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A Journey Through Elphin

In the spring of 2019, the communities of Elphin, Knockan and Ledmore came together to plan a really exciting piece of textile art to grace the walls of the newly-decorated Community Hall. 

One of the groups who use the hall regularly is the Craft Circle, and it seemed obvious that they would form the core of the people who would make the work.  So I visited them on a number of occasions to help them develop a visual plan for this community wall-hanging. To start with, we looked at maps of the area, including one that was hand drawn in 1774. This led to discussions about the unique historical and social features of the townships. 

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Of Course, there is very little written history of this area, given the lack of literacy up until the 20th century, but we gleaned what we could from the Old and New Statistical accounts for Scotland and from the papers of the Dukes and Duchesses of Sutherland.  When we were unsure about the history of any of the buildings, we consulted long-time residents, who helped fill in the gaps.  Eventually, we felt ready to narrow down the features that were key to the identity of the area and so, along with a volunteer, I made a life-size plan of the work, which was an aerial view of the townships, including road, rivers and lochs, all to be translated into a stitched textile collage.

 

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We decided to call the project “A Journey Through Elphin – Past and Present”.  And to make sure that everyone in the townships could have their say and have an opportunity to take part, we held a public meeting in the hall where, over tea and cakes, everyone had a chance to look at our collection of old maps and photographs and swap stories of the place in days gone by.  There was a real buzz on the day, with a good number of folk turning up, some with great ideas to improve our plan.   I acted as recruitment sergeant, and so we managed to swell the numbers of crafty participants considerably.  There was no doubt that the project had popular support!

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But first, we had to make the landscape onto which the features would be stitched.  The Craft Circle were keen to develop their skills in textiles, so we arranged that they would come to my studio to print the moorland and crofts with the aid of my old adapted mangle and some grass.  Everyone really enjoyed this and swapped washday stories from their childhood.  Then, we made water surfaces using batik (painting with hot wax), which we dipped in dye, to create two-tone cloths which would be used for the lochs and rivers.  Again, there was much laughter and amazement at this magical process.  So, now we had a huge bank of cloth from which to choose those that ‘sat’ well together to form the main background to the buildings and other features.  
 

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At the first of our April Open Sessions at the Hall, we laid out all the cloths the Craft Circle had made and decided how they would be pieced together to make the background.  Then we set to rummaging through a mountain of scraps of cloth to find the bits and pieces we would need to make our individual contributions.  A lot of ironing was done, but of the creative type!  It was now up to me to sew the background together in time for the next Open Session, so that everyone could start to picture the finished article, even though we have a long way to go yet!

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Our next April session was really busy, with folk enjoying choosing cloth and there was more ironing with gusto!  Many took the opportunity to plan their panel using photographs and pictures to help them.  Quite a few learned to draw with a sewing machine and no one was more pleased with their results than young Sandy, who now wants a sewing machine for Christmas!

And everyone liked the new grassy textile background, which I had pieced together the day before.  Seeing this made it much easier for folk to imagine their finished work in place and really seemed to fire everyone’s enthusiasm.

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Our last meeting for April was, once again, well-attended and everyone’s ideas were coming along. There was much discussion about suitable colours and techniques and, once again, the sewing machine was star of the show, with a queue of people wanting to try out the free embroidery technique of drawing with the machine. From my point of view, the session was just not long enough to have a decent chat with each person, so I am looking forward to the next meeting, when I can sort that out!

And we made a few group decisions about the final layout of the panel and about the shape and order of the guide book that we will be compiling to go along with the art work. Once again the room was bristling with questions and activity, which bodes well for the quality of the finished work.

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Our meetings in May saw our ideas start to become a reality, with several of the features quickly completed by the most eager of the participants. A wide variety of textile techniques were employed, including cross stitch, tapestry stitching, free-motion machine embroidery and applique, and once these features were placed on the background, they made for an exciting feast for the eyes.

And there was one surprising addition to the work. At the opening event in March, a couple of members of the Spieliology Society ( pot-holing and caving enthusiasts, to give them their common name ) had attended. They have had a ‘hut’ in the village for many a year and are a friendly bunch who mix well with the locals. They jokingly suggested that they should be represented on the wall-hanging by a big black hole! How we laughed, but did not expect to hear any more about that. However, they have now been in touch to say that one of their members is a good embroiderer and would indeed like to sew a black hole, which they will send by post for us to attach to the main work. What a great example of community spirit and we are all delighted to have them on board!

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June was the month that saw the project leap forward, with a good number of the key features of our “Journey Through Elphin” completed and ready to be stitched on to the background. And the cavers came good, delivering their embroidered black hole to be stitched on in place of the Cavers’ Hut!

The most exciting meeting was the one that involved cutting up the background – a scary moment – to allow us to feed the blue water cloth in behind the gaps, representing the burns and the lochs. Even more scary than that, we went on to burn the edges of the various sections of the background so that they looked like the peat banks to be found at the edge of all the waters. At least, I thought it was scary, but the volunteers appeared to have no fear of the pyrotechnics (it was amazing what they could do with just candles and matches) and got through the job in double quick time. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or to inform the police of the obvious fire-raising skills of the Elphin folk!

And we took delivery of the backing cloth – a glorious golden mustard colour – echoing the colour of the grass print for the outlying areas of the townships. What a pity that it will only be seen in the binding at the edges of the wall-hanging, with most of it being hidden round the back.

And so, it was now time to start attaching the various buildings and features. Look out for an exciting gallery of this work in the next instalment.

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July saw the slow build of the details of the village, with each person in the group hand-stitching their contribution to the background. You can see below some of completed work. How we all looked forward to sharing the finished wall-hanging, so we started to plan a celebration, to which anyone and everyone would be invited. So far, our only firm decision is that it should be in November, when all the business of ‘the season’ is over and life seems just a little dull. Alongside the wall-hanging, we hope to also host a little exhibition of photographs and mementos of Elphin in days gone by, to be created by a few of the ‘non sewers’ in the community. And we intend to make an interpretation book, explaining the history behind all the features to be found in the work, was well as information on how the work was made. So, a lot of decisions have still to be made, but we remain undaunted!

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This project has kindly been supported by ..

 

CALL identity RGB    TNLHLF Colour Logo Scottish RGB small    SNH logocolourcmyk
Email : info@jankilpatrick.co.uk    Tel : 01854 666279,   Postal Address : Jan Kilpatrick, Cul Mor, Elphin, By Lairg, Sutherland, IV274HH.
 

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