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September 02 2011

Nazis, needlework and my dad

Not many men belong to a stitching group, but Tony Casdagli picked up his enthusiasm for the craft from his father, who kept himself sane by fashioning subversive messages as a PoW

After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: "God Save the King" and "Fuck Hitler".

This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. "It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds," says his son, Tony, of his father's rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. "He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity," says Tony. "If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it's very calming."

Tony should know. The 79-year-old picked up his father's stitching habit after a lifetime at sea serving in the Royal Navy, and from 6 September two of his pieces will feature in a new exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Power of Making. Tony is thrilled, but the relationship between father, son, needlework and suffering is complex and occasionally ambiguous.

The son of a family of Greek cotton merchants with operations in Manchester and Egypt, Tony and his mother, Joyce, were separated from his father when war broke out. During the disastrous allied campaign in Crete, Casdagli was captured. For a month, Joyce had no idea whether he was alive or dead; for a year, Casdagli did not receive any letters or parcels.

Most of Casdagli's confinement was spent in a German castle. Life for a British officer was not as brutal as it was in Japanese camps but it still involved terror, hunger and deprivation. Casdagli scrupulously wrote down and crossed out every day in pencil in a small black notebook. "He was very meticulous," recalls Tony, more than once. Casdagli made lists of everything – every window pane broken in bombing raids, every letter sent and received. He recorded "Improvisations", such as making a "watch stand" from a "broom handle & incendiary bomb" and "Reflections" on hunger: "Unable to remember in which hand to use knife and fork on arrival of first Red Cross parcel."

Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.

When Tony was 11, he received a stitched letter through the post. "It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again," Casdagli laboriously spelled out with finely stitched letters.

In a bleak, claustrophobic part-map and part-diagram, his father created a needlework of "Room 13, Spangenberg castle". The stitching depicted inmates' cells, a few lumps of coal, a sign saying "bath every 14 days", and a menu: "soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina". At the bottom was a Union flag. National flags were forbidden in the camp, so Casdagli sewed a canvas flap over it with "do not open" written on it in German. "Each week the same officer would open the flap and say, 'This is illegal,' and Pa said, 'You're showing it, I'm not showing it.'"

Captured officers played cricket and other games to pass the time, but needlework proved surprisingly popular: Casdagli ran a class for 40 officers. Was his "Fuck Hitler" gesture a great risk? "It would certainly have been torn down and he would've been put in solitary confinement or worse," says Tony. But he does not believe his father would have been executed. Despite seeing a fellow inmate shot in the back for accidentally tripping an alarm, Casdagli stuck to his policy of being unrelentingly unco-operative. One Christmas, a senior British officer struck a deal with his German counterpart that no one would try to escape, in exchange for a comfortable Christmas. Casdagli stayed in bed and refused to eat. "Pa was very cross about that. One of the few duties a PoW had was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for his captors by trying to escape," says Tony.

Among his father's works hanging above the stairs in the London home that Tony shares with his second wife, Sally, is a small, sad piece. It lists the years 1939 to 1943 alongside Joyce's initials and the words: "Any day now." It was to be another two years before Casdagli saw his wife and son again. In April 1945, in an "absolute daze", he was flown back to Britain, given a cursory medical and £10. Then he caught two buses to find his way home. Joyce had gone to pick up Tony from school. "At 12 noon, they arrived, and my cup of happiness was FULL," wrote Casdagli in his diaries.

Sadly, his joy could not so simply erase four traumatic years in captivity. Tony describes his father as "very frustrated" when he returned. His time in prison unsettled him, and soon afterwards he went to Greece to fight in the civil war. He met his second wife there.

Meanwhile, Tony entered the navy, and hardly saw his father. He "half-heartedly" stitched as a teenager, but at sea he was always too busy to do it. When he retired from the navy, however, he and Sally, with their daughter Lucy, moved to Highgate, north London near where his father kept a flat.

Then on holiday in Cornwall, the retired son and his elderly father began stitching together. "We used to sit alongside each other doing it. Pa didn't talk very much, but we would sit and talk a bit while we did it. There were so many questions I should've asked and didn't," says Tony. "I never asked him why he pinched the old general's wool."

