A Celtic Mystery

A Slow Stitch Story…

It’s not every time I make a piece of stitched textile art that I could tell you for certain where the inspiration came from, often they seem to evolve from a process of stitching meditation, but that’s not the case with my latest work, this one definitely has a story…

In 1939 a small bronze disc decorated with exquisite spiral whorls, was discovered in the sand and gravel when the River Bann was being dredged near Loughan Island, Co. Derry. it was probably made by a Celtic metal worker in the first century AD and it was this, the Bann Disc which gave me my inspiration.

Who owned it, how it was used, and how it came to be in the river are all mysteries, but this one small artifact (it’s about 10.5 cm diameter) encapsulates everything enchanting for me about the Celts and especially their art.

The design itself is an enduring mystery. It’s three entwined spirals is known as a triskele. People have been using this style of design for at least 5000 years. It appears on many pre-historic monuments, including the spectacular entrance stone at Newgrange. It continued to be used extensively throughout the pre-Christian era, particularly associated with Celtic art. For me the freedom of line, the organic writhing of the curves is at its best in the early celtic period.

What it symbolised to the people of those times can’t be certain, many ideas have been and continue to be discussed – perhaps we’ll never really know.

It appears again in Christian symbolism, usually associated with the Trinity. And now is once more being extensively used by neo-paganism, again with a variety of symbolic interpretations.

What happened to the Bann Disc in the 2000 years from its creation until it was re-discovered is another unsolved mystery. As with so many artifacts we see in museums, we can only imagine their precise histories.

But although we may not know their exact stories, looking closely at these remarkable artifacts you can see layers of history, a patina built up over long years, a burnishing. Most artifacts come down to us damaged or incomplete, but for me this often adds to their enchantment. It lends them a fragility and delicacy, offering us a thin but tangible thread back through time, as here, it gives us a physical if vulnerable link direct to the hands of a Celtic metal worker, a gift from the Iron Age.


In creating my own version of the Bann Disc in threads, fibres and silks, I’ve tried to show the piece both as a powerful symbol with a strong metallic essence, but also an accumulation of layers, an iridescent shimmery patina, appearing to change according to the light, a fragment decayed by time.


A Celtic Mystery – Ann Pawley 2017, approximately 13 x 14″ (32 x 34 cm).

Do you think it works? I wish you could see it glinting at night under the lamps or by candlelight, it really does change what you see with the metallic stitches catching the light in different directions.

There’s nothing better than talking stitchy or historical (unless of course its historical stitchery), so please do leave a comment. How would you display this? I’m thinking mounted onto canvas without glass, what would you do? I’m trying to decide what’s best, so any suggestions gratefully received.

Anny x

More Information

  • The original Bann Disc is displayed at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. 
  • There are many sources of information and images of various triple spiral symbols, if you want to read more, start here.
  • To read more about Newgrange, try this website.
  • The photograph of the Bann Disc is from the book ‘Celtic Mythology’ – Proinsias Mac Cana.

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Catching up…

Phew, what a few weeks it’s been. I’m happy to report that we’ve come through the  delight of both daughters simultaneously sitting ‘A’Levels and GCSEs, relatively unscathed. The emergency escape to a tent in the garden wasn’t required and now we have the prospect of a few tranquil weeks before the results arrive…

As you can imagine, I managed to do a lot of stitching (always my go-to method of stress reduction) while the exams were happening. Ever since I visited the Indian textiles exhibition at the V & A, I’d wanted to try out some new ideas and textures, and having also recently read Claire Wellesley-Smith’s ‘Slow Stitch’, I decided to free myself from the tyranny of the ‘one hole, one stitch’ edict to try something different.


I have to say this has been a revelation in many ways. It certainly takes a meditative stitch practice to a new place as far as I’m concerned. My only problem now is trying to decide when it’s finished.

In other news… I’m just back from a short trip to the Scottish Highlands and Islands courtesy of my extraordinarily generous flying friend. This time I achieved a huge ambition and visited some of the neolithic sites on Orkney.

