Archive for the review Category

Elizabethan Inspiration

Posted in books, Embroidery, review with tags , , , , on March 24, 2012 by suetortoise

I have just bought a most marvellous historical-embroidery book.

Cover of 'Elizbethan Stitches' by Jacqui Carey

Two or three weeks ago, I was browsing the Yahoo Group for the Antique Pattern Library. I keep a regular eye on it – partly to see which old, out-of-copyright publications are coming online, and partly in case I can use my store of information and experience to help others struggling with old instructions and terminology. This time, it was neither of those things. Ruth Matthews, a regular on the group’s message board, had posted a link to a book review. Not another reprint of a classic embroidery tome, this one, but a newly written book.

Now, I am rarely tempted by modern embroidery books, because most of those I look at simply don’t go deep enough into one particular topic that interests me. I already have a very useful reference collection of ‘classics’ – some from second-hand books stalls and charity shops, reprints from the excellent Dover Books and other facsimiles, and some out-of-copyright books I have downloaded – mostly from the Antique Pattern Library. But when I read Mary Corbett’s review of Elizabethan Stitches by Jacqui Carey, which you can find here on Mary’s Needle’n’Thread blog, I knew that I had to have this book. If it was only half as good as the review…

I am pleased to tell you that is equally as good, if not better than I expected: in-depth research, very clear and detailed instructions and diagrams, case studies, lots of juicy close-up photos of the stitches on historic pieces. Photos that really do show every thread and fibre, and many showing the back of the work as well. This is above all a technical manual – Jacqui Carey has written books on Japanese braiding, and she takes a braider’s methodical, logical, precise approach to the construction of Elizabethan embroidery. Something it has long needed.

Interior of book'Elizabethan Stitches' by Jacqui Carey

Now that's what I call a close up photo! The metal spangles or 'oes' attached by red thread on the right-hand photo are just a couple of millimetres wide.

The book is available in paperback direct from the author at Carey Company: (There’s not very much information about the book on that website, not nearly enough to do it justice.) It is not a cheap book, but it is a tool, an investment and a reference work, as well as a beautifully produced thing in its own right. Elizabethan Stitches is definitely not a book for beginners or ‘improvers’: most of the stitches shown are not particularly easy, and Jacqui doesn’t fill up the book with information on stitches and techniques that is widely available in other embroidery books, nor with suggestions for modern substitutes for the threads and fabrics or projects and samplers. But if you have a serious interest in English domestic and costume embroidery from the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century, when it was fresh and inventive and delightful, or have a fascination with the unusual stitches used then (particularly the plaited braid stitches), and you have gained sufficient ’embroidery-fu’ to make use of the information, then this is an important book that you need to know about.

Back when I was doing embroidery for ‘O Level’ at school, our teacher, Barbara Snook, was using textbooks that she wrote herself, including a book of embroidery stitches. I remember someone in the class asking if she had managed to work all the stitches in the book herself. She said that she had, with just one exception. ‘Plaited braid stitch – I could never manage to get that to work out right. In the end I copied the diagram out of Grace Christie’s book [Samplers and Stitches, Batsford, 1920] but it doesn’t seem to look the same as the examples in the V&A.’ Never one to resist that sort of challenge, I tried hard to get the hang of plaited braid over the years, working from the diagrams in Mary Thomas’s Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches and in Grace Christie’s book. Well, I sort-of managed it, after a fashion, about ten years after leaving school. I, also, thought that it never looked much like pictures of the stitch on actual Elizabethan embroidery. And it was so very awkward to work – it didn’t flow, I couldn’t build up a rhythm. In the end, I decided that the stitch was a total nightmare, and very reluctantly gave up on it.

If she were alive today, I am sure Miss Snook would have been delighted to discover that Grace Christie’s awkward way of working plaited braid stitch really is not the historic way of doing it. As a result of recent textile research, Jacqui Carey is able to show the correct method of constructing the stitch – a more intuitive method of working that virtually turns Mrs Christie’s method on its head. (She also includes another two historic variations of plaited braid and several similar metal-thread stitches which were used in a similar way.) And suddenly plaited braid stitch goes from being a total nightmare, to being just very, very tricky. Okay, ‘very, very tricky’ I can live with. ‘Very, very tricky’ I can hope to slowly improve at.