Stitching requires discipline and patience, two qualities Tony must have inherited from his father, but the two men developed unique styles. Tony's father created intricate symmetrical patterns. "He didn't have an enormous imagination, Pa. He liked doing things rather than inventing things," says Tony. In contrast, Tony enjoys designing his needlework. Six years ago, the wife of an old naval friend introduced Tony to the Chelsea Women's Cross-stitch group. Tony became the only male member, mentored by Joyce Conwy Evans, whose work is displayed in Canterbury cathedral and the V&A.

Tony is self-deprecating about his work, but not self-conscious. He used to enjoy stitching while waiting at airports, but cannot any longer because his needles are banned airside. "I'd sit and do my needlework after going through the gate, and people would gradually move away from me," he jokes. Now he tends to stitch in the evenings, when Sally is reading. Most of his works get sent to his five children, who live all around the world. Each grandchild receives a special piece; sons get the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. He is currently stitching one for his latest grandchild, Griffin, which depicts the mythical creature with the body of a lion and an eagle's head and wings.

Major Casdagli died in 1996, aged 90. Did he approve of his son taking on his passion? "Towards the end of his life not quite so much, because he thought we were in competition," says Tony. Having said that, Tony and Sally agree he "would be so thrilled" that Tony's work is to be exhibited alongside the creations of professional craftsmen and women in the V&A. Major Casdagli's stitching was born out of suffering, but later it became a particularly fiercely pursued habit. "He did it for defiance to start with, then he did it because he did it," says Tony. "He hated finishing them because it meant he had to do something else. He loved doing something slavishly. He was a great slave."

Power of Making is at the V&A from Tuesday until 2 January 2012, www.vam.ac.uk. A Stitch in Time: God Save the King – Fu*k Hitler! by Captain A Casdagli, available from lulu.com. Tony Casdagli is participating in a free workshop at the V&A. Crafting the Collection: Power of Making, 17 September, 11am-4pm.


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April 27 2010

Quilts: stitches in the fabric of time | Madeleine Bunting

I confess to loving quilts. The astonishing craft and the stories they hold are a rebuke to our era of churn

The V&A's exhibition, Quilts, is packed and the atmosphere is charged with awe, delight and inspiration. Around each quilt there is a small group of worshippers whispering about technique – "could I do that?" – and amazed at the perseverance of the maker. Above all, this is an exhibition about patience and time: having enormous quantities of the first and making available equally large quantities of the latter. In an age intoxicated with speed and exhausted by its own inability to find time, this is a countercultural challenge. Think slow food; well, this is slow sewing.

For these reasons, Quilts has prompted as much bemused incomprehension as curiosity. Agreed, cutting up fabric to stitch it together again is an odd way to pass thousands of hours. Indeed many of the contemporary quilts in the exhibition offer harsh comment on this very female passion as the outcome of female oppression and exploitation. The very exacting paid labour of quilting certainly involved much of the latter, but such a conclusion does a grave disservice to this extraordinary history of female (and sometimes male) creativity.

I'll confess: I made my first quilt at 10, contributed to a collective quilt at 12, and slept every night under a homemade patchwork quilt until I left home. I was the third generation of patchwork makers (my daughter is now the fourth). I haven't done much for the last 20 years, but I've inherited all my grandmother's fabric scraps and they are stored in the hope of spare time one day. Visiting Quilts in the middle of an election campaign was like indulging a secret vice: utterly compelling, and dangerously illicit – how can any feminist endorse such traditional femininity?

So let me try a defence. Above all, patchwork is about stories and memory, as Tracey Emin amply illustrates in her work. Often the stories are intensely personal; my mother only ever used scraps and leftovers. So I could recognise in her quilts my old dresses, even school uniform, pillowcases, curtains; when I look at the quilt she made me, almost every patch prompts a memory. Nothing conjures up so intensely my childhood. My favourite is the quilt my mother made of her children's old corduroy trousers; she cut out the worn knees and seats for perfect irregular rectangles of faded blues, fawn and green. It is my summer holidays in a bedspread.

There is another layer of narrative: the experiences and thoughts you have while making a quilt end up stitched into it. The last one I made speaks to me of the hope of a new marriage and a baby. And I look at the appliqué I made as a teenager of a rising sun and remember the exhilaration of approaching adulthood. This is an aide memoire like no other: reminders in your daily life of where you have come from, what you have hoped for and celebrated.

