Fabric, Figs & Memory

Ficus macrophylla, better known as the Moreton Bay Fig, has become a muse and metaphor for my new collection of experimental textiles. This statuesque tree and its bounteous fruit represent time, permanence, memory and continuation. It remains a rich source of inspiration for my ongoing research project, Mnemonic Textiles: Sustaining Life-Long Connection. The forthcoming ramble presents the multiple processes and iterations that transpired during a year of experimentation and sampling with textiles, patterns, and Ficus macrophylla.

The Moreton Bay fig is a beloved resident of east-coast Australia. The incredible stature and embracing canopies belie a remarkably inconspicuous beginning.

Seedlings live as epiphytes in the branches of a host tree and later grow roots down to the ground. It’s hard to imagine these friendly giants, once small and inconspicuous, with immense visions of grandeur.

This unassuming start resonates with my own textile practice. Small ideas take root and slowly eventuate as meaningful material objects.

The Moreton was immortalised in Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’s much loved children’s book “My Place”, celebrating twenty years of print this year. The tree witnesses a century of change whilst offering a place for children of each generation connection and protection under its branches.

In 2012, in the months preceding my embarkment into motherhood, I had the same sense of connection with three giant Moretons.  At the time I was beginning a new collection of textiles, with memory and sustainability at the heart of the work. These three trees, on the Glebe Foreshore, in Enmore Park, and Victoria Barracks, found me wandering and cogitating under their canopies, foraging for their fallen fruit and wondering at their beauty and physique.

I would bend to pick the vivid green and red figs, observed by passers by. Occasionally a conversation would begin. “What will you do with your collection? Are they edible?” My answer … “No, not to eat. They are to be boiled and used to colour silk and cotton.” Sometimes the conversation stopped there, other times more information was requested. I treasured these small exchanges; talking to all types of people about the tree, the fruit and my textile practice.

The broken open figs spill their seeds onto the ground, creating patterns of beauty. I began to compare this bursting to the exact moment a memory is unlocked.

Contact with a familiar smell, texture, or sensation brings the tiny details of a past experience to the surface, spilling over and prompting an emotional reaction. Our past perceptions mingle with our present state, tangling and confusing our mistaken belief that time and memory are linear.

This is the sense I attempt to embody within my textiles. An evocation of memory, a sense of past impacting on our present in the hope that they become treasured fabric artefacts passed from generation to generation. The value we give objects that hold our memories, or as I like to call them, mnemonic objects, ensure they combat issues of obsolescence and disposability. I’m sure this is the desire of many artists and makers.

My process draws upon a multitude of techniques to extract and unpack the concept of memory in as many ways. The first iteration of the collection began as watercolour observations of the fruit. Drawing on my training as a textile designer, the figs were painted into a continuous repeat pattern in preparation for digital print onto gossamer-thin silk.

Then the collection of figs were immersed and boiled in a large pot of water to create a dye bath for a variety of silk and wool off-cuts. The fabrics simmered and sunk for over a week, taking on the essence of the fig, the colour permanently bonding to the fibres. Every day a piece was taken out and observed. The longer the immersion, the stronger the colour. Another metaphor for memory perhaps? The dimensionality of the figs were then captured by embedding felted spheres into layers of merino fleece and stitching them in to represent the bursting seeds.  Circles of stitching began to represent the remembering of an event.

Occasionally only the memory of remembering remains, the event forgotten in a haze of time. And now, dyed and printed silk is embedded into fleece, where fibres interlock and bond together.

The journey of the collection continues. Ficus macrophylla remains at the heart of the making. I visit them with gratitude and awe.