The Invitation of the City

Donald Trump called Brussels “a hellhole” and Belgium “a beautiful city”. Twice wrong, Mr Presidential Candidate.

Of course there are problems in Brussels, as there are everywhere. But it is a beautiful city. Blaming the lack of assimilation of the Muslim population as Trump did, is miscasting the issue. Essentially this is about the fate of multiculturalism for us all, or to put it more simply: how do we see the contemporary city and how does – can it relate to the good life?  

Overall Flemish people prefer to live in a village or in suburbia. Historically this was stimulated by the 19th-century governments which were predominantly catholic and which feared the socialist influences of the city: they supported more rural communities with initiatives such as cheap train tickets. Flanders thus has a tradition of commuting to work and of living a long distance from it (as far as that is possible in Belgium). Hence significant traffic problems which seem to worsen every month. More broadly the so-called ribbon development (a textile reference by the way) causes problems which will only increase in the near future: it tests the environment obviously but also public services that are already strained such as the post, buses and energy distribution. The Flemish Master Builder Leo Van Broeck therefore calls for a ‘condensation’ of our living together.

Perhaps what’s needed above all is that Flemish people get to love the city. Many of them work in Brussels but they commute in and out: they don’t know the city very well. Maybe they got lost once too often, both literally and linguistically, with Dutch being rarely spoken. Or perhaps they associate it with the complicated politics of Belgium and more generally, with problems that are seen as typically urban. Brussels is decidedly multicultural. And that unmistakenly adds to the unease. After the terrorist attacks of March 22 Brussels held an international campaign  #CallBrussels to convince foreign tourists to come to the capital of Europe. Why not organise such a campaign for the Flemish as well?

I was/am lucky: my family often went to Brussels and I associate it with culture, history and art, with good food, fun and discovering interesting and exciting things. Brussels is a great place for exploration. So let me try and share some of my enthousiasm with you. I’m leaving out the standard tourist attractions, delightful though they are. It’s both a humble and a more ambitious tour I’m suggesting. Ambitious because I hope to show how the city invites us to reflect upon some of the components of the good urban life, humble because it’s based on what I encountered on an ‘ordinary’ day in Brussels in terms of colours and fabrics. The day was not so ordinary though: I spent my recent birthday in Brussels ;-).

I found the city most welcoming to my purposes: already at my arrival in the Central Station of Brussels, enormous socks (introducing ‘Atelier Veritas’ of the eponymous chain which sells among others craft materials) promised me a rich textile harvest.

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By the way, the men in green (right) were part of yet another day of action against
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the government plans about ‘adaptable’ work which I mentioned in my last post.
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The city supported my festive mood.

The day was truly festive: I followed a rich trail of secondhand and vintage shops where I found a few really nice pieces to add to my wardrobe and to start dreaming up new box installations and other craft projects. I also visited the Vossenplein, literally the Square of the Fox but in French called the Place du Jeu de balle. This is part of the charm of Brussels: why use literal translations when with two appelations you can refer to the complexity of history? In this case it was the metal factory Usine du Renard that is reflected in the Dutch name, the square that came in its place was reserved au jeu et à la récréation (to games and recreation) and included a trail for kaatsen or jeu de balle, a ball game which resembles the Basque pelota.  

vossenplein4vossenplein3Every day the Vossenplein holds a market which is a delight for treasure hunters like me, with all sorts of objects and trinkets, it seems you can find anything in any material you may want. Some patience and persistence are necessary for there is little order in the amazing offer. And haggling is part of the fun! 

 

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Textile work in an art gallery close to the Vossenplein.
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Street art, emphasised by the contrasting colour of street machinery.
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A yarn bobbin used to set off beautiful jewelry.

I also enjoyed being surprised by textiles and colour virtually around every corner. 

 

Even on the street floor colour is omnipresent, like in these tiles which I found all over the city. They must be part of a series, inserted in the streets as part of a particular project? I don’t know but they’re fun.

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street-craftNear the Vossenplein I found an intriguing book on Street Craft. On a terrace nearby I started leafing through the book and realised I had given myself a great birthday present! Just before my coffee break I had taken photographs of glass containers which featured historical figures in elaborate attire: were they meant to promote selective waste disposal? And then I discovered in the book a similar project in Berlin which aims to embellish ugly everyday objects in order to make people smile.

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Metalheads (2007) by Mentalgassi, a Berlin collective which regards the city as its playing ground.

 

 

 

 


img_1086I found another historical figure, in a window of a building for rent. Is it really the case that people find such images attractive to the point that they can be encouraged to take action? How intriguing!      

