London Exhibitions 2021


Looking forward to a brighter 2021, and dreaming of open galleries and enthralling shows, I have collected some of the best exhibitions hoping to open this year.
All of these include textiles in various ways – from garments and pattern, to interiors and photography.
If not physically open, let’s hope that these exhibitions will be available online in some form:

Zanele Muholi
Tate Modern, 5 November 2020 – 31 May 2021
Zanele Muholi Calls herself a visual activist – one who focuses on South Africa’s gay, trans, intersex and queer communities. The LBGTQIA+ communities still remain a target in South Africa, despite equality being promised in 1996. The photographs are intense, with the sitters gaze being an important aspect. The images also contain characteristic textiles, hair pieces, garments and make up.


Jean Dubuffet
Barbican Art Gallery, 11 Feb – 23 May 2021
This will be a retrospective exhibition of Dubuffet’s work showing his tireless experimentation. Butterfly assemblages, enamel paintings, colourful canvases and lithographs will be among the type of work shown. He is famously the founder of Art Brut movement and his work rallies against conventional standards of beauty.


Epic Iran
V&A, 13 Feb – 30 Aug
This exhibition will explore 5,000 years of art – from 3,000 BCE to the present day. Art and culture will be shown through 300 objects, which includes sculpture, textiles, carpets, film and photography. This is a landmark exhibition on one of the greatest civilisations in history. Knowing the V&A’s past shows, this will surely be a remarkable display.


Chintz: Cotton in Bloom
Fashion and Textile Museum, 12 March – 15 August 2021
The Fashion and Textile Museum spans hundreds of years and miles with this exhibition that explores Chintz fabric. This material bears multicoloured patterns and designs that became sensations throughout 18th century England and Europe. Some 150 examples of this textile will be on show, from Japanese dresses to wall hangings and sun hats.


Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser
V&A, from 27 March 2021
This immersive and theatrical exhibition takes you down the rabbit hole into a magical new world. It is the most comprehensive exhibition ever held on Alice and Wonderland. It looks at the huge impact Lewis Caroll’s story has had in the history of art, fashion, design performance and more. Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Tim Walker and Vivienne Westwood are among those included.


Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms
Tate Modern, 29 March 2021 – 27 March 2022
The Infinity Rooms are immersive installations of endless reflections. Kusama is famous for her obsessive and repetitive dots. Her work uses a variety of media such as painting, sculpture, drawing and performance. There has never been a Kusama exhibition of this size before in the Uk, so it’s not to be missed.


Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture
Fashion and Textile Museum, 3 September 2021 – 1 January 2022
Beautiful People explores fabulous examples from Chelsea’s iconic boutiques that sparked a 1960’s fashion revolution. Creative exploration led designers to sell radical clothing to counterculture youth. The flamboyant ‘flower power’ style emerged with an explosion of colour and pattern. Styles from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix will be displayed alongside garments from iconic boutiques like the ‘Kings Road shop Granny Takes a Trip’.


Impressionist Decorations: the Birth of Modern Decor
National Gallery, 11 Sept 2021 – 9 Jan 2022
This is the first ever exhibition dedicated to the Impressionist’s impact on the decorative arts. These painters sought to bring the outdoors inside and turned their eye for landscapes into objects that could decorate the home. Interior elements such as panels, painted doors, tapestries, ceramics and paintings will be shown. Impressionists such as Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Manet and Cezanne are included.

Lubaina Himid
Tate Modern, 24 Nov – 22 May 2022
The 2017 Turner Prize winning artist Lubaina Himid exhibits on a large scale, showing recent work and highlights from her career. Himid is known for her approaches on painting and social engagement. Her long career has contributed to the British Black arts movement and recognising women’s creativity. Taking inspiration from the Himid’s interest in theatre, this exhibition will unfold a series of scenes designed to put visitors both on the stage and backstage.

