Holding Memories

I have a pre-occupation with ideas for mourning, beyond what poetry can offer. This is not to say that poetry does not resonate deeply with my own experience of grieving after my partner died.

…The work of keeping you alive. Just as you
Constantly renewed yourself (and have again,
for all we know), I keep your lesson close;
Be open, honest, true; be rigorous and loyal,
But most of all be joyful in everything I say and do.
The world is shining even as we lose
The people, things and scenes we cherish most.
Walking on the beach, my son whose middle name
Is yours collects stones and makes up stories for each
A life can be a model. I learned that much from you.

From ‘Talking With the Dead’ by Robert McDowell

It’s proved impossible to keep him alive, but I’ve tried in so many ways. Now I understand I am trying to hold my memories in ways that have meaning for me and use my language of making to do this. The first thing I did was a diorama of us in bed together in a pink shoe box. He was a cut down power ranger and I was a fluffy pipe cleaner doll with a Swarovski heart. I launched us into the bay at Williamstown at sunrise a year after he died. It felt pretty crazy but good too. I think he would have liked it.

Pink box2

Then I created a book about my work with art therapist, Nona Cameron. I wanted to explore my grief; not healing, moving on, or getting over it, just feeling its texture. I started journaling about our work, writing poetry too. In the process I discovered my deep pre-occupation with disintegration and reconstruction of things, textiles in particular.

Cover Wish you were here

At the end of this work with Nona I made a small textile called ‘I will mind you’. The piece includes old fraying furnishing fabric from my partner’s dining chairs, fragile disintegrating chiffon I’ve had for years, and a small precious piece of silk velvet from Lyon. These fragments are held together with rough stitches of the finest pale green silk. This was a process of reverie, creation of a sensory metaphor about how vulnerable and strong he was in everything he did including loving me.


As I finished sewing I knew this was a beginning, something calling me into a barely sensed future. Somehow making this little textile was a start, a way for me to begin to express my memories and hold him to me in some intangible yet tangible way. I kept on with this exploration.  For the next year I worked to create a book of small textiles, a kind of textural narrative of our time together called ‘How you loved me’.

How you loved me book


The Joy of Silks


Chinese silk jacket

I have a lifelong obsession with silk .  I thing it started when my father came back from China in 1948 with a little embroidered black silk jacket that fitted me as a two year old!  I still have it, now framed, a precious family heirloom.


TheLyon silksre is also my cupboard full of silk samples given to me in Lyon by the sister of a retired silk merchant. These scraps are a constant feature in my Woven Memories work.  Some have handwritten on them the name of a designer. The incredible virtuosity of silk is amazing to me. Taffeta, chiffon, satin, organza and crepe de Chine all feature in my collection! There is something unique and wonderful about the way silk catches the light too, always intensifying the glorious colours.




I am about to embark on a project called The Joy of Silks at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney. I will be weaving in the foyer of the centre on Tuesday 9th, Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th August from 10.00am to 4.00pm each day. I will be weaving with  scarves and ties in pinks and greens donated from far and wide, now torn or cut up ready to work with.

silk in balls 1

My weave design has gone through a number of iterations and I have finally settled on an approach which will show off the silks rather than hide them.  The weaving will become  a long banner to be hung at Lifehouse at the end of the project.

silk weaving 2

I will also be keeping a record of the donated scarves and ties in a book I’m using to record the development of the project – a copy of my book will be given to Lifehouse.


HOW TO GET INVOLVED If you would like to contribute a scarf or tie to the project from your own collection or from a family member, do some weaving,  or just come to have a look please do!  I would love to meet you!

Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, 119 – 143 Missendon Road, Camperdown, NSW 2050


Stories from Lyon – the garbage bag of silk

Lyon image

A garbage bag of silk scraps was the beginning of new directions in my weaving practice.  Quite by chance I was given this bag during my first visit to Lyon eleven years ago.    This first trip was instigated by my daughter – she was visiting a friend.   What would I do?  Well, I researched and discovered Lyon was the major silk weaving city in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Their textile museum is unparalleled, both for the collection on display and the research archives:   http://www.mtmad.fr/fr/Pages/default.aspx  .  I also found a textile artists’ network LaTrame de Soi  https://tramedesoi.wordpress.com/ , still as inspiring as ever!   Their President at the time, Inger Kristensen welcomed me and hosted me in so many ways over the next few years.

