In An English Country Garden (Finder’s Keeper’s).

Like my last post, this serves as a transcript to the video I posted presenting this work, for those that prefer to read. I include the video at the end of this post.

I’m going to take you on a journey to ancient Egypt so stick around if that interests you.

The story goes that in 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging at Beni Hassan in Egypt, about 100 miles from Cairo, found what was described as a ‘seam of cats’. By some accounts he fell into a hole, into which eventually some 2-300,000 cats had been packed. A contemporary account is as follows:

“the plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see but one had to stand well windward. The village children came from day-to-day providing themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. They took them down the riverbank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travelers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cat skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar.”

The vast majority of these remains were eventually sold by weight and in 1890 a shipment reached Liverpool where they were sold at auction for £3, 13 shillings and 9 pence per tonne, ground up and spread on English fields as fertilizer. In a questionable attempt at humour, the auctioneer used a Beni Hassan cat skull as his auction hammer.

So there’s a lot to unpack here!

First of all to give some historical context about the cats themselves. Beni Hassan was one of many ancient Egyptian cemetery sites, and the reason for the vast quantity of cat mummies is that, as you probably know, cats were considered in possession of a divine energy, and the Goddess Bastet was an important deity until the rise of Christianity. Cats were one of several animals routinely sacrificed by pilgrims to the Gods for divine blessings, in fact at the Bubastis Temple to Bastet there is a 5th century BC account from Herodotus describing an annual festival there attended by several thousand pilgrims. The pilgrim would pay the priest to sacrifice the cat, mummify it, and place it in the catacomb as a way of obtaining good standing. Later Bastet became associated with Isis, who’s obviously a very significant Goddess, and it’s during this time that it’s believed cats were systematically bred to be killed and mummified as sacrifices to the Gods. Killing a cat in ‘normal’ circumstances, however was still considered a heinous crime, and there are accounts of outraged Egyptians lynching occupying Romans for killing them.

I first heard that story a few years ago and it so perfectly for me represented the intersection of a lot of things that are currently in my work, to do with divinity of animals, beliefs around spirituality with animals, how we memorialise them, and then latterly it really spoke to something that’s becoming more and more important to me to critique in my work which is colonial attitudes. But I wasn’t adequately able until now to come up with an appropriate response.

I’m going to go through the layers of the depth of the meaning of this piece and what I’ve tried to include in it.  We cannot interpret ancient animal cults of ancient times within a framework of 21st century sensibilities and it’s not my intention to criticise another culture’s historical practices or attitudes. Rather it became very important to me to use this piece to turn the lens more on Britain’s Imperial practices both in history and today.

The first aim for me was to use this piece to memorialize the cat and cats themselves, the lives of these animals used as sacrificial objects and the subsequent treatment of their remains as actual shit used on a field in England thousands of miles away from where they’re from. If you’ve been following this piece on instagram, you might have seen a post a while back that I did where I took the flowers and did a mini performance of laying them on the grave around the body of the cat, and I wrote a poem which I’ll include here.

You were a prayer
A promise
A god
Exalted
A life
A victim.

You are dust
Low
Theft
Wealth
Far from home
Interrupted
Awakened
And trodden

I remember you.

The intersection of divine and sacred with memorialising animals is something that’s very central to my work so my gut response when I heard the story was quite complex for me to unpick those different levels.

Egypt was occupied by Britain at the time this took place and Egypt and the artistic style was very fashionable in Victorian Britain. The British Empire was extremely powerful and wealthy globally.

One aim of this piece is to present a wider critique of African treasure stolen and looted by colonial forces. In this piece I’ve used the golden collar and the rings to symbolise the material wealth stolen from colonized land, where the cat is symbolising the spiritual cost. The collar and the rings are based on a statue of Bastet that I’ve seen in the British Museum several times, and a large part of the research around this piece became about repatriation of antiquities. I learnt that approximately 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage lies outside of the Continent.