Hope and celebration have been central to traditional quilt-making, as the V&A exhibition demonstrates, but strikingly these elements are subverted in many of the contemporary pieces; only the Wandsworth prisoners' quilt reverts to this traditional inspiration.

There are plenty of other reasons to love patchwork: a passion for textiles, the resourcefulness of making something beautiful out of what many class as fit for the bin; and finally, of course, the pleasure of using creativity to nurture, because nothing matches the comfort factor of a hand-stitched quilt made by someone who loves you.

But the real point that hits home in Quilts is how material objects can offer meaning and contribute to identity; and that is an interesting challenge to a culture fascinated by buying stuff. Objects are part of churn; before long they are discarded to make way for the new. What we lose is incalculable in terms of our own skills, creativity and memory. Anyone want to borrow a patchwork template?


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March 21 2010

Quilts 1700-2010

V&A, London
Lost children, poverty, imprisonment: 300 years of stories both personal and political are sewn into the quilts in this wonderful show

The soldier looks peaceful but alarmingly pale. He has a metal plate lodged in his head. They've patched him up at the military hospital and even given him something to keep his mind off the horrors of the Crimea. He is sitting up in his nightshirt stitching the most startling quilt.

The triangles alternate black and white, black and red, red and yellow in fierce chevron stripes. It is a terrific piece of op-art geometry. The painting that commemorates Private Walker's labours shows not only the quilt and exactly how it is done, right down to the difficulty of keeping each fiddly little triangle from curling up as you stitch it to another, but something else too.

There on the bed lies Walker's uniform, complete with medal. The quilt turns out to be made of his regimental colours, almost literally – a piecing together of the torn clothes, if not the bodies, of the dead.

Are all quilts an act of commemoration, more or less public or private? It seems so from this tremendous exhibition. Quilts 1700-2010 has had more advance bookings than any other at the V&A, with visitors due to fly in from all round the world. It deserves its enormous success.

For what it shows is an art form that takes scraps of the real world and transforms them into visions and images, that shores up the fragments of the past while making something new (and warm) for the future. This is not quilting as commonly imagined – Laura Ashley pre-cut squares machined together for the guest room – but something infinitely more imaginative, idiosyncratic, personal; another way of drawing or painting, another form of narrative or expression.

Look at the unknown 18th-century woman who has stitched her entire world into a coverlet, beginning with the clock at the centre that measures time and life, radiating out through the day's objects – comb, thimble, scissors, the very needle she is using right now – to the emblems of her home and the garden beyond, where the spring birds arrive, then depart for the winter sun. It feels like the whole of an existence, circumscribed, confined and yet rich in the mind, condensed to the visual equivalent of a sonnet.

Look at James Williams's anthology of wonders – a camel, an elephant, a Chinese pagoda, the whale swallowing Jonah; to which he has proudly added a perfect cloth reprise of Thomas Telford's miraculous suspension bridge in Menai. Williams was a Welsh tailor. It took him a decade to piece the quilt together after work, and no wonder, for each vignette is united in a web of tiny shifting mosaics that feels like a dream adrift in the mind.

Ten years, 40 years: the curators have been able to determine from the fabrics themselves how long some of these quilts were under the needle – picked up and abandoned and picked up again. Each quilt is the measure of its own making. And as time passes, relationships and events are both implicit and explicit in the work. The death of a husband is felt in darkening tone and sombre embroidery; the length of a pregnancy apparent as the baby's name is eventually added after the relief of a safe birth. Quilts reflect family history as much as private lives.

Some of these histories turn out to be dark or sorrowful. Miss Nixon's quilt, made in the 1870s, and known as a strippy piece for its bold stripes of turkey-red and white cotton, was stitched in poverty at a miner's quilting club in Northumbria. The painstaking art is all in the patterning of diamonds, roses and leaves described with infinitely small stitches, perhaps compensating in this case for the lack of affordable cloth with which to vary the design.

Even an inexperienced eye can gauge how many long months of patience, skill and eyestrain were involved just by examining a single inch. But such quilts earned for Miss Nixon and her friends nothing more than the equivalent of a miner's wage for a fortnight.

