Exhibitions, General

How to make the most out of visiting an exhibition: advice from an Artist- Steward

There is an art to looking at Art

How to make the most out of visiting an art exhibition

I was recently interviewed for Hampshire Life magazine about the Hampshire Open Studios an event I have taken part in regularly in recent years. During the interview we talked about the visitor experience and how the artist can make this less intimidating for people who perhaps would not normally feel at home in an art gallery.  I thought it might also be helpful to share some tips on how to get the most out of a visit based on my observations of stewarding over the years, and also my own experiences as a visitor to other people’s studios and galleries.

The Hampshire Open Studios

For those of you not in the know, over the 10 days leading up to and including the August bank holiday, artists and makers open up their studios, homes, or rent venues, to show and sell their work to the public. While this costs the artist a fee to be included, it is a free event for visitors and a wonderful opportunity to buy from the artist directly if they see something that they would like to have in their life more permanently.

Why visit an art exhibition?

From the artists point of view, sales put food in our mouths and keep a roof over our heads (or at least enable us to buy more paint, paper etc to keep our creative practice going). However, there are many reasons why visitors look forward to this event (gleaned from talking to, observing and listening to many over the years), aside from increasing their personal art collection. These are (among others):

  • being inspired by others to reignite their own artistic or craft practice.
  • learning about workshop opportunities, and art education.
  • supporting, meeting, and talking to other artists (networking).
  • a good day out with family and friends.
  • visiting interesting venues that are not always open to the public.
  • having a nose around other peoples houses (freely admitted to by many folks I’ve spoken to!)

Making the most out of every visit

With nearly 300 venues taking part over a wide area, and a limited amount of time, choosing who to visit can be difficult. While artists include a photo or two in their advert in the book/on the website, unless you know their work (follow them on social media or have seen them before), there is always a bit of a gamble turning up. What if you are the only person there, in an artist’s living room, in front of work that doesn’t immediately speak to you? How do you make a quick exit without appearing rude?

The Twirl

catherine wheel
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

From the artist’s point of view we have all experienced the Twirl: that person who steps through the door, tries (with varying degrees of success) not to look disappointed, does a rapid spin around the room (sometimes on the spot) and leaves hastily with mumbled “thanks” or “nice” to cover their embarrassment.

While recognising that art is subjective and for every Twirl there is the person who spends a significant amount of time engaging with and enjoying the work, I always feel sad that the former has made the effort to come in and got nothing out of the experience. While some Art does jump off the wall/plinth at you (this is when you know you are in the right place) and creates a connection straight away, some art is much quieter and needs a little time to speak to you. If you don’t give it that time, you may miss out on a rewarding experience.

Hints and tips on slowing down the visit

Having seen the exhibition experience from both sides, I thought it might be helpful to give some hints and tips on how I’ve learn’t to slow down and make the most of visits, even when the art itself, on first glance, doesn’t appear to be my thing.

  1. Be methodical (if space allows) and work around the room. Be aware that hanging an exhibition from the artist point of view takes much planning. The work is placed intentionally in relation to that around it. There may also be an obvious progression of a series i.e. what came first? You can liken this to how musicians create an album. Dipping in and out on random shuffle may give you an idea of each piece in isolation, but the album overall has an impact if listened to in the order that the artist intended.
  2. Commit to standing in front of each piece for a number of seconds. Stand back (if space allows) and then look up close. For 3 d work, walk around it if possible and view from different angles. Often there is an interesting feature hidden around the back!
  3. Consider the colours, the composition (what has been placed where) and how your eyes are drawn to certain elements of the work. Note the materials used (they are often surprising and only obvious on closer inspection). Remember that the artist is using these things to communicate with you. What is the piece saying to you? As a viewer these can be negative or positive reactions, both are interesting. Not least as our reaction to elements such as colour, can change over time e.g with seasons, and things going on in our lives. You may have gone in to the room thinking that you liked blue landscapes and finished realising that you are starting to enjoy charcoal figures.
  4. Read the titles. Personally I spend a lot of time naming pieces. They add another clue and often can be quite enlightening if not laugh out loud entertaining as the penny drops.
  5. If there are sketchbooks or information to leaf through about the artist and their work, have a look. These can help if you are struggling to “get it” and sketchbooks in particular can be a fascinating insight in to process and background (and occasionally shopping lists if mine are anything to go by).
  6. Often at Open Studios artists will be creating work or demonstrating. Watch them for a bit and ask questions if appropriate.
  7. If there are chairs available, sometimes sitting down in front of the work gives you more time to let the introvert pieces show their worth. It can give another view (particularly if you are considering buying something to put in a room where you will be sitting in front of it regularly). There may also be an opportunity to partake in refreshments offered by the artist/venue at this stage.
  8. Talk to the artist if they are there, about their work. Ask them questions: what inspires them, how did they get in to art, what is their favourite piece, how long does a piece of work take them, where can you see more of their work, ask how something you are interested is made etc etc.
Nicky Barfoot open studios
A corner of my Nicky Barfoot Open Studios 2019


I hope that this has given you some ideas on how you might get more out of exhibition visits. It isn’t all about shopping and spending money, but if you have enjoyed yourself and got something rewarding from the experience, a small token of thanks to the artist is always appreciated to help cover their costs for being there. While you may not want a piece of their work hanging on your wall (and we do understand that, I assure you), buying a card (or something small and affordable) can help them keep doing what they are doing, providing entertainment, inspiration and pleasure to others through the creation of their work.