So the question was raised for me – why is it that the argument defending keeping art and cultural artifacts outside of their culture of origin often rests on the assumption that more people are able to visit the ‘Great Museums’ of Europe or the United States. But why are those country’s institutions more visited and by whom?

I realise you may ask what this has to do with a dead ancient cat ground up for fertilizer but stay with me.

It’s relevant because the countries housing these diverse global collections largely are, or were, colonial powers, and their wealth and therefore power-over and ability to take and keep these items comes from oppressing and weakening these countries, either in the past or still today. 

As Britain grew wealthy by exploiting her colonies, greater personal wealth and therefore leisuretime for the new middle and upper classes was created. A highly popular pastime was needlepoint and cross stitch (also made possible because of the increased availability of cotton from plantations). I chose to include these cross stitch floral motifs as this cat’s grave offering to connect the dots of colonial wealth and the reference to the mummies being fertilizer – literally making rich England’s land. I imagine these flowers growing from the bodies of these prayers – which these animals were. 

During this era, flower language – the romantic Victorian practice of using flowers to send a message, individual flowers representing love or devotion or whatever – was hugely popular. I looked up some of these correspondences and chose these specific flowers with the following meanings.

Nasturtium which represents patriotism and conquest; 

Marigold for grief, despair and sacrifice;

Rose but specifically a dark rose represents death and yearning;

Sage which represents salvation and virtue;

Tansy for hostility and immortality.

Everything those flowers represent is what this piece is about for me.

What is it about for you?

Ritual Burials: Fox

Ritual Burials: Fox

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Despite being a worldwide character in folklore, there’s not that much plant lore associated with Fox, except the obvious Foxglove. I have avoided making a foxglove for a long time.

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With a bit of diligent research, Holly seemed an appropriate partner. I will explain.

But first:

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Thanks you, my nails are fabulous.

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Bought some new bits for this one. Didn’t want to do two velvets for the leaves so tried out 21st Century Yarn’s space dyed cotton for the holly leaves and this lovely chartreuse velvet for the foxglove leaves.

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FYI Holly leaves were supremely tricky to make convincing shapes out of wire.

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It’s another game of spot the fake berries (hint: they all are).

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Isn’t that just festive.

Next for something completely different.

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Now to my nemesis.

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Honestly this was probably the trickiest thing I’ve ever done and it isn’t even stitched down yet. Trying to figure what shape made the little cones sounds easy (sort of semi circle right?) but I was trimming these bastards for ages.

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As you can see there’s some french knots going on and other little flourishes to make them more foxglovey. I still felt a bit meh about them. I still do about the piece generally to be honest.

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\ \ K N O W I N G / /

In all traditional or pagan cultures, there exists Fox mythology. Although it varies over the world, the prevailing character of the fox is adaptability and duality: a survivor. In Japan there are two kinds of foxes depicted in folklore. The cunning, shape-shifting witch-animal trickster, and the intelligent long lived bringer of good fortune with magical abilities.
Fox is graceful and wise, knowing when to be silent and when to reveal herself. The word cunning, meaning sly and crafty, and the word kenning meaning to know or to see, come from the same Old English root. So although Fox appears sly, in fact she is knowing and in possession of clear vision. Our ancestors recognised the fox’s quality as positive rather than negative, and prized him as sacred. Many Neolithic and iron age ritual burial sites contained Fox remains, along with Deer and Bear.
Fox is wildness and wilderness. Fox is nocturnal.
Like Wolf, Fox is also associated with transformation. Scavengers, they have the ability to turn what they have into what they need. It’s transformative properties also brings the symbolic fire. The Fox-fire, or ghost-fire is said to come from the magical pearl carried in its head. The rune Nauthiz represents this here, the ‘cosmic need-fire’, and the shadow self.
Foxglove has the power to heal or harm. Legend has it foxes wore the flowers on their paws to stay silent when raiding the chicken coop. Representing the duality of Fox, an old saying is “it can raise the dead or kill the living”.
Also associated with fire and protection (in this context, concealment) is holly. In Celtic mythology the Holly king rules winter, and in this composition you can see the bright foxglove thriving in spring and summer, and the dark holly winter – the Fox adapts and survives throughout. 