Tales of Guatemalan Worry Dolls


As we enter a new year, we hope to leave our worries behind us. With that in mind, I remembered a small oval wooden box gifted to me as a child. Inside were six tiny wooden dolls from Guatemala, known as Worry Dolls. I remember them being fascinatingly miniature, placing one in the palm of my hand and telling it my worries before sleeping.


Worry dolls are known to have been created by the Mayan’s over 2,000 years ago. There are two trains of thought assigned to their beginnings: the first is that they are modelled on one of the creator gods; the other (and more common idea) is that the dolls are based on a Mayan legendary princess called Ixmucane. In this myth, the sun god gifted Ixmucane the power to solve any human problem.

worry dolls


According to tradition, Guatemalan children tell the dolls their worries before placing them under a pillow. With six dolls included in the oval box, each night should be a different doll, with one days rest. By the morning, the children will be gifted with knowledge of how to overcome their worries, allowing them to sleep soundly. In the morning, it is advised to rub the dolls tummy, so that the pain of carrying bad thoughts is relieved. The ritual of acknowledging anxieties before sleep is seen as beneficial, particularly for children. Worry dolls have now been recognised by paediatric and child therapists as a way of relaying concerns to a trustworthy listener.

Guatemalan Indigenous Clothing


The Worry dolls themselves are between 1-3cm tall and made out of wood, wire and fabric from Mayan garments. The face of the doll can be cotton, cardboard and paper, or clay and the outer clothing from wool or “aguayo” – a traditional Guatemalan cloth. This is all held in place with colourful yarn that is wrapped around each part. Moreover, the fabric used is offcuts from handmade clothes, as a way to reduce waste.

Indigenous Clothing


In Guatemala traditional clothing is bright and colourful, depicting local flowers, animals, geometric shapes and figures. The textiles are woven by hand and the yarns are dyed naturally with flowers, vegetables, herbs and bark for their vibrant colours. There are over 800 different styles of indigenous Guatemalan clothing, known as the traje tipico. The traje is still commonly worn by women, and there are various communities where men also wear traditional embroidered clothing. The most common parts of the women’s traje are the huipil (blouse), the faja (belt/sash), and the corte (skirt). Depending on the region, head accessories include the cinta (a type of headband), the tocoyal (a ribbon that is wound around the head ), and the tzute, which is worn on the head, or as a cloth to carry infants on their back. Wearing the traje is a way for indigenous women to keep culture and heritage alive.

Worry Dolls

The women who make these Worry Dolls live mostly in the rural areas of Guatemala. This provides them with an important supplement to the income they get from agriculture. Now these dolls are famous in Guatemalan culture and are sold as souvenirs to travellers passing through.


I find Worry Dolls magical, both in their significance and aesthetic. They are tiny replicas of Guatemalan people in indigenous cloth, and a reminder of their vibrant culture. In this way they bring a small part of Guatemalan magic into our home and dreams.

Worry Dolls and box

The Aran Sweater’s romantic tales

As the weather gets chillier and we start to add layer upon layer of jumpers, I take a look at the tales and people behind one of the worlds most iconic woolen jumpers from the Aran Islands. Since its original existence and use, the Aran sweater has become a symbol of Irish heritage.

1910’s fisherman’s wife knitting

The Aran Islands are set off the west coast of Ireland at Galway Bay. The Atlantic weather is relentless with cold Atlantic gusts making life hard bearing, isolated but beautiful. The islands were self sufficient lands where fishing and farming were peoples’ livelihoods. Rearing sheep for wool and food was a large part of it.

The Aran jumper was used by the local people for generations. Wool is a naturally water-repellent material, with the jumper absorbing 30% of moisture before feeling wet. It is thick, full of natural oils, comfortable, and can be layered in the cold.

Aran Jumper

From its origins, the Aran jumper has been linked to local clans, with designs differing for each clan. Knitting became an all encompassing activity for women on the island, and each jumper could take up to 50 hours to knit. The jumpers were unique, with families often using different combinations of stitches. Supposedly this was also helpful if a fisherman became lost at sea, as the stitch pattern could be used to identify the body. A harsh reminder of the hardship on the islands.