Happy visiting folks…….


Collage and the Art of Serendipity


For the 3rd year in a row I have been taking part in #the100dayproject over on Instagram. For those of you who are unaware of this creative endurance test, it is a free, annual, worldwide, participative event where creative souls of all genres publicly commit to a project and post a daily update for 100 days on their Instagram accounts.  This year we started on 2 April and at time of writing, we are on day 79.

The benefits of daily practice

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

I’ve talked before in a previous post about how this type of accountability helps my commitment to daily practice. Artistic procrastination can be a common occurrence. How many times have any of these thoughts prevented you from making?

  • I can’t think of anything to do,
  • I don’t have enough time,
  • I can’t find the right sketchbook,
  • what’s the point of it anyway,
  • by the time I’ve got my stuff out I won’t have time to do anything.

Much like learning to play a musical instrument, doing a little something everyday makes a difference. As pointed out by the multi talented Maya Angelou in a 1982 interview for Bell Telephone Magazine (and not Oscar Wilde as sometimes attributed): “You can’t use up creativity, the more you use, the more you have.” And this doesn’t even take in to consideration how using the materials regularly makes us more skilled in their handling and application.

I have found this in all of the previous 100 day projects I’ve participated in. I won’t deny that more than three quarters of the way through I’m flagging a little. And my house is even more of a mess than usual. Leaving my art supplies out means no wasted time setting up and taking down.

But just knowing that I have committed to a daily post makes it hard to stop prematurely. Waiting for something to be “good enough” isn’t possible and the 100 posts required means that experimentation and pushing outside of a comfort zone is the only way I’ll hit that volume. This opens up all sorts of new directions, experiences and practices to enrich and inform my ongoing work when the project is over.


This year I’ve chosen to work in collage as my project. This technique has been used by many well known artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray and Eileen Agar, as well as Matisse in later life with his famous paper cut outs. Dictionary.com gives the definition of collage (noun) as “a technique of composing a work of art by pasting on a single surface various materials not normally associated with one another”. This is why it was so popular with the surrealists having the effect of creating weirdness and humour by these strange and unusual juxtapositions.

As I do love a bit of weird, collage really tickles my creative fancy.  Working in it also has another big benefit for a control freak like myself. It adds a bit of serendipity to the work, an unexpectedness and helps me to let go of the outcome (to some extent anyway!).

Working with collage

  1. One of my favourite ways to use collage is to ask what the bits of cut paper want to be. It is the scraps on the desk that are the most exciting. They will tell me if they want to be a cat, a horse, a bird or a dog and I just need to find them the right background and one or two play mates.

    2019-04-22 20.58.12
    “The Riding Lesson” by Nicky Barfoot
  2. Sometimes a piece of random hand painted paper (my acrylic paint brush cleaning papers are my favourites) makes an interesting way to “colour in” a drawing, or add a bit of textural interest to a painting.

    2019-06-10 18.01.17
    “Zombie Girl” by Nicky Barfoot
  3.  Collaged papers make wonderful backgrounds. In the same way that many people paint their sketchbook pages before they work on them, I’ve started sticking bits of interesting paper on to my pages, often adding some acrylic paint and texture, and then drawing, painting, printing, collaging on top of them.

    2019-06-18 21.18.55
    “Head Cuddles” by Nicky Barfoot

If you’d like to find out more

  • If you’d like to see more of my collages, my project on instagram is #100daysofnickyscollagepics and can be found here.
  • A great and inexpensive book if you fancy having a go yourself and would like a bit of inspiration is “The Collage Ideas Book” by Alannah Moore, available on Amazon here.
  • Carla Sonheim is running a year long, on line course called “Year of the Collage”. It features herself, Lynn Whipple and Anne Marie Grgich as tutors. More information can be found on Carla’s website here.

(The recommendations above are from my own paid up, personal experience and not part of a financial/partnership arrangement).

It’s amazing how a Pritt Stick and a pair of scissors can transport you back to childhood and the satisfaction of making things purely for the fun of it. Be warned though. You’ll never end up throwing any scraps of paper away again!

Nicky BArfoot (1)




Exhibitions, General

2018 Ally Pally Knitting and Stitching Show

Indian Summer in London Town

2018 Knitting and Stitching Show copy

Last week I had a hectic but fun time stewarding our “Missing Elements” exhibition with my Room 6 colleagues at the Ally Pally Knit & Stitch Show. As I’m now rehydrated (it was very warm) and have caught up on missed sleep, I thought I’d share my highlights from this year’s event with you.

2018 Ally Pally Knitting and Stitching Show

As usual Upper Street Events put on a great do. There was an inspirational line up of artists in the Textile Galleries where we were honoured to have been allocated exhibition space. I didn’t have much time to go around the show in it’s entirety as I was too busy chatting with lots of lovely visitors. However, I did get to look at the other exhibitions in the mornings prior to opening once our own space was ready and my caffeine needs had been seen to. I’ve included some of the work that resonated with me below.

