A piece of my own

Posted by Agnes Iley , Monday, July 23, 2012 8:33 AM



Posted by Agnes Iley 8:32 AM

In my student profile form I wrote: I've been thinking about taking a course in Textiles for such a long time. But which one? I am not an embroiderer, I am not a quilter, I just work with textiles. So I have been tossing and turning between the various courses on offer and finally decided to sign up for OCA. I am hoping that this course will focus on the design element of textiles, without being limited to one specific technique or genre.

I had to dig deep to find this little note back and didn’t have a clue what I wrote at the time. But reading it back all I can think is “wow, did I pick the right course”, it offered everything I asked for and more. The funny thing is that the “everything I asked for” is what I felt comfortable with. The “more” was what made me feel downright uncomfortable at times and was what really pushed me and probably taught me the most. I had never worked with sketch books before the whole design process was just in my head. I may have jotted down a little note as to not forget something, but that was it! On top of this I am absolutely not a drawer, that talent has definitely surpassed me, so that side of things made me feel very uncomfortable at times. And I still need to develop and utilize this much more than I do know.

Another thing that took me right out of my comfort zone was strangely enough writing about and talking about the pieces I made. This was something that took me by surprise. For my day job I write a lot, give presentations and address large groups of people. So how did those things suddenly made me feel uncomfortable? It took me a little while but then I realized one is work and the other one is personal. I never had to explain any of my artwork before, never felt the need and frankly didn’t want to. I knew what I felt making it and what it meant to me and I didn’t particularly care what anyone else made of it. That had to change. So in the beginning I struggled writing about my inspirations, the design process and especially with the questions that started with “how do you feel”. But I think I made major strides in that field. The course has influenced my work in many ways. It has given me a much wider vocabulary to choose from. I don’t just look at my fabrics and threads anymore, it’s given me a broader outlook and many more options to solve any questions that might pop up.

It has also given me the confidence to speak about my work, so much so that when asked to give a presentation at a Fiber Conference in the United States about my soft sculptures I said yes. That’s a long way removed from the person who had difficulty to write down a few notes. And I guess it was a success, because they offered me a teaching contract for next year’s conference!

This course has drawn out of me what was already there and broadened my horizons, which I am absolutely grateful for. Which leaves me to thank my mentor Liz Smith, her very encouraging comments, nudged me in the right direction and despite never having met face to face she seemed to know exactly what I needed!

What have you achieved?

Posted by Agnes Iley 8:30 AM

Can you see a clear line of progression from source material through to the finished piece? Was there enough information in your source material to stimulate your imagination and sustain your enthusiasm?

Yes I do think I see a line of progression from my inspiration picture to my finished piece. I kept revering to my picture for guidance in colour choices and to keep the “feel” of the picture. There was more than enough information to keep my imagination going, although I must admit that it doesn’t take much to get my imagination going. But I had absolutely loved this picture for a long time, so it was great to finally unleash that and work with it.

Do you feel you made the right choices and decisions when selecting at each stage of the project? If not what would you change and how would you alter the outcome?

Above I describe the choices I have made at every step and I am happy with the outcome. On one hand she turned out to be quite a striking soft sculpt, but on the other hand she got quite a serene feel over her. Just like a Weeping Willow. I don’t think I would change her.

Are there more ideas you would like to pursue that have come out of this project? Are they similar in feeling to the direction you took, or different? Note them down for future use.

I have no immediate plans to start another project based on this picture. But that’s just because working on a sculpt like this is very time consuming. When finished it is nice to get a little distance from the subject you’ve been working on so intensely for quite a long time and think about some fresh new ideas. But in the back of my head there is a wise old willow, wrinkly and a little crooked…. And of course this picture isn’t going anywhere, so I am sure it will creep up in the future in some other textile art forms. At the moment I am still brimming with ideas from the weaving challenge, great inspiration for a tapestry!

Which stage did you find the most exciting? Which stage was most arduous and difficult to get through?

There are so many different stages to get through on a sculpt like this, but in this case I was most excited when I was sewing on the cords and realized the whole thing came together just as I hoped. That was the moment that my human figure became a tree. I didn’t have any really difficult moments. Difficult moments to me are moments that I want to pick the whole thing up and bin it! So no true melt downs. But there were two tasks that can get a little tedious. One is the needle felting. Needle felting the whole body shape is labour intensive and can get a little tedious. But when the figures starts to take shape, all is forgotten. The one thing that got absolutely mind-numbing on this sculpt was making the cords. It was a long and tedious job and the wires where putting a lot of pressure on my hands (trying to keep them going straight and not being hit by the machine’s needle), so it took me a lot of time and I had to take regular breaks. But I loved the result, so I would absolutely do it again! (Just not tomorrow)

Do you like the finished textile? Can you say what it’s strengths and weaknesses are?

I do like the finished piece. What I like most is that it’s a striking figure, but still has a quiet, serene feel about it, just like a tree.  What I would have liked to have done better is some of the finishing. I took this piece with me to the United States for a show (Creations in Fiber in Albuquerque) and she wasn’t quite finished when I left. So I ended up doing some final work in various hotel rooms during our trip and in some places it’s not quite perfect. However she did win Perfect Score, Judges Choice and Best in Show. So maybe she’s not all that bad.