It is said that the jumpers reflected the existence, hopes and losses of the islanders. The different knitted symbols tell a story and can be read by anyone who might know them. These stitches held unique meanings that represented the islanders’ lives and the land. An amazing compilation of these historic clan patterns can be found on the Aran Islands themselves.

early 20th century fishermen

The patterns follow combinations, dependant on the clan:

The cable stitch shows a Fishermans rope, and hopes for a fruitful day at sea.

The diamond stitch represents the small fields on the island, divided by stone walls. These are sometimes filled with the Irish moss stitch, which depicts the seaweed that was spread on the fields.

The zig-zag stitch, a half diamond, expresses the winding cliff paths on the island.

The tree of life was one of the first stitches, and is unique to the earliest knitwear.

The Aran jumper gained big popularity in the 20th century when it caught the eye of celebrities such as Grace Kelly and Steve Mc Queen. The first commercially available Aran jumper was available in the 1940s and their demand became huge. The islanders channeled their skills to an industry standard, with sizing and regular patterns. Although most are now made on machines, the designs are mostly unchanged and still carry their meanings and spirit.

Grace and Steve

These tales of the stitch patterns are sometimes called out as myths. But, these jumpers have been around for generations so are bound to have meanings attached.


Also, tales and magic are part of the Irish tradition both in oral and the written language. My father once told me to never let the truth get in the way of a good tale.

Home Crafting for Lockdown 2.0


If you are worried about long winter evenings indoors, then fear no more. Taking up a new crafting project is both rewarding and creative. Not only that, but you might be able to smuggle some hand made, inexpensive, gifts under the tree this year.


There is a resurgence of popularity with home made crafts and goods. I believe that people are reacting to the mass market and fast fashion brands that churn out items in their multitudes. Upcycling, the buzz word of the moment, is part of this reaction to overbuying. Moreover, for many who are on computer screens all day, creative projects contrast for a balanced lifestyle. As we are now mostly working from home, having breaks from your laptop can easily be filled with crafts.


Before we dive into five fun projects, I want to briefly explore the rise of crafts in the History of Art:


The Arts and Crafts movement of late 19th century England was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. It re-evaluated the importance of hand crafts in a growing machine-based society, where mass production and industrial making were on the rise. The movement aimed at slowing down and rediscovering the joy craftsmanship, where imperfections and irregularities were praised. The textile, decorative designer, writer and poet William Morris was a key figure in this movement. He is remembered by many for his botanical wallpapers and textiles that are still popular today. Morris, and other leaders of the movement such as John Ruskin, were fed up with the impersonal merchanised society, seeking a more fulfilling way of living.

William Morris, Trellis wallpaper, 1862


I believe that we can learn from the Arts and Crafts movement going forward, by making changes to our lifestyles as we leave this pandemic behind us.

So, why don’t we start by trying some fulfilling creative projects. There are now hundreds of free online tutorials by crafters for people to do at home. Easy-to-follow videos, articles and images guide you towards a fun and finished piece.


I have chosen five crafts that are varied in their materials, technique and time. They are rewarding and meditative, making your autumnal evenings indoors more meaningful.

Potato printing


Who knew that potatoes could be so versatile? Not only can you eat them in multiple delicious ways, but you can also print with them. As a beginner the printing may not be precise, but what you have to remember is that mistakes are characterful.


All you need are potatoes cut in half, a knife to cut your design, paper/fabric and paint. I tried potato printing at home by using biscuit cutters in different shapes, a tip for also printing with children.

Here you can follow the basics of potato printing by Molly Mahon :
https://www.homesandgardens.com/shopping-design/movers-shakers/potato-printmaking-mollymahon-221342


Molly Mahon is an English textile designer focused on block printing. She designs fabrics with bright colour ways, which are hand printed in India. She runs block printing workshops around the UK, but since lockdown has been posting videos online showing the ease of printing at home.


