Sand Storm over the White Desert

I would hate everyone to think that a lack of posts means inertia. What it means is that life is just too busy for writing of any sort.

I have been making a big quilt. I thought I would take you a little through my making process to show you how badly I veer off course in case it helps others who do the same.

One of my absolute favourite places in Egypt was the Western Desert - and especially the White Desert. It was relatively easy to get to - five hours drive from Cairo to the oasis of Bahariya, then we piled into the car of our guide who drove us another hour and a half to the desert. It was also pretty easy to organise for visitors. A phone call or email to Peter Wirth, the owner of the International Hot Springs Hotel, and a car would be sent to Cairo to collect anyone and bring them down. This meant I did not actually have to own a car to get there.

I probably went about thirty times over our four years. We would drive though the Black Desert to get there - passing huge black basalt lumps nestled into ochre sand. It was an extraordinary sense of distance and peace to swirl through sand, crawl over gibbers, and bump over rock, and all in an open four wheel drive with a large Bedouin at the wheel.




Our favourite guide was Magdy Badrmany. He became a good friend. His English was good so anyone could be sent with him, he was a quiet and careful driver, he could cook a feast over a gas jet or a small tended fire, and he would take you on a tour of the night sky - unbelievable littered with constellations and strewn with stars. Many nights I chose to sleep out of the tent so I could watch falling stars arcing overhead and fading into the edges of the sky.

Once in the desert you enter a soft white world.


There is a silvery light at dawn that touches and paints the edges of the amazing calcium carbonate formations with hints of mauve and pink, and long long shadows that reach across the sand like stretching fingers. It was the bottom of an old sea, and here and there are fossil evidence, fragile curled shells emerging from the chalk.


As it was rich in iron and crystallised iron pyrite, like smoothly polished jet, emerges also, in long fingers, or curled around fossils, or as desert flowers, perfect crystals in matte black that nestle with short spikes into your hands. In our first year I picked up many. At the end of our posting I brought back most, full of shame as I had seen areas denuded of treasures, many of which were abandoned by their collectors at service stations in Bahariya.

By lunch time the light is stark and hard, the pure white dazzles and the shadows of the stones are inky and blue and pool tightly below each formation. Our guides would tuck in tight in the meagre shade, while their particular tourists, like mad dogs and Englishmen, would roam for photos.


A sand storm meant that I would wrap my camera tightly and not use it so I do not have those photos. At first it is an equal lifting of gold sand and white fine dust. As soon as the wind has moved on the sand settles, but in the white desert the dust stays in the air for days, so fine and light that it is like a thin fog.

In this light the sun is softened and you start to see the soft cramy bieges that tint the chalk, warming the formations. The sand can seem peach, the hint of coral even spreading into greyer areas where the iron stones gather.


Night tints the horizon with soft pinks, until it blazes into a vast and unsettling sunset, and leaves even the whitest shapes as dark and forbidding silhouettes.


For the White Desert Quilt I planned to make I had thought of making a series of quilts. I wanted a sense of its vastness, the huge wrap-around horizon, ridged and beautiful with far distant forms, like bent old men talking. I thought of starting the first with dawn light, then through the day with the changes of light until the final pieces was the deep blues of the lit-by-starlight desert. It would have been a total of about eight metres - at least. I also wanted it to feel vast and overpowering, and to include Magdy as his presence is intrinsic, large, quiet but with a real streak of fun and a boyish humour. That whole idea had to go as I would never be able to show it anywhere.

I started to pull images together that would feed the idea I wanted to work with. I collated images of particular well known formations, mushrooms, the chicken and the egg, the rabbit. I pulled up images of Magdy. Working with someone you know well is complex as it has to be perfect - to feel like that person - or in my mind the quilt cannot work.

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I considered some of the animal life of the area - fennec foxes and camels - but decided it felt kitsch.



