The Joy of the Butcher Bird’s Whistle

Like many suburban Brisbanites, we have a family of Australian butcher birds hanging out in the back garden. Periodically, when the chicks are young, they become very tame around lunchtime and are willing to pick food held in our hands – or indeed steal it from the table on the deck!

Buther birds have a lovely song, and I agree with someone I heard say: Buther birds seem to sing for no reason other than joy. This is one reason I love the butcher bird, with its rather unflattering name – it seems to understand what joy can bring to an otherwise brutal world.

My first attempt at lino cutting printing involved a butcher bird (or perhaps it was initially a magpie). I cut the vinyl to expose an outline, hood, wing and tail – reaching its beak up to sing its joyful whistling song. I printed a few cards, but abandoned the project. It was simply not that good.

I was looking for a new motive for screen printing for a new garment design, when I remembered and pulled out the butcher bird. It seemed an ideal design for screen printing, with its clear lines. So I re-drew the outline bird on transparant paper and exposed a screen.

It worked well, but the fabric I wanted to print was deep orange, rather than white, which would not work for the black outline – it would make the bird look black and orange, not black and white.

So I created another screen for the white beak, eye and body of the bird, and voila, a new bird came to life.

One of the key issues I face in exposing screens is that I cannot seem to get the template black enough, and I either underexpose so the emulsion washes out or I overexpose so the template outline fails to wash out. This time I tried using Uni Posca pens that you use to draw on metal, stone and ceramics. I did not have a black Posca pen, and found red more successful than blue, which I had to double up with black Sharpie on the back to avoid gaps. What is your tip for creating the best templates for screen printing?

Fairy Wrens

I delight in seeing the small native birds in their natural environment. I have learnt to hear the shrill whistle of the wrens long before I spot them in the low grasses and shrubs. First the flicker of brilliant blues or scarlet reds of the male before spotting the less conspicious buff and brown of the females and juveniles. When we lived in Bunya, they had moved into the scrub by the pond, together with finches. Here on the flat lands we see them in the tall grasses by Kedron Brook.

Once I had mastered screen printing two colours for the Ibis, I was keen to try to more complex motifs. After the superb fairy wren stole the limelight as the Guardian’s 2021 Australian bird of the year, I chose its showy cousin, the varigated fairy wren which seems to be more frequently spotted in South East Queensland. Matching the male’s four colours was certainly challenging without a jig, but not impossible, though I probably made it harder by exposing all of the design elements on the same screen. I printed one colour at the time, in the right order so the black eye would show over the blue. Once the screen was dry again, I matched the next element onto the previous print as best I could through the screen. It is fair to say there was a fair bit of slippage, but the result was satisfactory.

Not one for resting on my laurels, when it came to the female wren, I chose to print her with five colours, adding the green of the grass she would sit on. Again, complicated by all of the design elements on one screen.

But the colours were not right. She was much too yellow and without a Permaset buff on hand, I ended up mixing my own brown from cheap Chromacryl colours and textile medium; thankfully it has not washed out and I am quite happy with the final result. She goes well with her partner on the top I sewed. I used a teal blue Vintage Finish Linen from The Fabric Store by modifying the Tilly and the Buttons Coco dress pattern. Another learning: This match was when a pattern calls for a jersey fabric, a rigid linen may not be the best choice! I had to narrow the seam of the arms, and I actually quite like the result.

But these birds were capable of more. I used the Simple Sew The Raglan Dress pattern to create a dress from yellow Vintage Finish Linen, again from The Fabric Store. I modified the neckline and back so I did not yet have to try my hand at a concealed zipper in the back. I love the wide sleeves of this pattern, and added a baby wren cartoon design, cutely cuddling together on a perch, to the end of the sleeve to shift it up a bit.

Baby wren cartoon design and insignia

With the mask mandate returning in December 2021, I created matching masks with the male bird. Over the top? Yes perhaps! But with the seriousness of COVID-19 still with us, we all need something to make us smile behind that mask.

Peaceful resistance and xmas

In 1864 Denmark fought and lost a war. As a result, the southern part of Jutland – the Duchies of Holstein and Schleswig – ended up under rule of Prussia and the Austrian-Hungarian Emperor. The Prussians forbade the use of the Danish language, flying of the Danish flag, Dannebrog and other symbols that indicated Danish sympathies.

Earlier in the century, a German tradition introduced the xmas tree to the Danes. Well-off burghers would cut a suitably sized pine tree and drag it into the living room to be decorated with live candles and cookies. You get the picture if you know the HC Andersen story The Little Girl with the Matchsticks.

