Ali Ferguson is a textile artist who is fascinated by people and who has a passion for the past. Her studio, The Purple Thread Shed in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland, and very close to the famous Rosslyn Chapel, is a treasure trove of objects from a bygone era, which find their way into her perceptive creations. Fabric, handstitching, and stories are at the heart of her work, and each piece captures a great deal of humanity.
“I use materials with a bit of history—old textiles, washed and worn garments, and old magazines. I wonder about the ‘lives’ these things led before coming into my hands and feel that I am merging their stories with my own,” Ali revealed. “The thought that fabric captures and holds ‘memory’ excites my imagination. Following that thought, an old piece of clothing is implanted with stories of the wearer, and a piece of stitched table linen holds within it the secrets of a household. I take the phrase ‘the fabric of our lives’ quite literally, and I love to incorporate old textiles into my work.”
Old garments and textiles are at the heart of most of Ali’s work. “I love to deconstruct garments as the resulting pieces are lovely shapes,” she told me. “Old christening robes are beautiful, but I couldn’t cut up a pristine garment, so I search junk shops, and of course eBay, to find the well-worn, and probably torn, garments that I need. But even modern pieces have an appeal once they are deconstructed.”
Ali is also captivated by old, discarded correspondence. “Old letters offer glimpses into private lives. They contain words that were only meant for the recipient’s eyes, but they are also infused with the emotions of the writer at the time the pen hit the paper.”
Her series, Fragilities, explores the concept of capturing this emotion. “I picture a figure seated at a desk, bent over a sheet of paper with pen in hand. As they write, the essence of the emotions they are feeling swirls around their head. Unseen, an interloper with net in hand, like a Victorian butterfly collector, swipes the swirling emotions and captures them, dropping them in their killing jar. As the emotion dies, its essence fades. Unperturbed, the collector pins it out for all to see and sets off once more, net in hand.” Ali, the unseen interloper, embroidered words describing the captured emotions, and they are pinned out into a specimen box in the same way that butterflies would have been displayed.
Another body of work, Into the Blue, explores the fragile emotions and often hidden experiences of motherhood. Ali said, “I used to be a family-support worker, and the stories of postnatal depression stayed with me. At one group session, the women wrote down their feelings and thoughts, and we made the pieces of paper into a ‘quilt,’ stapling and taping the pieces together very roughly.” The Into the Blue series explores this theme of postnatal depression through two fragile, cot-sized quilts and a series of embroidered vintage baby garments and shoes. Ali goes on to explain, “The words and handwriting were gathered as mothers told their personal stories of postnatal depression. The words are simply stitched and the quilts are imperfectly patched together signifying, in the words of one mother, ‘barely holding it together.’” The theme may sound downbeat, but the quilts are quite beautiful and hopeful. “Initially, I intended the quilts to be floaty and ‘barely there,’ but I decided that they needed to have more presence, so I backed them with firmer fabrics. I want to enter them into a textiles show so that they can be seen by a wider audience,” Ali said.
Ali’s work has already reached a wider audience as her installation HiStories Uncovered was exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles as part of the juried exhibition, Excellence In Fibers 2017. “I was super excited when HiStories Uncovered was selected; they even used my image on their website to promote the exhibition,” she confessed. The inspiration for the piece developed from hearing a radio program about Locard’s Exchange Principle, which is a concept speculating that every time you make contact with another person, place, or thing, it results in an exchange of physical materials. (Read more about this on Ali’s blog.) Letters, unconnected garments, and imagination are the basis of the three panels in the installation. “A letter from a schoolmaster called Mr. Gillie to a Miss Dorothy Ferguson was the starting point for the piece. I only had two letters from Gillie, so I made up a response from Dorothy, and judging by my rather firm tone, I can only assume that, at the time of writing it, I was having a bad day! The third panel came from letters I bought on eBay. I wanted the pieces to be rather ethereal, so I chose to work with beautiful, old, and very delicate silk and organza as my background fabrics. Again, all old and used and bringing their own hidden stories to the piece.”
Not all of Ali’s work is ethereal, as she has also developed a series of Patchwood Samplers stitched through wooden blocks. Ali says, “I chose to use wood as it was a material used to build the shell of the house and many of the functional items within it. The thread and the stitches weave their way between the layers of wood and materials bringing together the different functions and roles of a household. Whether working with wood or cloth, I layer, patch, and piece my different materials together before starting the wonderful task of handstitching. There is something very personal about leaving your mark with a needle and thread; it is a slow, thoughtful process.”
Every stitch of Ali’s work seems considered and thoughtful, but she does like to share her thoughts and ideas: “I’m fascinated by people and I love to teach. Spending my days in my purple shed, with only Annie the pooch for company, could be very isolating, and I need to get out and about and meet people. I teach locally, but I also travel to teach, and this year, I’m thrilled to have been invited to teach in Australia and New Zealand.”
Ali runs a series of textile-related workshops from The Purple Thread Shed. I attended one of Ali’s classes a couple of years ago and learned about using a computer printer to print photos and text onto fabric. I’ve also signed up for a Patchwood Samplers workshop at the beginning of March, and I can’t wait!
You’ll find more about Ali’s work and ideas on her website, www.aliferguson.co.uk.
Kathy Troup, born in the north of England, has lived in Scotland for many years. She edited a U.K. published stitching magazine for seventeen years and continues to write about the subjects she loves.
Featured Image: Detail of Into the Blue by Ali Ferguson, which explores the emotions of postnatal depression. Photos courtesy of Ali Ferguson.