I had been mulling over it for sometime. I wanted to combine piecing and pictures, but the area and the tribes have no real patterning that is part of their history. I decided to use the kaleidoscope block as a swirling sky of sandstorm and the other side to be blue - so I could play with neutrals and the tinting of cream and colour in the same quilt.

Then - someone pointed out that the entries for Canberra Quilters - my local guild - were due that Friday. Talk about panic!

I drew what I had planned. Sort of. I sketched an idea of the colours that would be in it, and the patterning of the sky on a sheet of kaleidoscope blocks. It was too short in height and too wide in length, but I sent in an entry that looked a bit like this.



I was embarrassed, but added a note that I would have no problem with being rejected. I also had three months to make the work and it felt a long way away at the time. They did not reject me, but I kept in touch to assure organisers that things were moving on the quilt.

I spent a month on a swirling sky - that was too busy, too strongly coloured, too tightly controlled - too everything really.


I wasted that month as I junked the whole thing. More simplicity was called for. I was out at our small airport and saw a poster enticing people into a career in the army. On the helmet was a swirl of dust kicked up by a helicopter - and it was exactly the sort of movement I remembered from 'my' sandstorm.


I opted for squares on point.


Now I was truly under pressure.

I elongated the view I had originally drawn of his body, combining several images in one composite to have the wind flipping his felted and braided vest. I worked on the background, and even that had to be radically simplified. The view was pulled in tighter and closer and I had lost some of the sense of awe-inspiring distance I had wanted, so had to push it a bit further away.


I made Magdy's body and then his face, though it felt odd to be pushing a hot iron over his face as it started to feel like him.




The top

I stitched everything down, and put a lot more information into his face with stitching.

I started quilting with two weeks to go. I had intended to be clever, and include imagery of many things in the area in the quilting. In the end I calmed it down, adding only a few fossils in the border at the bottom. It is a simple place, and I risked losing the sense of peace - and the sense of place - that I felt in the quilt if I added too much that was distracting.

I entered it as 'not for judging' but the committee pointed out that I could be judged for my category without being judged for best of show - and that sounded good. I won last year and am content with that. You never think you will win - or I do not - by the time the work is finished I am sick of it and it seems dull and boring.

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I won my category. The final pictures are withheld as I want to enter the piece in others shows - possibly overseas. Some consider a personal blog a publication of sorts - so I am sorry - but wait a few more months.

This will give a better idea of its size.

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It fits absolutely in my current series of Egyptians that I admire for their calm acceptance of the life they are given, and their absolute competence in their chosen work. I did not name this one after Magdy as I am finding that people do not remember the men's names and cannot name the quilts - so it is Sandstorm over the White Desert. His name is written in a strip at the bottom.

And small bit of private glee - it has been accepted into Houston!


New Work - Hot Water - Dead Sea

I have been working on a big piece which I cannot really show on my blog as I am hoping it will be exhibited - if I finish it in time.

However - I recently made a smaller quilt for an exhibition in New Zealand on climate change - called A Change in the Weather. Mine is:

Hot Water - Dead Sea
$ 1600
150 cm x 50 cm

At the waters of the sea increase in temperature the sea will become more acid. Corals and molluscs will be unable to form shells and the reefs will die. For a while at least, coelenterates like jelly fish will fill the seas.

Cotton fabric, wool mix batting, layered appliqué, piecing.

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I do not often post things for sale - in fact I do not often even try to sell work as it is easier for me to sell classes and talks if I actually own most of it myself. I am a slow worker too. I seem to spend as much time thinking about the pieces as I do working on them.

The crosses are inserted in the piecing like a memorial for the dead coral reef.


The Taj Mahal

The sun was low in the sky as we arrived at the Taj Mahal. We came directly from the Red Fort of Agra, and I had been overwhelmed by it. I was worrying that the Taj could not live up to that mellow redness and the overwhelming patterning.

We entered through a red archway amazingly reminiscent of the Red Fort. I guess that was hardly surprising when they were only about half a mile apart.

And there it was - framed in the entrance.


