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The Hands of the Present linked to the Hands of the Past

Hand-Embroidered textiles including hand-spun wool, silks and various fabrics.

89” x ” x 31”

225 cm x 104 cm





Materials and processes Analysis

How do objects come to be?

By Anne Bone (2016)

‘The Hands of the Present linked to the Hands of the Past’ by Julia Sorrell is an embroidered sculpture over 2 metres high, inspired by the archaeology of a standing stone from the prehistoric Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Isles. I hope to show how the making of ‘Reverence’ can be seen in terms of its various stages of production, the reasoning behind the materials used and the way in which they are used, along with the natural forward progression from an idea to its final state of being. And that the different types of materials and tools used are intrinsic and influential in the development and appearance of the object. This requires imagination and improvisation on the part of the maker, and though she cannot be separated from the process of making the artist is guided by these choices in its production. Julia Sorrell was funded by Ace Travel, part of the Ace Foundation, to provide a body of work of neolithic sites in the Orkneys in 2015. The artist’s observational sketches and notes drawn onsite were worked up into several paintings and this sculpture in her studio, now on exhibition at the Stapleford Granary Arts and Music Centre near Cambridge.


Materials and processes involved


From a drawing in the artist’s sketchbook a small clay maquette was sculpted, helping to configure the three dimensional proportions of the subject scaled up to almost lifesize for the framework.

Left:  Study of Ring of Brodgar from sketchbook


The clay maquette

Hidden processes:

The softwood armature frame (2.25m high x 1.04m wide x 500mm deep) was constructed with strengthening cross supports into a shape resembling the chosen standing stone. It is triangulated and the two narrow sides are ridged. On one large side two smaller vertical ‘slabs’ are added. Chicken wire was stapled to the frame. Terylene wadding, washed wool fleece, strips of ochre blanket, hessian webbing and strong wool yarn werewrapped and knotted to the wire. This provided the uneven, undulating surfaces, referencing layered stone.

Left: Stitching the wool into the padded frame

Visible processes:

The bulk of materials used was undyed sheep’s wool from British rare breeds including North Ronaldsay sheep indigenous to Orkney. These were handspun by the artist in varying thicknesses from thick and course textured to thin and fine strands. Surprisingly, only an 80mm long plastic darning needle was used for all the stitching, its flexibility enabling the artist to weave strands of wool into the padded wire, an arduous physical task. Elsewhere,random types of stitching were used - straight stitch, running stitch and darning stitch, their length varying according to positioning on the object andthe effect required. Continuous, sinuous movements denote the rough texture of weathered stone and directional ‘stone’ striation. Glimpses of hessian and ochre blanket underneath were allowed to show through, adding to the overall colour and varying textures. Dyed olive green, dark blue and turquoise torn silk fabric form knotted loops of continuous fabric, some wrapped with silk threads, which insinuate themselves into the body of work. Brightly coloured metallic thread is looped and embroidered onto the surface. Entwined cross stitched wools, red with white, pale blue with cream, magenta and pink add to the speckled effect of tightly embroidered swirls and circles. This colourful embroidery is mostly on one large side reflecting the mineralityand lichen growth on the standing stone from exposure to harsh winds on its north side. The artist has created long sweeps of very course, almost ragged wool, stitched spreading across the surface of what would be the other, less exposed, side of the standing stone where erosion and organic surface growth is minimal. Here colours are muted using undyed wool intermingled with deep red thread. Powertex Universal Medium, a water-based textile strengthener/hardener, was finally applied to protect the work, tightening the surface and bringing


The overall shape of the object may have been calculated but its textility and its ‘being’ is a result of Long, looping stitching on ‘sheltered’ side artistic creativity and energy, a free flowing mass of tactile surfaces emerging in a controlled but random and energised way. The object was made knowing the limitations of its materials but a sense of playfulness and experimentation has resulted in work of art that is a reminder of our ancestral past, albeit closeted in a gallery space and not in a remote Scottish landscape. It remakes the ancient in a new way that is gendered, accessible and elevates craft into art.



solidity to the object. Tactility in thesurface texture remains, inviting the viewer to touch in the same way that the standing stone in Orkney does. A solid chestnut plinth forms the base on which the sculpture sits. The making of ‘Reverence’ was a journey for the artist where the rhythm of stitching chimed with the instant mark making of drawing both in its improvisation and flow of movement. “For me, hand embroidery is a means of drawing with thread: cross-hatching with a needle and thread reflects my use of pencil and brush in my watercolours and oil paintings of Orkney”. The physical labour involved in making ‘Reverence’ recognises the struggle of creating the Ring of Brodgar, the moving and hewing of stones. The hands that sewed skins in the neolithic past are hands that are now stitching in the present and the interwoven nature of the handspun wool and thread is a nod to the ancient craft of weaving and making. For the maker the materials encouraged a freedom of expression and artistic interpretation. The unconventional processes she has used have shaped a new form within a sculptural context and provided a heightened version of an ancient and mysterious monolith, connecting us with our ancestral past. The object is transformative, challenging the assumptions of craft /needlework and the elevated genre of sculpture, reinforced by the use of textile hardener. It breaks with the traditional boundaries of fine and applied art/craft in its re-envisaging, transcending gender, genre and preconceived perceptions.

Detailed, colourful embroidery on ‘exposed’ side

Right: Blue wool and ochre blanket within undyed wool stitching denoting texural differences