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Meet Cas Holmes, author of Stitch Stories

Cas Holmes is one of the UK’s most renowned textile artists, and has written for a variety of magazines, including The Quilter. Her latest title, Stitch Stories, is an inspiring guide to documenting your travels, both global and local, using textile art. We caught up with Cas to find out more about her work.

What’s your favourite aspect of working with other people on textile projects?
I enjoy the challenge of working on site-specific projects and installations in collaboration with the community, as well as with other artists, performers and musicians. Being open to other people’s ideas and watching their creative development can lead to different interpretations and opportunities for my own work. Working with portable found materials and media means you can make work anywhere. Just pick up your needle and go.

Being a practising artist and a community artist is a kind of double life but she suggests, ‘they are closely interwoven’. The low-tech systems she employs in her personal art practice are flexible enough to be used by people of all levels of skill and ability. It is one of the reasons why her work is accessible to a wide audience. – Moira Vincentelli (From Reflections catalogue 1999)

When you find a new piece of vintage fabric you like, what are the thought processes that go through your mind?
My desire to re-use is part of an ethical choice.. We dispose of things because everything is so ‘easy’ to obtain’ but  it is not sustainable. I have spent a long time working in this field and am lucky that people give me stuff to use. Clothing, vintage embroidered textiles, old handkerchiefs, printed paper, students even give me their old paint rags at Adult Education. I think about the ‘story’ behind the piece. What ‘trace’ of life remains as part of the everyday handling. Old fabrics which have been washed so many times become very receptive to dyes and marks. Paper ages as its is handled.  I like to ‘destroy’ and remake things and make a connection to the different spaces or places where they have been found.

What new ideas have come out of  your recent work under the ‘Urban Nature’ theme?
I spend all my time walking, cycling, and using public transportation. This direct contact with the physical world  reminded me how, on this small island, the Urban and the Natural world overlapped. I only have to walk outside my front door to have a  broad range of materials and references to work with.  These simple things of my daily life are inspiration. I am currently  developing new pieces for exhibition in Europe in 2014 and 15 which tracks just 48 yards of verges. My starting point was an old label with 40 yards written on it. I like the serendipity of using odd found things to start a new concept and see where it leads.

What other textile work – past and present – inspire you?
Japanese Folk Art or ‘Mingei’ printed textiles and paper. Old indigo padded fire jackets with beautiful stitched Sashiko and Boro patched garments. Indian Kantha and reworking of old fabrics to make new garments. Amish quilts and the works of the Gees Bend Quilters. Sonia Delauney, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Schulz, I was fortunate enough to meet her a few years ago while we working in New Zealand. She has amazing vigour and directness in her work. Polish weaver Magdalena Abakanowicz and the humanity in her pieces. Too many to list further

What artists inspire you?
English artists John Piper, Graham Sutherland.  The watercolours of John Sell Cotman in the late 19th century. He was far ahead of his times and the Norwich school in general. Canadian painter Emily Carr. There is so  much lovely stuff impossible to list such as botanical illustration of Marianne North at Kew Gardens, sculptot Eva Hess.

When teaching, what do students find the most difficult aspect of designing textile?
The ‘blank page’. Experimenting with materials and letting go of what they already know. ‘Tearing’ things up and working things through rather than going with the first idea.

If you were on a desert island with access to just one needlecraft technique, what would it be?
Straight stitch with an ever sharp needle. My lovely old Bernina (found in a skip) would be useless without electricity

What’s the most unusual found object you’ve incorporated into your work?
Bits of the outer bandage from the plaster on my arm a few years ago. Old (not used) Tampax tubes in a neck piece. Is that allowed?

Cas Holmes is the author of Stitch Stories, available now (Batsford, £22.50)