Usually my creative projects are born in the late hours of the evening or before the house awakes on the weekend, but last month I slipped away for a magical long weekend-retreat run by textiles artist Sally Freshwater, in the unique venue of West Dean College.

West Dean is a foundation focused on arts and conservation and runs a myriad of courses both mainstream and decidedly niche.  Whether you want to learn how to throw a pot or restore an ancient manuscript, you will find your tribe here; a tribe that can be relied upon to prop up the bar once dusk falls and the studios empty, the muse having retired for the day.

Sally’s mission was to teach a handful of us different ways of manipulating textiles – and paper, wood and mesh – into sculptural 3-forms using stitch, glue and folding.  It was immersive, tricksy and wonderful, and we all ended up making completely different things.  Here’s what I brought home with me (challenging the dimensions of my small car, as you’ll see…)

This pebble is not a pebble.  Rather, it’s an old tin hot water bottle that was wrapped in cling film before being covered in muslin – which in turn was dipped in a water-and-white-glue mix to allow it to harden and form a shell.

You can see it taking shape here; the original bottle (used in Victorian times to take the damp chill off your bedsheets), and the shell I cast from it;

which I then removed by carefully slicing around the seam with a craft knife, before stuffing with wool  to help it hold its shape;

…and then using chalk pastels in tones of grey, blue and brown to smudge and scrape colour towards the texture and tones of a shore-beached pebble…

Continuing the over-sized theme, my next exploration was in manipulating cane strands to form a shape I could stretch paper over (the same technique used in lantern-making).  I began without any particular plan in mind, but gradually the tail, fins and frame of a giant fish began to emerge…

The resulting fish – somewhere between a dolphin, whale and salmon – is over 6 feet long and is currently hanging suspended from my art room ceiling, awaiting a good tide.  I’ve no idea what to do with it, but no doubt inspiration will strike.

After the fish, two very much more simple projects; the gratifying work of just an hour…

This sculptural bowl, made by dipping string into wet paper pulp and draping it over a half-inflated balloon.  Once dried it appears frozen in windswept motion, and is currently on the mantlepiece, looking ethereal and strangely beautiful.

And then finally this vase, cut from pieces of wallpaper and machine-stitched into an eight-sided vessel, with classical dressmaking darts giving shape and a finished appearance somewhere between parchment and stone.

The teaching and freedom to experiment was wonderful – and the simple joy of spending two days of unconstrained, uninterrupted time in a studio with a handful of strangers-then-friends as we snipped and stuck and occasionally swore our way through projects big and small was the best thing of all.

And with Christmas just around the corner, I’m wondering which lucky family member might appreciate the gift of a fish.

Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are and whatever you’re upto; we’ll be hiking and autumn-leaf collecting and trying to end the reign of the conker king. 

p.s. more unreal pebbles from the archives, and a first foray into sculptural paper vases.