Cut From the Same Cloth

Language, Identity and Sustainability

Cut from the same Cloth: Mothers dOrters, GrandOrters

The title of my quilt Cut from the same Cloth derives from the world of tailoring and for me is a metaphor for being different but equal. The figures relate to my family, my identity within it, and how the shape of the family I hold in my mind has been affected by loss and new generations. I also consider issues of sustainability and thrift through the materials used in the piece. Through the depiction of ‘visible strands of threads’ (orts), attention is drawn to the sustainability of thread and cloth.

I am particularly fascinated by common textile idioms, having studied linguistics, and could find titles for all my pieces out of these phrases. Much has been written about how textile terminology is ‘woven’ into language from the shared root word ‘Texere’ (from the Latin, to weave) which is in ‘text’ and ‘textiles’, to the many idioms in everyday parlance; we can ‘cotton on’, ‘spin a yarn’, ‘be on tenterhooks’, ‘lose the thread’ or be ‘in stitches’. In the subtitle of my piece, Mothers, dOrters and GrandOrters, spelling and grammar are deliberately altered to include the term ‘orts’.

The word ‘orts’ derives from an old English word meaning scraps (more usually food leftovers). In the world of stitchers, ‘orts’ is said to be an acronym for Old Random Threads, or Old Ratty Threads. Orts are all those threads too short to be saved, but you can’t bear to throw them away. During my research for A Visible THREAD, I felt the need to conduct a sustainability review of my practice, in advance of seam’s audit, and began to examine my usage of raw materials. I concluded that my practice could be made even more sustainable if I reused every single thread; all those tiny threads that often made their way onto the soles of my socked feet and traipsed around the house, until I found them with the hoover. All that was required was a suitable container beside my sewing station: the ‘Orts Jar’ found its way into my practice.  

My Orts Jar

My research via the Facebook group fabulous (STITCHED) scrappy BALLS uncovered more about the history of how these tiny snippets held great importance for many generations and in many cultures worldwide, often finding their way into ‘Witch Jars’. Packed into glass jars or bottles the tangle of tiny threads were intended to confuse and entrap malevolent spirits and keep them at bay (The Ickeny Collection 2023).

Though on a practical level orts could have been used as a resource, maybe as fire-starting material or stuffing, they also had a higher spiritual significance as the ‘…remnants of the spirit of the artists or crafts persons who used them (Banchomarba1, 2022).

I like what textile artist Agy Lee has to say about orts: ‘And as we complete the set of stitches and cut off the tails of thread, we may think that we are ending the story – we are not. By placing them into our own special orts container, we are saving them for our next narrative. So, by saving them and upcycling them in our next project, we are continuing our journey as an artist / sewist both spiritually and physically. Let’s all channel this energy through our work!’ (2022)

I did channel the orts energy into my research for A Visible THREAD, which was developed during the research residency with seam in Bath, where I was exploring my identity within my family.

Tangible John and Generic John

With the loss of my mother, interesting letters about our Scots Irish heritage were discovered that triggered one strand of research. Due to the destruction of Irish records I could only follow the thread back as far as my great-great grandfather with a father called John, who most likely had fathers and elusive grandfathers also called John. John Colquhoun was a flax farmer in Donegal. I wanted textiles to come to my assistance and recreate John, summoning him with thread from the inside out. As is the way with research this line of enquiry petered out as my focus shifted to the female line…

The Green Leotard Then and Now

This shift started with a green satin leotard made by my mother for me in the 1960s that accompanied me to the residency, along with some other treasured textile keepsakes. I started working with images of my granddaughters wearing the leotard, that provoked some very strong memories and thoughts about the experiences that shaped my identity within my family. The leotard was made for me to perform in a ballet show aged about six years old that I still remember as a traumatic experience.

Textile keepsakes made by my daughter, grandmother, mother, myself, sister, great aunt

During lockdown and just before the research residency for A Visible THREAD my mother died, and the leotard took on a new power as used textiles often do: just as orts hold significance for the traces of the people who used them, so too this perished green satin garment was laden with memory and emotion for me.

‘…in many cultures, the persistence of old cloth, stitched by others, endows it with greater value. Conserved within it is the passage of time, harbouring the spirit of those who created, wore, and handled it.’ (Hunter2019, p87)

‘…in many cultures, the persistence of old cloth, stitched by others, endows it with greater value. Conserved within it is the passage of time, harbouring the spirit of those who created, wore, and handled it.’Clare Hunter

Using drawings and photographs of my granddaughters dressed in the leotard, I began to stitch a series of outlines through layers of muslin and other sheer fabrics, with the orts encapsulated. The effect was to create the tiniest of quilts, drawing attention to the visible strands of thread that acted as the ‘wadding’.

Orts encapsulated, early trials worked on muslin with found materials encapsulated

Drawing attention to thread in this way – celebrating the physical threads – having them out in the open, reminded me of Clare Barber’s visible stitchery in her delicately ethereal piece A stitch for every sound, which she embroidered in various locations across the London Wetlands centre in 2019 and 2021 (Barber, 2021).

Clare Barber: A Stitch to Every Sound, image: Yeshen Venema

I saw the piece at the 62 Group exhibition: Conversations: People, Places, Materials, Objects at St Barbe’s Gallery, Lymington in 2022. The marks were visible as a set of stitched passages on a muslin ground and I was fascinated by the shadows these stitch passages created on the wall behind. The sounds made visible through stitch and the thread shapes made visible through light and shade.

