Ali Ferguson is an artist, an embroiderer and a collector of stories. Describing herself as a bit of a home bird, found objects are her favoured medium. She creates mixed media collages that thread together past and present.
WORDS: Alison Gibb | PHOTOGRAPHY: Douglas Gibb
Ali Ferguson describes herself as an artist exploring hand stitch, but hers is not hand stitching as you would normally think of it: driftwood, letters, maps, watch faces – all manner of ‘found bits and pieces’ of this self-proclaimed hoarder are incorporated into her mixed media collages. ‘Textile art does now incorporate lots of textural varieties, and I consider myself a wee bit scattered in the things I work with, but they do lead into each other,’ she says, ‘and hand stitch is the thing that links it all together. There is something very personal about making your own mark with needle and thread.’
Ali’s “Purple Thread Shed” – her back garden studio in Roslin, near Edinburgh – is lined with cupboards, crates, drawers and shelves brimming with her collections of objects, from buttons of all sizes and colours, to lengths of old lace and fabric, vintage bobbins, sepia photographs… ‘It is often these pieces that spark off ideas for work. I wonder about their background stories before they came into my hands,’ she explains.
Ali has experimented with presenting her collages in many ways, including her “Sideboard Drawers”, drawer-shaped wall panels that ‘store memories of life, because all sorts of things get thrown into drawers and it may be many years before we go through them and see what has accumulated, and how they represent different experiences that have shaped us into who we are,’ she explains. Old rusty safety pins, crochet hooks, birth certificates and scraps of fabric are stitched together to create this artistic storyboard. ‘It is a very organic process, whatever calls out to me for each individual piece,’ she adds. Whereas her “Mad Tea Party” series was inspired by the kitchen table, ‘the heart of the home, where plans are made and dreams shared.’ Floral fabrics from the ‘30s and ‘40s are digitally printed with vintage adverts and recipes, or overlaid with doilies. To these Ali adds her own drawings, sewing-machine doodles and the all-important hand stitches. ‘Much of my art is based around the domestic side of things – family and home – because that is what I know,’ she says.
‘Much of my art is based around the domestic side of things – family and home – because that is what I know.’
After studying for a degree in textile design at what is now Heriot-Watt University in the early 1980s, Ali concentrated on bringing up her family for many years, running a knitwear business from home and later working with community groups. ‘I increasingly felt the need to be creative again, so about five years ago did a course in stitched textiles and found that I’d gone full circle. As children, we had the kind of upbringing where we filled our time making stuff – anything and everything. My mum taught me to knit and sew and it was a really good lesson in how, if you wanted something, you had to make it,’ she says. That same belief inspires Ali’s work today. ‘I usually start with a mind map, which is the equivalent of sketching in my sketch book,’ she explains of the start of her creative process. ‘I’ll have a rough idea of something, and then follow different streams of thought, which get you away from the obvious. This is how I started work on my “Patchwood” samplers, using wood as I would a fabric.’ In this series of work, small blocks of wood printed with images, or decorated with fabrics, stitched samplers, buttons and cotton reels, are “sewn” together like squares of a patchwork quilt. ‘I liked the idea of using wood, a hard and unbending material, for something we usually associate with warmth and comfort made from soft and foldable fabric; in this context it takes a craft more associated with domestic women’s work, that of quilting, and moves it into the realm of woodwork, traditionally considered men’s work.’
As well as searching flea markets, Ebay and antiques shops for materials for her work, Ali is sometimes given stored mementos by people.
‘One man turned up to my open studio event with some beautiful old shipping charts, scraps from which I’ve incorporated into my driftwood art “Environmentals” pieces. It’s always exciting to see what other people have got. I have also been handed whole series of postcards. One set was from a fisherman to his wife, and each one was the equivalent of a modern day phone call. Some of them only had one or two lines of writing on them, but I love the idea that these represent someone’s story. It would feel too intrusive to include one person’s whole story in a body of work, but having little glimpses of bits and pieces brings them to life without invading their privacy,’ Ali explains. ‘I like to think that I am stitching stories,’ she concludes, ‘and just as our lives are a series of layers, there are many layers to my work.’