Archive for the discussion topic Category

This Fragile Townscape

Posted in discussion topic, everyday life, Flickr, out and about, shrewsbury, Uncategorized on February 16, 2013 by suetortoise

I recently came across author Pauline Fisk’s interesting new blog, My Tonight From Shrewsbury. Pauline is fascinated by the less-known, the hidden and the curious side of Shrewsbury, which she celebrates in words and pictures. As someone who also loves the strange little details of Shrewsbury buildings, this is right up my street.

On the 14th of February, Pauline’s blog dealt with the subject of rooftop exploration. And this is something that I feel quite strongly about. Strongly enough to want to talk about it here, at more length than I could do in just a comment on her blog. Rather handily, there is a building under renovation a stone’s throw from her street door and from mine. I took a few photos from my living room window this morning, which illustrate one of my main concerns.
fragile townscape 1

As the urban explorer Pauline interviewed told her, people don’t often bother to look up at the buildings they pass every day. I have lost count of the people I’ve spoken to who are totally unaware of all the little carved heads flanking the windows and doors of Shrewsbury’s railway station. They are great fun to photograph and use as inspiration for digital artwork. You’ll find a set of them here on Flickr. Also on Flickr is my photo-collection of hopper heads, the decorative tops to rainwater downpipes. Shrewsbury is rich in them – The Square, in particular, has some remarkably fine ones. These are things you can look at without leaving the ground or trespassing.

What bothers me in particular about people clambering about on rooftops, however well intentioned the explorers, is the sheer fragility of the buildings. Many – very many – of those fine plastered Georgian and Victorian frontages, with their sash windows, parapets and architectural flourishes, are just additions to the older buildings that were on the site before. It doesn’t take much knowledge of building materials to realise that a rigid brick front on a flexible timber structure, isn’t that happy a combination. And as hidden timbers rot and crumble, as the rumble of traffic, as roadworks, earth-tremors, alterations and the weather all take their toll, the cracks and chips appear. Patches, mortar and fresh plaster, and then more decay…
fragile townscape 4
fragile townscape 3

Look at what has been happening under the plaster on this building. The builders’ netting obscures some of the detail, but you can see the cracks and crumbling wood. Some urban explorer leans a little too heavily on a parapet, and a chunk of brick or stone drops into the busy street. While I know that the serious Urbexers are never intentionally destructive, our roofs and ledges won’t stand a lot of weight safely. And where the careful ones go, the less careful may follow. Some were on the roof right above my flat a few weeks ago. They may have taken only photographs, but they left three or four cigarette butts on the tiles, and I was quite spooked by the noise they made before I realised what was happening. Across the road, the pinnacles on the Darwin Shopping Centre have been bent and broken; one urbexer grabbed an aerial pole for support on the way back down and the television shop below lost its signal until a repair team could get out to re-align the aerials. Drainpipes are often brittle cast iron, held on with rusting nails. Tiles shift and crack, leading to water ingress and further damage….

Not just the less-careful follow them, either. To glamourise climbing buildings without proper precautions risks attracting those who are too young, too drunk or too thoughtless to be safe at a height. Accepting explorers as a feature of the skyline, also gives cover for those who are ready to be tempted by a skylight or a roof hatch, or simply by the lead on the roof.

When I was younger, had I been fitter and possessed of less common sense and a better sense of balance, I might have been tempted to take my own camera up there too.  But now I am willing to forgo the grand views. And if I see shadowy figures on the Shrewsbury skyline, my first reaction is to let the police know about it. Not because I want to spoil innocent fun, but because I love our fragile townscape.

fragile townscape 5
Any comments?



Posted in books, discussion topic, Embroidery with tags , , , , , , on June 3, 2012 by suetortoise

Now, as people who have been reading the last few posts here will already know, I am absolutely delighted with Jacqui Carey’s Elizabethan Stitches. Such a useful, clear book, showing most of the stitches found on Elizabethan embroideries – a lot of them are not in any of the standard embroidery stitch dictionaries. My main review is here.

One classic stitch from Elizabethan and Jacobean embroidery can be seen in several of the photographs in Elizabethan Stitches, but doesn’t have an instruction section in the book. This is the stitch known as Trellis Stitch. It’s one of the stitches in Grace Christie’s classic stitch book: Samplers and Stitches, which was published in 1920. It’s not a particularly easy stitch to learn, but it gets easier with practice. It can be worked to-and-fro, in rows, or with all the rows worked in the same direction – often spiralling in a circle. And there are other variations.

Here’s a rather bad sample of the basic to-and-fro version. (I’m still learning to get the tension right for the stitch – this one is a bit scrappy to say the least.) It’s a stitch that makes a reasonably substantial fabric with some stretch to it, so it can be used for pieces that are worked separately and attached afterwards, as well as making a useful filling stitch.

Now, I’m not complaining that trellis stitch isn’t included in Elizabethan Stitches – it’s a well-documented stitch, it is already in most of the stitch dictionaries. If she had included it, Jacqui Carey would have had to leave out one of the less well known stitches, and that would have been a great pity. The book concentrates mainly on the metal-thread stitches. That is its strength.

