Primal Patterns, 3

August 24th, 2022

Embroidery or stitchery is primarily decorative mark making with thread on fabric, paper or any other surface that can be pierced by a needle, awl or even a drill – bread, canvas, flower petals and leaves, leather, wood, and more including intact human skin. Interesting and unusual images appear in a wonderful collection of examples on Jo Smith’s Pinterest page , but one artist she hasn’t yet included is Clyde Olliver, whose bold, simple stitching on slate, stone and wood is very dramatic.

I’ve been stitching in one form or another since I was a young girl. As a pre-teen, many of my school friends enjoyed embroidering over stamped designs on linen for doilies, table mats and cloths, tea towels and duchesse sets. In 1950’s Australia this was called ‘fancy work’, but I haven’t heard that term for decades.

Back and front of a doily I embroidered at around age 11; ruefully stained and much used.

As a teen and uni student, any sewing time I had was used to whip up a new dress to wear out to a party the same night, which was easy in the days of those simple A-line dresses worn by Twiggy, Cilla Black, Jackie Kennedy and everyone else younger than our mothers. In the mid 70s, aged around 30, I found time for hand embroidery again, (see glossary entry titled “Our Tent Period’) Fast forwarding ten years put me and my family living in the USA for a few years. There I became immersed in traditional geometric patchwork and quilting for a time, which led to me designing and making abstract art quilts.

Detail, “Window Onto Bougainville Street” 1993,

Although the techniques, colours and materials I now use in my fibre art have changed over time, I still employ the basic primal shapes – the triangles, squares, circles, dots and lines in various forms and combinations which have always fascinated me. Texture and colour are vitally important, of course, but it is the lines forming shapes that I start with. As I wrote in my previous post , my go-to design framework is a grid, which doesn’t necessarily mean the precise squares of a repeated traditional patchwork blocks quilt, but that experience is certainly an enduring influence on my art.

In my first “Primal Patterns” post, I wrote of an interesting article by Alison George in NewScientist, 2016, about the work of paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, who suggested that such basic symbols in rock art and on cave walls were the precursor to human writing: “There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.” An exciting notion indeed.

These basic shapes often appear singly or in groups beside simple pictorial representations of human, animal, bird and fish life forms painted and carved on to rocks or cave walls. In this modern era we easily recognise them as man-made dating from distant pre-historic times. Today we lack the precise knowledge to interpret them, and can only surmise that they present information or share data with other people of that era, and it’s reasonable to think some could convey information about beliefs held by the people who made them.

That New Scientist article included the following diagram, reproduced here with permission from the magazine’s art team:

Reproduced with permission of Dave Johnston/New Scientist.  SOURCE:  Genevieve von Petzinger, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, David Lewis-Williams, Natalie Franklin.

These panels present in diagrammatic form the man-made signs and symbols discovered at sites of ancient human activity in every in every major region of the world. Many bear strong similarity with others in widely separated regions, made by groups of people with little if any known contact between them. However, as our knowledge of early Man expands with fresh discoveries, such assumptions may become invalid. Aside from probably being some primitive communication code, undoubtedly these marks eventually developed into patterning appearing on ancient objects, furniture, houses, people’s bodies and their textiles, and as von Petzinger claims, some of them were forerunners to writing.

The most frequently appearing symbols include: spirals, zig-zags, circles, ellipses, wavy lines, signs that look botanical (like a branch or flower stem) dots in groups or lines, crossed straight lines, upturned arcs, things that look like a tussock of grass or bird footprint (I don’t assign any possible meaning to this comment) the hash # or pound sign, and of course the stencilled hand is very common. I refer to such marks as primal, because people everywhere at any time will come up with them as their brains, eyes and hands holding some kind of marking tool coordinate with certain rhythmic arm actions to make a mark on a surface. A toddler with a crayon or pencil in his hand makes scribbly marks, but as he matures he gradually learns to replicate marks he sees around him, and with encouragement and approval from parents, teachers, siblings et al, the child learns to draw things with meaning that others can understand. Mark making is a very powerful means of communication.