At an early stage of my research, inspired in part by Barber’s piece I sought to enhance the visibility of the orts, by sandwiching them between layers of sheer fabric and removing layers to expose them fully. Taking the exhibition title quite literally I was making thread visible and questioning the sustainability of thread.

Cut outs, created in the run up to the residency, worked on muslin.

As I continued to make more figures, other textile ‘keepsakes’ with a family provenance found their way into the piece along with the orts: I started collaging these ‘tactile tokens’ as Clare Hunter calls them (Hunter, 2019, p85), from my decades old ‘stash’. This treasure trove serving as an archive for my memories of family as ‘material evidence of where and who I have come from’ (Ibid). Patching these tokens together through depictions of my family members both living and dead with the threads spewing out of the anonymised faces of my granddaughters, with their tiny detailed fingers and toes, my late mother’s face turned away, provoked a profoundly raw response that almost brought me to tears. My stitching resurrecting my thoughts, feelings and memories bringing my family together, each addition increasing the energy of the piece, my quilt becoming a memorial.

Installing my ‘quilt’ at ACEarts in 2022

‘Sewing pieces of fabric together was believed to endow the pieced cloth with spiritual power, the needles magical strength permeating every join, the more joins, the greater the potency. This is the traditional source of the allure of patchwork and of quilting: sewn acts of resurrection, reconstitution, reconnection. In many cultures it is believed that patchwork and pieced quilts made from dead peoples’ clothes transferred energy between generations, the dead and the living, mother and child, creating a collective human power, each salvaged piece transmitting its own force of identity’. (Hunter, 2019, p90)

‘Sewing pieces of fabric together was believed to endow the pieced cloth with spiritual power, the needles magical strength permeating every join, the more joins, the greater the potency. This is the traditional source of the allure of patchwork and of quilting…’Clare Hunter

I found as I rummaged about in my ‘stash’ that a particular scrap would trigger a thought or connection and steer each figure in a certain direction creating some bizarre juxtapositions of motifs, text and patterns; aliens with lobster tails, flower headed girls or caped heroines. As I began to extend the work outwards from the images of my granddaughters to include my daughter, my mother, myself, a fuller female lineage of my family emerged along with further ponderings about the curious nature of belonging and identity. These thoughts generated new and curious figures inspired by text taken from The Mistaken Zygote in Women who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

‘Your family thinks you’re an alien. You have feathers, they have scales. Your idea of a good time is the forest, the wilds, the inner life, the outer majesty. Their idea of a good time is folding towels.’ (Estes, 1992, p191)

Beware of Aliens and Superheroes: inspired by Women who run with the Wolves, 2024

Visitors to past exhibitions have often asked why the work is not for sale. And though I have made new figures for sale, the original set could not be broken up, because I see it as a whole quilt and as such it is best displayed unframed. Selling individual characters would be akin to unpicking a patchwork quilt and selling off individually worked patches. The piece belongs together as a whole, and I could not part with such a personal memento.

Extras: I was asked to make additional figures so that people could start their own collections, see below.

In a second piece, Started Early Took My Dog, shown last year at Wells Art Contemporary, I have been less precious about keeping the piece whole. I developed this series of orts figures to include wild swimmers and considered how this ‘family’ is a celebration of sisterhood and nature, with participants rising at dawn to catch the sunrise or dipping at full moon or the equinoxes. The work references Primavera, the first exhibition they appeared in at Lyme Regis, and celebrates the spring equinox with swimmers emerging as Botticelli-esque maidens with crowns of flowers, queens or goddesses, mermaids or other hybrid creatures.

Started Early Took My Dog

I have been enjoying time in my studio building orts families. Figures adapt and grow into new varieties, and I have taken to creating new characters as a playful stitch warm up when I get to my studio. Grrrls, which was shown at the seam exhibition at Wirth Gallery in Sherborne, evolved from the fossil-inspired figures I was working on for one of the Lyme Regis exhibitions last year. Work is in progress for some Waymarker Spirits intended for an upcoming exhibition ‘Waymarked’ at Fine Foundation Gallery, Durlston, starting 26 August 2024.

Grrrrls: Spot the green leotard?

We are coming to the end of our touring exhibition for A Visible THREAD with the final show at Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Dowell Street, Honiton, Devon EX14 1LX, starting 20 July, where you can see Cut from the Same Cloth and Manifest: Show of Hands. During Dorset Arts Weeks, which runs from 25 May to 9 June, I will be showing a selection of orts figures, framed in pairs or as wrapped single figures, that will be for sale at Boilerhouse Gallery, Sandy Hill Arts, Sandy Hill Lane, Corfe Castle Dorset BH20 5JF.

Mary Anning Rocks created for an exhibition at Lyme Regis, Dorset

Jane Colquhoun


Banchomarba1, (2022) Ms. B’s Gift #4, Work of My Hands, 7 October, [Blog] Available at: (Accessed 8 May 2024)

Barber, C. (2021) A stitch for every sound, Available at (Accessed 8 May 2024)

Estes, C. P. (1992) Women who Run with the Wolves, Rider

Hunter, C. (2019) Threads of Life, Sceptre

Lee, A. (2022) How to Upcycle Your Scrap Threads, Agy Textile Artist, 7 July [Blog] Available at: (Accessed 8 May 2024)

The Ickeny Collection: East Anglian Museum of Magic and Mythology (2023), Silk Spirit Trap, Available at (Accessed 8 May 2024)