When finished the printing, you can use your fabric or paper to make custom pieces. For example, paper prints could be used as wrapping paper, wall art, cards, or invitations.

From your fabric prints you can create tea towels, cushion covers, table cloths, tote bags, aprons and more. (Tip: make sure you use fabric paint so it doesn’t wash out)


I would really recommend potato printing, as its especially fun with a group of friends.

Molly Mahon’s potato printing

DIY Macramé bag


Macramé is a textile that uses knotting techniques with string or rope. It is believed to have started in the Arab world, and travelling through Spain and Italy, reaching the UK in the 17th century. It was long and widely used by sailors on ships for many purposes. This technique is now having a resurgence, from soft bohemian home furnishings to accessories.

With macramé, the more practice the better you get. This bag is definitely worth it, and makes a very chic and jealous-making shopping accessory. Also, macramé bags are being sold on Etsy for £20+, so this could even be a meditative side hustle.

String, needle and thread, scissors, and two jump rings are all the materials needed for this bag. The only skill is knotting.

I found a perfect step-by-step guide on Collective Gen, which is a community for ‘style, home and life makers’ , and ‘women who make things’. Based in Australia, creatives share their ideas and experiences on this collective site. Have a look, there are many more DIY projects available.


For the fabulous macramé bag click here:
https://collectivegen.com/2017/10/diy-macrame-bag-second-version/

DIY Macramé bag

Crochet ‘Granny’ Squares


Crochet is a technique using a crochet hook to interlock thread or yarn. The name comes from the French word ‘small hook’, and was used in 17th century lace making.


This technique has also grown in popularity recently. I believe that it is easier than knitting, and also very meditative. There are endless free patterns online, from coasters to blankets, teddy bears to hats.


If you manage to master the basic crochet stitches, a whole new world will be opened up to you. Concentration is needed at the beginning, but you will soon find your hands start to move themselves.

What are known as ‘Granny Squares’, are an easy pattern to start with. These squares can be added together and adapted into amazing contemporary fashionable pieces. Your choice of thread colour is important, as this could make the squares look outdated. Choose rightly, and you are on to a winner.

crochet Granny Squares

Granny squares are crocheted in a concentric manner – starting from a middle point and working outwards. A full step-by-step guide by Matt Spiers is found here:
https://www.gathered.how/knitting-and-crochet/crochet/how-to-make-a-crochet-granny-square/

I recently discovered a young brand called Stahl Knit, based in Pennsylvania, that show what you could achieve with these squares – bright, fresh and eye catching designs. Stahl has made colourful sweaters, hats and tote bags, now for sale in Urban Outfitters. It just shows where your granny squares could end up.

Stahl knit

Clay spoons


This is a project a little different to the rest. These small spoons, made out of clay, can be shaped into any shape or size you want. Having small homemade details in your kitchen, like these spoons, really bring the place to life.


They are decoratively painted and oven baked, and only take an afternoon.


I remember making oven baked beads for necklaces as a child, and giving them out to friends in the playground. All you need to do is roll out the clay into little balls and, using a toothpick, make a hole through the centre for your chain, ribbon or string to thread through.

For the miniature clay spoons click here:
https://www.gathered.how/arts-crafts/how-to-make-clay-salt-spoons/

Clay spoons

Origami lampshade


Origami is the art of paper folding from Japan. Originally, Japanese paper folding was only for ceremonial purposes, and handmade paper was a luxury. This technique is rich in history, and today has become intertwined with complex mathematics to make modern folding phenomenons.

The lampshade that we are going to try has a graphic and clean look, which would suit any home office environment. Moreover, this origami lampshade is fool-proof if you follow the simple folding instructions.

What I love about this project, is that it needs the most basic of materials to create a lampshade that really adds to a room.