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Ritual Burials: Wildcat

Ritual Burials: Wildcat

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It’s funny writing these blog posts after I’ve finished the series as I’m thinking back to how I felt starting each one and there was a certain amount of trepidation for each I think.

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I had big plans for this one. I knew what plants I wanted to do and how to do them but could see it being a big-ish project.

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First do the bones.

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Longwinded but necessary foundations. Foundations is all.

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I filled these with just pretty free flowing stitch.

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Hairy stems.

Now on to something I’ve wanted to try for ages.

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It’s not an octopus.

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People went NUTS for this on Instagram. Most liked pic ever.

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I lie, this was the most liked. I figured out how to do this just by looking at pictures of similar designs, and pictures of real thistles. Make a tassle, couch over the base of it, then embroider decorations over (I used a sort of crewel stitch here), then trim the ends and separate the strands.

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Then I added the leaves and a few flourishes and there we have it. Scottish thistle.

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I made a deal with myself that if I fill leaves with embroidery I can ‘cheat’ using velvet as the base of my detached slips on the next lot. I love this velvet so much.

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Next, more fun.

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These were quite tricky and I definitely didn’t make them perfectly. There are holes. But I still wished I had some real blackberries so I could play spot the glass ones and show off.

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Back to this, add some thorns. You can see where this is going.

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Lush.

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\ \ B O U N D A R I E S / /

All Cats are sacred to the goddess in druid tradition, but the most powerful connection is in the Scottish Wildcat, now only found in the highland wilderness.
Cat teaches us respect and caution. She will accept our affection only on her terms. Cat is proud, independent and capable of observing both this world and the next. As an animal clearly in contact with the spirit world, and an ideal ally for witches, fear of their powers have made them victims of persecution throughout history.
In this Ritual Burial we see Cat surrounded by brambles, and the prickly Scottish thistle representing strong boundaries. Blackberries gathered under the right moon were believed to give protection against evil runes. Like the Cat, these plants, both ancient, require respect and caution for safe handling. Finally, the rune Thurisaz is shown, itself depicting a thorny vine that provides defence against invaders, and symbolises protection and defence.

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Ritual Burials: Stag

Ritual Burials: Stag

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A couple of years ago there was a bit of a trend for Stag/Deer type stuff. Do you remember? I absolutely adore stag and deer and think they are truly magical. But whenever things get popular it does put me off a bit. Silly really. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this piece.

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Have I told you that the outlines of these ghosts are glow in the dark? I haven’t figured out how to photograph them but it’ll be a nice treat for whoever ends up buying them.

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Lot of instant gratification with this one. As soon as I cut the trees out of felt and tacked them down you could see the scene.

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I was kind of amazed how much attention this pic got when I posted it on Instagram. Just that nice smooth satin stitch. I almost felt bad not leaving them like that.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Birch trees are the tree spirit’s gift to embroiderers. It’s just so easy to make them look great.

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If you plough through my archives, or just go to my home page actually and scroll down a little bit you’ll see a miniature of this scene I made back in 2013, and I saw every reason to replicate the techniques I used then, albeit in cotton this time.

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Imagine how hard and annoying it would be to attempt to embroider all the leaves another way. Also French knots are so fun. Also didn’t even have to change colours as my fave variegated perle cotton from 21st Century Yarns does the trick for me.

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Canopy made, it was back to my metal thread work for a new moon.

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And an imperfect silver chalice.

At this point I was going to add Hawthorn leaves and flowers stumpwork at the foot of the trees, but I was quite afraid I’d be gilding the lily, so left things well alone. It loses none of the symbolism, and makes for a short post. You’re welcome.