If you google something like “mark making by chimpanzees” there’s plenty of material to keep you reading and researching down that rabbit hole for days! I noticed this recent article about studies into the evolution of drawing behaviour in humans/hominids and apes, and another However, as I have an appointment for to take my own art to be photographed today, I’ll save those articles for reading another time.

Primal Patterns, 2

August 22nd, 2022

In a recent post,, I wrote of my interest in the basic symbols, among them + x and o, that humans anywhere on every continent come up with when mark making on any surface, regardless of cultural background, age and level of education. Here I’ve doodled a cross over a circular shape.

I sketched this idea with a couple of quick notes just to mentally keep hold of it until I had time to play with it, knowing that (1) I wanted to audition sheer fabrics, the half cut word ‘transparency’ reminding me to explore overlapping sheers to create pattern shapes (2) I noted the bronze nylon organza which I used bit in the previous work, of which I still have plenty (3) ?white? referring to potential background fabric, but no, not this time anyway. (4) the words ‘repeat pattern’ and ‘blocks’ signal I was thinking about some kind of grid layout.

But grids are not necessarily rigidly linear and square; they can wobble, be intermittent, and there are different types and shapes. And different sizes of grid can appear on the same piece of work.

There’s a lot to think about just there, and to help me clarify my plans for this work I’ll be looking a bit closer this afternoon at the numerous images on my Pinterest ‘grids’ board

The fabrics are the same pale grey, BUT the centre piece was tea dyed, since I decided I’d prefer a putty coloured fabric rather than grey to go against the beige-off white wall where it might go when it’s done.

Taking just a few minutes each, these small (4cm-7cm) samples were done over a couple of days recently. What they tell me is that I need to follow on with this idea, and that the background probably needs to be stitched and quilted with metallic threads. I do love a bit, or a lot, of glitter! Again, going for the shimmer effect.

I googled “cross shape imposed over circle” and found lots of varied images ranging from religious symbols to those of political and social movements. One of my sisters commented “Bandaids?” when she saw the first of these, and that offers a possible line of thought…. also they suggest some kind of road or rail crossing signs, or maybe whirling helicopter or drone blades! As I began writing this, I was listening to one of the leading scientists on the Webb telescope project that recently began sending fabulous photos from Outer Space, and when I next looked at it I was reminded of those satellites we see pictures of that have ‘arms’ I’m not blessed with engineering or scientific mind, and don’t know my way around a diagram of one of those things, so this is just a general impression.

More cross-over-circle shapes, ~7-8cm across. I didn’t stitch them because I know by now how they’ll look!

Yes, It Took A While, But It’s Finished

August 18th, 2022

Today I made and attached three hanging sleeves to the backs of quilts.

After almost two months working on this first piece, today I finished it off by attaching the hanging sleeve. I’m still mulling over the title – Concentric Squares isn’t interesting enough… though at this point I’m wondering if the squares themselves aren’t very interesting, either… Nah… I’ve just been too close to them for too long!! I know I’ll feel a bit differently when I’ve stopped looking at it every day for a while.

At the start of the hand quilting process, and by sheer luck I had a thread in my stash that 100% matched the grey background fabric.
I edged it with a binding of the same not-quite-white nylon organza I used in the outer row of squares. As a binding it was was a bit fiddly since it almost frayed just when I looked at it – nevertheless, was worth the effort, and it’s a good photo of the nice shiny binding, I’m sorry I couldn’t get the clarity of the stitchery but I’m sure Eduardo’s photos will be spot on. Very soon.

The next was for this one, Caribbean Crush, finished a couple of months ago, though as my works hang on the wall they really aren’t finished until the sleeve is on the back… but I was needing a change of activity and itching to start work on the next 🙂

Caribbean Crush” shown here in the process of having a border row added. I then added a backing before doing some minimal quilting and applying a facing.

And the third sleeve was a replacement one for “Slideshow”, which needs to be shipped soon to SAQA for inclusion in its exhibition at the 2022 SOFA Chicago expo I’d snipped a couple of holes in the sleeve to have it fit over hardware already in the wall where I hung it in our house until recently – so sporting a new sleeve it’s more fit to be seen.