I was now set on finding more examples of urban (textile) art which according to the book aims to reinvent the public space. The environment is very much part of the creations that want to embellish the city at the same time as engaging the community of ‘ordinary’ passers by into claiming that public space.

Street craft invites curiosity and engagement.

What to think of this car for instance? It seemed it was parked in its drab Brussels street, simply to add wonder and fun to it.

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Indeed, why not use the back of a car to add colour to the street?
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Of course the front seats can’t stay behind. And the crown on the work:
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a dashboard full of animals & flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

To my delight I also came across urban crochet. This type of street craft, often called yarnbombing, covers buildings, trees, bike racks, statues and much more in crochet or knitting. It’s guerilla action primarily aimed at eliciting a smile from the unexpecting passer by. The creations are by definition temporary: they endure the effects of wind and rain.

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Yarnbombing
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in Brussels.

And they depend on the goodwill of the public to extend their ephemeral existence for as long as possible. Yarnbombing is a new phenomenon that arose in the new millenium. And it can be found everywhere.

 

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Crocheted circles on the bridge of 
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the Amsterdam Eye.
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The yarnbombing of this bus in London took Knitta Please 4 days and a tón of yarn.

 

 

 

 

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a street sculpture by Ishknits in Oakland.
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Steps in Helsinki and

Yarnbombing is fun. It transforms existing street furniture into colourful statements that indeed make you smile.  But there’s much more to it. Not surprisingly the creators of textile street craft are mostly women, extending their traditionally intimate sphere into the streets. Often working in collectives such as Knitta Please, Craftivist Collective or Ishknits, these women reinterprete domestic techniques by playing with subject, context and proportions. And the reinterpretation is often gender inspired. Not only has street art, long dominated by graffiti, tended to be very male, the public space itself carries a masculine culture. To encourage people then to reconsider their daily environment is to open the possibility of reinterpreting its gender stereotypes. And much broader, street art invites us to reimagine a more inclusive public and community life.

The street art of women such as Olek or Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective wants to contribute to the public debate. The visual impact and the immediate character of their creations encourage the public to think, to question, to participate. The Polish born, New York based artist Olek wants to bring colour and life, energy and surprise to the public space. But she immediately acknowledges that for many, especially living in the city, life is not easy. With the old fashioned crochet technique she often uses she represents both the complexity and the interconnectedness of modern times. And she insists on strong public messages about large political themes such as the bank crisis, climate change or the condition of freedom. By thus ‘invading’ the public space she hopes to get people out of their comfort zone into a more activist stance.

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‘I’m Still Proud to Say What I Do for a Living’.
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A yarn call for environmental awareness.
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‘There is no such thing as part freedom’.

 

Liverpool based Sarah Corbett also addresses the ambiguities of modern life. She wants “to make people stronger and to encourage them to use their talents and possibilities to become part of the solution rather than of the problem.” It’s safe to assume that she defines “the problem” rather differently from Donald Trump. But it’s equally city related and it includes the many forms of social injustice – or the question of the quality of collective life. Corbett uses cross-stitch because in true craft tradition, she likes the fact that it gives her time to think. And what she thinks about is what people may need to feel more at home in the city. Her suggestions, spread throughout the city in the form of gentle cross-stitched messages, focus on agency: it’s passively undergoing change that hurts people and makes them feel like a refugee in their own city. Corbett wants to reach out to people and empower them to help change the world, one stitch at the time. 

Corbett shows how craft can be the tool for positive activism: because it’s naturally slow and quiet, it allows the crafter to reflect deeply upon the issues he or she wants to address. And when craftivism shows itself in the city, it invites conversation. Passers by often respond spontaneously: they feel the invitation is safe and respectful. And it works! Lots of people feel empowered and they join in, whether it’s through stitching themselves or spreading the messages via social media. Corbett now trains people into “gentle activism” that is encouraging and hopeful. At the heart of Craftivism is the belief that even humble actions can be transformative. The transformation will be slow, in the way that crafting is. Yet as the confidence in our own agency grows stronger, it can more effectively affect the public world that is indeed complex.

Or how an exploratory tour through Brussels sparks reflection upon what the good (urban) life may consist of. And what it may require from us. I can’t wait to see an explosion of craft messages in all our streets. 

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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

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My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

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How exciting can shoes get?

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And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

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Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
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Taste, and:
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‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

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Details of a Madonna lily,
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a pilgrim’s
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cloak,
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and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

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In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
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A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

Watch Your Pockets

Now here’s a provocative thought: emancipation is not always a good thing. I’m sure lots of people have interesting thoughts on that – and I will be glad to hear them!, but here I want to concentrate on the somewhat quirky subject of emancipation & fashion.