Libbertine Vale

Libbertine Vale Harm Chair
Harm Chair

This artist was new to me and I found her mix of social commentary and mostly monochromatic, illustrative imagery and sculpture compelling. She was encouraging audience participation by asking them questions and using free machine embroidery to record the answers on to an automaton’s clothing.

The Harm Chair, featured above, was a finished piece from a similar exercise where she had asked “what keeps you in your chair and not mixing with others?” on social media.

I shall be following this artist with interest to see what question she poses next.

Jenni Dutton’s Dementia Darnings

Jenni Dutton's Dementia Darnings
From Jenni Dutton’s Dementia Darnings

I’m not sure Jenni was quite prepared for the amount of emotion that her large scale portraits of her mother would evoke in her visitors. When I popped my head around the partition on the first day she was handing out the last few sheets from an already empty box of tissues.

It was quite difficult for me to spend time in her exhibition space as so many of us could relate to her lovingly rendered and honest images. I must admit that I did have a little cry and had to snuffle away when I viewed the pieces of her work which reminded me of the drawings I made of my Dad during his last few days.

Dawn Hemming

Dawn Hemming knitted mandala
One of Dawn Hemming’s hand knitted pieces

On a more cheerful note Dawn Hemming’s large hand knitted, one piece, circular wall hangings were a delightful mix of motif and colour. They were named inspired by place and some had been made during travel. A lot of pins were used to hang these beauties on the walls (Dawn’s “assistant” was relieved and pleased with himself in equal measures I think after the hanging was completed) with the result a welcome splash of colour to greet visitors as they entered the hall. This one was definitely a mood lifter.

Ross Belton

Ross Belton Wedding Collars
Wedding Collars

Studio 21 had an interesting and varied exhibition as usual, this time based on colour. I enjoyed Ross Belton’s contributions, with their tribal art feel and textural richness.

Emily Tull

Emily Tull Everybody has a little piece
Everybody has a little piece of someone they hide

The final artist I wanted to mention here is Emily Tull and her hand stitched thread paintings. I was particularly drawn to the unfinished feel of the work. It gave me a sense of transience and a glimpse into the perpetual motion of the lives of the people she was portraying. The piece shown above is inspired by layers of ripped wallpaper and how the inhabitants of homes leave behind a bit of themselves when they move.

My Birds

Nicky Barfoot Whose Bird
Chick, Duck and Hen (reading from left to right).

And finally, thank you to all the wonderful folks who visited our Missing Elements exhibition. It was great to hear what you thought of it and a particular delight to see how it inspired the budding young textile artists who visited with their schools and colleges.

The exhibition will be travelling to the Dublin show in the next few weeks. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend but if you are going, my Room 6 colleagues will be there to meet and greet and answer any questions about the work on display.








Exhibitions, Knitted Art

Room 6 at the Knit and Stitch Shows 2018

Missing Elements poster

What a privilege

I am excited to tell you that after a few years off, I shall be exhibiting again at the Knitting and Stitching Shows this year. My work will be alongside the five other talented artists who make up Room 6: Irene Belcher, Caroline Bell, Susan Chapman, Alison Hulme and Consuelo Simpson.

Missing Elements

We are a group who come together for exhibitions but work individually. We make to themes to create a cohesive show while allowing our artistic individuality to shine through. For the Knit and Stitch Shows we chose the title of “Missing Elements” and each artist has responded to this with their own body of work. Expect a varied exhibition, both interpretation of the theme as well as media and style.


female seated life pose
Seated life pose, a page from my sketchbook

Those of you who have followed my work for a while know that animals are my usual muses but I also have a fascination for the human body. This is driven by my other identity as a sports injury specialist and movement rehabilitator. I am also interested in the use of language and inspired by Pop Culture. It is these seemingly disparate sources of artistic interest that have come together in my body of work (no pun intended) for Missing Elements. Read on to find out how I’ve made the connection.

Whose Bird?

Bird, chick, duck and hen are all words used to describe human females. The first two are commonly prefixed by a male possessive “my”, while the latter are considered terms of endearment in certain parts of the UK. Interestingly, Bird and Chick are two of the four most hated “pet” names by women according to a well known British Tabloid.

Many suggestions are given as to why women are labelled in this way. These range from a middle English word “burde” meaning “young woman”, through to the more misogynistic explanations. These include comparisons of mental ability between our feathered friends and those of us of a homogametic persuasion (“bird brained”), and the similarities in sound emitted from a pen of fowl and a room full of young women.

Misogyny or endearment aside, while we may all share eggs as our reproductive tools, according to the Collins English dictionary a bird is a creature with feathers and wings. I would therefore suggest that the most defining characteristics are missing.

The Artwork

Bird sketches
Two sketchbook pages from my #100daysofinspiredbyart project

I started to develop the visual side of this work during this year’s 100 day project (I’ve talked about this in a previous post) back in June . These are two of the sketches that provided that aha moment.

Knitted Paintings

It’s been a couple of years since I made a knitted painting and these drawings were really begging to be knitted. So I dug out the graph paper and my colouring pencils and went about translating these pictures into hand knitted fabric.

Blue Bird knitted picture
“Blue Bird” knitted painting, WIP

The final pieces

Of the work that I have created for this series I have decided on four knitted paintings to display at the shows. I am excited to see (and hear) what people think of them. As with all of my work I hope it brings a few smiles to a few faces. I’ll leave you with a sneak peek of part of the piece I’ve called “Duck”.