Posted by Agnes Iley 8:29 AM

Now my base was done it was time to make some decisions on tree-i-fying my Willow. imageWhilst making the cords I had been thinking about this. I thought about making hundreds of tiny willow leaves that would hang of individual threads. I was thinking about making the leaves out of light see-trough voile and stitch the outer shape and spines. I even considered digitizing this as an embroidery pattern, so I didn’t have to stitch every tiny leave by hand. But looking at my figure I questioned if it would be too much, too literal and would make the whole figure feel too heavy just by the sheer volume of leaves. So I did a little test run with some leaves cut from paper. And yes it was too much! In the end I decided I needed to keep it simple and instead of branches full off leaves, my sweeping branches are represented by some of the same threads that I used to create the bark. I did threat the threads with a matt polymer varnish to stop them from tangling or knotting.


Posted by Agnes Iley 8:28 AM

So now I had a human looking soft sculpt and had to decide how to morph her into a tree. I considered several options. One was to take fabric and pleat, tuck and manipulate it to look like bark. I did a little trial piece. Now to prove that I learned something during the course… Normally I would spend three days on this little trial, sewing all the little tucks and pleats. But now I covered the back of the fabric in glue and started manipulating it. I really liked the effect and when sewing it I could create knots and all the other features of real bark.


But looking at my inspiration picture I questioned if I could get the depth of colour and richness I was after. I got more and more drawn into my thread colour matching sample. I love that soft sheen of the thread and that would give me the richness I wanted, but how to layer those colours to create the depth and texture? Then it hit me, cords! Zigzagging over cords with the different colours of thread would give me the depth of colour and richness I was after and the cords itself would create a texture that resembles bark if laid next to each other. And since I really wanted the shape to be sharp and keep the strong lines of my sculpt I decided to incorporate a wire in each cord.


When I looked at Monet’s Weeping Willow I felt the tree was a little deeper and sharper in colour at the bottom and a little lighter and hazier towards the top. So each cord got covered in 7 different colours of thread and the stitch width varied as I went up the cord and with each layer, this to create some tonal difference between the top and bottom of the tree. I’ve got to tell you that I ended up cursing this process. Before I had enough cords to create my tree I had covered 35 yards of wire and cord and had used well over 8000 yards of thread! In the end I still was a tiny bit short and having run out of supplies I ended up my piece of demo cord from my scrapbook. To finish my shape, I have sewn the cords with invisible thread (the fishing line type for strength) to my human figure. I didn’t want to just go straight up and down. So I tried to create knots in the bark and really make the tree look like it was swaying in the wind.

I was very pleased how the individual legs came together in the trunk, they still look like separate legs, but at the same time it looks like a tree trunk that has a split down the middle. I felt that I needed a little skin peeking through the bark on one leg. Otherwise it was too solid and too much of a separation…. Feet in skin colour, head in skin colour and a solid tree trunk. The little gaps of skin on the leg break it up a little and give the whole figure a better “flow” for me.

The head

Posted by Agnes Iley 8:26 AM

I really had to think about the head. Usually I go for quite strong facial features. I love my sculptures to show character and emotion.


When I was thinking of my Weeping Willow I wasn’t so sure. I was thinking about walking by yourself through woods in dusk. When you see faces in the trees, do you see a face because of those pronounced cheekbones and strong jawlines or do you just see half an eye, a bit of a nose and a mouth? I thought if I made the face to pronounced it would stand out too much. I wouldn’t fit with the overall tree and serene tree feeling that I was looking for. So when I sculpted the face from pre-felt (I start by needle felting a basic skull shape and build on the face from there with little offcuts of wool that get needle felted onto the skull) I kept the features quite flat.  Besides the wire frame, the only non-textile I use in my sculpts are the glass eyes. I am sorry about this and I have looked for alternatives over the years, but there is nothing that beats beautifully made glass eyes. They are held in place with very thin wires covered in pantyhose, this makes for an immediate eye-lid. After the eyes are in place the whole face gets skinned in the same way as the body, separate layers and each layer gets sculpted with needle and thread.


Posted by Agnes Iley 8:23 AM

The next decision I had to make was skin colour. The skin consists of 2 or 3 layers of pantyhose. Usually I use the various colours of the layers to try and create a realistic skin tone. But here I had to take a different approach. Did I want the skin to morph with the tree as well? Or did I want the skin to stand out and concentrate the morphing on the shape? I decided to do a few samples.


I didn’t want the human form to disappear completely into the tree. But I didn’t want to lively a skin tone either, I thought that would stick out too much and detract from the morphed figure I wanted to create. So after my first samples, I went back to the drawing board and tried to match a more “still” colour, something resembling bleached out bark, almost like driftwood.


So for my next samples I started with a base layer of lilac. The thicker pantyhose I use for a base layer only comes in white, but luckily it dyes very easily. The lilac made sure that any radiance I usually try to achieve was dulled down, over this came a layer of thinner pantyhose one in a light flesh tone, the other in an almost putty-like colour. I decided on the last sample for my Willow.image

The skin gets sown on by hand. I use invisible thread and tiny quilting needles. Each layer gets sewn separately. In between the layers I enhance the features with needle sculpting. With needle and thread I go over the figure and pick out the parts that need to stand out a little more, for example the knees, buttocks, stomach, breasts and collarbone. After the skin layers are sewn and sculpted the basic figure is done.