I hear male friends complain that male fashion is so boring and I think they are right. Of course, if you have loads of money to spend, thus can buy designer clothes, then it becomes interesting again. But with a ‘normal’ budget, the choice seems limited to casual (think jeans & T-shirt or at best an unusual shirt) and business (boring suit, mostly black, navy or dark grey). Intriguingly this wasn’t always the case: male fashion in the past was magnificent, with amazing fabrics, luxurious embroidery, exquisite details and glorious high heels for instance.

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French waistcoat of embroidered velvet & silk, 1780s-1790s.
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English shoes for men (ca. 1650-1670)

 

 

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This statue of the philosopher Montaigne (16th century) in Paris illustrates that men indeed wore heeled, elaborate shoes.

I’m – alas – not a fashion historian but it seems obvious that in the vestimentary department men did not do well in terms of progress. 

 

 

 

 

 

For women too the evolution is not entirely positive. I happily concede that my sartorial taste may be somewhat idiosyncratic but I adore the wonderful stuff that is to be found in the fashion collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris) or the MoMu (Antwerp). These are dresses for ladies of standing: the clothing equally stands out.

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A bright red crinoline, seen in the Costume & Lace Museum (Brussels)

In the exhibition Fashion Forward the Musée des Arts Décoratifs shows three centuries of outstanding clothes, including an intriguing video about how many people were involved in putting on a crinoline.

The conclusion is simple: these are impossible clothes, unless you have a serious number of servants at your beck and call. 

Now there is an essential part of the story that’s gone awry. Not so much in the sense that most of us don’t have servants at all, let alone a whole battalion. But that fashion designers have not taken the consequences of that absence into account:

Interesting female clothes don’t have pockets.

So why is that? Well, because the women who in the past wore beautiful clothes, did not need pockets. Perhaps the company of servants was meant to compensate, for they had no money or keys of their own (too much responsibility surely), no pocket watch to keep track of time (someone else did that for them too) – hence no pockets, obvious.

And fashion designers have not adapted to the ‘new’ circumstances of female life: often dresses, skirts, even trousers still don’t have pockets. Perhaps you think now: but the handbag surely solves that problem? True, but they’re not really practical, are they? If they have any volume, you never find anything in them and become the target of endless jokes. Also, do you really want to walk around the office or your home with a handbag? Some years ago, some fun was made of the then queen of Belgium, Paola, who was spotted taking a leisurely stroll in her own garden surrounded by her children and grandchildren – and earnestly hanging on to her handbag. That doesn’t really set an example for us, mere mortals, does it? There is of course the clutch, but think reception for instance: what do you do when offered a glass of bubbles plùs an amuse-gueule? Clutch the clutch under your arm? It’s not particularly elegant, there is the constant danger of dropping everything (clutch, glass, food) at once, in short: horror.

I’m curious to know how you solve this ‘problem’. For I seem to have collected a garderobe which is almost entirely pocketless. And no, I don’t want to carry my keys or money around the house or the office. But a handkerchief comes in handy at times, as does lip gloss or lipstick – hence also a small pocket mirror. In addition, I like my iPod nearby and, of course, a pocket watch.

Thus confronted with no pockets in my dresses, skirts and trousers, I came up with a sort of ‘portable pocket’ – and then another and one more. Remember colour fundamentalism rules 😉

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Occasionally I start from an existing bag,

 

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here I added lace plus a laminated photo of a lace fan which I sew unto the bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started with felt bags, probably because it was Winter then, in Summer I moved onto fabrics.  Initially they were all designed to be worn with a (matching) belt, later I realised some dresses don’t accommodate a belt easily, so I made other ‘portable pockets’ which can be worn over one shoulder.

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Two more adventurous shapes, right with what once embellished church clothing.
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These are recycled old ties, the pocket watch sits under blue lace (left), under the felt patch embroidered with pearls (right).

 

 

 

 

 

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I tried a little cross-stitching here, seriously underestimating the time it took to fill the blue background.

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A dear friend can’t really function without her iPhone very closeby. And thanks to Apple’s policy to keep changing its format (and the friend’s boss who thinks people are not taken seriously if they do not have the latest model), I’m running a little side-business to satisfy her needs. Meanwhile the bag doesn’t only contain her iPhone but it also has two separate pockets for pay and business cards.  What more varieties can you suggest?

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The blue leather is fish skin, brought back from Iceland.
The blue ‘leather’ above is fish skin, brought back from Iceland. The bags on the right have three zips.

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