But one of those metal-thread stitches in Elizabethan Stitches is in danger of causing serious confusion. It’s one of the many different variations of detached buttonhole stitch. It’s a useful little stitch, not hard to work, and particularly suitable for metal thread. I haven’t seen it explained in any book before, and I’m glad to learn it.

Here’s a little sample I did with crochet cotton.

The problem is that Jacqui Carey has chosen to call this newly-discovered stitch ‘Elizabethan Trellis’. To add to the confusion, she shows a small diagram of the structure of  trellis stitch – Mrs Christie’s trellis stitch – as a comparison. The small diagram is labelled ‘modern trellis stitch’. Now that ‘modern’ trellis stitch is equally as Elizabethan as the one she has callled ‘Elizabethan Trellis’. Trellis stitch proper is a stitch for silk thread not metal, because it’s a knotted stitch. It’s not the same sort of structure as ‘Elizabethan Trellis’, as you can see from my two photos. And, more to the point, trellis stitch has been going by the name of  trellis stitch for nearly 100 years.

I was confused. I thought that Jacqui Carey had simply found a new way of working trellis stitch – until I tried out her instructions. I am not the only person to be confused by the misleading name.

What is more, as Elizabethan Stitches is such a very useful book, it’s going to be used as a main reference work by many people interested in the embroidery of the period. So now, if I see a mention of ‘trellis stitch’ in a recent description, I am going to wonder which of these two stitches are actually meant: ‘Christie-trellis’ or ‘Carey-trellis’? I’d dearly like to see ‘Elizabethan Trellis Stitch’ renamed in the next edition of Elizabethan Stitches – without that confusing word ‘trellis’ and without the equally confusing ‘comparison’ diagram. Until that happens, we’ll all just have to make very sure we are clear about which stitch we mean when we use the word.

Discussion Topic: Number

Posted in discussion topic, everyday life with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2012 by suetortoise

Losing Sleep



Comments? Thoughts? How does our tendency to make numbers into things rather than descriptions affect the way we think and how we see the world? Over to you, dear readers….


Posted in discussion topic, Embroidery on May 16, 2011 by suetortoise

I have recently been making transcriptions of interviews in which artists are talking about their work. (This is not something which I can discuss here, for reasons of confidentiality.) I have also been doing rather more embroidery than usual, and sitting doing embroidery does give me time to listen to what is going on in my head. This musing, for example:

White Loops

When I show someone a piece of my counted-thread embroidery – either a piece that is a work in progress, or one that is not obviously a specific item such as a tablemat or a cushion-cover – I tend to get two reactions more than any others:

The first is ‘that’s very nice, what is it?’ Or ‘what is it going to be when it is finished?’

The second is ‘You must have a terrific lot of patience, Sue.’ Or ‘I would never have the patience to do that.’

Both of these responses seem to me to be very, very revealing about the way people view the kind of geometric embroidery that I create. The first tells me that counted-thread embroidery is only seen as having ‘value’ when it is part of another object, and usually of an object which is seen as having a lot less status than a ‘work of art’. If it were a drawing or a painting or a photograph that I was showing, or even a more-obviously ‘creative’ piece of embroidery, this question would rarely be asked. But because I am working in a very old, formal tradition, and perhaps because this type of counted thread embroidery has been traditionally a female leisure occupation, I am not seen as making an object that is to be considered in the same way as a piece of artwork is to be considered: on its own merits and for what it is, what it says, how it affects the observer.

As for the matter of patience, it occurs to me that most of these people have sufficient patience to drive a car for an hour, to read a book or a newspaper, or concentrate upon some other task for pleasure or for profit. So the patience is there. (I rarely stitch for longer than an hour or an hour and a half at one sitting.) What they are really saying is again related to the work’s perceived value: ‘I could not be bothered to spend that much of my time, and do that much work, just for a piece of decorated cloth.’ If they were talking to a painter or a sculptor, they would perhaps mention a lack of skill, or a lack of inspiration, but they would not devalue the work itself in the same way. Instead they might well imagine the work to be more challenging than it actually is to someone who is well practiced at doing it. Because they would see it primarily as a piece of ‘art’.

So how can I get a piece of work in this medium of thread and fabric, and in this tradition of geometric, non-representational, counted embroidery seen as ‘abstract artwork’, not as just an attractive bit of hobby-handicraft? Obviously the setting in which it is found affects the viewer’s expectations. I could put the work in a frame on an art gallery wall. (Lots of white-space around it, and a discrete label to give title, artist and price.) However, putting this type of embroidery into a frame takes away a valuable part of it – the tactile nature of the stitched cloth. Better, then, to invite the visitor to touch and handle the material, but in a formal, gallery setting. Perhaps a ceremonial washing of the hands first would impart a certain amount of distinction to the handling, allowing the viewer time to prepare, for a change of mindset? Building up an expectation that what is to be seen and touched is not just a bit of hobby-stitchery, but something that may provide an experience to savour.