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D I V I N E / M E S S E N G E R
According to Welsh tradition, the Stag is one of the 5 oldest animals in the world. A guide from the beginning of time that takes us deeper into the underworld. The Lord of the Animals, Stag is a divine messenger and can go between our world and others. Journeys with Stag are also about purification, represented by the gateway of birch trees, used for millennia to drive out impurities and provide guardianship. New beginnings are also represented by the new moon. Finally this ritual burial also contains a silver chalice, a magical cup representing offered and received knowledge. Both these silver motifs are also symbolic of the Goddess, to which the Stag is also wedded as the Horned God.

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Ritual Burials: Otter

Ritual Burials: Otter

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I wasn’t feeling all that enthusiastic about the next 5 Ritual Burial pieces at this point. I was half way through and I basically couldn’t choose so I threw it out to my Instagram followers to do it for me. Otter was voted for. Social media can be a wonderful thing.

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At the design phase I had struggled a bit with the composition. Undoubtedly Otter is one of the significant animals of the Druids but I couldn’t immediately find plants or symbols that went with him. In the end it was the strong connection to water, and all that element’s strong symbolism that led me to ferns as the flanking magical plants.

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I was really excited to embroider a fern. They are probably my second favourite flora after mushrooms. I began with marking out the shape in tacking and couching a gradually thinning cord to make the spine of a classic Fiddlehead fern.

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 I knew I wanted to experiment with decorative stitches for the leaves so had a little practice first.

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I think this stitch is aptly named ‘fern stitch’. I am a bit obsessed with the fractal nature of ferns. It’s a leaf on a leaf on a leaf.

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I used a lovely variegated thread for this.

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It couldn’t be a fern without a little furl so I followed the same method to make a curly wurly next to it.

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I didn’t actually take a photo of the little detached picots I used to make the leaves for this bit, but there’s a video on my Instagram.

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OK, so next things got weird. I did hesitate slightly with this fern, the quite rare Moonwort fern. It is so odd, so unlike ferns that I both loved it and worried it would just look weird in the composition. Great! I decided, and made these leaves out of velvet.

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I’ll show you a photo of the real thing in a minute, if you’ve never seen one before. They look just like this but you be the judge. Like before I couched down some cord. I also got super excited to use beads for its little, well I suppose you’d call them pods. I pinned them in place first to make sure I was happy, then I stitched them all down.

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Here you are:

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So weird huh? Botrychium lunaria is one of the strangest, rarest and most ancient ferns. I want to fill my garden with them.

Moonwort was believed to have a strong effect on metal: it was once believed that it could unlock a door if inserted in a keyhole, and draw nails from the shoes of any horse that trod in it.

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Look there’s the little leaves made from detached woven picots on the first fern.

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Made a little leaf to add to the Moonwort.

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So that’s the ferns done. Next Otter needs his magical jewel of power, so I stuck it on with fabric glue. But I mucked it up so had to add some french knots to hide the glue splodge.

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Worked out though didn’t it? Looks nice.

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Here it is, and I added the elemental symbol for water and also the rune Wunjo.

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//O T T E R \\

The Otter stands for joy, playfulness, and helpfulness. The cubs stay longer with their parents than most other animals and when an otter dies, it’s mate will mourn for a long time. Because of this Otter also represents family, and bonds. Incredibly magical, the Otter is at home with elements of both water and earth, represented here by ferns. Dryopteris Felix mas, the male fern, and Botrychium lunaria, the Moonwort fern, representing the female, lunar element. Ferns are prehistoric, ancient plants and synonymous with the earth and water, healing and magic. Like the Toad, Fox, and Snake, the Otter is said to carry a secret power object – a magical jewel within its head. Otter is also shown with the elemental symbol for water and the rune Wunjo, representing joy, pleasure, and kinship with those the same.

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