In October and November we ran Alternative Stitching, a 10 week course upskilling ourselves in using appliqué for public banner making. We wanted to learn the process as a tool to make hand stitched images that represent who we are here in the East of England. We decided to spend time researching, planning and sewing pieces, and to do so with others.

Across a 10 week period the Alternative Stitching Group met regularly. Sometimes there were 15 people, other times, 5, but each week brought something new to learn, to ponder, to head scratch about and to giggle at. The group spanned participants in the 20s and those in their late 80s. We drank a lot of tea, we ate a lot of biscuits.

We learnt about types of stitch, appliqué, embroidery and more. The sessions encouraged hands-on taught craft whilst also exploring stitching heritage in relation to social change – we looked at the Quaker Tapestries depicting social and political life, and banners created for public purposes such as guilds and worker’s unions. 

Alternative Stitching was deliberately set up to work for all levels of sewing experience, from complete beginners to experts. Sessions were jointly facilitated by Ipswich textile artist Trisha Bendall and myself, an artist with a passion for local research. Together we offered folks that came along the opportunity to learn the process of appliqué, in order to then make meaningful pieces that speak of who we are and what we believe. 

In October, we had the first in a series of lunchtime Stitching Talks to accompany the group, as a way to inject the Alternative Stitching programme with inspiring ideas from experts in the field. The first of these was with Ed Hall, one of the UK’s most respected and high-profile banner makers with a career spanning over 30 years and 500 embroidered banners made for political and social causes. He joined us to talk about his life’s work and the importance of banners to social movements.

The banners Ed makes are for the street, often 2.5m x 2.5m, featuring applique letters, borders, swags logos and painted centrepieces. He believes there is a close relationship between the arts and the struggles of our history and that banners have a vital public role in giving the best visual message possible.

Ed made his first banner in 1984 whilst working as an architect at Lambeth Council to protest the Government’s plans to end the building of council houses and his craft developed alongside his career. As the UNISON Branch Secretary for Lambeth Staff, demand grew for his banner work and he was able to continue producing them for trade unions and campaigns.  

In 2000, Ed met the Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller who commissioned him to make banners for many high profile projects for the Folk Archive, Deller’s Turner Prize submission, and the Venice Biennale. Since then he has made banners for the British Council, and has held a solo exhibition at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. His work is on display at the Imperial War Museum and at the People's History Museum.  

In November, the second of our Stitching Talks series explored the secrets and stories behind the Quaker Tapestry with curator Bridget Guest. Bridget is passionate about the Quaker Tapestry, embroidery and community art. Since 1994 she has managed the Quaker Tapestry Museum in Kendal. She teaches, designs and inspires others to enjoy embroidery.

The Quaker Tapestry is a modern community textile of 77 colourful panels of embroidery, made by 4,000 men, women and children from 15 countries between 1981 and 1996. The panels chronicle 350 years of remarkable people and events. The Tapestry shows the Quaker influence on the modern world and explores the industrial revolution, developments in science and medicine, astronomy, the abolition of slavery, penal and social reform, ecology, business and finance. Many of these concerns are still relevant in the work that Quakers are involved with today.

Bridget had many stories to tell about the Tapestry from its humble beginnings in 1981, of the people involved, why it is so inspiring to others and what it means to those who are involved in keeping this work alive for future generations.

Then also in November, we had a third Stitching Talk with special guest speaker author and researcher Elizabeth Crawford, this time focusing on the role of sewn materials within the women’s suffrage movement. Elizabeth is an independent researcher, author, among other works, of The Women’s Suffrage Movement 1866-1928: a reference guide and (forthcoming) Art and Suffrage: a biographical dictionary of suffrage artists.

In the years leading up to the First World War the women’s suffrage movement was renowned for the power and beauty of the banners created by its members. The staging of spectacular processions was one element of the suffrage campaign and the banners were, as one newspaper reported, ‘vivid with simple grandeur, alive with an ancient dignity’. Elizabeth discussed the spectacle, symbolism, and importance of the banners, many of which still survive in museums and archives around the country.

Having piloted Alternative Stitching last year we are now cracking on with developing a new banner making project that will see a series of community banners made for SPILL Festival this coming Autumn. We are really excited about it and there are going to be loads of ways to get involved. So if you want to ensure you hear about them, then join our mailing list at the bottom of our What's On page. It’s just seeew easy…