Sarah-Joy Ford is an Artist, PGR and Associate Lecturer at Manchester School of Art. Exhibitions include Banner Culture, British Textile Biennale (Blackburn), Queen, COLLAR (Manchester) and Weaving Europe: The World as Mediation, Shelly Residence (Paphos). Projects include Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism, The Portico Library (Manchester) and Hard Craft, Vane Gallery (Newcastle). Her work has been commissioned by The Yorkshire Year of the Textiles, Processions: a hundred years of suffrage and Beyond the Binary at The Pitt Rivers Museum. Her AHRC funded PHD research examines quilting as a methodology for re-visioning lesbian archive materials.
Like everyone, I was in the middle of everything when the pandemic hit.
The week before lockdown, in furtive anticipation, I went to see my father. A dentist with asthma. He numbed me and twisted out a wisdom tooth that had been bothering me for years. Mashing into my gum causing inflection, inflammation – pain from my ear, seeping along and down my jaw and my throat. The pain always came in unpredictable waves, ebbing and flowing, permitting me to push it to the back of my mind. A release of pressure, of scraping, crunching, swelling – and now it is quiet in my mouth.
Then it became quiet in the house too. Ebbing and flowing between the sensations of profound loss and relief from the endless grinding.
It was a privilege even to think. I am so lucky.
I forgot the lesson quickly. I am restless and I do not learn how to make bread.
The first time I stepped in the embroidery workshop at Manchester School of Art I knew I was home.
I had never seen a textiles workshop before. I had always worked on my domestic Janome sewing machine, ramming far too big quilts through her small but patient body.
My masters degree was a liberation. Sue, the head of the workshop both chided and guided me as I found new ways of making work.
I fell deeper in love with quilt making, whilst finding new joys and deep pleasure in learning digital embroidery.
I learnt to play with stitches in the digital space of ethos software, and watch my designs thud out in polyester thread on the brother industrial digital embroidery machines. I got to know their grey weight and bright blue screen, the rows of needles – threads snaking up the face gathering tension as they go.
My quilts finally had room to breathe stretched out on the handi quilter infinity- the layers bound between two rollers, pulled taught so that the body of the machine can sweep across the surface. It too can follow digital instructions: moving autonomously, purposefully across the quilt: like a ghost in the machine
My impulse is toward fabric, toward its manipulation and embellishment, and it runs deep within me. The needle calls to my fingers, and the thread to my lips. The tension of the bobbin hangs in my gut. The din of the machine stitch haunts my ears. The burring vibration of the machine is in my bones. My orientation is toward softness but my allegiance is to the machine.
Watching the horizon approach of the end of my masters degree I knew I could not leave the machines. I applied for a practice-based PhD to stay stitching in the workshop of dreams. I managed to find funding and began in 2018 under the guidance of the incredible artist Alice Kettle.
But then the pandemic came and the workshops closed and we were all at home.
Workshop to Watercolours
Without access to the workshops or the archive, I circled back towards the materials that I had already collected and the technologies at hand at home.
My PhD production schedule disintegrated.
I fervently turned to watercolour painting as a pass time in an uncertain time.
Watercolours have always been important to my practice.
My quilted art practice begins with the physicality of drawing and painting, and shifts to the immateriality of the screen. It collages together and re-assembles my drawings into digital print and embroidery designs. Finally, the work is shifted back into the material through the processes of stitching, embroidering and quilting.