveals previously imperceptible details of mark and texture. Observing and drawing these details opens-up possibilities for abstract designs that reflect the essence of the subject. Gwen Hedley now combines hand printmaking including intaglio printing to transfer colour and marks to cloth and paper, to extend the piecing and patching, before enhancing with further stitch.

Artist statement

Coastal, and woodland walks sharpen my senses and enable me to see and think with greater clarity, as well as providing me rich pickings of widely ranging materials – stone, shell, metal, papers, organic matter etc. The common quality is that they have all been transformed by time and elemental forces, into new forms of beauty that never fail to engage me.

Grayson Perry so succinctly extols the virtue of organic change, when referring to the allure of the naturally altered surfaces upon ancient artefacts…….”their beauty not diminished but enhanced by 1400 years” and declaring that “the unknown craftsman I most love is age”.

The fundamental marks and scars upon my ‘finds’ and the actual breakdown in structures still excite me, and I find great pleasure in discovering the hitherto imperceptible details and qualities that are revealed through magnification and closer examination. Subsequent drawing, isolating areas of interest develops a greater knowledge and awareness of the qualities in reference material, opening up fruitful pathways to design and stitch.

Currently, I tend to draw and print on both paper and fabric and combine them with stitch to unify the materials and enhance the design. My colour palette has become more limited, and tends toward monochromatic work, exploring tonal change and contrast.

Aspects of restoration and repair often feature in my work – anything showing signs of wear and tear, usually with an unknown history, just calls out to me and begs attention!

Gwen Hedley (2016) Detail from Waxwork involving trials with paper, wax, cloth, and thread.
Gwen Hedley (2017) Fractured, 61cm x 67 cm, Painted calico, patched and hand stitched. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

Themes were explored around ‘Fractured’ which were very personal to the textile artist. In this project, a change in scale and approaches to working developed. In 2017, the Textile Study Group staged DIS/rupt, an exhibition concerned with disruption, covering a range of themes. It ran during the time of aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo, Syria. Television coverage gave daily aerial views of the devastation caused, and ‘Fractured’ reflected upon the theme of conflict. Changes within the creative process have been commented upon and evidenced more recently given the continuing world-wide issues instigated by mankind through armed conflict, with negative effects on families and communities on a huge geographical scale. Gwen Hedley noted that she researched aerial plans, noting lines, grids, symbols, and divisions of space. Using simple tools and diluted paint, she drew onto several large areas of calico, working freely and spontaneously making marks representing a city plan and then ripped the drawing into pieces, then rearranged and re-joined it with simple hand stitches into a totally fragmented and broken city plan. Gwen Hedley said that she made two more pieces of which one piece was entitled ‘Formerly’ is light in colour and markings, referencing an aerial plan before the war. The work ‘Fractured’ represents the devastation from constant bombardment. ‘Finished’ depicts total loss of hope and the final fall of Aleppo; it is composed of patches in different hues of black, with no other colour at all. Together, they form a triptych entitled ‘Narrative of Ruin’, with ‘Fractured’ being the central panel.

Gwen Hedley (2017) Detail of Fractured 61 x 67cm A reference to the fracturing of communities through armed conflict, brought about by those with power. A painted whole cloth, cut, ripped, and randomly reassembled.
Gwen Hedley (2020) Integrating (Detail), 31.5 cm x 16.5 cm, found cloth fragments from the beach, fused with stitch. Photography credit: Melanie Chalk

From related research centred upon Gwen Hedley and her creative work and processes she continues to develop and evolve as a textile artist given the contemporary issues of the day. Alongside this there is a continuing love of the coast and shoreline, of using as many scraps of weathered cloth as possible which has been collected from the shore, to join these disparate patches, using stitch to blend and fuse them together to create a cohesive unit. This leads to further thoughts regarding some of the current social issues. “Integrating” is a work for example which highlights the core underpinnings of the textile artists work and her enduring concern with repair and restoration. Of the working processes gradually changing and developing but the underlying themes carry on with the continuation of thoughts and ideas, but with new perspectives.

Gwen Hedley (2010) Drawn to Stitch-Line, Drawing and Mark-Making in Textile Art, Batsford. Crumbling Sea Wall, Sandgate including observational drawings and stitching sampling processes using machine and hand stitching. Continuing resource for stitching and this OCA blog entry.

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