I have a quilt in my mind that I will make one day. It is an image of the bits of the Mona Lisa that you can see when standing on your toes in the Louvre for that split second - and almost completely blocked by other people's heads. For just a moment here I thought that seeing the Taj Mahal could have a lot in common with seeing the Mona Lisa.


We had a very clever guide who took us to the best places for photographs.

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Framed in an archway and then through the trees - both were beautiful and as I was rushed from one point to another for compulsory photographs something of the peace and stillness of the building was creeping across the lawns at me. It seems to hover almost weightless above the water.

As I took the final 'guide-directed image' I realised that the scale of it was quite different to what I had expected. From a distance the people seemed to disappear. The building really is not that big, but you can hardly see the crowds. There was an odd feeling of walking into a stage set. There is a petrol station on the way here from Delhi which has copied the Taj (with white paint and concrete instead of marble) and I kept thinking that this just was not real.

I expected people to be still and quiet and reverential - it is, after all a tomb. It was built out of a huge love and standing and looking at it put a lump in my throat.

The people however, were running around and posing for photographs, and calling to each other. The women have the advantage over men here. It is amazing that the peacock came from India and the male is so spectacular, the female so quietly dull. Here the women in their saris are glorious, and the men - well - they seem to wear western dress most of the time - even jeans in 37 degree heat.


Looking along the colonnade on the entrance - one lady had just re-arranged her hair, and on a narrow bench in front of us a young woman in a soldier's uniform was apparently examining the ear of another young soldier. A young recently married couple were posing for photographs in beautiful costumes. I requested a photo but they refused. The young brides wear a traditional heavy set of bracelets for up to six months so it is obvious who is recently married. They looked wonderful. She wore richly embroidered and layered turquoise and jade, and was bejewelled with gold. He was elegant in a long tunic with a high collar and tight trousers in deep textured cream silk, with the pearly lustre of a really luxurious fabric.



I realised that the most wonderful thing about having the pool in front of the building is not that it reflects, but because it provides a location where absolutely no-one can stand in front of you - hence the number of really perfect photos of the Taj.

The patterning is stunning on the building itself - these are finely carved floral reliefs with exquisite inlay set into the marble above.





I was moved by the building but I have always liked people better.




At this stage of the day I knew exactly why this lady had taken off her shoes. I would have sat with her but knew she would be able to get up again more easily than I would.

The crowds were slowly clearing as the sun set as this is when the building closes. The view across the river was unbelievably still and silver as a mirror.



And as the sun dipped and the sky turned gold this little pavilion in the corner looked perfect against the sky. It seemed the perfect place to leave the day - with a sunset.



Agra Fort

We drove from Delhi to Agra. For me this was fascinating. The traffic felt much like Cairo's - cars weave and slice into different lanes with no warning and there were frequently up to seven lanes in areas marked for four. Unlike Cairo there were a lot more animals. In Cairo you get an occasional donkey cart. In India it was donkey carts, carts drawn by horses, even some carts drawn by cows. Then as we left Delhi there were even large carts pulled by camels - and I had never seen that before.


There was a constant stream of interesting things to see - our maximum number of people on a motor bike was five but I actually think that was beaten by the man who had a small goat in his arms, two more wedged at his feet on his scooter, and one tied behind. Truck after truck passed filled with groups of women in gorgeous saris - and they seemed to travel quite often with a sari pulled across their faces - I am not sure if that was modesty or sun protection. Fair skin is highly valued in this country.


We planned to see Agra Fort in the afternoon and as we were earlier than we expected and trying to fit more into our time than my tour will (we had eleven days to do what they will do in eighteen) we decided to see Agra Fort and then to go straight over to the Taj Mahal.

Our hotel was gorgeous, very much a relic of the British occupation.


We settled our gear, ate and went straight to Agra Fort.

I knew it would be red. I had seen a similar red sandstone building in Delhi and been a bit disappointed that we would not actually look at it but I had been assured that Agra was better.


