Stories from the Quilt Part 6: Disaster Strikes

Top Row: Months of stitching work from before the disaster.
Bottom Row Left: Traces of the stitch work after the disaster.
Bottom Row Right: My sister and talented photographer, Hannah Morgan, capturing the finished quilt for the exhibition catalogue.


Two days before the catalogue photoshoot, disaster struck.
The quilt shrunk. To half it’s size.
Felting is all about ‘shrinking’. As the rubbing and rolling (fulling) process tangles the wool fibres together and they form a dense fabric. The more rubbing and rolling (along with warm water and soap), the denser the fabric and the more shrinkage there is.
I’m sure everyone has had a warm-wash accident with a wooly jumper in the past. Wool is now often treated with chemicals to avoid shrinkage and is known as “superwash wool”. This is wool that  is made by exposing the fibre to a chlorine gas that erodes the scales and then it is coated in a plastic called Hercosett 125. An article by Ashley from Woolful explains more about super wash and why we should think twice about having it near our skin. For felters, superwash fleece and yarn is best avoided as it is near impossible to felt.
The day of disaster.
The quilt hadn’t decreased in size as much as I’d hoped using just hand-felting techniques. And I thought it would be better if it was a little denser and heavier too. So I put it into the washing machine on very low heat. After three cycles, gradually raising the temperature, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. So I cranked the heat up on the fourth cycle and happily went about some other chores.
The washing machine beeped to tell me the quilt was ready to come out. As I was extracting it I felt that it was very dense… a good thing! Then I started hanging it out and suddenly realised that the whole thing was much smaller than before. Much smaller. In addition, five months of stitching was virtually erased. Ugh.
It was not the time to panic. With two days to fix this, I had a chat to a friend, and decided that an additional piece could be made and attached to the quilt. Fortunately I had already started work on a second piece for the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award.
On reflection and a little bit of distance from the disaster, and a few chats with my friends and family, I’ve come to realise that the shrinking episode in the end enhanced the concept of fading memory. Only I know how much work is buried within the compressed fleece. Traces of past stitch lines are glimpsed under the surface. The additional panel shows the original qualities of the work, revealing a passage of time and it’s impact upon recollection.

Stories from the Quilt Part 5: Natural Dyes

The choice to dye my silk remnants used in Topology of Memory is driven by numerous reasons. I wrote an article for The Plant Hunter if you'd like to read more of the story of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree & dyeing with the fruit.

Embedding narratives into the cloth

I’m  interested in the instability of natural dyes as I think it provides a potent metaphor for the fading of memories. I expect, over time, that the colours will etiolate from the quilt. And I’m okay with that. Embracing this change as a positive is in direct opposition to the priorities of commercial textiles. Any change in colour is seen as an imperfection and a sign to throw the fabric away.

Some of the silks were dyed with memory-charged herbs, such as Rosemary, Bacopa Monnifera, Gotu Kola and Gingko Bilboa. Not all were successful, but I enjoyed experimenting with each one.

I also applied a process of folding, tying and blocking my silk remnants before the dye bath to  create un-dyed shapes on the cloth. This gives a sense of the resistance of memory to retain accurate detail from a past experience.

The memory of place, and the potential inaccuracy of this memory,  reminds me of a term coined by Duncan Bell (2003) - Mythscape. Bell uses this to describe the ‘temporally and spatially extended discursive realm in which myths of the nation are forged, transmitted, negotiated, and reconstructed constantly.’ I feel I do the same with my memory of emotionally charged places of my childhood - my recollections have become myths over time.

Locating Place

Gathering natural dye sources from my local haunts has ingrained time and place into the quilt. Topology of Memory traverses a childhood past and mixes them with the present. The act of  gathering fruit from under Moreton Bay Fig trees recreates the long days adventuring on the family farm, collecting treasures, unaware of time passing, observing the small and the large details of the land. I was pregnant with our first baby while foraging for the figs, so the memory of bending and stooping by the foreshore of Blackwattle Bay with a big belly is strong. It was a physical touching of the land that connected me and the dyed cloth to place.


sometimes it’s just about the colour. Finding the red-dirt hues of the land was important to me and  was eventually achieved with a mixture of cutch and logwood. Both were sourced from suppliers rather than my surrounding environment. The different levels of reds were discovered by using a variety of silks, and removing them from the dye pot at different times. The longer they soaked, the stronger their colours. The longer one ponders a memory, does it strengthen in the same way?

Avoiding toxins

And it’s always about avoiding toxins. The effect chemical dyes have on the environment and the human body are numerous. The textile industry has much to answer for in terms of environmental damage in the pursuit long-lasting and commercially stable dyes. Natural dyes still need to be handled with care (and never thrown onto the backyard grass like I once did with dire results) and safety equipment is a priority in terms of skin, respiratory and eye protection. However they offer a much safer and more responsible process of embedding colour into cloth.