Early on Inger took me to visit the wonderful Atelier de Soierie  – still in operation.  There I met Emilie Moussiere who was hand painting exquisite velvet scarves as her ‘day job’.   She was an aspiring textile artist and jacquard weaver.  Just as I was about to leave I asked about scraps.  Were there any leftovers, bits of silk perhaps?  Emilie hurried away.  I think I imagined I would get a small handful if I was lucky.  But she came back with an enormous black garbage bag packed tightly with silk pieces.


The bag also contained many more wonderful and mysterious scraps: fake fur with stitched embroidery on the back, gold netting, lace and little pom poms.Non-silk scraps

I have been weaving on and off from my garbage bag ever since.  As I look again into my stash I realise it continues to offer riches and delights.  I use these silk scraps from Lyon in my Woven Memories work by inter-weaving them with the precious fabrics and clothes others bring to me.  Neck pieces, scarves and brooches often have elements from my garbage bag.  This was the beginning of my weaving with fabric scraps.


Eleven years on I still feel like I have a magical source of wonder that continues to inspire me and my textiles – thanks to Inger and Emilie.  You can see Emilie’s textile work at https://au.pinterest.com/emiliemoussiere/


For my mother – bereft of memory

My mother died when I was thirteen months old on 3rd January 1948.  She was thirty one years old.  She had Leukaemia at a time when there was little treatment, let alone a cure.  I am horrified by her death so young, and a little baby losing her mother so early, almost as if I am thinking about people I don’t really know.  And yet losing my mother has defined me in so many ways.  I have no memories of her.  But I can see now my passion for textiles comes in part from trying to hold something of her.

I have one thing she made.  It’s this folded satin embroidered handkerchief sachet.


I still use it to hold hankies and scarves.   It’s made with scraps of a beautiful soft satin, now grey.  In the seams I can see it was once the palest pink.  More than sixty years on I can contemplate my mother’s stitching and discern something of her, how she worked.  Her style seems at once neat, orderly, and a little impatient in places but essentially practical.  It even has a tiny button covered in lace and a rouleaux roughly attached to do it up.


What delights me most is the care and passion she has invested in the details – the embroidery, the quilting, and the gathered lacy edge.

But it is the tiny embroidered rosebuds that have created an extraordinary link for me to my mother.  Some years ago I decided to do a painting of the hanky sachet.   As I painted I made a discovery, something only she knew and I now know.


The rosebuds look randomly scattered.  However I realised she had created a clear order and quite a complex pattern to their direction and placement – pink on one diagonal, blue on the other, and mauve on the edges.  This continues to feel like a powerful shared secret, a bond, unspoken but real, a genuine kind of communication and connection with my mother – almost as good as a memory when you have none.


Looking at my hanky sachet today I realise the maker in her is also in me and has inspired and informed my Woven Memories work.

Weaving meaning


What do you do with a scrap of fur from a loved dog that has died? My friend Anni had a beautiful dog called Lambchop.  She was my dog Nina’s best friend.  Lambchop even taught Nina how to pull down packets of biscuits from the higher shelves in the pantry she couldn’t reach herself.  They were a team.

When Lambchop died Anni was distraught.   As I was leaving Anni’s house soon after Lambchop’s death Nina went and sat beside her, staring at me intently.  Nina seemed to realise just how deep Anni’s grief was.  I felt sure she was telling me she had decided to stay with Anni and look after her – and she did for a few days. Maybe they were sharing their mutual loss.

Lambchop had lovely white wiry fur – she was part White Highland Terrier. Knowing Lambchop was not long for this world Anni had kept some small pieces of her fur. These would become a small tangible reminder to touch after she’d gone.  When I found out I suggested I could weave a scarf for Anni with the bits of fur in it.


It was a long time coming because I felt such a burden of responsibility to design a scarf that would honour such a special pet. But suddenly I had an idea.  Two elements came together in my mind at once: Anni spends part of each year in Greece and she wears blue most of the time.  So I would create a blue and white scarf referencing Greece and it’s weaving heritage of flokati rugs.

