Textile artist Caren Garfen talks about the inspiration for 'How Many Times Do I Have To Repeat Myself' and discusses the techniques used in creating it.
This video was made as part of the exhibition Quilts: 1700 – 2010, at the V&A from 20 March to 4 July 2010
My name's Caren Garfen and I'm a textile artist and I work from home.
This piece is called 'How Many Times Do I Have To Repeat Myself?' and it's based on a concept about women and work, whether women want to be at work or whether they want to be at home.
It's making its first visit into the real world - into the world of the V&A. It's just been my domestic quilt and now it's going to be an art piece.
The interesting thing is that I've never made a quilt before so it was a major challenge to sit down and think about it and think how impossible it is. How would you do it? How would you patch pieces together? How would you sew it? It took a long, long time to do.
Actually I was going to an exhibition and I suddenly thought of the name of the quilt. This is it, 'How many times do I have to repeat myself' is the name of the quilt. I was on the tube and I love it when I get that sort of inspiration. Then I start thinking about what is it about, what sort of imagery do I want and it has to have a concept and the concept originally was to do with women, the domestic, but to take it out of there and into the real world, into working. I wanted to know do women want to work full-time? Do women want to be at home? I thought what I would do is a questionnaire. So I narrowed down the women who were going to take part and they were all women who stitched. I loved that because it was part of the quilt, stitching and women who were interested in that.
I wanted to know what was the most important object in their home. This is a domestic part, it's part of their everyday lives. I gave them a list of ten and they just had to say what was the most important. I thought it would be the washing machine, but it turned out to be comfortable furniture. So it was like beds and armchairs and settees which I put on the quilt - they are the imagery that's there. And then I asked them 'What do you do for a living? Do you work? And if you do work, do you want to work? Do you work part-time or full-time? And the results were astounding because 50% of the women said they didn't want to work at all - and I was absolutely amazed. And a lot of those were women who were doctors and teachers who said they don't want to work. I think the part-timers seemed happier to carry on working. So it's sort of like very interesting - a life-work balance that women want.
My research wasn't scientific. I thought I've got to find out what a real academic researcher would say. I started looking on the internet and I found this wonderful title - it said 'Five Feminist Myths' and I thought I must look into this. I wanted to get these articles and I couldn't, so I thought, I'll have to phone the London School of Economics and see if I can speak to this woman. And amazingly I dialled - I thought it was just reception and I was put straight through to her. She said, 'Hello. Dr Catherine Hakim here'. I thought, 'What have I done?' I said I was very interested in her articles, I was making an art piece for the V&A and could I speak to her. She was very forthcoming and she sent me the articles. I read them and I thought, 'This is it'. It just seemed to really - I don't know - it linked up amazingly well to my questionnnaire. I don't know how, but it was just perfect. So mine wasn't scientific - it was just almost a whim and sort of a humourous aside and then I had this really technical research which was saying very similar things.
When I do a piece I do a lot of serious research. I spend hours reading and it's very technical or scientific. So I like to soften it down with some humour. And so I hand stitched these labels - they've almost become a trade mark of my work. So if you look back to my early pieces, they all had labels on. So this was like a joy because I could stitch so many labels on so many different images. There's things like this - the weighing scales and it says 'She had the weight of the world on her shoulders'. And here she would end up picking up all of the pieces for the vacuum cleaner. And the one I like the best is this one which is of the television 'She was programmed to do it all' which has got some poignancy in it, I think, for women.
I really wanted other women to contribute to the quilt. It was a crucial element, just going back - a throw back to when women were making the quilts, they got together as a group and they contributed - it was a sociable thing. In this case I changed the concept and I got people collecting for me.
I wanted it to be fluff from a tumble dryer because it was women's role - you'd say it was a woman who would do the washing and ironing, emptying the drier and folding up the clothes. So it was like an essential woman's role. And I wanted that fluff put inside the quilt. I hand stitched here 'A bit of fluff' which is what men used to call women - I don't know if they still do now, but they were called a bit of fluff. Then down here we have the label which is all the women who contributed to the quilt by supplying fluff from their tumble driers. They didn't really even think about it - they just thought it was the most normal thing to just collect fluff and send it to me. It wasn't like 'Oh, I don't do the washing' or 'We don't have a tumble drier'. They just all sent pieces to me.
There should be a line between your working life and your home life. Women have that and want - they strive for this work-life balance of work and home. Mine is balanced towards working because I work every weekend and evenings. I know that when I talk about my work and it sounds 'work' and it's this really hard slog, it's actually the most enjoyable thing I could do. So I really cannot complain. If I had to go upstairs and empty the washing machine I know I can come straight back down here and start stitching. Stitching is grounding, it's calming, it's almost like a therapy. You can just sit and really relax. I mean, it's not surprising that women have been stitching for years because you need that calmness, surrounded by all this chaos and noise and mess. It's so nice to have this little place where you can relax and be calm.
This could echo me and this is 1924 - 'It was too much, with all she had to do, slaving day and night to keep the house nice for them all who never thought of appreciating it.' That's my life story.