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Ken Smith

    I was born and mostly raised in Far North Queensland. A foundation student of

Townsville University College (now James Cook University), I then trained in

Brisbane as a secondary-school teacher, and finished my B.A. degree (in evening

studies) while teaching in Townsville. I graduated in 1966, after I had left for


      I lived and taught in England for twenty-two years from February, 1966. For

the first year, I was a supply teacher in London. A one-term temporary post took

me to Chesham High School in Buckinghamshire, west of London in January, 1967.

 I remained on the staff for twenty-one years.  From April, 1974, to my resignation

at the end of January, 1988, I was Head of the English Department.

    I loved teaching (still do) and the school, but Mrs. Thatcher's depredations on the

British teaching profession made it impossible for me to continue to do my job as I

believed it should be done. A 'contract' by special act of parliament is not a contract;

it's servitude. As with the tango, it takes two.

        I have drawn and painted since childhood. At high school, I became

interested in theatre - in acting, set and costume design, and stage makeup.

Before leaving for England, I was a member of two of Townsville's amateur

dramatic societies, and, during my University College year, started a university

dramatic society, for which I produced the first play, Tiger at the Gates,

Christopher Fry's English version of La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas Lieu. I

designed the sets and costumes, and, though not originally taking a part, ended

up playing the male lead, Hector. The original actor had pulled out five weeks

before the opening.

        When I left Chesham High, the Headmaster, K. D. Stokes, reminded me

that I had begun what became the school tradition of drama, at first leading an

after-school play-reading group, and then producing a one-act play (A. A. Milne's

"The Singing Maid"), on what was then the school hall (later to be, for a time,

the school library). Thereafter, when the inestimable Michael H. Woods became

Head of English, I aided with costume and set design and construction. Our first

production, together with Art teacher Jean Ward (as she then was) was G&S's

"The Gondoliers". On occasions, as one of a team of producers, I also

produced one-act plays.

    When I succeeded Mike Woods as Head of English, I directed the annual major

production, more than ably supported by colleagues such as Graeme Taylor

(Stage Manager), Joy Furley (Costume Mistress), Sue David (later Sue Shacklock)

(Refreshments - for both participating staff and on-stage!) and many others who

gave their time to serve on Front of House.

    While in England, I  also pursued my interest in textile art, being fortunate, for

fourteen years, to attend inspirational workshops (Design for Embroidery) given

by Constance Howard, M.B.E.

(If you haven't heard of her, it's a sad indictment of our times and your loss. She

was the Doyenne of English Embroiderers, a towering figure in English Art-Craft

education. Please do yourself the favour of Googling her.)

        Miss Howard suggested, on my return to Australia (to my birthplace, Cairns)

in early 1988, that I should teach embroidery. In 1989, I discovered silk painting.

Then followed  two years' full-time research, in which I explored some of the

possibilities of silk painting (including shibori) and combined the painted silk with

machine embroidery. I began teaching both subjects, at first in North Queensland,

then throughout the state, then on an ever-widening front.

        I lived in Brisbane, the state capital, from the end of 1994, to August, 2007,

when I moved to Tasmania. Yes, it is part of Australia - just an Australian offshore


        In painted silk, I aim for rich colour and complex, richly patterned designs

inspired by those found in nature, rather than the formal, two-dimensional effects

of traditional serti. These days, I seldom do stretched work, unless I want its

characteristic salt effects. Otherwise, I use my own informal, shibori-related


        As I find shibori fascinating, I have also developed - and continue to do so -

more informal adaptations of and variations on the classic methods. These I call

Aussie Shibori. Why? The focus is on not only pattern but richness of colour.

Though loving traditional (usually indigo) shibori, I do not wish to do it. To me its

one-colour austerity, while extremely beautiful, is out of key in our land of intense

colour. Rather, it reflects theharshness of the Japanese winter - the deepest

blue-black, through shades of blue to white -  and Zen austerity. In Aussie Shibori,

colours/dyes are applied by hand, rather than by immersion. The manner of

application alters the technique.

        I also do my own version of Fortuny pleating, which I call waterfall pleating.

You can see it  in some of my outfits in Wearable Art (No's 4 and 5). Like Fortuny,

I'm keeping my method secret.

        My machine embroidery is almost exclusively freehand or freemotion. FME (the

US term FreeMotion Embroidery) allows for the development of an individual and

personal style. While programmed motifs/patterns are undeniably beautiful, they

are machine-perfect and infinitely repeatable. Anyone else with the same machine

can do the same. The only personal input is choice of colour and possibly the

adaptations some machines allow with balance alterations and combinations.

Even so, being machine-perfect and infinitely repeatable, they seem to me to be

ultimately sterile.

        I know it's a personal limitation, but digitised embroidery does not interest

me. For me, the fun is in doing the stitching!

        With FME, there's no doubt that the human hand, brain and heart are at work.

The embroiderer develops a personal style - the sum of those techniques which

the artist likes the effect of and enjoys doing (and the machine being used will do

with ease). It also reflects the embroiderer's tastes - colour, texture, degree and

style of finish, for example. Even imperfections and inconsistencies become part

of a personal style. Nor is it possible to do exactly the same thing twice.

    To me, that's a positive advantage.

     Texture and richness of effect are important to me.


       Two examples of textural effects combining manipulated fabric and stitchery. The first is from

    Genesis (1998), the second from the vest for A Bloke in the Landscape (Art to Wear, 2004).


        I enjoy doing fine-detailed work and exploring the possibilities of layering and

three-dimensional effects, including those achieved by a variety of fabric

manipulation techniques.


           3-D freehand machine-embroidered pieces             

My preferred fabrics are hand-painted silks in combination with sheers (silk or

synthetic), lamés, wool and leather. Some works also feature hand embroidery

and/or hand beading (punctuation!).





     A number of teaching samples, mostly beginner and intermediate levels


        I experiment with a variety of styles. I feel a tutor is obliged to show that,

whatever the preferred style of the student, it can be achieved. But I don't belong

to the "This is how you do grass" school. I prefer to teach students stitch

techniques, to equip them with a wide repertoire and encourage them to make their

own discoveries about the interpretive applications.

         Above all, students should relax and enjoy exploring FME as much as I do.

My workshops are therefore technique-based rather than product-driven (though

even beginners can turn their class stitch samples into attractive works).

        Many people find the prospect of "driving the bus" themselves daunting. When

encouraged to try, they find that it isn't. It's fun! Without the pressure to finish a

"masterpiece" (product) by the end of the workshop, students have a chance to

play, to gain confidence in coordinating the speeds of the machine and the

movement of the work. In my experience, 99.9% of beginners (usually without

realising it) have made giant leaps before morning tea on the second day.

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