For the origami lampshade:
https://thehousethatlarsbuilt.com/2018/08/diy-origami-lampshade.html/

origami lantern


So, think of this autumn as a time to learn a new craft, take up a hobby, or give handmade gifts.

The five crafts that I have shown are all sustainable, use natural materials and are easy to finish. You can change any part of these designs to give your own personal touch, and feel free to make mistakes, because often mistakes end up being the best part.

When the world starts to turn again after this pandemic, lets re-enter it in a more craft-driven, sustainable way.

London Fashion Week17th – 22nd September 2020

London Fashion Week (LFW) 17th – 22nd of September 2020 was quite different from the previous years. Designers looked for new and innovative ways to show their collections. This season, the schedule was split into three sections – brands that showed digitally, physically with catwalks or both combined. It was also the first year that many collections were gender neutral.


With Covid, the traditional form of a fashion show with a runway lined by influencers and fashionistas, students competing for the back row, or paparazzi hustling with flashing clicks at the entrance, could not be achieved. Instead, brands opted for intimate shows, live streamed catwalks, or decided to create films and innovative digital performances. The world must go on, and LFW 2020 has shown how we can adapt to our current situation in interesting ways.


The schedule includes exclusive multimedia content from designers, creatives, media and cultural institutions. Through these collaborations culture, technology and design have been merged.


The LFW website contains podcasts, videos, music and covers areas such as sustainability. To catch a glimpse of the best and newest fashion designers, or to listen to thought provoking podcasts, check out the website here: https://londonfashionweek.co.uk/


Over 80 brands large and small gathered to show their Spring Summer 2021 collections. Most chose digital film to show their collections, while others live streamed a catwalk show. Only a few chose to have physical performances, with select appointments and limited numbers attending.

Designers such as Erdem, Burberry, Molly Goddard, Simone Rocha and Bora Aksu made the event mixes of digital and physical.


Burberry’s collection walked naturally through a forest, one by one, to meet at a central stage with a choreographed dance and live singer. The garments themselves were not ethereal, as you’d imagine for a forest setting, but included a mix of white fabric with graffiti like patterns, silver sequin dresses and orange jackets. The collection was more like style in the city with nautical features. The creative officer Riccardo Tisci said that he was inspired by “a love affair between a mermaid and a shark, set against the ocean, then brought to land.”

Burberry

Molly Goddard, who’s recognised for her signature tulle designs, brought a flash of colour and texture to this years fashion show. Her catwalk was small and digitally streamed. Garments with blocks of colour look forward to next summer’s style.

Molly Goddard

Erdem, one of my favourite brands, is famous for its floral prints and elegant feminine silhouettes. In Erdem’s world, women are not going to stop dressing up. Erdem Moalioglu was inspired by Susan Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover. He said that “It begins with three people dancing on the lip of a volcano.”

Erdem


Live streamed from a forest, the models walking were straight out of the 18th century, when Sontag’s novel was set. The fabrics include embroidered muslin and organza dresses with 18th century floral forms and treated with creases. The collection shows beauty in a time of uncertainty. When entering his showroom, Erdem said “When it feels like the end of the world, doesn’t someone need a pink moiré hand-embroidered gown?”


Bora Aksu was one of the few to have a show with seated guests. Set in a rose garden behind St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, the guests sat apart from each other and the models wore translucent masks. The collection is an optimistic look at a world of prosperity post Covid. The collection was split into three parts – WW1 and the influenza pandemic of 1928, the grieving period afterwards, and into the roaring twenties. The catwalk show began with models wearing white cotton dresses, reminiscent of nurses. The grieving period is represented in shades of blue, only then to be followed by hope in the form of light ruffled lace dresses.

