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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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August and September saw the gradual completion of all the individual features of the village. We now had the mountains in place and a growing number of creatures – not surprisingly, mostly sheep and chickens – started appearing all over the place. There was no doubt that this panel represented life in Elphin! And the Craft Circle painstakingly attached the winding road, in the form of some bias binding, all the way through the village and around the Knockan and Elphin circles.

Towards the end of September, we spent a day stretching the cloth and sewing on the backing, which felt like an important milestone. Now, we just had to stitch some grass – both to embellish the printed background and, at the same time, to connect it to the backing cloth. The Craft Circle were keen to do this and there was much discussion about the right colours for the grass because, of course, there are so many shades of green!

Now that the panel is pretty much finished, October brings us to other considerations, such as the form and content of the guide book that will accompany the wall panel. Everyone who has taken part will, of course, have the opportunity to contribute their thoughts. Early ideas are taking shape, but you will have to come along to the opening event if you want to see the results!

The grand unveiling will take place on Saturday the 9th of November, 2.00 pm – 4.00 pm, in the village hall. This should be a great afternoon, with refreshments and a sense of celebration and achievement for everyone who has taken part. We hope the whole village and anyone – from Ullapool up to Lochinver and beyond, who is interested, will come along to see the results. The afternoon will also feature a display of photographs and information about Elphin’s past, provided by Simon and Jill, so there should be plenty to enjoy. I’ll see you there!

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What a great day we had at the unveiling! For a tiny village like ours, there was a huge crowd, including folk from Stoer, Lochinver and Ullapool. I think the fact that, only the day before, the Northern Times had given our story the whole of the front page, might just have influenced the numbers.

The afternoon started with a warm welcome speech by Simon Jeffreys, followed by a dramatic unveiling of the wall-hanging by our guest of honour, young Veyatie Venters (who is named after the loch in the village) and her dad John, performed with a flourish, as you can see from the photograph! In fact, the room was packed with photographers, so there was a good choice of exciting photographs to go along with this article.

As you might imagine, lots of people deserve thanks, both for making the panel and for making our celebration a success. But particular thanks must go to the musicians Eireann, Ruth, Ali, Margaret, Russell and Jenny, whose playing made for such a lovely atmosphere; Simon and Jill, for their display of local history and photographs; the tea ladies Linda and Kay, for serving us drinks and delicious cakes, and the bakers themselves, especially Rae Strang, who came up with the goods twice (you can ask her about that yourself!).

One important person who deserves much thanks is local man Dick MacLeod, who has a long memory and without whom we would not have learned the history behind the various features that appear on the panel. In fact, we learned so much history in the process that we felt we needed to make a record. So, to act as a guide, we have created a hand-bound book, with a section on the history of this sewing project and then a page dedicated to each feature, containing a written account by the person who sewed that particular piece of work. On the day, there was quite a queue to read it. In fact, the project has sparked such strong interest in the history of the Elphin area that it looks like a couple of residents plan to set up an on-line archive of local history, open to all to read and/or to make contributions. That would be such a great legacy for this particular community endeavour to leave behind.

Thanks must also go to Coigach and Assynt Living Landscapes Partnership (CALLp) for their financial contribution to this project, which allowed me to purchase materials and to offer some learning workshops without charge. Most of all, though, I want to thank the volunteer sewers, who gave hours and hours of their time to make this fascinating, impressive, and very large piece of textile art.

The wall-hanging itself is now on permanent display in Elphin Community Hall and, along with the lovely guide book, has now passed in to the care of the Craft Circle who, after all, contributed much of the work and who were such a source of encouragement to everyone who came forward to take part. It can be seen any Thursday, between 2 and 4 pm, when the Craft Circle meet, and any Wednesday between May and September, when the Elphin craft and produce market is on. If any group would like the panel to visit them, please contact alijohnson@hotmail.co.uk

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Textile Panel Slideshow

Each of the original 39 pieces of textile artwork that comprise the Elphin Textile panel is presented above in a handy slideshow format.

Every piece was created by a member of the community and is accompanied by a title.

This project has kindly been supported by ..

 

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Email : info@jankilpatrick.co.uk    Tel : 01854 666279,   Postal Address : Jan Kilpatrick, Cul Mor, Elphin, By Lairg, Sutherland, IV274HH.
 

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