Other quilts tell of lost children, unfaithful husbands, imprisonment and poverty, of persecuted Baptists and women convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land. One of the most dynamic – and vitality, not weakness, remains the dominant characteristic – is the so-called George III coverlet which shows the monarch reviewing his troops in the middle. But this formality is surrounded, and nearly upstaged, by a wonderful border in which official portraits of soldiers alternate with unofficial portraits of women: talking, writing, painting, laughing, walking and – of course – making quilts. There is no sense of Penelope sadly spinning away the war years; this is Homer revised, with women rising to the moment, refusing to waste either life or time.

This coverlet includes fragments of regency petticoat. The condition of life is materially apparent, so to speak, in a quilt. A tiny piece of expensive brocade, a circle of Indian fabric illegally imported during the 19th century trade ban, the lace from a Victorian wedding dress: what's prized is presented like a jewel in the ordinary cloth.

There are quilts made entirely from striped pyjamas, blankets, old coats, black-out curtains. Ingenuity is underpinned by frugality. The curators of this show had their ears to the ground when they first began to gather quilts five years ago, for this is an art that speaks more clearly than ever to our make-and-mend era.

And it does feel like speech. The most obvious (and commonly drawn) analogy is with abstract art: primary shapes, blocked colours, modular non-representational arrangements. Quilts have the shape and form of paintings; museums and collectors like to hang them on the walls. The great Amish quilts look like precursors to the minimalism of Sol Lewitt, Joseph Albers and Frank Stella.

But this is an exhibition of British quilts, and though there is one stunning abstraction, mute in its glowing cobalt and red, the sense is far more of representation, of the power of quilts to make a direct address.

Which is precisely the subject of a piece by Sara Impey, one of 10 works specially commissioned for this show. Impey found a letter in a drawer after her mother's death that breathed a hint of lost love; she has preserved it, like scented air in a bottle, in a most beautiful quilt in which phrases and half-phrases are stitched into the spectral surface of the fabric in broken lines that both imitate the patterns of speech and the motion of sewing itself, piercing the cloth, then drawing the thread slowly away.

We are all familiar with quilts that anthologise a family's old clothes, or commemorate its story through births or marriages; with quilts as complex pixellations of colour, tone and shape, patterned in jockey's cap or sawtooth star. But what this show reveals is the sheer originality that can thrive within such precise parameters. It is a show to enthral and inspire in equal measure, not least because there is such a sense of order in this hardwon art, this creation of a world out of scraps. It is all there in the portrait of Thomas Walker in his bed: the strange peace of making a quilt.


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March 17 2010

The V&A has quilts all stitched up

The V&A's new quilts show is already causing a stir, with international enthusiasts block-booking hotels in west London. Viv Groskop finds out what all the fuss is about

As you step through the heavy wooden doors into the V&A's new quilts exhibition, the first thing you see is a four-poster bed, draped with bed hangings from 1730; these are made up of 6,500 individual pieces in shades of red, brown, green and blue. The lighting is low, the walls are baby pink, there are weird, echoing noises. I don't want to say it's womb-like, but it is.

Quilts is a strange, fascinating show, six years in the making and the first the V&A has ever devoted to the subject. It provides a window on to a world – a predominantly female world – that feels private and somewhat undiscovered. Already, it is one of the museum's most successful exhibitions, with 8,000 advance ticket sales; quilting groups from the US, Australia and Japan have made block-bookings with local hotels.

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. "I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry." She thinks many people will come not so much to marvel, but to gain inspiration for their own handiwork.

Not just a female pursuit

Personally, I think the exhibition's appeal is much simpler than this: quilts are comforting, intriguing, intimate and heavy with history. To enjoy them, you don't have to want to make one (and I really, really don't). But the air in the first room of the exhibition, which houses the oldest quilts, has a wonderfully musty tang to it, like breathing in the past – it's a transporting experience.

There are 71 pieces here, mostly displayed as intended: on beds or as wall hangings. Many give an insight into family life of their period; several are exhibited alongside letters and diaries. There are quilted cushions from the 18th century, when a mother was expected to "lie in" after childbirth, embroidered with mottoes such as Health to the Little Stranger and the slightly less sinister Welcome Dear Babe. (These gifts were given after birth; it was thought that receiving them before labour would make it more painful. If only a cushion could make a difference.) Every quilt tells a story: one depicting Aesop's Fables, dated 1780–1830, clearly shows evidence of two hands – one detailed and precious, the other slapdash. You start to form stories about who these people might have been.

