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“Losing the thread”: Alzheimer’s depicted in stitch

Posted in Health & wellbeing, Personal stories/journeys/interviews/tutors’ stories and Textiles & needlework.

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We talk to textile artist Ruth Blackford about losing her mother to Alzheimer’s and how she expresses this and other life experiences through her art work…

'Most of my life I have been immersed in the world of textiles, illustration and embroidery. My mum had been a textile designer and avid embroiderer, so I was brought up in a household full of colour and texture, embroidery and design.  It felt natural to follow in her footsteps and study textiles myself, and later on, illustration. 

Between 1997 and 2009, I watched my intelligent, creative and fun-loving mum gradually slip away to Alzheimer’s disease. 

Two years after her death, the experience started to inform my art work. I wanted to convey the many senses of loss and frightening confusion felt by her during the 12 long years of her illness, and the terrible loss and unfairness felt by us, her family.

The use of textiles and embroidery was apt on many levels; the medium tied in with phrases often applied to people ‘losing the thread’, ‘coming undone’, and ‘unravelling’. Loose stitches and disintegrating fabric conveyed the sense of things ‘falling apart at the seams.'

Later work, entitled “Remind Me Who I Am Again”, is a set of stitched and printed images that incorporate many of my mum’s original 1950’s textile designs including her fashion sketches. Although her illness is represented in this work, most of the images convey her achievements, experiences and passions. The production of this work was cathartic in helping me to remember who she had been, not just what she became. Creating and exhibiting this work has allowed me to share memories of her and celebrate her life.'

It is striking how much Ruth's work demonstrates the importance of art as a medium for expression, and discussion, of often difficult social issues. It is a poignant reminder of how every person’s  life is full of important stories and journeys, and that when difficulties are shared (in whatever form that may take) they often feel ‘lighter’ to carry.

'Other meaningful work has included the theme of worldwide exploitation of textile workers to feed the ever-growing demand for fast fashion – an issue that is close to my heart. I worked in the textiles industry and have witnessed first-hand some of the injustices forced upon employees: unreasonably long shifts, poverty wages, abuse, and appalling conditions. The horrific disaster of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in which over 1,000 textile workers lost their lives prompted me to create a body of work including images made from, the all too easily, discarded clothes, garments and accessories to illustrate and highlight these problems.

There are still many stories to tell around both of these themes and I hope to continue to tell them with images, textiles, print, colour, pattern and texture.

In the last year I have become a celebrant and as well as creating and conducting services that celebrate births and marriages, I tell the stories of the deceased at funerals, how they came to be the people they were and what they were. I hope these stories will also inspire my art in the future.'

Ruth runs a fascinating range of creative workshops from her studio in Surrey, including printing and machine embroidery. Take a look at her upcoming courses. 

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