Susan Canfield


Books have always been a major interest of mine and both their form and content have informed most of my textile work.
  
Attending events to hear authors speak made me investigate British designers and artists working in the nineteen-thirties and led me to complete pieces based on the literature of T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Recently, I have created designs for a number of books which contain the word “Curious” in the title. 

For me sketchbooks are an important part of the design process; they enable me to interpret a theme in various ways.  I like these books to contain flaps, pockets and cut-out spaces to help spark my imagination. I often make a paper and/or card mock up of the final piece as a guide which helps me see if the colours and forms give the outcome I want to achieve.

The techniques I use vary depending on the final piece. It is often machine stitching on calico which I have coloured or textured adding hand stitching as a final embellishment. On several occasions I have used handmade paper instead of cloth, using the machine to add images.

It is important to me to feel excited by what I am producing and I love the challenges which arise when I make a three-dimensional piece.

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Bridging the Gap

I have been looking at the growing number of women writers since the Restoration. I have limited my investigations to British female authors in order to make the task manageable but during these early searches I came across Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818), a contemporary of Jane Austen. During his lifetime he was often referred to as “Monk” Lewis because in 1796 he published a Gothic novel (The Monk: A Romance) which was said to have been influenced by Ann Radcliffe.

What really incensed me was this quote by him: ….as a rule I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers. The needle not the pen is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. The cheek of the man!

I began my research with Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the writer to whom we are most indebted as she broke the cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women writers. Having managed to purchase a copy of the only novel she wrote, Oronooko: or The Royal Slave, I investigated other British women writers of note.

Eliza Haywood (1693 -1756) is thought to be the first woman to make a living from writing. She is credited as being one of the founders of the novel in English but I think she should be remembered as the first woman to publish a magazine for women, written by a woman: The Female Spectator.

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840) was an important 18th century diarist and a member of the Blue Stocking Society. She wrote four novels, the first of which, Evelina, published anonymously, was extremely successful.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) and George Eliot (1819-1880) seemed obvious choices.  Unfortunately, Austen didn't achieve literary fame until fifty years after her death and, of course, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) had to be included.

I felt the list also had to include Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) for her pioneering ‘stream of consciousness’ writing.

Finally, I arrived at the second half of the twentieth century and here the choice was obviously much larger.  I settled eventually on Doris Lessing (1917-2013) as, I think, her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, went on to define women’s roles during the second half of the twentieth century.

In order to show the growth of female authors, I used the Fibonacci series (1,1,2,3,5,8 etc.) which meant that when I reached the second half of the twentieth century I had selected thirteen novelists. As they are all British, I chose an oak leaf as a symbol and embroidered a panel in a technique relevant to their time, i.e. crewel work for the late 17th century, needlepainting and silk embroidery for the 18th century, white work and Berlin woolwork with beading for the 19th century and machine embroidery and applique for the 20th century.

In the 21st century, perhaps female authors and readers have ‘bridged the gap’.  In 1973 Carmen Callil founded Virago, the feminist publishing company, and in 1996 The Women’s Prize for Fiction (originally the Orange Prize for Fiction) was inaugurated in response to the fact there were no women authors shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize for Fiction, despite the fact that sixty percent of novels published that year were by women authors.

Controversy still surrounds the prize but I think that anyone who reads fiction written by a woman is Bridging the Gap.

To quote Virginia Woolf writing in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 – All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it is she who earned them the right to speak their minds.