With characteristic warm humour and crafty fingers, the Southern Danes took advantage of this German tradition. They substituted banned flag flying with red and white decorations, including woven hearts in red and white colours that were hung on the tree.

I learnt of this story of peaceful resistance against ideology and dogma from an instagram post by the Danish National Museum. I have always loved to weave these hearts and always preferred the red and white version from those of other colours, but I had never known this story.

I was inspired to reflect the story in a lino cut, which I have called ‘Dressed up as Dannebrog’. Merry xmas and happy 2022.

Wearing wombats on my sleeve

My fascination with wombats resulted in a wombat design on lino for prints. I tried printing the wombat on fabric using the lino design, but this turned out a bit harder and not as neat as screen printed designs. So I designed three wombats, some lomandra, eucalyptus leaves and rocks for transfer to silk screen.

Unfortunately, the silk screen I had bought was not fine enough for the detail of the wombat and I struggled with several attempts and a new pot of emulsion before I realised. Having found the ARPANSA UV website I find sun exposure a bit more predictable, though any slight overcast here or whereever the UV measuring occurs in Brisbane makes the reading inaccurate. One day I might invest in a UV exposure lamp.

Meanwhile I was thinking about the garment that was to be adorned with these cute wombat shapes. A dive into my neighbours archive yielded another Marcy Tilton design (V9122) with an interesting cut and challenge.

Never content with just following a pattern, I modified it to give it short sleves rater than bare shoulders. My sewing friends warned me it would be too hard, but I thougth I’d try anyway.

To see how it worked I found an old sheet and mocked up the design with sleeves. I am glad I did because I realised it was necessary to lengthen the shoulder piece to not make it look like I was being squeezed around the shoulders.

This time I decided to cut the fabric before printing. This was similar to the technique I used for the Ibis shirt, but was different because I had a pattern, rather than four discrete images. The fabric is Vintage Linen from The Fabric Store.

I printed the major pieces, front and back using the pattern, but then decided the garment design really lent itself to a different look for some of the pieces. So I created new silk screens with the three wombats and printed them in a pattern straight onto the fabric.

As I was sewing the garment, I realised that a couple of pieces of fabric had been printed so the wombats would be upside down, so out came the screens and screen print again

Finally, I got to the collar. The design has a pretty unusual collar, ruffled and large, almost like a scarf has been attached. I was not happy with the collar on the mock up I made. It seemed unfinished somehow. I decided to create a collar without a wrong side, so the front piece could fall down without showing seams on the back. It made the seams pretty bulky, but I trimmed them and finished them with a liner, and I think the result is pretty cool. Now I can literally wear my love of wombats on my sleeve.

Have you had success with modifying a pattern?

Ibis on vintage linen

The ibis is much maligned by Brisbane urbanites. They have adapted to survive on human detritus and people object to their behaviours, scavenging discarded fast food and other morsels left behind. This has earned them their nickname, bin chicken.

I quite like the ibis. I find it both graceful and a bit bizarre, with its long beak, fluffy tail feathers and naked neck. As usual, I empathise with the underdog, the less fortunate, the more vulnerable of beings. In my mind it is not the ibis’ fault they now roam our urban spaces. Their habitats – precious wetlands where their long beaks could ferret out crabs and mussels – are progressively shrinking, paved and turned into carparks, roads or housing estates for humans caught up in their aspirational life. In pursuit of their aspirations, humans will work long hours with long commutes so they become time poor and, to compensate, spend their hard earned money fast – fast food, fast fashion, fast cars, instant entertainment. It is sweet irony that if humans enjoyed a slower life, they wouldn’t have to spend time on earning all that money required for fast living. Rather time could be spent on the slower things in life like being, cooking, gardening, creating, parenting, walking, enjoying the nature that is still right at our doorstep. And maybe then the ibis would have enough natural habitat to stay away from bins in urban areas.

My latest piece pays homage to the ibis. Initially, I found it difficult to draw the shape of the bird. In our archive of photos taken over the years, I found photos of ibis. I copied the shapes of four ibis and drew them again and again until I was happy with the result. Then I transferred the black beak, tail and legs onto on piece of transparency, and the white body onto another for each of the birds.

This let me expose 16 silk screens, a left and right version for each bird with a black and a white screen, eight birds in all. I had difficulty exposing the screens as the UV was low, but ultimately, I found the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency’s UV radiation index, which has let me develop a bit more science around exposure times.

I visited my neighbour’s pattern archive and found a suitably extravagant pattern for my ibis top – a Vogue top by Marcy Tilton (V9089).