Bora Aksu

In a much simpler presentation, Simone Rocha exposed her collection as a series of photographs set against a white background. Her collection contains large pearl-like ornaments and a reference to the Victorian era. The pearl bags and intricate headpieces show that these garments were made with a great attention to detail. Rocha explored themes such as fragility and strength – shown with the seemingly heavy pearls held by delicate straps. The models remind me of old portraits, where the sitter would have to stay still for a considerable time. This collection takes us out of this world and into an ethereal dream.

Simone Rocha


Needless to say, this pandemic has had crushing effects on all English fashion labels, in particular independent designers such as Simone Rocha. Many have scaled back their collections, with time to work and concentrate on details. However, the talent shown at this London Fashion Week is a testament to the creatives reacting to our changing times. The designers look forward to a brighter Spring and Summer of 2021, as we all are.

What is Textile Design?


As a Textile Designer, I have been in many situations where people don’t really understand what fabric design is. When I say that I’m a textile designer, questions like ‘what is that, exactly?’, or ‘does that mean you are a fashion designer?’, are pretty common. Many people don’t realise how versatile and broad the subject really is. So, I’m going to give a brief insight into this creatively vast field of design.

Everywhere we look there is cloth.
Look down and you will see that your body is covered in textiles. Perhaps you are also sitting in an arm chair, or leaning on a table cloth. Wherever you look there are fibres of different types, colours and textures. So, how can we know so little about it? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that this brief intro will only skim the surface.


Fabric, in fact, has shaped and defined the world we live in. We sleep in it, wear it, eat on it, sit on it, repair ourselves with it, even go to space in it. ‘Textiles’ is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as ‘cloth made by hand or machine’. This definition is simple and endless. Three areas where textiles are prevalent is in fashion, interiors and fine art. Fashion needs fabrics to clothe us; interiors have patterned walls, chair coverings and pillows; and many installations in fine art today are textile based.


From the linen wrappings of Tutankhamun’s mummy to the worms that make our luxurious silks, our constant use and reinvention of cloth offers a unique story in human history. The first principle natural fibres were cotton, silk, linen and wool. These have been crafted by humans forever for warmth and protection, status, for decoration and identity.


Only when I started to study textiles, did I realise the differences in the make up of our everyday fabrics. When you take a closer look at their threads, so much is revealed. Cloth is made mainly from the techniques of weaving, knitting or felting. The difference between them depends on the amount of threads used, or the way they are connected together. When a fabric is woven, there are multiple yarns crossing over and under each other. This technique is made with a loom, a traditional machine that can be large, wooden and loud. Of course today, the making process can be made easier with digital looms. In comparison, a knitted fabric is made from yarn being wrapped around itself. Have you ever wondered why your jumper starts to unravel before your eyes from one small hole? Felt, on the other hand, is is made from wool that is still in its fluffy, fleece like form. With a felting needle, the wool is punched multiple times until the material begins to stick together. Knitted wool can also become felted with a high heat. Perhaps that holey jumper was also washed on a high heat, only to be returned pretty stiff.


From the basic structure of these materials, colours, patterns and embellishments can be added. These include processes like printing, dyeing or stitching. The former basic fabric enters a new world of design and colour, which makes you forget the fibres could have once been a plant, or come from an animal.


In print design, for example, there are practical and digital sides. Within these are many
techniques including woodblock printing, screen printing, potato prints, dyeing, batik, digital printing, sublimation printing, laser cutting… the list goes on. Having specialised in print design, I found that more painterly and raw effects are created by hand with wood blocks, batik or screens. For centuries people have pressed repeat patterns onto fabric from wood blocks dipped in ink. This technique is famous in India, where small irregularities in colour or shape are part of the cloth. Batik is an Indonesian technique where wax is used as a resist when the cloth is dyed. The marks are made from the undyed areas. Screen printing, widely used in the UK, is a technique where a squeegee tool pulls ink through a metal gauze frame on which you place your pattern. With digital prints, the effects are endless. A process I enjoy is turning hand drawings into digital
prints through photoshop and illustrator.