“Slideshow” 2015 ~100cmh x 125cm

Primal Patterns

August 8th, 2022

I have always used the term primal patterns to cover those most basic human instinct driven marks that alone or combined make up patterns or tell stories. So in thinking about my long love of squares inside other squares, I googled to see if ‘primal patterns’ is a thing… and found myself in the world of serious body shaping gymnasiums and fitness, so quickly backed out of there!

My next move was to squares, and I found myself closer to where I expected to be, in amongst the most basic shapes I was looking for – circle, square, triangle and rectangle, to which I’d add the line and the point.

Googling on to prehistoric mark making symbols, I came across a really interesting, fabulous article in NewScientist, 2016, about the work of paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, suggesting that coding within rock art on cave walls could be the precursor to human writing. The earliest known human writing comes from the middle east, in what is now Iraq: “The first formal writing system that we know of is the 5000-year-old cuneiform script of the ancient city of Uruk in what is now Iraq. But it and other systems like it – such as Egyptian hieroglyphs – are complex and didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.” Totally believable and thought provoking.

Because they are found in prehistoric markings on rocks and cave walls on every continent, I’ve always believed that any human, no matter how young, when given a surface and a marking tool will doodle with it and eventually come up with these basic shapes, no matter which culture they’re growing up in; and even if we can’t assign any known meaning or symbolism to ancient marks on objects and surfaces in the landscape, we certainly recognise them as made by a distant human being. Note to self – keep a closer eye on the latest news in the world of paleo-anthropology…

I regularly browse in Pinterest, and there one of my collection boards is ”lines and shapes”. Recently I came upon an image of rows of different hand drawn lines and shapes, of the kind I and countless others have often assembled, doodling basic shapes, making patterns and arranging them in rows. Though I can’t relocate that particular image right now, it carried a stern warning that this was original work and was not to be used without specific permission. It is somewhere on a site called The Pattern Base Archive which is a pattern file you can subscribe to, file your own patterns and access someone else’s pattern. Tags on the post included pattern, drawing, doodle, cubes, strips, blocks, and more could have been added like snakes, waves, concentric circles, dots, overlapping arcs, latticework, chevron stripes, zigzags, waves, hexagons… I thought the admonition a bit silly really, but, having once been hit by Getty Images there is no way I’d use that image here without permission! It took me just a couple of minutes doodling to produce this little snippet –

There’s nothing particularly ‘original’ about arranging these and other basic shapes in lines, and many of us use this kind of pattern making in our textile art.

I’m nearing the end of a current project featuring hand appliqued concentric squares, and they’re pretty primal. I’ve been thinking more about squares and grids, fusing, and hand applique, and this morning I googled around and jotted down a few notes of possible directions to explore, like x o +

I also think it could be interesting to work on, develop, or adopt something as a new, highly personal symbol for something only I know know about, and make it a kind of signature element in my art.

This One’s Going To Take A While, Continued…

July 27th, 2022

I posted the previous article on this project just a little over a month ago, June 22nd. Though I’m putting as much time in as possible, it is taking at least as long as I thought it would. I did estimate the number of concentric square units wrongly, but essentially 11 rows of 11 units works out at 121, so I must have just transposed figures, which I do tend to do a little – but didn’t realise until I put the whole thing up on the design wall today and understood why I was finding I had a few more than I expected to finish in the outer row.

Now that the whole design is almost finished, and I feel the ‘brown’ ones, of deeper gold shimmering sheer fabric strips overstitched with copper thread, are coming up just a bit too dark.

I have few options –

  • do nothing – see upper left
  • unpick some copper thread and sew over the fabric strips in gold thread – see right of of this pic.
  • add some gold stitches in amongst the copper stitches to lighten those units a bit – the central of the right square, and the fight side of that square.

It was evening when I finished doing this sample square, and in the night light it didn’t seem to make enough difference to justify the amount of extra work to change all the coppery blocks. However I’ve left it pinned to the design wall and will make a final decision when I see it in the morning light.

I have just 5 blocks of the outer row to finish.

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