What else? Information panels, talking about the nature of the work, the spiritual value of the repetition and the meditative nature of stitchery? Notes on the history of the different stitches used, and on the sources and inspirations for the pieces on show? Short essays on the development of the ideas, what I learned during the stitching; what I thought about, the frustrations and triumphs, what it felt like in my hand? Perhaps a display of photographic enlargements and drawings showing the needlework in new ways; particularly showing the interplay between the thread and the fabric, between the various degrees of randomness inherent in the materials and the formal, geometric nature of the patterns and stitches? All these things, for me, lift embroidery from a pleasant hobby to something that answers a deep-seated need, part of a long, ongoing personal journey and a means of self-expression within a constrained environment.

But first and foremost – and here is where my ambitions are doomed to grind to a halt – I would need to have the drive and self-confidence to talk about my needlework and myself in a manner in which I prefer not to talk about them. I can discuss the techniques, I can discuss materials and I can talk about the history of the subject and my personal journey through it, and what I am learning in the process. I love to do all those things. But I hesitate to say ‘I am an artist. This is a work of art.’

After all, it’s only just a bit of embroidery.

Where Do Sheep Go On Holiday?

Posted in discussion topic with tags , , , on June 26, 2010 by suetortoise

Where Do Sheep Go On Holiday?

One of those haunting questions. (Thanks to Felix Abrinski for sending my mind on this track with a comment on Facebook.) Do Sheep all go to the same place? And what do they do when they get there?

Your Suggestions Please!

How Far We’ve Come

Posted in discussion topic, out and about with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by suetortoise

 Back in June, I started this blog, thanks to the Shift Time Festival’s ‘Blogging Project’ workshops, which provided a blogging expert to show a bunch of beginners the basics and patiently answer our endless questions – Thanks Pete! Last week, I was passing-on the benefits of that short course and my eight months of hands-on experience to someone who has recently started blogging and who wanted a little help. I was happy to do that, and delighted to find that I could answer almost all his questions without trouble. A good sign of progress – but read on.

Back in September, just five months ago, I wrote about a trip I made to Birmingham to visit a friend. I’d planned it almost like a major military campaign, with Google maps and bus timetables. I’d needed to do that, as I was still coming out from the effects of thyroid deficiency and I was still struggling with planning and organising things. It turned out to be an aborted visit, as my friend had not been able to be there to meet me, but considering how tired the trip made me, it was just as well – I wouldn’t have been good company for long. However, it was a total success in terms of achieving my plans, a small tactical victory that was a huge boost to my morale, and assured me that I was getting back to normal.

It was this same friend, Graham Higgins, who’d asked for help with his blog; and last Friday’s trip was the same journey I’d made in September – this time with Graham at the far end of it. He’d also heard about my small guitar, and wanted to see it, so the guitar came too and we spent at least half the time playing through old songs. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to play along with someone else. It was a most enjoyable few hours. Unlike September’s journey, last week’s trip required no meticulous planning. Even allowing for the fact that I’d made the same trip before, I took it so much in my stride and was so relaxed on arrival, that I could see how much extra progress I have made in just those last five months, how much my confidence has come back again. Which is very encouraging news in itself – but read on.

Not long after I’d made that first trip to Birmingham, Graham had been diagnosed with a serious heart problem, an aortic dissection. So serious that it’s usually first picked up at post-mortem. At the end of December, he underwent heart surgery at Selly Oak Hospital: a seven-hour operation to replace a heart valve and line the aorta. Six weeks on from that, I was expecting to meet someone frail and still very convalescent, muddled in mind, very soon tired. I didn’t. He looks well, vibrantly alive, as full of ideas and intelligent responses as ever. He amazed me by frequently nipping up the stairs to get things, playing guitar and ukelele, singing, cooking lunch and finally accompanying me on the walk back to Stirchley and the bus at a speed that had me scurrying to keep up (and both of us talking nineteen to the dozen – we trotted past three bus stops rather than break off the conversation). All this in just six weeks – and I thought that I was doing well!

I won’t talk more about the operation here – the man has a blog, and can tell you about it far better in his own words. (Graham’s blog is under redevelopment, don’t be surprised if you encounter painters’ dropcloths and stumble over stepladders at this link.) All thanks to the doctors who spotted the problem and to the surgical team that fixed it so successfully.

Think of this, next time you wonder whatever happened to the future we used to read of in science fiction: it’s here, doing impossibly complex medical procedures as routine. (Think of this, too, next time you hear someone indulging in the national sport of moaning about the National Health Service, which provides such exquisite, time-consuming surgical work without charge.) Think of this – and just look how far we have come.


Posted in discussion topic with tags , , , on December 7, 2009 by suetortoise

According to the stats for Tortoise Loft – The Blog, yesterday was the busiest day ever with 130 views. But not one comment: no opinions, no conversations started, no ‘that reminds me’, no ideas thrown out and picked up on, nothing. A few people do occasionally comment, for which I am grateful, but there’s no to-and-fro, little feedback.

So try this:


The ability to read alters the way we see the world.