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.

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.


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…

January stitching…

Nearly the end of January and I hope everyone is now getting back into some sort of ‘normal’ routine. (Oh yes, I can hear the cackles from here…).

Around here, things have been going quite well. I’ve somehow managed to get back into a semblance of a domestic rhythm – which is not something the feminist in me would ever have expected to write – but still, there’s no escaping the fact that for me at least I function better and get more creative work done when the boring bits are under control.

But I eased myself in gently. A visit to the V & A at the beginning of the month to see the Fabric of India exhibition, was a great way to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve decided that 2016 will have more Artist Dates* – it’s too easy to get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily life and we need to step off and recharge from time to time.

Fired up by the trip to London I’ve managed to get back to stitching properly this month. Unusually for me, I started the month with two pieces in progress. The first is an experiment with a different style of stitching, inspired by a summer’s day on a Scottish beach.

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I remember sitting on the beach (at Sango Bay to be precise), looking out at the sea and sky and realising that there were distinct bands of colour running horizontally and suddenly thinking that it might make a good subject for a stitchy piece. I didn’t have the phone with me, so instead, I scribbled notes about the different colour bands in a little book I was carrying, and hoped it would be enough description to enable me to interpret it when I came home.

When things were a bit rough before Christmas, I started putting this idea together, and I think having a completely different, ‘see-how-it-goes’ approach made it easier to pick up when I felt able.

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detail from ‘Beach’

But although it’s definitely producing the look that I was after, I have to say that I don’t find I enjoy long periods of stitching this way. Dare I say it, it’s almost like weaving, in as much as I have to progress from line to line, working lineally. Which explains two things – first, why it remains only about half stitched, and second, why I am now totally concentrating on the other piece – yes, yet another tree…

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I am much more ‘at home’ creating tree pictures, especially if they contain lots of spirals.

While I’ve been curled up, stitching away at this latest specimen, I’ve been thinking more deeply about this addiction to trees. I thought that if I could go back and collect up all the drawings, pictures and doodles I’ve ever done, I’d hazard a guess that well over half would have featured trees. I have no idea where this all started, but I know I was already doing it when I went to secondary school.

My Instagram feed is full of tree pictures – my own and those of the many other people out there who also share this fascination. Last week I met another lady, also an embroiderer, who does exactly the same thing and takes a daily picture of a favourite tree – it’s a small world.

You don’t have to be obsessed with trees for long before you become engaged in exploring the mythology surrounding them. I had originally thought I might write about that in particular, for instance the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, Druid oak groves, that sort of thing – but it’s such a huge topic, these are just Western mythologies, and trees feature in the mythos and cosmology of cultures all around the world – I wouldn’t know where to begin or end.

So if trees speak to you too, then I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts on why you’re attracted to them and there’s a very good chance the enchantment goes right back into the mists of time. Something to ponder as the needle goes in and out…

And I shall carry on with this one and wish you all happy stitching!

* Artist Dates: Julia Cameron’s suggestion in The Artist’s Way that artists should have a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’ to charge their creative batteries.