Seamless, Renée

Stitch: Contemporary New Zealand Textile Artists
Ann Packer
Random House, $59.99,
ISBN 1869417887

I know Ann Packer’s work from her articles in newspapers and magazines, and never go anywhere without her little gem, Crafty Girls’ Road Trip.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I looked forward to Stitch and to discovering more about artists whose work I knew and artists whose work was new to me.

Artist is a powerful word. It makes claims to certain standards and values, it promises originality, flair, theatricality perhaps; it sends out a challenge, puts a stake in the ground – textile artists are here, and they’re here because they’ve earned their place. We are surrounded by textiles. We wear them, work with them, walk on them, twitch them, slump into them, carry them and lie down on them.  Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous nature of textiles which encourages most of us to take them for granted – but not these artists. Materials range from silks and satins, cotton and linens, wools, blankets, flax, hessians, and then there are the decorations.  Bits and pieces of ribbons, feathers, buttons, strings – you name it, it has been used by one or other of the artists in Stitch. Works are knitted, woven, stitched, rubbed, embroidered, quilted, patched. They are framed, fringed, tasselled, installed, set on a table.

Rugs, clothes, sandwiches, portraits, landscapes, kete, bags, scarves, tukutuku, a sculptured fountain, wall hangings, tea cosies; here are Clare Plug’s well-deep black quilts, there Suzanne Tamaki’s (Maniapoto, Tuhoe, Te Arawa) intensely brilliant neckpieces, costume design, wearable art, Rosemary McLeod’s dolls – how does she achieve those enigmatic expressions? These artists work with needles, either machine or hand, with materials new and old, traditional and modern, selected from a shop shelf or saved from a pile of old clothes on a market stall.

Some, like Mieke Apps, Andrea Chandler and Vita Cochran, learned from mothers and grandmothers, while others like Freda Brierley have found their own way via another path, in her case nursing, then art, school. Freda draws portraits using her sewing machine, and her exhibition A Weaver’s Tale, featuring portraits of her grandmother and friend, showed at Auckland Museum in 2005.

Heeni Kerekere (Te Whanui-a-Apanui, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Kai Tahu), weaver, painter and clayworker, learned to weave in 1980 and is still teaching raranga, traditional weaving, using dyes obtained from mud, charcoal, white clay and red earth. Merrilyn George is currently head of technology, textiles and food and a specialist classroom teacher at Ruapehu College. Thanks to a science, mathematics and technology fellowship awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand, she took a year off in 2002 to research technological changes in traditional and modern fibre – including paper-making, hemp-growing and the use of mud in puipui and cloak dyeing.

“Dyeing is not an exact science,” says Diana Parkes. “It’s a result of research and practical experimentation … I like learning – I’m a constant learner.” All the artists are philosophical about problems that crop up: “You know … like when you run out of fabric – and you have to work out another way, that’s what excites me,” says Barbara McQuarrie.

Some go for long walks, some chat to like-minded members of a group, or maybe, like Malcolm Harrison, whose works are held in public and private collections throughout New Zealand, Australia and the US, get stuck into clearing out a basement, discovering a forgotten treasure – a woven mat patterned with pink and white clay and soot from his time in Papua New Guinea.  He has since made two interpretations in felt, which were shown at NorthArt, Northcote in September 2006. As for Jocelyn Seccomble – after she’s tired of her “Rumplestiltskin Speedneedle” (yes, really) which allows her to incorporate more detail than a power gun does (her rug Sonatina is a stunning example of machine embroidery on handmade felt), she puts the work down and turns to her other love, her flute.

The days when women might be seen posed on a couch “sewing a fine seam”, purely to give pleasure to painters and passers-by, are gone – if they were ever here. Strength and stamina are essential. Tracy White, feltmaker and tutor, has her own dyeing cookhouse, which doubles as the smoko room, and her studio is “an avalanche zone”. She has worked as a rouseabout, enjoys tramping, and fell in love with the super-fine fleece of merino on her return from four months on a sheep- and wool-studying scholarship in the UK. She uses a blend of silk and merino to make her soft flowing scarves. As well as tutoring around New Zealand and shearing sheep in Norway, she volunteered to teach her felting skills to local women in Mongolia. For relaxation she still does the odd stint of shearing.

The production values of Stitch are high, the images and index very well done, but I have a quibble. While Genevieve Packer’s artwork on the front cover is beautiful, I’m not sure it works well as a cover. Just after the book was published, I walked right past it in a bookshop, and a friend told me she had walked past it too. Shouldn’t a cover catch our eye? That aside, just as Crafty Girls’ Road Trip encouraged us to get out and visit the wonderful craft shops in our own or other areas, and Rosemary McLeod’s From Thrift to Fantasy inspired us to look again at domestic embroidery of the 1930s-50s, so in Stitch, Packer whets our appetites for the works of these textile artists.

Thankfully more galleries now programme textile exhibitions, following the Dowse in Lower Hutt and Pataka in Porirua. Stitch: Contemporary New Zealand Textile Artists lives up to its name. All the artists represented have won their place under the banner by their work. Inevitably, there are many wonderful artists and works I haven’t been able to mention – but, in the best theatrical tradition, Stitch left me wanting more.


Playwright and novelist Renée is working on a play about a needleworker.


Stitch was the lifestyle and contemporary culture category winner of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.


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