The first time I walked into the dye lab at Chelsea College of Arts, it felt like a science lab. There are recipes to make dyes, along with chemicals and big dye vats filled with hot water. Specific quantities of pigment and chemicals are tested to achieve your desired colour. Of course, natural pigments too. This process of design and experimenting can be meticulous. Colours always look different from paper, to screen to fabric. Many tests are done for the perfect combinations. When it comes to pattern, you need to think about repeats – what will it look like on the finished piece, and will it work? After that, you need to make sure your fabric collection is cohesive, and not a mix of different shapes and colours. Imagine the amount of thought that has gone into every piece of fabric you are wearing right now.


Not only do textile designers make cloth for decorative purposes, but there are constant ground breaking fabrics being developed. Extreme sports fabrics, or even the automobile industry involves fabric designers. Moreover, today there is a growing concern towards using natural and sustainable fabrics, especially among young designers. Not only that, but new textiles are being made for animal leather alternatives – such as mushroom or pineapple leather. Textiles is an ever evolving subject, that works in tandem with time.


The book ‘The Golden Thread – How fabric changed history’, by Kassia St Clair, was a complete eye opener for me, and a great read if you are at all interested in cloth. One section that I found mesmerising was the inherent connection between our daily spoken word and the language of textiles. In only a few pages, Kassia St Clair describes some words we use every day, that have roots in textiles. For example, the words ‘line’, ‘lining’, ‘lingerie’ and ‘linoleum’, are all rooted in the word ‘linen’. Moreover, ‘text’ and ‘textile’ share the same ancestor – ‘textere’, which means to weave. It is so interesting to unpick these lineages. The written word and textiles are completely interwoven. Paper was even once made with rags.


From a traditionally female domestic activity, textiles have grown enormously to be intertwined with our growing culture and technology. A textile designer can be involved in every, or any single part of the fabric making process.

Take a moment to feel, observe and appreciate the design of a piece of fabric, and you will see that textiles are more important than you ever imagined.

Masks & beyond


In light of Covid-19, masks are on our mind now more than ever, not to mention also
covering our faces. The pandemic has brought the world into a place not seen before. We
have all been transformed into mask wearers.


Sewing machines around the globe have been dusted, and are rattling away in a new wave of home crafting. Being stuck at home has given many people time to sew and upcycle fabric. From designers to amateurs, people are now making, donating and designing masks from found materials. I have also joined this marathon. With this in mind, I’m going to glance at the history of masks, and look at three female artists who have playfully led them into the 21st century.

For many people, including myself, masks signify decoration, extravagance and fun. My relationship with them has been from dressing up boxes, festivals and parties. At the annual Venetian Carnival, for instance, people line the streets in traditional costumes and masks are for sale in every shop window. From ancient theatre to modern film, masks can exaggerate expressions, notably in the great films ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999) or ’The Joker’ (2019). Another function is to protect – such as builders and doctors. Even in Venice, the Plague doctor wore a long bird-like mask, where herbs were placed in the
beak for nice smells.


Throughout history, face coverings have come in many shapes and forms. A mask can disguise, expose, transform, give you confidence, give you a voice, take away your voice. Textiles play a huge part. The first recorded masks are from 9,000 years ago in the Middle East. These are in stone, but imagine face coverings before this time made from perishable materials such as leather or mud. Thought to have been used in rituals, this also reminds me of the famed African tribal masks. Decorating our faces and changing our appearance has been going on forever.


Some think this art form has been lost, but there are exciting artists who have brought this culture into the postmodern age. Lavish headpieces can be found on Instagram pages Fashion for Bank Robbers, or False Face – also great inspiration for costume parties. Seen here are young designers who have adapted masks in surreal ways. Three stimulating makers caught my eye: Thread Stories from Ireland; Polina Osipova from Russia; and French food artist Enora Lalet.