PB test piece wip 1 20-03-12

Ten days and many practice efforts later, I think I’ve got it down to just plain ‘tricky’. These two shots are of the latest, rather wobbly test piece, which I’m working on. As well as plaited braid stitch for the stem, I’m using corded detached buttonhole for the flowers and leaves, along with a bit of ordinary chain stitch and fly stitch, etc. I don’t consider that this piece is nearly up to standard, yet, which is why it’s just a practice piece. It is far from perfect. I still need much more practice. But it is already far closer to the Elizabethan ideal than I have ever achieved before. I have never claimed to be an expert at free embroidery – if you don’t count the fabric threads to do it, it’s out of my comfort zone. But I am not ashamed to show this photo here, wobbles and all, as a sort of ‘proof of concept’ piece.

PB test piece wip 2 24-3-12

Finally, my immense thanks go to Jacqui Carey for writing a book that feels as though it was written just for me alone, to Mary Corbett for giving it such a clear and such a thorough review that I had no hesitation in buying Elizabethan Stitches sight unseen, and last-but-not-least, to Ruth Matthews who took the trouble to let me know about it.


Bellowhead on St George’s Day

Posted in Music, review, shrewsbury on April 27, 2010 by suetortoise

On Friday 23rd April, I went to see Bellowhead in concert at Theatre Severn. If you’ve not yet heard the band, have a look at (and a listen to) their website. Eleven remarkably talented people, an amazingly eclectic range of instruments and bags of energy. Definitely worth seeing live.
Bellowhead perfoming

This was a seated gig, which meant I got to see them for the first time. I’d find it hard to cope with a standing concert. They played plenty of their best known pieces, including Fakenham Fair and Cholera Camp, and many new songs from their forthcoming album. Which should be a corker: I still can’t get New York Girls (“Can’t You Dance the Polka?”) out of my head! A great evening, and if you get a chance to catch this band, grab it!

Some of you will be saying: Hang on Sue, you posted an earlier version of this report with some photos of the band in concert. So where are they now?

I did. I had my camera with me at the concert, I had a stalls seat with an unobstructed view of the stage, and I  took several photos in the first half of the evening – I’d seen other cameras and mobile phones in use so it seemed to be allowed. But shortly after the break, a member of the Theatre Severn staff came over and that photography wasn’t permitted. Oops! So I stopped.

I’ve not had much luck with my photos in theatre settings before, but I had half a dozen shots of the band that I was really pleased with. Nice and clear. So the next morning I proudly posted them on Flickr and put some of them in a blog post here.

And then I started feeling uncomfortable as they were unauthorised. I like to keep my conscience clear, so I won’t be showing them again unless I get permission from the band or something. The rules don’t say ‘no sketching’ so you’ll have to make do with a drawing for now. Or better still, go and see Bellowhead for yourselves – it’s worth it!

STOP PRESS: Hey, a band that reads blog posts! I feel very honoured. Here’s a couple of shots – they link back to Flickr, where you’ll find the rest.
Bellowhead 3

Bellowhead 1

Quantum Leap Takes Off

Posted in Darwin, out and about, review, shrewsbury with tags , , , , on October 9, 2009 by suetortoise

Leaping into the blue

Long awaited, delayed by difficulties, still standing in a bare building-site rather than the Geo Garden that will eventually surround it: Shrewsbury’s controversial Quantum Leap, the Charles Dawin Bicentenary Memorial sculpture, was officially inaugurated on Thursday the 8th of October, 2009. The area in front of the statue was jam-packed with people, the crowd spilling along the narrow footpath of the Smithfield Road almost to the Welsh Bridge. The late afternoon sun shone kindly on the warm-grey concrete of the curving, twisting structure. Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, made the inaugural speech on behalf of the Darwin family. Finally a brass ensemble from Shrewsbury School played a fine fanfare, composed for the occasion by Ben Powell Davies, a student at the school.

A spendid fanfare

I have some more pictures in a set on Flickr.

