Evocative Objects: The Things We Keep

evocative (adjective) ––––– bringing strong images, memories , or feelings to mind

I’ve been gathering some of my thoughts for a talk I’m giving next week….

Why do we keep things: a pebble from the beach, old photographs, cracked pottery, a pressed flower? I once kept an iron that had been given to me as a wedding present even though it was broken. We could call such objects ‘evocative objects’ because they have a personal meaning for us and they help us to make sense of our lives.

Objects help us to retain memories and retrieve them. They give us a route back in time and connect us with something lost. We can once again inhabit the past, feel the past. Souvenirs for instance are ways of anchoring our place in time. They are a material connection in a world that is always slipping away. I once found a hair in the seam of a bag made by a suffragette in Holloway Prison in 1912. I can still feel the tingle! I felt connected to her yet not a word had been spoken.

We can sense and think with objects, touch and be touched by them. When we look closely at objects we can get into what the writer Glenn Adamson calls ‘the contact zone’. We start to become receptive and curious. We begin to ask the ‘why ‘ questions.

As someone interested in old textiles, I find that when I scrutinise them I can tap into thinking, memories and feelings that can be got at in no other way. Additionally, as a maker of textiles I find that when I’m looking at historical textiles I can tap into material ways of knowing. Textile practitioners know how textiles are made, how long it takes to make them, which tools are best to use etc.– all knowledge that we have picked up through experience and handling. I read recently that you know when a tool is working because you stop being aware of it. Much of what we do hovers below the level of active consciousness. We carry the knowledge of generations when we look at objects and when we make them.

Adamson adds that there is a sort of truth about objects. He writes that when you make an object and put it into the world there is nowhere to hide – You can’t spin questions of workmanship.

Ways of Thinking

In her book Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Sherry Turkle writes that acknowledging ‘the power of objects has not come easy’ and that there is a reticence in examining objects as centrepieces of our emotional lives. According to Turkle, more value is placed on formal, propositional ways of knowing and thus, abstract reasoning becomes synonymous with knowledge altogether.

Yet, objects (and for me, textiles) are rich and underestimated sources of thinking and feeling. They are ‘active life presences’ according to Turkle. They are companions to our emotional lives and are provocations to thought. Objects and in particular textiles are grounded in our life experiences. They can become signifiers of a relationship and emotional connection and can exert a holding power because of the particular moment they come into one’s life or they mark a transitional moment in the passage of life. We are so over familiar with some objects that we take them for granted.

What I find interesting, are the stories we consciously tell with and about objects and that often these are the stories we like to hear. They rationally confirm us in our ‘comfortable ways of thinking’.

When I make textiles it is as if I am scratching beneath these ‘comfortable ways of thinking’ and letting thinking and feeling surface. I am always surprised that something that I am not explicitly aware of emerges when I have finished a piece of work. Amazingly, what starts out as one thing becomes something else. I find that all the time I give a piece of my work a ‘working title’ only to re-name it once I’ve finished. A case in point is the piece of work I finished yesterday.

January, 2021

I made this cloth from scraps of linen left over from another project. It was bricolage, a combination and recombination of a closed set of materials left around. What was it about? I was just using up some small pieces of frayed red and natural linen from cut up domestic cloths.

When the work was complete I realised that I had started making the work the day after my son broke his leg and he couldn’t return to Switzerland where he works (I thought it is interesting here to note that the Swiss flag is of a red cross). We were worried about having to repeatedly go to the hospital because of Covid. He also had to stay in the hospital overnight in case of the need to operate. Increasing numbers of Covid cases and deaths were reported in the news at the time and in the midst of the reports was the fact that the UK had left the EU (more emphasis on flags).

So what was my bricolage of fraying red and white linen scraps with some crosses and jagged edges about? Can I say that it is about one thing or a collision of ‘intensities’? Was it about what I was thinking and feeling then, in that timeframe? I could have left it untitled but I’ve decided to call it January, 2021.

‘A Linen handkerchief’

Yesterday, I found this poem by Michael Longley. He is one of my favourite poets, and textile often features in his work. It is called ‘A Linen Handkerchief’. I found it very poignant and he used the word ’embroidered’ together with the phrase ‘never came undone’. Does he imply that these embroidered initials signify the resilience of love in the face of erasure?