Duck knitted painting lower res
“Duck” knitted “painting” by Nicky Barfoot

I’ll be stewarding at the Ally Pally show if any of you lovely folks are coming. Please do drop by and say hi. I’d love to see you.




5 ways to kick start your creativity this September

Making the most of the time of year

5 ways to kick start your creativity this september

I love September. It is probably my favourite month of the year. In the Northern hemisphere there is so much energy around after the lazy days of Summer. The light is beautiful, deep and golden, in contrast to the bright glare of the previous months. The air has a wonderful silky feel and ripe fruit smell to it.

I also find it my most creative time of year. This might be due to the build up to Christmas which as a maker and a teacher of crafts, is the highlight of the year for sales. It is also probably due to spending many years as a competitive athlete where Summer was race season. After a two week break, September always marked the start of a new training regime with all of its exciting promise.

So, if like me, you are itching to get those creative juices flowing this month but are not sure where to start, I thought I’d share some of the things that I use to get doing.

5 Ways to get those creative juices flowing

1. Your own 100 day project

If you are a user of Instagram you might already be aware of the growing phenomena of the 100 day project. The brainchild of Elle Luna, this happens every April where you choose and announce a creative project that you can realistically do every day for 100 days. To keep the motivation going and to introduce some form of accountability, participants are encouraged to post on Instagram daily with their output, both in the 100 day project hashtag as well as your own project specific hashtag.

2018 was my second year of participation in the official 100 day project and you can see my project here #100daysofinspiredbyart.

100 day project sketchbook
One of my 2018 100 day project sketchbooks

The official version will begin again next April but there is nothing to stop you committing to your own personal version now. 100 days was originally chosen as a time period where endurance starts to play a part. Many Instagram challenges are 14 days or a month long which is much easier to commit to but equally also much easier to forget about once completed. For 100 days there will be times where it is a chore to contribute to the project and other things will be competing with your time and motivation.

The upside of this is a daily discipline which can become a habit and something that is much harder to let slide. I created a habit of getting the sketchbook out first thing in the morning after grabbing a cup of coffee and letting the dogs out. I am still doing this now.

You will also have created a significant body of work in that time period. I have two full sketchbooks from this year’s project and many of the drawings that I did for it have led to follow on textile work with many more still to be developed.

Interestingly at time of writing we have 113 days to Christmas so another perfect reason to get going?

2. Mind Mapping a theme

In my creative work both making art and designing workshops, I am often given a theme to work to. As deadlines are also usually involved if I waited for a flash of inspiration I would probably end up in a last minute panic with an unsatisfactory piece of work or design. One of the best ways I’ve found for me to generate ideas in these circumstances is to get writing. Mind maps have a way of allowing me to participate in and record these mind dumps. You may remember the process from school or college.

mind map
Mind Mapping a theme

As part of my exhibiting group, Room 6, I will be at the Knit and Stitch Shows this Autumn with an exhibition called “Missing Elements” (more about this in later posts). The picture above shows how I started the process of creating a body of work for this theme. This is only one of many maps and is the start of the process. These are just initial ideas and word associations that came to mind during this 15 minute process. From this, a couple of the ideas would begin to peak my interest and require their own map for further development. Of course if you have a big enough desk you could create it all in one place using a huge piece of paper.

3. Join a class

If you want to learn something new a class or workshop is the perfect place to do it. If you find making time for your creative pursuits difficult as more “important” things always seem to override it, scheduling time in the diary at a venue away from your everyday distractions, for a paid fee, can be a great method of commitment. Hopefully once you get started and remember how valuable it is to you, you can begin to prioritise outside of a class.

classroom pic
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Now that the school and college terms are starting up again, there are plenty of workshops and classes on offer for adults (I’ve got a full workshop teaching programme myself between now and Christmas). Keep an eye out on social media too as many teachers and venues list their upcoming classes on their Facebook and Instagram pages.

There are also plenty of on line classes that you can sign up to.  Craftsy offers a wide range of classes at different price points, as does Creativebug. I’ve tried classes from both and enjoyed them. On line classes often seem an ideal option as they can be cheaper and they sell you the idea that you can do them at your own pace and schedule. However this might not be a good thing if you are struggling to prioritise the time for your creativity. I have plenty of classes queued up in my on line apps that I haven’t “had the time for” yet.

4. Buy or borrow a book

creative books
Just a tiny selection from my bookshelves

There are lots of fun books out there which encourage you to do something creative on a regular basis. They may be drawing related, writing related, or more general. Some of them are about inspirational starting points and some give you more detailed instruction on how and what to make/do. What they usually have in common is a prompt of things to do which takes away the procrastination of, e.g. what shall I draw today?

If, like me, you love books, enjoy a few hours in your local book store or library and see which of these types of books might suit you. I usually buy a book when I visit Tate Modern or Britain and read it on the train journey home. By the time I pull up at the station I can’t wait to get my sketchbook out.

5. Get together with friends and make it a social event

The last idea I have for you today is to make your creativity a social event. I have recently recruited a group of my friends in a “creative club” focused on a not so secret Santa idea. We have monthly meetings scheduled to get together over coffee and cake and have some fun drawing, snipping, sticking, writing and baking. I’ll let you know how we get on…….

