Jenny Bennigsen: A Grandmother's Legacy

Updated: May 22, 2020

I am a mature student just coming to the end of an HNC in contemporary constructed textiles (embroidery) at Bradford School of Art. I have been sewing since teenage years and have made and altered many wedding dresses but decided to gain formal training in textiles after finishing home educating my five children.

The work I have submitted to the student house is a collection of five textile art pieces which make up a body of work entitled, ‘A Grandmother’s Legacy,’ and forms the final collection for my HNC. The main inspiration for the work comes from an old scrap patchwork pillowcase made for me by my maternal grandmother when I was a small child. One side of the pillowcase is made entirely from a random mix of fabric scraps which includes some nursery fabric but also repurposed dress fabric and even a couple of badly frayed lilac coloured nylon patches!

As I started to study the pillowcase it seemed to speak to me as clearly as the handwritten letter from my grandmother that I had also kept. It has been well loved over the years and is now fragile and disintegrating but as I looked closely at it, I noticed tangled threads and the rather erratic stitch lines that remain strong, even though some of the fabric is completely missing. The whole seemed to be a metaphor for the loving family I am part of; an eclectic mix of people, some now sadly missing, stitched together with strong bonds of love. Her legacy to me was not only her treadle sewing machine and love of stitch but that bond of love which stretches through time.

Now a grandmother myself, this prompted thoughts of what legacy I want to pass onto my own five grandchildren. As we all do, I stand with a hand stretching back into the past and another reaching out to the future, this is what my work is largely about.

Q. Your work is a beautifully organic and symbolic approach to visual storytelling, how do you feel that textile and stitch aid you in articulating these stories of your family?

The five pieces in this installation use textiles and stitch to represent the gradual breakdown and loss of the physical, the family members that depart this life and the memories that fade. The seam lines represent the love that stretches between the generations and progressively take centre stage. Bojagi is a type of Korean patchwork used traditionally to make cloths to wrap up precious objects. Often worked in translucent fabrics, the strong seams are very evident and form a clear part of the design. Using this technique, I was able to represent what I desire to pass on to my own grandchildren as well as include an echo of my own heritage. The shadows created by the pieces are an integral part of the design and give a feeling of time and space.

Textiles were an obvious choice for telling this particular story as my grandmother had been apprenticed as a seamstress at age 14. I have happy memories of her teaching me sewing techniques and I was thrilled to be able to have her treadle machine renovated to work on this project, particularly the bojagi work.

I love the three-dimensional aspect of textiles, the ability to build up and break down in order to make representations seems very powerful to me. The tactile nature of fabrics and the ability to manipulate a physical medium to create something new excites me. I use a lot of dissolvable fabric in my work which also allows for an element of anticipation, you can’t be 100% sure of your stitching until the Solufleece is washed away; a kind of baptism with a new creation emerging out of the water.

Q. Material cultural analysis is a big part of your creative process, can you tell us a bit more about the role that this plays within your creation of new fabrics?

Material cultural analysis is an objective process of studying physical objects to gain insight into the culture they represent and thereby give a deeper meaning and significance to an artefact. I am fascinated to discover the back story of historical textiles. Who made them? Why are they constructed in a particular way? This technique provides a narrative, it helps me to tell the story to another generation. My first degree was in psychology and this research technique seems to join the dots somehow and helps me to express something new.

Q. How do you think that creative education has developed your work, in particular studying in Bradford – which holds such a rich textile heritage?

Studying at Bradford has had a huge impact on my work in terms of learning the design process and how to self-reflect on my outcomes. Peer review has been crucial too as has learning how to research my subject and play with ideas. The blended learning approach is unique to the Bradford course and combines the practicality of distance learning with the fun of group teaching which takes place over 5 long weekends in college each year. The Bradford Textile Archive is housed within college and has proved a rich source of inspiration. For me, the course has taught me a new physical vocabulary for expressing my ideas and beliefs.

Q. What are your plans following graduation?

Having 20 years teaching experience, mostly in small group sessions, I took the course initially as I wanted to be able to run sewing workshops. However, my emphasis has changed over the course of my studies. I have enjoyed the cathartic nature of stitching and developing my artistic voice. As well as continuing to create textile art, I hope to be able to run workshops of a more reflective nature allowing participants to stitch their own memories to take into the future.

To see more of Jenny Bennigsen's work click the link below


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