I have been following Thread Stories for a few years, and have seen the designer grow and grow in popularity. This Irish designer has a strong Instagram presence, and has featured in the likes of iD, Colossal magazine and The NY Times. Her masks are surreal, sea creature-like forms that flow and fall around the head. They are made from yarn with techniques like crochet, knitting and fringing. Each starts as a crocheted balaclava, which is layered with thread to make wild 3D shapes. The designer photographs and films herself in a performative way, throwing the masks from side to side. Most of the face is covered, apart from her eyes or mouth. Through altering her appearance Thread Stories questions online versus offline personas. We all know the feeling of choosing the best photo, or of showing off our highlights. How we show ourselves to others is so important, and the designer questions this. She wears the masks, and then deconstructs them to make a new design. Big points on the sustainable side. Thread Stories captures your imagination, like stories of wild mythological creatures.


Polina Osipova, a young designer based in Russia, has a different look to Thread Stories. Polina’s pearl infused face and head decorations, have fallen straight from a fairytale. Sparkling crystal tears drop from eyes surrounded by faux pearls; swans mirror a heart through which Polina’s face appears. It all sounds magical, right? I think so. The energy that surrounds her work is captivating. Polina photographs in an Instagram friendly way, that makes you want to just keep scrolling. She has built up a whole persona, with elaborate dresses and backgrounds. There is humour and a surreal quality,
as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole into wonderland. It is hard to choose a favourite from these creations. One in particular that stands out is the mask of three headed girls, translated from Russian on Instagram: ‘Three-headed girls didn’t run past here?’ – very much a fairytale reference. Other more bizarre examples are strangely realistic nosebleeds made from red sequins and beads. Polina mixes Russian folk art and culture with surveillance iconography, for a new vision. Pearled CCTV cameras are mixed with hands and eyes in unusual combinations. In this way, the artist comments on a society that is watched. Security cameras are a large part of our daily life, and in cities we are always being recorded. Masks are a way to hide ourselves from these eyes. Polina plays with this idea by placing cameras directly on her head, making us think about our compromised private spaces. The artist also combines cameras with a traditional Russian headdress, the Kokoshnik, in a fun yet provoking look at Russian life. The crystal tears that appear again and again, relate to moments at traditional Russian weddings where the bride cries tears of sadness at leaving her family. This is known as the ‘crying toll’, where family members place coins in a bucket for the bride to take. I think that Polina’s interpretation of these old customs is charming. There is a purity and elegance to Polina’s pearls, yet the underlying theme to her work, like Thread Stories, is that we are constantly being watched.

Food artist Enora Lalet, is a delicious comparison to show just how far masks can be pushed. Lalet uses the body and face as a canvas for making incredible food sculptures. She plays with food, the body and bold colours. The admiration for food goes far beyond the plate, and even the colourful marketplace. Cut, stitched and glued, food is combined to make headpieces that are awesome to the eye. Not only are Lalet’s masks made from enviously cool food, but she also explores themes like food waste. For example, in her collection ‘Cuisine Toi!’ (2017), the artist makes you think twice about throwing away. Working with eight young girls, Lalet used food waste from a French restaurant to make eight awesome headpieces. The results are an explosion of colour and texture – the opposite of what you’d imagine food waste to be. Lalet travels the world with this curious art form, using local foods for her headpieces.

I admire this use of unusual materials in textiles. Food is a difficult material for many reasons, the most obvious being that it decomposes. These masks are ephemeral, keeping their brilliance only for a few days, and recorded through photography. This unlikely material makes shapes and colours that remind me of pop art. The figures underneath the headdresses are painted and the background is often a complimentary colour. Lalet takes the traditional mask, which is usually textile based, and turns it on its back. Pure admiration!


Pushing boundaries in every subject is important to make an impact. For me, textiles is all about pushing boundaries and using interesting and less obvious materials to do so. Thread Stories, Polina Osipova and Enora Lalet are three different artists who capture our imagination. Perhaps our every day Covid masks could already do with a spruce up.