Is this a women's exhibition? Yes and no. It showcases the ways in which women have used quilts to document the big events in their lives – love, marriage, birth, death, even their thoughts on politics and patriotism. But it is not an exclusively female art. One of the star exhibits is Grayson Perry's wonderfully disturbing Right to Life (1993), which depicts embroidered pink foetuses against a background of red, white and black velvet. And there are several military quilts, one thought to have been made by a private serving in India in the 1860s (soldiers were encouraged to take up embroidery to stop them drinking and gambling).

Some of the pieces are unexpectedly satirical. A cover depicting the A-Z of Love (1875-1885) shows a young couple cringing next to a moustachioed man, who represents G for Guardian. Other quilts are overtly political: one takes a fabric template of "Her Most Gracious Majesty Caroline, Queen of England" as its centrepiece. Caroline was never Queen; when she was divorced by the future George IV, many women were disgusted. (Jane Austen wrote: "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband.")

Impatience is a modern vice

What struck me most was how intricate the 300-year-old work was compared with the contemporary quilts. Perhaps this is an unkind thought. I'm sure a lot of work went into Tracey Emin's To Meet My Past, despite the self-consciously faux-naif stitching. Equally, Jo Budd's Winter/Male and Summer/Female (2010) is strikingly beautiful; but it is a quilt made of giant slabs of colour, not tiny woven pieces. Quilting has moved further towards the grand statement, and there is a kind of impatience to the more modern pieces. There is another tension here, too: the earlier works were never intended as art, or to be exhibited. It made me want to see more examples of modern domestic quilting, rather than the professional art work of Emin and Perry.

Above all, a theme of confinement pervades this exhibition – literal confinement (labour and childbirth); and domestic: these pieces required hundreds of hours of homework. Later, the theme resurfaces in another form. One of the most striking quilts here is by prisoners at HMP Wandsworth. The slogans are funny and poignant: "I miss my family"; "I will go home"; "I didn't do it, guv, honest". Having time on your hands can feed an extraordinary creative focus, whether you are an 18th-century woman, or a 21st-century inmate.

Quilts 1700-2010 is at the V&A from 20 March until 4 July. Details: vam.ac.uk.

Sew simple: How to make a quilt

Where to start

The V&A's Patchwork for Beginners by Sue Prichard is excellent, as are a number of free online tutorials. Quilting.about.com is a good place to start, or eHow's videos (tinyurl.com/ehowvideos). Save your cash for pattern books – Kaffe Fassett is worth a look, or for modern stuff try the Material Obsession set by Kathy Doughty and Sarah Fielke. There are lots of workshops: I learned at Liberty (liberty.co.uk), but London's Make Lounge (themakelounge.com) and Brighton's Just Sew (justsewbrighton.co.uk) come highly recommended, too. The Quilter's Guild can help find a course (quiltersguild.org.uk).

What to buy

Basics – a rotary cutter, cutting mat and a decent ruler – start at about £30. (Omnigrip rulers and Olfa cutters outshine any other products.) If you don't want to fork out just yet, though, get a decent pair of fabric scissors and cut each piece out with a cardboard template.

Stick to cotton, and mix expensive, patterned stuff with cheap, plain fabric to keep costs down. Liberty have a new range of material tied into the V&A show; if you're after something bright and contemporary, Amy Bulter quilting fabrics (at John Lewis) are your best bet. Or design your own – see UK-based thefabricpress.com – or recycle dresses or table cloths.

Seeking inspiration

Flickr's quilt group should give you a few ideas (flickr.com/groups/quilts/), as will blogs such as aquiltaday.com. See what contemporary quilters such as Laura Kemshall (sixart.co.uk/Laura_Kemshall) are up to; I also like the picture-heavy book Quilting, Patchwork & Appliqué: A World Guide by Caroline Crabtree and Christine Shaw. If it's real-life inspiration you want, take a trip to the Quilt museum in York (quiltmuseum.org.uk) or join the hardcore quilters who fly in from all over the world for Birmingham's four-day Festival of Quilts in August (tinyurl.com/festivalofquilts).

Perri Lewis


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