Finding beauty in disintegration, after Mandy Pattullo gave up her full-time job teaching textiles at Newcastle College she began laboriously unpicking the patchwork tops and stitches of the old quilts.
She loves the discovery of hidden layers and the delicate tracery left by the quilted patterns. Experience has taught her what to look for. Sometimes the filler is old clothes or a blanket, but it is not uncommon to find an old Victorian quilt that has been recovered in the 1920s or 1930s by a pieced quilt. Though the quilts are often falling apart, Mandy sees beauty and quality in the faded and worn fabrics that is lacking in contemporary materials.
Mandy started to make patchwork in the late 1970s, following the BBC series Discovering Patchwork. Her contemporary quilts were exhibited in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, and as far afield as America and Japan. In some ways Mandy has come full circle returning to her love of patching together small pieces of fabric.
Getting older has also brought with it a greater appreciation of the past. Reading a copy of Ruth Finley’s 1929 text, Old Patchwork Quilts and The Women Who Made Them, an evocative, albeit romanticised, account of the development of American quilt patterns provided further inspiration. Mandy wanted to know more about the women who made quilts and the social context of their production. In no way reproducing them, she knew that she wanted to incorporate old quilts into her collages. Reusing fragments of domestic textiles over which women have laboured gives them a new life and encourages the audience to re-examine the surface of the work. It is important for her that the hand of past needleworkers, even if not proficient, remains visible. Precious remnants of dress fabric, curtains or scraps of tapestry from charity shops all go into her work.
Mandy’s studio is full of quilts, objects and imagery that influence her practice but the starting point for her textile collages is always vintage fabric. Sometimes, she will decide to use the reverse, as she loves the minimalist quality of the pieced backs that reveal the quilt’s past through staining and signs of wear. Magpie-like, she will pick out the colours and textures that appeal to her. Years of experience in the arts have developed this ability to work intuitively. She only pins the fabrics together when it feels right and then lives with the new collage on her studio wall for days, before slip stitching the patches into place. At this stage the composition is abstract, a canvas for further stitching.
Mandy’s background in surface pattern and textile design comes to the fore in her urge to embellish these pieced and patched collages. The surface becomes the ground for drawing with her needle, using a repertoire of about ten stitches, including Running Stitch, Feather Stitch, Chain Stitch, Seed Stitch and French Knots. Blending stitch and appliqué, and sometimes buttons, she creates animal and bird motifs that reflect the rural surroundings of her studio. Her floral appliqués, using fragments of cloth, perhaps a bit of Turkey Red carefully unpicked from an eiderdown, have an artless quality. Whilst the decorative elements are there, Mandy uses them in a subtle way. Respect for the elements she brings together is always present and a precious piece of tapestry or fabric is never swamped. These collages have a depth way beyond the purely decorative.
At the same time as developing this new way of working, Mandy began to look into the history of quilts and drew from her research several key influences. She became interested in folk art motifs, such as those found on traditional Baltimore quilts, and the appliqué displayed in the pictorial story quilts of African American slave, Harriet Powers. Her former training has taught her how to use such historical design sources. This style of finger-turned appliqué became an element of her work, though sometimes she intentionally leaves raw edges. In the quilts of Gee’s Bend, made by African American women, slave descendents living in an isolated community, Mandy found something different from the mainstream American quilt aesthetic. She seeks to capture something of the spontaneity and liveliness of these quilts in her work. The aesthetic of Japanese Boro cloths also resonates deeply with Mandy. Boro means ‘tattered rags’, yet these cloths are now valued as repositories of family history and a lost folk craft. They are the patched and repaired bedding and clothing of poor families handed down the generations, extra layers have been added to give further life to precious textiles.
Through her careful choice of fabrics and layers of stitches, Mandy’s blue quilt manages to capture the aesthetic of Boro cloths without pretension. Where colours have not been quite right, she will occasionally over-dye pieces in her washing machine with commercial Dylon to achieve the harmonious palette she is looking for.
Mandy’s aesthetic embraces a ‘make do and mend’ philosophy and she believes in the ability of sewing to improve well being. The work is disarmingly simple, but, she says, ‘rooted in an awareness of other art forms, where colour, composition and balance are key.’ Her style is unmannered, celebrating the handmade and it retains a vitality often missing from ‘perfect’ work.
It is also underpinned by a deep awareness of, and respect for, women in the past who still found time to create beauty even in times of hardship. Like an alchemist, Mandy takes unloved and fragile textiles, and in her hands fragments become abstract art, worn patches are transformed into textural and embroidered garments and the most unlikely quilts are reassembled, embellished and given vigour. Whilst she intervenes with these ancient textiles, the original quilt is not forgotten; rather Mandy encourages us to appreciate it all the more and respect the makers of a bygone age.
This article, "Thread and Thrift", was written by Dr Sue Marks for Issue 56 Hollywood.
In our upcoming online talk Quilting, Mandy Pattullo will share with us how she uses quilting as a base for her textile work and what the quilting methods she bring to her collaged textiles.
She will be joined by Dorothy Osler, Joanna Hashagen and Abigail Booth.
Quilting will take place at 18:00 on Wednesday 8 December. Find out more and book tickets here.