I had never realised how red it would be. The sandstone from a distance was a dark terracotta, pinkish where the sun hit it. But once across the drawbridge and inside the fort the high red walls towered above our heads and wrapped us in warmth. It is rich and dark and curiously soft and comforting - like being wrapped in soft rich velvet. It is so easy on the eyes - like looking at smooth suede. It is a seductive colour and as we walked into the long ramp that took us up to the main door I was shivery with excitement.



The main entrance was magnificently inlaid - and I warn anyone not into patterning that you had better stop reading right now. This post will have a lot of patterning.


The only warning Bob had given me as I left was that I was not to pat monkeys. Well - he went on to add "or dogs, or cats or any animal." Monkeys were everywhere.



We were told that these platforms - which were well above our heads - were for passengers to load onto elephants, and that the howdah would reach to this level.




I did not expect to be moved by gardens in India but the original formal patchwork layouts with sandstone edges were unexpected, and they are beautifully maintained.



Every door was different. Every surface had patterns somewhere. I was intrigued and starting to take so many photographs that I worried that I might not have enough left for the Taj Mahal.
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If all of this does not have quilters reaching for their pencils I will be surprised.

I mentioned a tour in the last post. I will be leading a tour to India in October. It is a time when it is cool. You can watch this blog for the next few weeks as I attempt to blog the things I saw, and if you are interested in coming please contact me. If you click on my website link there is an email link on that. It is a textile oriented tour, but there are things in India that should not be missed and we will see a lot of these as well. It is a small group - I take sixteen to twenty.

I did not expect to be drawn to this country - and I was. Come with me and see why.


Textile Tripping through Brilliant India

I have been to India.

It is the most incredible country. I had not realised how superb the colours could possibly be - but women wear such amazing combinations. Hot raspberry with rich chartreuse, emerald and scarlet, turquoise with jade and ultramarine, they move like brilliant butterflies through the streets of the cities, walking the roads of the countryside, and even packed into the backs of trucks.

I could not have expected the beauty of old buildings. I knew about the Taj Mahal but had no idea that only across a bend in the river, The Agra Fort is just as stunning - different and rich and beautiful - and flickering between inlaid marbles and the incredible dark red sandstone.

Textiles were breathtaking and there will be separate postings about some of the things we saw.

I had expected dirt and filth and did not really see this at all. Perhaps it is just that I was comparing to Cairo but it did not seem more than crowded and a bit untidy.

I had expected wonderful food and it was absolutely superb.

I had expected some level of disorganisation simply because I think of India as a third world country and it was a stupid assumption. Instead it was superbly organised and we were tenderly handed from one Thomas Cook organiser to another. Guides were excellent and sophisticated and urbane.

I had expected heat - and it was unbelievably hot. At times the air shimmered with heat. In the north it was still bearable but we went through gallons of water. In the South it was a steam bath.

However - the tour we will take there will go in October when it will be like a Sydney Summer. When you see cheap trips to India be very suspicious and check the dates - they are probably making use of low rates in the hot season or during monsoon - both impossible. One is just hot, the other very hot and wet as well.

Enough talk. I thought I would post some photographs of two locations where we looked at Dhurrie factories being made. These were not the sort of tidied-up-for-tourism places I had expected. In some ways both were poor and in poor villages. I had thought there would be more in the way of bright cotton dhurries of the sort sold in Australian rug shops - but instead there was a huge range of different rugs.

The images that follow were taken in two different locations - one a factory on the road to Agra, and one in the village that sprawled below Fatepur Sikri - a deserted city that creeps across the hills. We will only go to one location on the tour as time will not allow both - but I thought you might enjoy the pictures.

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The rag fields - dyed fabrics are stretched out to dry and then piled in great heaps. Most were cotton t-shirting.










That is it for now.

Sometimes I think I should have simply called this a photography tour. It is almost impossible to take a bad photo in India - and by now you can see why I was raving.


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