Previously, I have handprinted entire lengths of fabric with a repeating pattern, for example, the Graffiti Bird wrap. This time I wanted to give the ibis – and this top – deserved a different, more distinguished approach. Using contrast cotton, I marked the pieces from the pattern out on a beautifully woven grey vintage linen from The Fabric Store.

I created a map of which birds I wanted where on the final garment, and started printing, one bird at a time, first white and then black once the white paint was dried. I used little templates to place the birds and give me a sense of spacing, meter and rhythm

I finished the middle back piece and realised that I needed to be able to see the other pieces to align the pattern across them. So cut the fabric pieces before continuing to print the other two back pieces. This particular fabric is quite fragile, so printing was stalled while I cut pieces and zigzagged the edges.

Printing the birds in this way made slow progress, yet every time I felt confident enough to try to print multiple birds at one time, I made mistakes. Patience is indeed king and I continually told myself that it is all about the process more so than the end result.

Once I had printed enough birds on the relevant pieces, I could start sewing. It was not a difficult pattern, though the cuffs on the sleeves caught me out, in part because I had put a bird on the back of each sleeve, but miscalculated the distance from the raw edge. I invented a work-around; I don’t mind it too much.

I am happy with the result – I really love the wide flowing back that lets the birds move and fly. I am looking forward to taking it out, when it is again safe to venture back into the community with the Delta strain of Covid-19. The matching face mask may still come in handy.

Knitted colour

A few years ago, on one of our pilgrimages to the Danish homeland, a friend gave me an abandoned knitting kit. The finest spun wool in a multitude of tiny bundles, two-ply and wonderfully diverse colours. The Garnguf kit was for knitting a woollen, short sleeved summer blouse, suitable for the Danish summer.

It took me some years to figure out what this kit might usefully be used for the Queensland weather. When winter kicked in this year, I realised that I needed a woollen jumper to keep me warm in the studio.

Probably a decade ago, another friend had taught me to knit ‘Fanø strik’, a type of fair isle knitting made popular by Christel Seyfarth. I realised the Garnguf kit was just right for this technique.

My first attempt at Fanø knit

I needed a base yarn of a single colour to stretch the short sleeved kit to a long-sleeved jumper. Unfortunately, the local speciality yarn shop, Yarn Over, closed some years ago, so I felt rather treacherous turning to its warehouse competitor, Spotlight, where I was left ferreting through revolting acrylic, nylon and poly yarns to find some rare pure wool. There was no two-ply that would match the kit, so I bought some Patons four-ply, grey baby marino wool, thinking it would be ok with the two-ply.

I looked at the pattern to see how I could modify it, thought “what the heck, I will just give it a go”. And then I started knitting.

And now at the end of winter, I am chuffed with the result – it is colourful and soft, and probably only I will see the errors and knitting sins committed along the way. And all those yarn endings? I just tied them together, taking a leaf out of Lærke Bakker’s book.

Warm and brown and wombat shaped

‘Wombat’, 2021, detail, Print on Rice Paper

In the beginning of the 1990s we were blessed with our first garden. Recently arrived from Denmark and acutely aware that gardening in Australia is not like gardening at home, we shiftly acquired the freshly published The Wilderness Garden by Jackie French (1992, Aird Books, Melbourne). And though the conditions of subtropical Brisbane are nothing like Aralen Valley in New South Wales, we both were committed the idea of a pesticide and herbicide free sustainable wilderness garden that could feed us as well as be home to native wildlife. This idea has shaped our gardening ever since.

Wombat, Australia Zoo 2014 (Photo: Mick)

Famously, Jackie French had a resident wombat named Fudge, and wombats were subject of many, many books by French. Truth be told, we could have done with a wombat to dig deep burrows in the shale and clay soil of the foothills of the D’Aguilar Range, but of course wombats like dry sclerophyll forests at a certain height, so wombats were unlikely to take residence in suburban Ferny Grove or on Mailmans Track in Bunya, never mind the floodplains of Mitchelton.

Burrowing wombat, Australia Zoo 2014 (Photo: Mick)

When I still read stories for the boys, I particularly enjoyed ‘Little Wombat’ by Chris Mansell, illustrated by Cheryl Westenberg. Little Wombat had difficulty figuring out who she really was because – just like my own child self – she aspired to be so many things, tightrope walker, archaeologist, dentist, swimmer… Exhausted by all these opportunities, in the end, she choses to be the wombat that sits in the sun, listens “to the bush singe like music and be warm and brown and wombat-shaped.” She was not at all a wombat doing, but a wombat being.

It was this sense of being enough, just as you are, whether a wombat or a human that I tried to capture in this lino cut. I hope you like it too.