Northern Bohemia’s flax fields and the flax fields

Of Northern Ireland, the linen industry, brought Harry,

Trader in linen handkerchiefs, to Belfast, and then

After Terezín and widowhood and Auschwitz, you.

Odysseus as a girl, your sail a linen handkerchief

On which he embroidered and unpicked hundreds of names

All through the war, but in one corner the flowers

Encircling your initials never came undone.

‘Textures of Understanding’

This September (2020) I was due to exhibit at The Lightbox in Woking, Surrey. The exhibition was called Textures of Understanding and I intended to show all the practice from my PhD at UCA, Farnham. Sadly, because of Covid, the exhibition has been postponed to June next year (2021). Whilst I was writing the thesis I held off posting online and so now it is complete I’m going to begin again.

Here are three of the works that will go to the exhibition. The work responds to embroidered cloths worked by suffragettes in Holloway Prison between 1911 and 1912 , at the height of the window smashing campaign. Some of the women went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed.

A Dark Bloom

@ The Knitting and Stitching Show, London

I exhibited with Studio 21 at The Knitting and Stitching Show, Alexandra Palace, London, a few weeks ago.  Some of the work is going on to Dublin and Harrogate, and Farfield Mill in Cumbria this autumn (2018).

When I turned up to steward at the show, two notices had been added around the embroidered cloth saying, ‘Please do not touch’.  I was delighted that people felt the need to touch the cloth, although I suppose I wouldn’t have been so delighted if it became grey at the edges!  The framed work was about denying touch (amongst other things).  I was so glad that this aspect of the work had been picked up on and that people wondered why I had made it, spent so long embroidering it and had then hung it up like a domestic cloth.

Unfortunately, because my work is often monochrome the visual images are never very good!


Two works: Cloth of Dreams (2017) and Remembering, Retracing, Reworking (2018).



Dutch Resistance Embroideries

The week before last I returned to Het Verzetsmuseum in Amsterdam to view some embroideries in the archive, worked by women of the Dutch Resistance. The women had been held in various prisons and camps including Ravensbrück. It was a privilege to handle these embroideries and to learn about the stories behind them. I found them very moving.  The visit made me reflect again upon what gets to be saved or discarded and why?


Made by M. Schalker-de Vries. The information with the textile states that it was (possibly) worked in Ravensbrück.

The Here, Hear Project

At The Festival of Crafts @ Farnham Maltings, Surrey, UK,  October 2018


This is a big ‘Thank You’ to all the people who took part in the project last weekend at The Festival of Crafts at Farnham Maltings.  I was overwhelmed by the goodwill of everyone and their willingness to participate, and of course talk about embroidery, the vote and their lives. It was even more interesting to set up the project at The Maltings, as there was not a pre-conceived idea that the event would be about suffragettes and the vote (as at other sites where the project has been set up).  It all made for a different experience this time.

I’d also like to thank Naomi, Jule, Louise and Gemma for helping to make it possible at the Maltings – what a great place!

I’m hoping to carry on the project beyond this important year (the 100 year anniversary of some women gaining the vote in the UK) just because of the wonderful reception at Farnham. When I arrived home, Haslemere Museum had contacted me about participating in an event of theirs in the New Year (2019) about Women’s Suffrage so I think the project may return there.

I was asked where the cloth might eventually end up? It will form part of my practice as research for exhibition. I have my eye on a fantastic venue so I will keep the blog posted about the progress in that direction!

The Here, Hear Project (2017- )

I have been taking this project to museums and seminars, conferences, to draw attention to women’s suffrage and embroidery. It has been wonderfully received by everyone. The project involves making a mark of choice on the cloth to signify the vote and the importance of the vote in representing voice.

I can honestly say that every mark involved a conversation. I’m hoping to take it to another meeting next Tuesday!

I have been asked what will happen to the cloth, which is part of the reason why I’m writing this to give an update. I will hopefully keep it moving until my final exhibition for the PhD (2020) and then show it and invite all concerned. From the start though, it was never about the end product but about participation. Hopefully something thought provoking has come out of it for all involved. Here are some images.


Thank you to everyone who has taken part already and to everyone who helped and facilitated the project.