Quantum Leap has been beset with problems. There were several unforseen difficulties with the site, and the original construction, built up from two sides, failed to meet correctly in the middle, needing to be partly dismantled and corrected. We don’t expect professional constructors to get things like this wrong, but Quantum Leap was a novel and daring project, almost an experiment in construction science. (Here’s my piece on the early stages of the construction.) And in the end, they got it right. I’m less happy about the thick concrete bases that have been added to the structure, particularly the one on the river side of the arch. Necessary, perhaps, but the bulky lumps anchor the piece rather too firmly to the ground: less an idea leaping into the air, more something struggling to escape. Maybe that is more symbolic of Darwin than we might think? His own doubts about how his thoughts and researches would be received, and the effect this would have on his family, held back the publication of The Origin of Species for many years.

To digress only slightly, I went to see the film Creation on Friday. It’s beautifully acted throughout, with the high standards of production one expects from BBC period drama, but Creation is more a film of a battle with emotion, doubts, ill-health and anguish than of science. I cried quite a lot. It’s worth seeing, but do take plenty of tissues and don’t expect to learn much about Darwin’s work beyond the most obvious.

Randal Keynes, delighted descendantThe film is based on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, who dedicated the Quantum Leap sculpture yesterday. Darwin worried that his ideas would be misunderstood, cause anger and and a storm of criticism he did not want to face. Quantum Leap has already attracted a fair amount of criticism, but we should give it time to mature — to be finished and then to mellow into its setting between the trees in the garden-to-be on the riverbank. I fancy that Shrewsbury will come first to accept and then to delight in its bold, curving, twisting shapes against the sky, once it has found its place among us.

(And of course people are worried that it will become a ‘Saturday-night climbing frame’ for young drunks, who will then fall into the river and drown or kill themselves by landing on stone. I must admit to thinking that anyone so doing might provide an excellent example of evolutionary principles in action.)

Give Quantum Leap and the Geo Garden by the river time to settle and to mature, and I think we will have something that Shrewsbury can be very proud of. Even when still surrounded by concrete dust and metal bariers, it makes a fine sight against the sky.

Quantum leap, grey curves

Coming Off Shift

Posted in review, Shift Time Festival with tags , , on August 5, 2009 by suetortoise

Last night I went to the final debriefing session for the Shift-Time Blogging Project. Time for a final look back at the festival, and a look forward to where the project might take us next. (I am not going to talk about the problems with the Project during the festival, as they’ve already been addressed in depth in Is Shrewsbury Talking.) This piece is aimed mainly at the Festival and Project organisers, so feel free to skip what’s below the cut  if you’re not interested. Continue reading


Posted in review, Shift Time Festival, Uncategorized with tags , , on July 14, 2009 by suetortoise

I was so much looking forward to The Weather Man triple bill at Theatre Severn on the night of 11th July. Having already had a taste of the first item, Arjen Mulder’s fine essay In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes read by Geoffery Streatfield, I knew I was in for a rare treat there. And so it proved. ‘My  soliloquy’, is how Arjen himself described it. A good word for what was more lyrical than a lecture: a lively, challenging thinking-piece delivered with the professional skill of a very good actor, without any of the ideas and resoning being drowned in stagecraft.

I am delighted to see that the full text of Arjen Mulder’s essay is now on the Shift-Time website. It’s worth downloading and reading. Not just reading through once: there are so many thoughts, ideas and challenges packed into the words that it takes more than one or two readings for them to unfold fully in your mind. Try reading it out loud, as we heard it read so effectively on Saturday night – read it to your partner, to the cat, to the bathroom mirror. Savour it slowly and carefully, at a walking pace. And then take time to think.

Follow the Voice, a short film by Marcus Coates is funny, fascinating and very noisy. Everyday noises: human and mechanical, speed up, slow down and evolve into the natural sounds of beasts, birds and other creatures, which themselves speed or slow. To compliment the soundtrack, everyday things and people in the everyday world. Recognisably the world of Shrewsbury, for those of us who live here, but not a tourist view of the town. It could be any town, anywhere in Britain. Kids in the playground, a supermarket checkout, an office printer, a pedestrian crossing…. The visuals too are speeded or slowed. The effect of the bizzare sounds and the temporal distortion is to make familiar sights very strange, to bring out the details we take for granted – and above all to make them funny. (I loved the way the food shifted and jiggled about as went along the conveyor to the checkout.) Some food for thought and a fresh viewpoint, but this is not a difficult, deadly serious piece of work: it’s warm and human and full of broad humour. Light, loud, crazy and terrific fun. (Read more about it here.)