Please share any tips you have on getting creative in the comments. I’d love to hear.


General, Knitting Know How

Selecting a colour scheme for colour work knitting

Selecting a colour scheme for colour work knitting

Choosing a colour scheme

A subject that comes up regularly in my workshops is how to choose a good colour scheme for fair isle, the double knitting technique and intarsia. I thought it would be helpful to write an article on it. But be warned. This post isn’t about colour, quite the opposite in fact. We are going to set the tone……

Assessing the tone

When faced with the sweet shop effect i.e. shelves full of knitty goodness at the local yarn shop or festival, it is very easy to pick the colours that you think will look great together, only to be confused and a bit disappointed when you’ve swatched them up. The colours appear to have merged in to each other and the motifs in the pattern aren’t standing out. How has that happened?

If you want a colour scheme to “pop” then looking at tonal values can be really helpful.

Tonal values in a yarn selection low res
Looking at tonal values

How do I know if the lovely yarn selection on the left will work in a four colour stranded colour work pattern for example? Without doubt the colours themselves go beautifully together. But how do I make sure that the motifs in my hypothetical chart stand out?

Instinct tells me that the cream is likely the lightest tone. I can hazard a guess at the other three colours but it is easy to get that wrong (in my experience!). The easiest way to confirm the tonal values is to take a photo and turn it into black and white (so easy for smart phones as it is an option in the edit photo function).

My black and white photo shows that I was correct with the cream. The turquoise and the green have very similar values, and the brown is the darkest (but not massively different from the turquoise). If I was to knit with the turquoise and the green in a two colour section of my motif (or the turquoise and the brown for that matter), e.g. a row of hearts on a background say, the hearts would blend in to the background. I may want this subtle effect. But if I wanted those hearts to be visible and pop out of the background I will be very disappointed. The best yarns to achieve this from the selection above would be the cream and the brown as there is the greatest tonal difference between them.

Choosing the tone

A great amount of time and effort is spent by designers swatching colours when designing knitting patterns to get the effect they want. So when you have a pattern in front of you that you have bought from a designer but you want to choose your own colours, a good way of assessing if you are going to get a similar effect, is to turn their photo in to black and white. Armed with the tonal values, you can then photograph your potential yarn selection in black and white and match the tonal values to the original.

Georgia beanie yarn selection tonal values low res
My Georgia Beanie pattern yarn selection and the tonal equivalent. Find the pattern download in my Etsy shop here

Designing your own

If you are designing your own colour work patterns, a great starting place is to choose a light tone, a mid tone and a dark tone. This will ensure that you have a good contrast to make your design lively. Take your camera phone with you to the yarn shop and do a black and white photo of your potential selection before you spend your money, just to be sure.

Enjoying colour

I hope that this post has been helpful and has given you more confidence in your yarn selections for your colour work projects. There is plenty more to colour theory but I’ve given you a good tip here.

As mentioned in previous posts about colour, don’t be put off by the theory. Carry your camera with you so whenever you come across a colour scheme that you like (a visit to the garden centre, the local park, a colourful door against a painted wall) take a picture of it and keep it for reference. Start a Pinterest board or a physical mood board if digital isn’t your thing. If you’d like an example of what I mean have a look at my public Pinterest board on colour inspiration which can be found here.

With the added bonus of black and white also at your fingertips, analyse the tonal values of your images too and see how they impact on the overall effect. Keep in mind that similar tonal values blend and merge producing subtle colour effects. While a big difference in tonal values creates a pop and allows colours to stand out on each other.

I wish you lots of fun with your colour adventures x





In the Loop 2018; a knitting conference

In the Loop pinterest graphic

A bi-annual gathering of knit enthusiasts and researchers

Last week I was delighted to be sitting in a lecture theatre at In the Loop. It is a bi-annual conference talking all things knitting. Over the years it has travelled to Glasgow and Shetland (which sadly I couldn’t make) but this year saw its return to the Winchester School of Art where I attended the very first conference in 2008. This venue has knitting significance as it has housed the knitting reference library since 1999 comprising the published works collected by Montse Stanley, Richard Rutt and Jane Waller.

10 Years On

I’ve got to admit that 10 years ago my first experience of an academic knitting conference was a little confusing. Back in 2008 I thought it was about designing and making something to wear, probably as quickly as possible, and hopefully for some financial reward. Since then my eyes have opened up to the possibilities and hidden depths of “making” by hand. A stitched textiles degree and a few years of teaching later I am now able to appreciate how academic papers can be submitted on subjects as wide ranging as knitting as an economic and cultural identity, through to knitting as sacred space, and on to knitting as a metaphor in children’s illustrated books.

A lot was covered in two days but a few discussions really stood out for me which I would like to share with you.

Knitting for wellbeing

We are hearing a lot at the moment about the health benefits of knitting and Rachael Matthews shared her thoughts about producing her book, “The Mindfulness in Knitting”. The advert for the book states:

Everyone can pick up a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. And everyone can be mindful.

This prompted a discussion about whether promoting knitting as a method of self care for people with money and time in this way, glosses over the fact that it is actually a neurologically challenging process. Rachael presented examples from her participative knitting events. She also discussed her experience of teaching knitwear design at degree level when presented with young enthusiastic designers embarking on a degree course who have never hand knitted before. Everyone might be able to pick up a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. But not everyone can knit competently.

