One of the perennial draw cards at the FynArts Festival has, almost from the start, been its ‘Art of Thread’ exhibitions, displaying a breathtaking array of quilting, embroidery and fibre art. There can be no doubt that these manifestations of an ancient craft, practised in almost every culture on earth, have successfully transitioned from the practical to the realm of Fine Art. Since 2014 these exhibitions have been curated by Pringle Bay quilter and fibre artist, Dal Botha.
This year, as things turned out, it was not possible to stick to the tried and trusted exhibition format. The artists had all been invited to exhibit, some of them had already completed their pieces for the show (under the title, ‘Design Matters’) and others were well on their way when, suddenly, everything locked down. Between Mary Faure of FynArts Select and Dal the decision was taken to go ahead with it anyway on an online platform.
The result is a beautiful brochure featuring the work of 20 of South Africa’s foremost fibre artists and their amazingly diverse pieces, each with its own interpretation of the theme. Depending on what happens on the COVID-19 landscape, Mary is still hoping to present a conventional exhibition later in the year.
For Dal, this is an annual event she loves being involved with. Although she claims not to be a working artist, she has been quilting for 30 years and for the past 12 has immersed herself in a range of fibre art techniques. She successfully completed a year-long online teacher’s training course, where the pass mark was 80%, to place it firmly on par with international standards, followed by a judge’s qualification which took three years to complete.
Having judged in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Zimbabwe, she is blown away by the standard of work in this part of the world, which, she says, favourably compares with anything on the world stage. In fact, our artists often participate in overseas competitions and invariably walk away with awards. The biggest of these is the World Quilt Show in the US.
As the wife of a South African diplomat, Dal was privileged to live in the UK, Austria, France and Singapore where she was able not only to take classes in quilting and fibre art, but was exposed to techniques from all over the world and able to compare the various traditions.
“It’s fascinating how colourful and almost ‘blingy’ the Russian work is,” she says, “and then, by contrast, the English tend to use very muted pastel shades and the Japanese, taupe, greys and blues. In India they use a lot of silk, of course, but the ones that really intrigued me were the Cairo tentmakers. They appliqué traditional motifs very fast; they’re often quite rough and ready – naïve, I suppose you could call it – but very bright and colourful. And interestingly, they are all men, although more recently a small number of women have been accepted, if they belong to tent-making families.
“These days, though, there is no shortage of courses and workshops online; one is spoilt for choice really.” Dal explains that fibre art differs from quilting or embroidering in that there is no bar on the type of fibre you use or what you do with it. She has, for example, been making sculpted bowls using brightly-coloured thread from silk saris and one of the pieces in the brochure by Tamlin Blake is made from woven twisted spirals of paper. It is not essential to make use of fabric at all, or for that matter, stitching. In fact, it allows for great creative freedom and continues to grow in popularity world-wide.
“Even when it comes to quilting, there have been innumerable innovations,” she says. “Some computerised sewing machines these days have been designed for just this purpose. You programme the design you want into the computer and the machine will carry out your instructions quickly and faultlessly. By contrast, there are those who still enjoy doing it all by hand. Because quilting has to be precise and accurate, this is often extremely time-consuming, but all the more satisfying in the end.”
Lockdown has been very difficult for many quilters and fibre artists, comments Dal. “You’d think it would have offered them time to get down to new projects or experiment with techniques, but actually it seems to a degree to have smothered creativity. We miss meeting together, too. This is an important factor in our art form. Most of us get together regularly in small local groups where we can exchange ideas, discuss challenges or learn new skills. Members provide a strong support system for one another in a sometimes lonely creative space.
“Actually,” she confesses, “I find hand work therapeutic in itself; in fact I wrote a paper for one of the training courses I did titled ‘Quilting as an aid to healing’. So that’s what I’ve been doing during the pandemic: slowly stitching small pieces by hand. It is soothingly repetitive and you don’t have to think too much. In fact, if I’m making something for somebody else, as I have been doing, I pray for that person and somehow the prayer is stitched into the piece.”
All the work in the FynArts brochure is for sale and can be viewed by clicking on the following link: https://www.hermanusfynarts.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Online-Shop-Thread-Art.pdf