Re-embroidering Blackwork: exploring digital reconstruction and interpretation through contemporary art practice

This PhD will explore how creative practice can preserve, reconstruct and disseminate blackwork embroidery, a popular 16th-century English counted-thread embroidery technique of black silk threads worked onto white linen. The V&A archive contains about 25 examples, most in fragile condition limiting public access to them. Full physical reconstructions of these objects would be impractical, expensive and time-consuming to produce.

My interest in blackwork is situated in a studio practice that identifies, distils, communicates and transforms the experience of making and the made through textile processes and digital experimentation. By the creation of digital reconstructions I hope to generate new insights into: the materials, techniques and history of blackwork; digital interpretation in museums; and the artist’s role in the interpretation and display of collections. The project will frame the process of reconstruction as forward looking, generating a new life for blackwork through contemporary art practice.

Richard Sennet in The Craftsman argues “that all skills… begin as bodily practice… technical understanding develops through the power of imagination.” Embroidery is a deeply embodied making process. The majority of techniques and processes used in embroidery can only be executed by hand, the variety of stitches, the range of precise physical motions and tacit reaction to the materials would be impossible to replicate mechanically. Through [re]making and the application of the material knowledge, I believe I can find a resonance between myself and the embroiderers who created the original objects.

Given the experiential nature of these problems, this project employs practice-based research methods to find commonality between sewn and digital processes, and to produce new ways to understand how craft objects and techniques can be preserved, redefined, interpreted and communicated.

There is a conceptual affinity between textiles processes and computing, each being a complex structure created from discrete, simple units and repetitive procedures. Ele Carpenter’s “Open Source Embroidery Project” extends the parallel between between embroidery and computer coding to include open source development models, interdisciplinary skills sharing and collaboration. These concepts are embedded within my practice as a generative approach and as an underlying principle, incorporating working methods from the hacker/maker culture, bricolage and open source design to facilitate the dynamic development of art production.

Digital reconstruction is not straightforward. It is easy to assume reconstruction is a copy, but the transformation from material to virtual, and from analogue to digital changes the object and our experience, as noted by Bayne, Ross and Williamson,  “Where the material object is stable in time and space, the digital object is both mobile and volatile”. Equating the status of digital objects with physical ones, the interplay between two radically different modes of making generates reflection, enquiry and new work. In order to develop new, accessible digital forms of blackwork, the study will consider what it means to reconstruct for preservation purposes and as an act of creative interpretation in its own right.

The contribution that digital technologies can make to our understanding and experience of artefacts is a rapidly growing research area, as seen in the increase of funding, and projects like meSch at SHU. However, some also question its impact, seeing it as distraction, disengaging, or not capable of carrying the meaning of objects into digital forms.

By experimenting with the act of reconstruction, the project will question the role of the artist as a creative and critical agent within the heritage organisation and examine how the artist-makers’ understanding of materials and processes can enhance the experience of artefacts. What is lost and gained in digital translation?  How does a reconstruction relate to the original object, and how does this affects authenticity, value and status? What new aspects of blackwork can be identified, eg., how 16th-century embroiderers understood geometry or how many variations are possible in counted-thread stitches?

Posted in PhD

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