Practice makes perfect

Knitting requires countless hours of practice to perfect and when faced with frustrated beginners in a class environment I often liken the physical process of knitting to playing the piano. It takes a lot of invested hours to produce a smooth and pleasant sound despite knowing where all the notes are from quite an early place in the learning process.

hands playing a piano
Photo by Elijah M. Henderson on Unsplash

However, unlike playing the piano, there is a perception that knitting is low skill and everyone can do it. I have yet to encounter someone who can’t pick it up at all in my beginners classes, but some folks are definitely quicker to execute the motor skills required to manipulate two sticks and a piece of “string” into something evenly tensioned and fit for purpose.

As a slight aside but again an example of the neurological challenges presented by learning to knit by hand, I urge you to watch a TED talk by talented knit designer Kate Davies. It is called Handywoman: Making a Creative Life in which she explains the process of relearning how to knit after suffering from a stroke at the age of 36. I’ve linked to the video at the end of the post.

Knitting as memory

stack of sweaters
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Jean Oberlander presented a paper about the the power of softness. She discussed how knitted items form connections to lost family members and how fixing and darning makes that garment (and hence the connection) eternal. Stains and smells of the creator might remain in an unwashed hand knitted gift (and probably quite a bit of dog hair in my case!). There was also a discussion about the Ugly Jumper where relations become strained through an unwanted gift that obviously took much time and love to create (we’ve probably all been on both ends of that scenario?).

Knitting as sacred space

Alison Hood visiting from a Canadian University presented a very interesting discussion about knitting as sacred space. For those who were not familiar with the term “sacred space” Alison defined it as communication with the “Divine” or “Other” (not necessarily a religious experience). It is a place of power and transformation and can be positive or negative. I think she summed it up very well with the statement “knitting isn’t just something you do, it is a place you can go….”.

From a personal perspective this applies to many other activities in my life including drawing, running, sitting looking at the sea in my favourite place. The ritual and the intent makes something sacred and for knitting this could include chairs, timings etc. Note the word “can” in “can go“. Chatting over a glass of wine at Stitch n’ Bitch probably isn’t included here but sitting down after work in your favourite armchair, putting on a loved piece of music, facing the garden, and picking up your knitting, might be.

How does Society value knitting?

The discussions above led to an interesting debate about whether and how we can make a living out of something that is often portrayed as being about love, nurturing, mindfulness and spirituality. Society doesn’t tend to value mindful in a monetary way.

These perceptions potentially ignore the fact that:

  • knitting isn’t easy
  • it takes time and practice (and financial investment)
  • not everyone can do it

Knitting and wool in Norway

Dr Ingun Grimstad Klepp presented an interesting talk about knitting and the wool industry in her home country of Norway. Points of interest for me from her talk included:

  • 43% of Norwegian women knit! Knit and drink groups are very popular social gatherings (what we call Knit and Natter in the UK and Stitch n’ Bitch in the US).
  • Norway has twice as many knitters as other countries.
  • Acrylic yarn doesn’t exist in Norway, only natural fibres.
  • Underwear is the most popular wool garment in Norway.
  • The traditional Norwegian sweater is called a Kofte and is worn with much pride on special occasions and festivals.

Political Knitting 

knitters against Trump placard low res

The key note speaker on the second day was Professor Jessica Hemmings who presented a paper on Challenging Knitting. Some of the artists who have used knitting to raise awareness of complex topics such as immigration, racism and violence were highlighted including Kate Just, Cat Mazza, Patricia Waller and Mary Sibande amongst others. The success or otherwise of this particular medium to invoke the intended response was also discussed and areas where the stereotypical view of knitting worked against the artist and not for them.

This was seen in the case of The Knitting Map Project directed by Jools Gilson where the allocation of public funding to create a knitted piece of art for public display was heavily criticised, as was the director personally. In an article in the Irish Examiner, 6 May 2015 Jools Gilson says of the project: “I think some of the controversy is good old-fashioned misogyny. The project is about women and the work they do and how it is not valued culturally. Knitting represents the domestic, the private and the female. This work tried to explore further meanings with women coming together and knitting collaboratively, making something that documented the life of a city in an important year.”

What is clear is that knitting is attractive. It draws people in and has the ability to shock and confuse with the subject matter and therefore can be used to great effect by artists. However Professor Hemmings warned us about the notion of Craftivism and romanticised powers of disruption. Is knitting a pink cosy for a lamp post or public sculpture during a spate of yarn bombing really bringing about change? Or is it just littering in a sweet, comforting, decorative and feminine way? We need to be careful of the language used around this ancient craft. Headlines and titles such as “Not your Grannies Knitting” are not helpful.

There is so much more I could discuss with you from these exciting two days of viewing knitting from many different angles. However, I fear this post is way too long already so thank you if you have made it this far. If you would like to find out a bit more about some of the items discussed in this post I have put a couple of links below. And if you don’t know what a Norwegian Kofte looks like there are many examples on Pinterest (sadly I didn’t have a licence free image to put in here).

Links and further reasearch

Handywoman: Making a Creative Life. TED talk by Kate Davies.