I wish that the film had been shown at the beginning of the evening. It would have been a perfect starter, light and amusing, leaving the audience ready for the rich meat of Arjen Mulder’s essay. As it was, the noise and humour of the film washed away the feast of ideas far too soon. We went out into the interval relaxed and laughing, but no longer thinking.

* * *

I deliberately did not want to find out anything about the Opera North production in advance. The Weather Man, by John Binias and Paul Clarke provided the second half of the evening. A chamber opera for spoken voice, baritone and string quartet. I wanted to come to it fresh, without any preconceptions. I know that I’ve never really managed to appreciate opera, particularly not modern opera, and I was hoping that this might be a first for me, one I could understand and enjoy. I did try, I really did. But I failed. To me it was mostly tiring noise. The string quartet (conducted by Dominic Wheeler) working hard, but producing a largely tuneless soundscape, the male voice singing (Robert Poulton) and the female voice narrating (Sarah Belcher) often drowning each other out or being drowned out by the strings. As a visual accompaniment, we had Robert Poulton moving some chairs around. Why? Everyone gave their best: singer, narrator, musicians, conductor all working tirelessly and professionally. But I was lost at sea. I’m sorry, Opera North, I’m obviously a Philistine. If this was great music, I can only apologise.

I have a huge respect for Adimaral FitzRoy, all too often still overshadowed by Charles Darwin, as he was in his own lifetime after the voyage, and yet who was the intelligent, responsible and innovative captain of the Beagle, who achieved the impossible, in a very small vessel in the most dangerous and inhospitable waters, battling deep depression, the elements and enemies in high places. A man who did so much more besides, and got so little thanks for it. A tragic genius and a great man. While the narration of The Weather Man provided the gist of his life, it was hard to hear and to understand, and there seemed to be a slightly mocking tone throughout. I came away as sadly disappointed by The Weather Man, both as music and as biography, as I was utterly delighted by the two pieces that preceeded it. I wonder what other people thought of this opera?


Posted in review, Shift Time Festival, Uncategorized on July 12, 2009 by suetortoise

Umerus in St Mary's
If you are a mechanical lifeform built of plastic electricity conduit, then God is a genial and ingenious Dutch gentleman named, most appropriately, Theo.

For nineteen years, artist-engineer Theo Jansen has been slowly evolving his walking Strandbeests made of piping. He brought Animalis Umerus to Shrewsbury for the Shift-Time Festival. Last weekend, he was demonstrating Umerus in the Quarry Park. Yesterday he gave us an illustrated talk in St Mary’s Church, where his beests have been on display for several days.

Theo explained how he started developing his series of creatures from a material that is cheap and easily available — Dutch children use offcuts of the sand-coloured plastic conduit for blowpipes. As Theo demonstrated, a twist of paper makes a good missile. Theo Jansen’s excellent and informative website,, is well worth visiting and has a lot of videos, photos and essays about his creatures and his other creative work. (The TED talk video in particular, covers a great deal of the same material that he presented in St Mary’s yesterday.) So I’ll leave you to visit those links for yourself if you haven’t yet encountered the Strandbeests.

The Small Beest One or two things were made clear that I had not grasped from what I’d heard and seen online, or even from watching carefully in the Quarry Park. The first was the basic action of his creatures’ legs. The structure is something along the lines of a pantograph: the circular motion of a crankshaft at the top of the leg, passing through a two dimensional arrangement of twelve linked tubes, moves the point at the bottom of the leg in a complex motion – when Theo places a pencil where the foot normally goes, the shape is a loop with a flattened base. The relative lengths of the tubes that deform the circular crankshaft motion into the up-down-along stepping motion of the Strandbeest are what Theo calls his “Twelve Holy Numbers”, derived after months of computer evolution: using a program to try random combinations  and make further combinations of the most satisfactory until the best possible stepping action was reached. I’d been puzzling over this locomotion since I first saw Umerus, and watching the demonstration yesterday I suddenly ‘got it’ at last — and of course, like so many good, clever ideas, it is simple once you’ve seen it.

