Dab Hands: That’ll need stitching

This guest post comes from Lucy Burscough, award-winning Artist and Arts for Health practitioner who, thanks to support from Arts Council England, is Manchester Museum’s Artist in Residence. Lucy is best known for her ‘portraiture for health’ projects, having won awards from the Royal Society for Public Health and the Manchester Culture Awards, and having previously exhibited her work at the National Portrait Gallery, The Whitworth, and on the London Underground. But ‘Dab Hands’ has shifted her attention from the face to the hand, and at the end of her two-year residency, Lucy’s work, exploring the hands, dexterity and identity, will be exhibited in the new entrance of Manchester Museum. Over lockdown, Lucy facilitated a community artwork; embroidering the anatomical hand drawings of Consultant Hand Surgeon, Donald Sammut. The project targeted specific groups with the intention of boosting wellbeing and community spirit at a time when they were at risk of poor mental health due to isolation, loneliness and the numerous other ways in which COVID turned peoples’ lives upside-down. Beautiful kits were posted out, resulting in embroidered contributions from nearly 300 medical students, healthcare workers, students out of mainstream education, and older residents of the North West region. In this guest post, Lucy explains how this project came about and describes how she has constructed the huge hand sculpture and is currently adding the ‘skin’ made of the embroideries. As she reflects on this process, the parallels between the sculptural structure she has constructed and the anatomy of the human hand start to emerge, and in a similar way, it becomes apparent how the skilled craft of embroidery mirrors the dexterity of the surgical practice that is depicted in the embroidered images.

‘Dab Hands’ celebrates the skills and dexterity which are developed when one spends time doing craft activities and how they are reflected, both in movement and skill acquisition, in surgical practice. During my residency in the newly-developed shared creative working space on the top floor of Manchester Museum, I have sculpted a 1.5m high model of a sewing hand that, I hope, captures the grace and accuracy that can be achieved by a skilled hand at work. The embroidered pieces will become the surface of the hand, with each embroidery placed to describe the underlying anatomy.

“My clinical work was very busy and I was finding it very hard to unwind… so having something that was anatomically accurate and very relevant to my work, as well as being part of a wider group, gave me back my enthusiasm for crafting when I really needed it. It has been a big help in terms of relaxing and also feeling happier in general.”

Feedback, Heath-Care Professional

Here is a little bit of a roundup of what’s been happening with the Dab Hands project, in particular the embroidery sculpture, ‘That’ll Need Stitching’. Close to 300 people have taken part and the embroideries that came back to me were breathtaking. The amount of thought, skill and time that went into creating such a wonderful collection of stitched imagery is really astounding – they have amazed everyone I’ve shown them to!

Small squares of white fabric with embroidered hands
A selection of the embroidery samples

Esme Ward, the Director of the Manchester Museum, was so impressed that she has requested that the embroidered sculpture be displayed in pride of place in the new entrance hall at the museum’s grand reopening. The Dab Hands exhibition, which includes lots more artworks relating to crafting and our relationship with our hands, will run for a full year so hopefully there will be lots of opportunities for you to visit! In the meantime, here’s a few pictures of what’s been happening to the wonderful embroideries.

Embroidered fabric hexagons
Hexagoning the samples

I’m not one for ironing (or tiling!) but the beautiful embroideries kept me going through this mammoth task of tessellation!

A stack of embroidered fabric hexagons
A stack of hexagonal samples

Modelled on my own hand, the maquette was made using purple plasticine. It would be used to take measurements from when scaling up the sculpture. The ratio is 10:1. I thought that this pose describes something of the grace and accuracy that can be achieved by a hand at work stitching.

Purple plasticine hand holding a needle
The Maquette

The sculpture was constructed from the bottom up using heat reactive fabrics with a base of plywood.

A sandbag was added to ensure that the sculpture wasn’t top-heavy.

Sand bag in the base of the sculpture
Weighing down the base

At this point it was obvious that the hand would require a sturdy internal structure to stop the backward bend of the wrist becoming a weak point.

The internal structure was constructed using a combination of rods and tubes that spanned the interior.

Rods and tubes making sculptural structure
Rods and tubes create a strong structure

­­The palm and the back of the hand were made to be very sturdy…

Palm of hand of sculpture
Reinforcing the palm and back of the hand

…in order to support the outstretching of the fingers. ­

Using double-sided fusible interfacing, the sculpture has been given a skin of calico which will act as the background for the embroideries.

White calico-coated hand
Calico skin applied to hand

The next stage will be applying the embroideries. For this I will use a combination of fusible interfacing and sewing.

Wish me luck!

The Embroideries, Out and About

In September I was asked to programme ‘Caring For The Carers’, a four day festival of online and live creative activities and events designed to boost the wellbeing of hard-pushed NHS staff, care-workers, and their families. The festival was a collaboration with The Whitworth, Manchester Museum, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust and Dab Hands.

Woman crafting in a gazebo at an outdoor event
Dab Hands at Caring for Carers

The four days culminated in a day-long ‘Big Picnic’, hosted by The Whitworth. We had a lovely sunny day for the drop-in workshops and performances. I taught people how to tie surgeon’s knots so that the festival-goers could suture together some of your pieces of embroidery! It was lovely to be able to be involved in this event which brought people together to be creative, an element of Dab Hands that I have really missed due to the pandemic, and what better group of people to be sharing it with!

Dab Hands will be part of a similar festival, produced by Lime Arts at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust in the Spring. Hope to see some of you there! I’ll let you know as soon as I have a date.

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