The Knitting Map Project, a video

General, Stitched Art

5 of the Best Embroidery Stitches to draw with

Cultivating a drawing habit

Hand stitching is one of my favourite ways to relax and those of you who know my work will have seen my stitch drawing and doodle designs. However, all of my work (knitting and stitching) starts life in my sketchbook. Most days, the first thing I do on waking after making a coffee and sorting out the dogs is to grab any sketchbook I have to hand and whatever drawing materials are easy to find on my Desk of Doom (usually my super chunky variegated pencils). Like Picasso (see previous post) I have learnt not to worry about what subject matter goes into which sketchbook as that is the route to procrastination and, ultimately, inactivity for me. And sometimes those strange juxtapositions can lead to all kinds of interesting developments!

This hour to myself at the start of my day is about play and experimentation with no pressure on further development. However, often an idea that has been gestating in my subconscious will start to take form on the page and some of those ideas will start begging to be stitched.

sketchbook and coloured pencils
Sketchbook Playtime

Quality of Line

While knitting is perhaps more of a painting tool as it is all about shape (a single stitch being a rectangle), embroidery is so good for drawing lines. There are five basic embroidery stitches that I go to for drawing purposes that I am going to share with you here.

Running Stitch

Running Stitch example
Running stitch

Probably the first stitch you learnt as a child is running stitch. Like many of the things we are introduced to as beginners, the temptation is often to move on and not look back. However, this simple stitch is oh so versatile. We were probably taught to do it on an even weave fabric with our teacher placing emphasis on even length and straightness of stitch. Personally I am always striving to create interest in quality of line and I love a bit of inconsistency in all of these stitches. I particularly like the broken effect of running stitch and the space it creates between the stitches. Not only is there the potential to play with stitch length but also with gap length. And what about weaving another thread in and out of the stitches. So much potential from such a simple stitch.

Back Stitch

back stitch example
Back stitch

The next stitch you probably learnt (for hand seaming purposes if nothing else) was back stitch. It creates a closed line and therefore comes across as more pronounced than running stitch. It has its own charm but I often find the back of work done in backstitch more interesting as it is less precise and even.

Stem Stitch

stem stitch example
Stem stitch

I use stem stitch quite a lot for outlining my stitched doodle designs. It creates a lovely textural, twisted effect and provides a bit of three dimensional interest and encloses an area containing other stitches very well. It can be a bit tricky going around corners but that can add a bit of loopy charm to the design.

Split Stitch

Split Stitch example
Split Stitch

This is another great stitch for outlining and drawing purposes. It is credited as the stitch that set English embroidery apart from other countries during the Middle Ages and helped to make it one of the most desired and costly art forms in Europe at that time. It has a variety of appearances depending on how many threads are in the needle. On a single thread it looks like a bit like couching (see next section) whereas on an even number of threads it looks like a flatter version of chain stitch. Unlike stem stitch, corners are a doddle with split stitch.


Couching stitch example

The final basic linear embroidery stitch that I wanted to talk about is couching. This is such a versatile way of creating lines. Anything string like can be couched and some wonderful textures and colour combinations can be achieved. It is especially useful when the thread that you want to use is not suitable for pulling through fabric e.g. due to thickness, texture or fragility, as the stitching is done using a different thread. Lots of fun can be had with placement of the stitches too. Do you keep them even, group them or apply them randomly?

My Latest Stitched Drawing

Nicky Barfoot Self Portrait stitch and paint
Self Portrait

These five basic stitches (or just one of them!) can be put to great effect in creating quite sophisticated line drawings. The picture above is a Self Portrait inspired by one of my favourite artists, Egon Schiele. It uses back stitch as the main drawing tool, with a few straight stitches and bit of satin stitch, used sparingly, for colouring in purposes. Simple but effective?

5 basic embroidery stitches for drawing

Picasso Exhibition at Tate Modern, a Visitor's review

Picasso at Tate Modern, a visitor’s review


Last weekend I snuck off on an early train to London to indulge in some quality art appreciation at Tate Modern. My destination was the much talked about Picasso exhibition.

The focus is 1932 a make-or-break year for the artist who had turned 50 the year before (mmm, ringing a few bells for me then). There was no doubt about his reputation and fame but critics were beginning to talk about him as an artist of the past rather than the future. This exhibition shows his reluctance to be sidelined in favour of the younger talent coming through and marked an energetic and creative period of his life and perhaps some of his most accomplished works.

Picasso exhibition shopping
Some of my souvenirs from the exhibition

“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary”, Pablo Picasso.

I was fascinated and encouraged by his disdain for chronology. Apparently his self curated exhibitions comprised of work from all periods mixed together. His sketchbooks were renowned for having work from various years in them, almost like he picked up the nearest sketchbook to hand and used it (ha ha, just like me then. I love it when I can liken what I thought were my unorganised practices to those of the most celebrated artist of the past century!). He didn’t seem to discard early work as being less worthy than the latest projects and I’ve taken that on board (I’m guessing I’m not the only one who moves on and doesn’t look back? Previous work is still relevant and perhaps becomes more so in light of what follows).

So what to expect from this big exhibition (apart from marvelling at the productivity of this man)?