 But what else is going on in besides the walking action? Piston ‘muscles’ (one tube inside another) are a fairly obvious next step. That introduces a need for compressed air into the design. Umerus sports a long row of plastic lemonade bottles and a maze of flexible tubing to store the air and take it around to where it is needed. How to trigger the muscles is the next puzzle, and here Theo’s solution is very ingenious indeed. He has designed a simple switch — still made of his ubiqutous plastic conduit and tie-wraps. A flow of air at the signal pipe blocks the flow from the output pipe. He calls these switches ‘Liars’ as they do the opposite of what they are told. When three are connected together, suddenly there is a small dynamic system chattering noisily to itself as it pumps air around. Strandbeest detail 32From simple switches he has moved to more complex systems where combinations of Liars can make the beests respond to an obstruction, raise a sail to catch wind, sense water, count steps to calculate their position. Suddenly there is a simple brain at work, as well as muscles and nerves. And the beests are still evolving.

Theo Jansen hasn’t only made Strandbeests. He showed us video footage of a light-operated painting machine, early, computer-dwelling lifeforms and a wonderfully funny film of a student prank involving the release of a large ‘UFO’ over Delft causing considerable consternation in the city. And after the talk, he was happy to answer questions about his work.

Umerus, impressive though it is, has some design faults that Theo wants to correct in the next Strandbeest. With its complex uppper-parts, Umerus is a bit top-heavy and inclined to topple over, but a creature with two linked bodies should give more stability and allow one half to look after the other. There’s a major weakness in the crankshaft – it broke a few times while in the Quarry Park – and that needs a re-think. No doubt some more innovations will be being tested on the broad, windy beaches near Delft over the next few months. The God of the conduit creatures shows no sign of running out of ideas or enthusiasm, and enjoys passing on his delight and his discoveries to the rest of us. Long may he, and they, thrive!

Evolving a Scientific Performance

Posted in Interview, review, Shift Time Festival on July 9, 2009 by suetortoise

Geoffrey Streatfield and Arjen Mulder

In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes is the first part of The Weather Man triple bill, to be premiered at Theatre Severn on the 11th of July, as part of the Shift-Time Festival.

Written by Arjen Mulder (on the right in the photo), an Amsterdam-based essayist, lecturer and media theorist with a background in biology, it will be performed by Geoffrey Streatfield (left), who is an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The piece is directed by Maggie Love.

I met up with them in the Lion Room of the Lion Hotel, in Shrewsbury this afternoon. I had arrived in just time to hear the last few minutes of the rehearsal, and I was very impressed indeed. When I had been told that the lecture was to be read by an actor, I had been very doubtful – would this  be a way of dumbing-down the science, of adding ‘entertainment value’, making the audience ‘feel’ instead of making them think? When I was given an advance copy of Arjen Mulder’s script, I was more hopeful – there was plenty of thought-provoking material in it – and when I heard Geoffrey Streatfield reading the words, and saw him working with Maggie and Arjen on how to bring them to life, I realised that this was going to be something very good indeed.

I asked Arjen how he’d felt about having someone else reading his work?

“When Anna Douglas asked me ‘Can we use an actor?’ I had no idea what it would be like. And it has been very strange hearing it like this, for the first time, and thinking: Oh, that’s my piece. but it’s come to life in a different way.”

Had he adapted his writing style?

“Well, of course I would normally be writing in Dutch!” He laughed. “But if I was giving a lecture I would not write everything down exactly beforehand. I would make many notes and I would have my slides – the typical lecture style. But for this I had to write down every word, and that made me think more carefully about the words and how it would sound.”

I commented on how well-written the piece was, and asked Arjan if it was originally in Dutch?

“No, I wrote it in English. But all thanks to Laura Marsh who edited it. Not to change any of the concepts, or any of the arguments, but to make the language strong.” 

Geoffrey Streatfield added: “And because it is so well-written, it is actually quite dynamic as a performance piece. It is engaging. And it manages to open up the world of evolutionary theory. Most importantly, is is something that you can feel passionate about. I like that it’s more about the modern understanding of what Darwin’s work was, rather than something that just exists ‘in history’; that you have the history mirrored by what contemporary thinking on evolution is.”