Always my first step with these things is going to my yarn stash, and it’s quite a stash.  Some yarns I’ve had for over 30 years.  I store them in boxes, labelled by colour, under the spare bed. I like to pile them up and play with combinations before finalising the design.  Once I have refined the yarn choice then I get weaving.

Yarns for blog post

There are memories for me in these yarns too, leftovers from past projects, gleanings from rubbish tips and factory discards. The vibrant blue cones are favourite, rescued years ago from a rubbish tip, the mid-blue loom ends from a baby rug for my daughter – now 31. For Anni’s scarf the loopy white mohair, a great discovery in Paris last year at Malhia Kent http://www.malhia.fr/html/fr/collection-malhia-kent.html , went perfectly with Lambchop’s fur. I didn’t consult Anni on the design.  I felt confident it would suit her and that she would like and wear the final product.

Once I had decided on the yarns the weaving was fast. Here is Anni’s scarf just off the loom prior to finishing. You can clearly see the little puffs of Lambchop’s fur in the weave against the blue.  They are firmly secured so there is no danger they will be lost.


Anni loves and wears her scarf!  These little slivers of fur are now part of the future, offering reminders of love, special times, and the happiness of Lambchop. This will happen again and again, each time Anni wears her scarf. What all this means to me is the possibility of creating joy, joy from something that might have stayed in a little paper envelope in a drawer, or continued to gather dust on a shelf.

Cutting into fabric

What’s it like to cut up the clothes of someone greatly loved, but no longer with us?

Preparing Geoff rug materials

It’s not easy, but this is what I do now. I first wove a bedspread from my partner’s clothes three years after he died. At the time I wrote:
“Starting to cut his clothes – I bury my face in his soft grey, worn muscle top and there is the scent of him still, evoking his sweat, his sweetness, the home of him …”
A very supportive friend sat and listened to me talking about how much I loved him and missed him as I cut up the top ready to weave it. That helped. I’ve kept one of these tops and still can’t cut it. Each torn up item holds its own unique memories:
“Grey shirt I bought for him in Monoprix in Lyon. He wore it to a wedding in the Botanical Gardens. He was so sick of himself then, sick almost to death of who he wasn’t and how he was disintegrating.”

This rug I made in the midst of my own grief is now on my bed, a daily source of delight, comfort and sweet memories.

My rug on bed

I’ve just finished a bedspread with a mother’s stash of fabrics. Her daughter kept all this beautiful cloth but didn’t know how best to honour it for 50 years.  My client doesn’t sew, but she chose an amazing selection of her mother’s fabrics for me to work with. As I started to cut them up I felt an awe for this woman I never met and her skills as I cut and tore her fabrics in a way she never would have. There’s something about this process that is a destruction of something from the past in order to create something for the future. Once I had cut strips from each of the fabrics I played around with possible combinations for the weaving. The turquoise, red and tartan seemed to ‘pop’ together, particularly with a black background.

Jean rug cut up

For me this process of cutting and tearing into old clothes and fabrics is a kind of honourable disassembly and unravelling. It is both physical work but more importantly psychological work. When I take a textile that was precious but discarded from one lifetime and start preparing it for another I want to take time to honour and respect the wearer and the life that has past. The torn and cut fabric I know from my own experience will be both a talisman of the past and part of a new fabric with its own life in the future. It can be a profound starting point for a process of reclamation, transformation, and renewal.Jean rug 4 of 1

The Woven Memories Process

2014-08-26 16.31.56

Woven Memories works with your old fabrics, clothes, scarves, jumpers and precious family clothes no-one wears anymore.  They are often items that hold special memories or are very beautiful or were worn by a much loved family member who has died.  The process involves weaving a future for them, literally and metaphorically.  It’s possible to make an incredible range of new items from old through hand weaving.   I will be writing about my experiences as I cut into fabrics and clothes, unravel yarns from old jumpers and interweave memories into a new future for precious garments and fabrics.


Baby rug with a grandmother’s old red dress

The way I work is to collaborate with the person who brings me fabrics and clothes they want to preserve but change.  We talk through the meaning and stories  their textiles hold and decide together what they will become: a throw rug, scarf, neckpiece, table mat etc – options are pretty endless.  I’ll be showing pieces here and describing possibilities.  I really look forward to your comments and, if this appeals to you, the chance to work with you and recreate something unique for your future.