  • Wonderful curves and bright, contrasting colour defining planes.
  • Breasts in strange places.
  • Flip top heads.
  • Furniture (not usually abstracted and often referenced in the title e.g. Woman in a Red Armchair).
  • Fabulous bulbous head sculptures.

“You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters”. Pablo Picasso.

Sketch of a Boisgeloup sculpture
Sketch of one of the sculptures, front view

The most exciting part of this exhibition for me I think was seeing the Boisgeloup sculptures. I spent a bit of time sketching these wonderful, voluminous heads and marvelling at how the curves flowed in to one another (you only really get an appreciation for that sort of thing when you try and draw it).


Sketch of a Boisgeloup sculpture
A side view of one of the sculptures. I think some aliens in recent Sci Fi movies/programmes may have been inspired by these? 

Thoroughly excited by the work of this genius, of course I couldn’t wait to play when I got home. I am a huge fan of art books directed at children as I find them much more playful and imaginative than the drier adult versions. Quite a while back I remember an exercise from one of the books in my collection about recreating your own Picasso inspired drawing. Here is the recipe:

  1. Draw an eye anywhere on the page.
  2. Turn the page 90 degrees clockwise and draw another, much bigger eye, anywhere on the page.
  3. Turn by 90 degrees clockwise and draw a nose, anywhere.
  4. Turn by 90 degrees and draw a mouth.
  5. Turn by 90 degrees and draw a limb/hand/paw etc.

You get the idea? Once you have a few features on the page, you use a couple of lines to join them up. Do a bit of colouring in and decide which way up you fancy hanging your work of art.

Picasso dog
My Picasso inspired Dog 

This is so much fun I urge you to have a go. Animals, people anything really. Mix it up and enjoy.

I hope I’ve given you a taste of this wonderful exhibition and if you are able to get to London I strongly recommend a visit. I’ll leave you with another quote from this amazing artist:

“Essentially there is only love, whatever it may be”. Pablo Picasso.

Exhibitions, General, Knitted Art

Soft Engineering Exhibition, a review of Textiles Taking Shape

In Hampshire (UK) we have been gifted yet again by the Winchester Discovery Centre with another fabulous textile exhibition. This time it is a group show by soft engineers: Alison Ellen (hand knitting), Ann Richards (weaver) and Deirdre Wood (weaver). Together they are demonstrating the common threads between knitting and weaving and show how the materials they use in their methods, particularly when working with materials of very different qualities side by side, spontaneously shape the constructed fabric.

Deidre Wood weaves with materials of contrasting physical property. The work is straight during the weaving process but when cut from the loom and soaked in water it reshapes itself.

Deidre Wood interlocking circles low res
Deidre Wood, Interlocking Rings, silk, linen and wool.

In contrast Ann Richards work exploits the different spin directions of high twist yarns to create her sculptural effects. Again the work is woven straight and the properties of the yarns are allowed to exert their influence once it is cut out and wetted.

Ann Richards scarves low res
Ann Richards double cloth pleated scarf

I was fascinated by the work of these sculptural weavers, having not been exposed to it before. I was, however, more familiar with the work of hand knitter Alison Ellen who introduced me to the joys of modular knitting a number of years back when I attended a couple of her workshops at West Dean College.

At the time I was working through my City and Guilds Hand Knit Design course and was struggling a little with the process of translating seemingly unrelated visual inspiration into knitted fabric. As a life long knitter with no previous design training, I had always worked from the other way around. That is using an ongoing inquiring experimental process with yarns and stitches (a “I wonder what would happen if I did/used this to……”), creating samples, and the properties and appearance of those samples then suggesting to me what garment they would lend themselves to.

It was a relief when I met Alison as she also appeared to be working (successfully) in this direction too and while it wouldn’t have helped me to pass my City and Guilds, I have continued to use this process, particularly in my knitted art practice, alongside the more conventional design process which I am pleased to say with practice has now become second nature.

Alison Ellen sweater low res
Alison Ellen modular sweater in wool.

Alison’s garments allow the stitches to shape the fabric. She is well known for using a modular approach, allowing herself to effect the drape of the constructed fabric by changing the bias. I have had the pleasure of trying on some of her cardigans and sweaters at a previous workshop and have seen others in them too. They transform once a body is put inside them, and create the most flattering garments due to this bias and drape effect. She has a number of wonderful design books too so if this type of knitting excites you I highly recommend them.

Alison Ellen Books low res
Alison Ellen’s books (you can see my copies are well thumbed)

So my love affair with modular knitting is probably all Alison’s fault (thank you lovely lady!). Some of you will already be familiar with my Weimwood Shawl design (pattern available from Etsy here and if you would like to learn more about this type of knitting, I have two workshops coming up devoted to modules. The first is on Saturday 10 February at Wyvern College in Eastleigh. More details and booking is via the Ashcroft Centre here. The second is a slightly shorter session on Saturday 17 February 2018 at the fabulous Unravel Festival of Knitting in Farnham. More details can be found here.

modular scarf portrait low res
The Modular Scarf design for my upcoming workshops.

I highly recommend you visit this exhibition at the Winchester Discovery Centre if you can. It is free entry and I’m sure those of you interested in textile art and engineering will find it very interesting. If I have whetted your appetite for modular knitting it would also be lovely to see you on one of my workshops.

Until next time….