Had Geoffrey learnt something about evolution from reading the script?

“Oh yes, I’ve learnt a lot. For instance, that the cells in a kidney have the same genes as all the rest of a body. It’s all in there. I didn’t know that.

“What I find too is that every time I’ve read it, something else has come out. Which is normally the test of something that’s interesting. That’s why it’s such fun doing Shakespeare, because you can do it every day for a thousand years and still engage your imagination. Every time I’ve gone through this piece today, different things have emerged. The significance of different discoveries. It starts meaning different things. And because it’s directly related to our own lives, to our own bodies, it’s not just an abstract. It’s about us.

Maggie Love, the director, is also the Darwin Community Arts Fund Co-ordinator. She mentioned that they had held a series of debates for schools before Christmas: on natural history, robotics and genetics. “And it was the genetics debates that raised the most questions from the students. That was the one that they got the most excited about.”

“Yes, biology is going very well at the moment, extremely well.” said Arjen. “Especially with genetics in the last twenty years. It’s getting more and more simple all the time — and far more complicated!

“Five hundred genes, that’s all you need, and four billion years. You can get evolution going. And then you can build all the rest.”

Geoffrey Streatfield laughed: “You just need some cells from a kidney, and anyone can get their hands on that!”

The triple bill: In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes along with Follow the Voice, a film by Marcus Coates, and the Opera North production The Weather Man, at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. 7.30pm, Saturday 11th July. Tickets £15.00, concessions £12.00. Box office: 01743 281281,

I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s premiere performance, and will report on it in due course. After Shrewsbury, the triple bill will be at The Sage in Gateshead on 15th July and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17th and 18th.

Tiny Creatures

Posted in review, Shift Time Festival with tags , , , , , , on July 4, 2009 by suetortoise

Captured ELF

Into Rowley’s House this morning, where I encountered the tiny twittering and bleeping world of ELF: Electronic Life Forms, created by Pascal Glissmann and Martina Höfflin of  the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne. Their website is: 

The exhibition is spread around a room that is far too large for it, but the individual solar-powered creatures, the photos, and the short video (which shows them in their natural habitat and after their subsequent capture by researchers) are delightful and worth a close look. I was lucky enough to have time to sketch one of the captive creatures. The exhibition runs until Sunday 12th July. Details at:

Like the Weather

Posted in review, Shift Time Festival with tags , , , , , on June 5, 2009 by suetortoise

One of the highlights of the Shift Time festival is the first performance of a new work by Opera North on Saturday 11th July at Theatre Severn. Called The Weather Man, it explores the relationship between FitzRoy and Darwin on the Beagle. Performance details here

Here’s my short review of a book about Admiral FitzRoy, which would make a good introduction to the man who made Darwin’s journey possible. (This review first appeared in my fanzine, Tortoise, in 2006.)

This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson,

Headline Review, pb 2006, ISBN 0 7553 0281 8

This is a novellisation of the story of Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle. When I first read Charles Darwin’s own account of this famous voyage, I was gripped by the sheer adventure of it. Here, with Captain FitzRoy as the main character, and with his earlier voyage and later life to give context to the story, it comes to life vividly. Apart from using a little artistic licence here and there, Thompson has stuck very closely to the facts, and has obviously done a great deal of research in order to write the book. The character of FitzRoy — a most able and admirable young captain, dogged by bouts of severe mental illness — is extremely well presented; the other characters also have depth, if slightly less than the protagonist.

The story is told with a fair amount of quiet humour and plenty of detail. Conversations rarely feel stilted or false. There is a good sense of the period and one can clearly visualise the places visited. The author is not afraid of using descriptive passages, and the nautical, scientific, political and philosophical arguments are remarkably easy to follow.

FitzRoy’s career after losing command of the Beagle provides little more than a succession of bitter disappointments and disasters, ending in tragedy. But the book remains engrossing, as by now FitzRoy is someone we know well and care about. The author’s notes at the back are also informative and readable, a welcome reminder of how very much was achieved on that journey and as a result of it.

The book is available from Amazon: here