Having been a rampant medievalist for most of my life, I’m something of a late-comer to things pre Anglo-Saxon, but I suppose having watched so many Time Teams over the years, it’s gradually crept under the skin. Also, I’ve read so much now about our Celtic past and much of that references theories about the people who preceded them, and so it is that before you know where you are, you’ve reached that wonderful hinterland where history melts into legend and legend into myth.

And I find that I am entirely entranced by this mythic realm.

Detail from the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

This is where, I’m afraid to say, the history junkie in me ceases all scientific, factual thought and instead wholeheartedly embraces the possibilities of myth. Because, really, faced with something like the Ring of Brodgar, how much can you actually say for certain. But stop thinking and instead stand there and simply feel and I defy anyone not to be affected emotionally. To know that humans, so much like us, went to the effort to create these structures, but to understand so little about why they did so, is both baffling and mesmerising. The gulf between our time and their’s opens and all we have is our minds and tantalising traces of archaeology to bridge that gap.

I did rather max out on the photos on Orkney, so once I’ve sorted through, I’ll write a separate post about it.

So, relaxed and refreshed, it’s back to the needle now. I have some fairly nebulous ideas running around my head, which I need to get down to planning out. The textures of our wild places are, I’m pretty sure, bound to wheedle their way in.

What are you working on at the moment? Does history, myth or landscape influence how you work? Do tell.






Tools of the trade…

A few weeks back, when the Discover Original Art group was discussing our upcoming exhibition in November, it was suggested that we each share online, details about the tools and materials we use to make our art.

I loved this idea, because there’s nothing I like better than having a nose about other artists’ studios, seeing what they use to create their work: imagine the fascinating tools used by printers, glass makers, stone carvers, oil painters, mixed-media artists, eco-printers!

I was just happily nodding away, when it dawned on me, that my own tools of the trade were somewhat less exciting – in fact I did spend a few minutes wondering if it was possible to write a whole post about needles…

But then, there is surely beauty of a kind, in the simple, the mundane?

So although I can’t offer you the oooh factor of printing-presses or kilns – here are my particular tools of the trade…

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Big and thick, short and thin, but all with a large hole and a blunt tip…tapestry needles

It took me a long time to realise just how much difference using the right size for the job would make – duh!

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I would like to hug the person who invented the R & R Craft Frames – for me, the number one choice every time… which is not to say I don’t occasionally use others, but well, the flexibility of the R & R suits my stitching style.

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The floor-stand gets a lot of use, but so do my knees, the steering-wheel (followers on Twitter will know what I mean) and the edge of tables – all depends on my mood and where I’m stitching at the time…

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Loose-weave canvas: linen scrim, cotton crash – you name it, if it’s loose-weave, small holes, and reasonably robust, I’ll give it a go…

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Don’t think of them as yarns or threads, think of them as a paints – that you can stroke…

And last, but not least…

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Without which, nothing would be possible ❤


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Putting into words…

I was delighted to read the latest post from artist Stephanie Redfern this week, where she explains her decision to work in needlepoint. Stephanie understands completely the slow nature of this process and rather wonderfully refers to it as ‘slow motion magic painting’ – I love that!

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I smiled as I read some of the comments on her post – mention needlepoint, and patience is always the word that people associate with it. And yes, like Stephanie, my own patience does not extend far beyond the stitching.

When I talk to people about the pieces I make, so often there’s amazement at anyone being prepared to take the time to create in this way, they generally ask why I choose to do it. And this is where I struggle to express myself adequately.

Because however clichéd it may sound, hand stitching is one of those things you have to do, to appreciate the why.

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And then, with serendipitous timing, today I read the latest post from my stitching hero, Judy Martin. I’m sure Judy’s work is familiar to you, but if not, I urge you to see what she does, because I don’t know a better or purer expression of the power and beauty of hand stitching.

At the end of her post, Judy says…

Hand stitching.
Evidence of time.
Evidence of thought.
Evidence of connection.

And really, there, in a nutshell you have the whole story.

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There’s a wonderful article here by Martha Sielman, about Judy and her work which sensitively expands this expression – I’m sure it will resonate with all hand stitchers.

Pictures are details from the stitching of my latest piece of needlepoint embroidery, completed this week.