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.

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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.

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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.

Most days you can find me posting on Instagram and Twitter. Do follow me there for a daily dose of hedgerow watching, stitchy updates and a smattering of castles…

Of process, progress and magic…

I admit to being fascinated by the creative process. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re a writer, an artist, a cook or any other creative spirit, some people appear to begin their creative projects knowing what they’re aiming to achieve – having a good idea of where they’re going. While for others, there’s no clear end vision, instead they have an attachment to a process and embark on their projects letting an exploration of their process determine where it goes.

I suspect everyone crosses from one group to the other from time to time, it isn’t entirely black and white. Personally, I seem to spend most of my time in the process camp. I do occasionally have a clear picture in my mind of what I want to create, but much more often I simply have to start stitching without knowing much about where I’m going.

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the summer while I’ve been playing with a different process from the needlepoint I’ve been using for years.

I can’t in all honestly explain where the urge to branch out came from. I could definitely point to various experiences, the visit to the Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A, reading Slow Stitch by Claire Wellesley-Smith, visiting an exhibition of local textile artists’ work – but I don’t think any of these made me think, ‘oh this is what I’m going to do’, instead I think they helped me to feel that it was ok to respond to a compulsion I was already beginning to feel.

So what I’m actually doing is simply to experiment with adding fabrics into the stitched pieces I make. It’s not rocket science I know, but it’s quite a departure from what I’d been doing before. What I love is being able to incorporate fabrics which change their colours under different light – shot silks, organza and the like. You know I’m just a magpie at heart, always on the lookout for anything shiny

What I’m most enjoying at the moment, is seeing what happens as you combine layers of fabrics and create textures on the canvas – I’m finding this just as meditative a process as the repetitive stitch of needlepoint.

Whether or not any of the end results resonate with anyone else is of course another matter – but then I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that when you respond to a process compulsion, that’s not something you should worry about – if you did, you’d never progress, never take the risk.

I like the idea Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in her book Big Magic. She says that ideas don’t really come from inside us but are actually divinely generated and just looking for someone open and willing to bring them to life – not a million miles from awen, which is my favourite concept of inspiration. Either way, it’s a lot less stressful than thinking you’ve got to come up with something in some way significant yourself.

And as someone for whom the meditative process is fundamental, being receptive feels totally natural and peaceful. Ultimately if any of this is communicated through the finished work, then that’s what I’d call real magic.

Are you working on anything new to you? What made you decide to do it? Do tell…

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.

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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.

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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.