‘Wombat’, 2021, print on rice paper

The Graffiti bird wrap shirt

For some months I have been working on a new garment, which has actually been years in the making. Perhaps not quite finished to claim for #memademay, but happy to share anyway.

My fascination with the simple bird design started in 2015 when we were living in Nørrebro in Copenhagen. Walking the streets thin in all kinds of weather, I loved grafitti spotting. I liked themes that repeated themselves across the public spaces of the city, and in particular I noticed, photographed and wrote about birds in the graffiti cityscape.

Inspired by the clever, but unknown graffiti artists (Spyo? Bravo?) I designed a pattern with six bird drawings for the beautiful purple linen I bought from The Fabric Store in Brisbane in December. You may suggest that I appropriated the design, as some are direct copies of what I saw in Copenhagen and from Brisbane can enjoy via #thebirdsthebirds on Instagram. I would love to attribute the original creators if anyone can let me know who they are.

I developed a silk screen with the pattern design and started printing, screen after screen. Unfortunately, the print quality deteriorated as I went along and I had to acquire new emulsion and develop a new silk screen half way through the process. This left an uneven pattern with some birds very vague in their prints while others are showcasing sparkling yellow lines.

It was challenging to fit the pattern to the finished fabric, so the best of the birds would be put to best use in the final garment. With help – again – from my sewing fiend (and friend) of a neighbour, we modified the Simplicity pattern from a wrap dress to a wrap shirt, so I was sure there was enough fabric.

Modifying the pattern to fit me and the fabric was complex, but rewarding

Birgitte helped me aligning the organic pattern across the pieces so I could get the most out of my fabric in the cut.

Then off I went with my beginners sewing machine in the spot Mick has gracefully granted me in his studio. Sewing a button-up shirt with a wrap was challenging for a relative novice, and Youtube was definitely my virtual friend in explaining things like understitching (thank you Evelyn Wood!) and other unfamiliar terms the pattern threw up.

I thought I was going crazy when I got to the yoke. I simply could not get the logic straight, and I watched countless Youtube clips explaining the burrito method in so many ways that I went nearly cross-eyed. I basted and practiced pulling through the fabric unsuccessfully a few times before I finally got it. It is nothing short of miraculous, like so many other things with sewing.

I still need to hem the shirt, create the button holes and sew in buttons, but I am pretty pleased with the result already.

What have you been making in May?

Kraken

In Old Norse langauge, Kraki is a gigantic sea creature that is the nemesis of sailors. So large it was better not spoken about at all, Kraken is the definite form of krake, the word for something unhealthy or twisted.

When I was researching cultural significance of octopuses for this post, I was mystified by the Kraken meme that runs rampant on pro-Trump conspiracy theorists’ social media accounts, keen to see the consequences unfold when the election fraud is exposed.

I don’t think of octopuses as twisted or frightening, though I can imagine why Norse sailors in the North Atlantic found large specimens to be terrifying. Rather, octopuses are fabulous intelligent beings with memory systems and intergenerational learning.

I am not suggesting that Paul the Octopus was an animal oracle when he accurately predicted the result of the soccer World Cup 2010, but I think these magnificient creatures deserve our humility.

Not because some are so large they can pull down a Viking ship or because the small blue-ringed octopus is the most venemous thing of the ocean, but because they are creatures that have evolved to exist in an ecosystem that we humans tend to regard merely as resources to be mined for our benefit.

That is the humility I wanted to portray with ‘Kraken’ this week – not a giant man-eating octopus, but a creature living in equilibrium with its surroundings.

I printed this version on Japanese rice paper.

Weaving baskets

In 2017 I learnt the ancient art of weaving baskets from master weaver from Yarrabah, Philomena Yeatman. She had come to Brisbane with Yarrabah artist Elverina Johnston in association with State Library of Queensland’s showcase: Jabu Birriny, Land+Sea in kuril dhagun.

Like Philomena I am trying my hand at many artforms (though nowhere near as talented as she is). And like Philomena, since learning the skill, I have come back to weaving as a constant. I have woven heat savers, bread baskets, coasters, and shared with unsuspecting recipients. How many breadbaskets does one household need?

Philomena Yeatman describes how she was taught the skill of weaving from her grandmother and was required to collect the weaving materials, clean them and dry them. Unlike Philomena, recently I bought bunches of raffia on the internet. It comes coloured and an bulk to satisfy my urge to do something with my hands when I watch tv.

I finished this basket this week. And annoyed by all the thin trailings that come with commercial raffia, I started on a tiny basket. I reckon I need years more practice, but I enjoy the process, possibly more than the result. Which may be the case for all art.