The unrecorded history of women of Northumberland
My passion and love of textiles, stitch and Northumberland—the most northerly of England’s counties— has combined two creative strands linked by the area in which I live. The first being grey, moody, misty Northumberland. The “Land of the Far Horizons” where vistas are simply stunning and history lies interwoven with the land. From ancient rock carvings to medieval castles and battlefields - a reminder of its strategic position as a border with Scotland.
I’ve been thinking about the women who lived in the hills, the “forgotten” women, who are never recorded in history, who lived through the battles, the raids from Scotland and the long hard winters. I’ve photographed old abandoned homesteads and combined my photographs with printing and stitch. My dresses of Blaewearie and Kirknewton are digitally printed and then free motion embroidered firstly in black, to enhance the cottages and secondly in red…. to signify the blood in the land that has soaked into this area from centuries of battles and border feuds. The threads are left loose and hanging to signify the buildings collapse into ruins.
An alternative method I’m using is natural dyeing and weathering, so the fabric itself is “of the land”. Combining this with inspiration from ancient rock carvings my stitches and brush strokes aim to capture a sense of place and time. My Land and Sky dress is created with naturally dyed and weathered fabric. Silks and cottons are used to give a variation in dye uptake. The outer dress is embroidered with rock carving motifs. Labyrinth is a work based on similar techniques.
A recent wall art series uses paint and batik to mimic weathering textures and carved patterns. Echo’s on the Moor and On the Forest Floor are created with painted canvas, batik on silk and cotton and long stitches in a heavy silk thread.
I enjoy drawing with my machine in work such as House on the Moor. Depicting a woman outside her homestead, high on the moors with a curlew (a symbol of the National Park) flying overhead. Created with many layers of different fabrics for texture and depth and using several thread colors. The Watchful Hare is also drawn with the machine, on silks weathered with rust and natural dyes.
This brings me to my second strand of work - Hares and more colorful depictions of Northumberland. You see I have also a passion for bright color and pattern. So I’m quite a contrast. I’ve learned not to fight it, but to go with it and enjoy it all. The Rose Garden Hare and Autumn Moon Gazer are created from painted hares, scanned and printed onto fabric, appliquéd onto felt then I’ve applied silks and hand and machine embroidery. Lindisfarne - an island off the coast with a causeway access at low tide and its own castle - is also created using felt and silks with hand and machine embroidery.
Helen Cowans is an award winning, qualified tutor and lecturer. She has exhibited both nationally and internationally and is published in several magazines and books.