Security Blanket: A Conversation with Textile Artist Jennifer Smith-Windsor
The pieces combine vintage and repurposed military-issue blankets with hand-made small-scale “domestic” textiles, brought together with intricate hand-embroidery. The exhibition focuses on two notions of security: that of the home, and that of the state, exploring how we define and create security for ourselves and our families and friends, in times of great global uncertainty and fear.
I was very moved by the pieces in the exhibition and by its themes, and how it might be perceived differently in the context of COVID-19 than it would have been in other times. I was delighted to chat with the artist recently by email. The transcript of our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
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Kate Atherley: Tell me your origin story: How and when did you learn embroidery?
Jennifer Smith Windsor: I learned to embroider as a child, and in fact I still have my first examples of a beaver (very Canadian!) and a singing bird. When I was eighteen, thirty-seven years ago, I received a student scholarship to attend a workshop session with the Canadian Embroiderer’s Guild and it was through this experience that I realized embroidery and textile art was the way I could most effectively express myself creatively.
KA: Did you always intend to be textile artist?
JSW: For me, having a serious art practise has been a long and developing process. I never decided one day that “This is it! I’m a textile artist,” but cloth and thread have always been a part of my life. It took time for me to to find my creative voice and to develop the means and confidence to express it. I feel I am finally at that stage.
Being a textile artist places one in a curious place within the art world. It is a very niche area and often hard to define. Am I an artist? A craftsperson? A craft-artist? An artistic craftsperson? It’s not always easy explaining what my work is about. And not only do I work with textiles, but I embroider, which is often considered a twee pastime for women. I want to challenge these preconceived notions and use stitch in way that, while honouring the rich tradition of handwork, makes it a versatile and viable option for use in a contemporary art practice.
KA: Tell me about how you find and choose your raw materials. Do you make any of the source materials, or do you work exclusively with repurposed items?
JSW: Using second-hand reclaimed textiles, whether a flat textile, a garment, or fragments, is absolutely essential to my artistic process. Second-hand cloth is my muse. The flaws, holes, tears, wrinkles are signs of wear, a reminder of their past use and of the user.
Vintage textiles and clothing are richly imbued with their own story and by incorporating them into my work, I build upon this history, creating new narratives. I am inspired by shared human experiences. Cloth and clothing have a unique capacity to express this fragility and vulnerability. Because of their ubiquity in our lives, they are often taken for granted, but I find it quite remarkable their ability to trigger emotions or memories.
Like most textile enthusiasts, I am a bit of an obsessive collector and hoarder of cloth! A recent move pointed out this less than desirable feature but since they are “tools of my trade,” I can always justify purchasing another roll of handmade lace. Flea markets and antique fairs always provide ample opportunity for this. I acquired my first vintage pieces of crochet work from my great-grandmother. My collection has grown over time through gifts and purchases. For Security Blanket, all but one of the military blankets were purchased online through eBay or from military surplus supply sites.
KA: Do you plan the pieces out in advance, or are they freehand? Is it all hand embroidery? Do you use a sewing machine, or other such tools, in your process?
JSW: Having hand-embroidered for many years, I have an arsenal of embroidery stitches at my disposal, so I can decide very quickly and often spontaneously which stitches I will use. However, my favourite ones are some of the most basic, such as straight, back, cross and blanket stitch. Inspiration often comes in the “doing.” I approach each piece with a rough concept, often worked out in a sketchbook, but then a relationship is developed when working with the ground cloth which informs the manner the stitching takes. I have used a sewing machine in my practise, but currently a needle and strands of embroidery floss are sufficient. I use the six-strand embroidery flosses available in any craft shop. A thimble, ruler, tape measure, pins and a set of thread snips complete my toolbox.
KA: Tell us about this exhibition—the message, and the pieces in it. How did you create them? Did you start with a full collection in mind?
JSW: As the first object to touch a newborn baby, the blanket offers warmth and reassurance. Long after infancy the blanket continues to be an object associated with wellbeing. We feel its reassuring presence on the bed waking up on a cold morning. We lay it over the kitchen table to create a secret fort. We spread it out on the grass for an impromptu picnic, lying on it in the warmth of the sunshine. We wrap it around the shoulders in a time of distress. We cozy up with it on the sofa on a wintry afternoon. The blanket offers instant sanctuary and refuge, safety and security.
The Security Blanket series explores the concept of security. The security of the home—represented by antique, handmade domestic textiles such as doilies and lace. And the security of the state—represented by eight government-issue military blankets from Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, Switzerland and the United States.
The intricate patterning created by the use of traditional embroidery stitches integrates these two divergent representations of security on both a physical and conceptual level, producing works of visually interesting contrast that provoke the viewer to consider their own relationship to home, comfort, safety and security. As vintage items they also draw one’s attention to the fact that [our current situation] is not the first crisis to be experienced globally.
The series began in 2016. I worked on a blanket piece when I was completing my diploma in contemporary craft at the Ottawa School of Art, but was never satisfied with the piece. It touched on similar themes expressed in Security Blanke but the ideas were never fully realized, so it was always in the back of my mind to revisit the idea and resolve it. I viewed an exhibit of Anna Torma’s Tangled, with Past Tales, and seeing her works, these large dynamic, beautiful, embroidered pieces was so inspiring! After this experience I decided I wanted to work on a large scale, and then the blanket idea resurfaced.
I wanted to create pieces that remained functional but at the same time could be hung on a wall as a piece of art, and that I would do a series. Working in multiples provides an opportunity to create a cohesive body of work where each work can stand alone but is also intrinsically linked to the others. I liken the experience to a musical composer who composes variations on a theme. A certain stitch is worked in a certain way on one yet not on another, but then appears in another piece but in a slightly different form. There is a flow and an interconnectedness between the works.
KA: Was the process for creating these different than previous works or collections?
JSW: The process was the same as with my other works, in that I was inspired by a second-hand textile, but, as mentioned, what was different was the scale. Military blankets, handmade vintage lace and doilies were chosen and arranged in geometric and uniform patterned layouts. Embroidery stitches were limited to functional stitches (again, running, back and blanket) that nonetheless have great decorative potential. The blankets are large, so I realized that this series was going to be a significant commitment of time and energy.
KA: You’d said that some of the pieces were in development before the COVID pandemic started. The issues you raise are universal, and the pieces would have had resonance and relevance before, but now their significance feels sharper. Have the events of the past year changed how you see the pieces, how you feel about them?
JSW: When I began in 2016, I felt that the themes of home and security were very relevant, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made the series even more pertinent and prescient.
KA: Were any of these pieces displayed prior to 2020? I imagine the viewer response will have changed, too?
JSW: This is the first time the blankets have been exhibited, and although the circumstances of the last year have been difficult, I cannot think of a better time for the works to be seen and experienced. I am so pleased that it’s unveiling at the Craft Ontario Gallery. Craft Ontario has been so supportive of my work over the years and for that I am very grateful.
A Guided Video Tour
Featured photo credit Jocelyn Reynolds.
Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She’s authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry’s only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband.