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Thread, Color, Attention

Two embroidered tapestries by Ruth Miller. Left: “The Evocation and Capture of Aphrodite,” 36 x 30 inches. Right: “Blue Peace,” 38 x 25 inches. The piece on the left was on display this spring at the Penland Gallery.

This spring, visitors to the Penland Gallery got the chance to see a piece by Ruth Miller as part of the exhibition I dwell in Possibility. The work’s vivid colors and rich texture were the first things that drew the eye upon stepping through the doorway, and many visitors were overheard exclaiming something along the lines of, “I need to get a closer look at that painting!” It wasn’t until they were within a few feet that they realized the work they were admiring was embroidery.

Through a lifetime of needlework, careful observation, and inquisitive self-reflection, Ruth Miller has mastered the art of embroidery as portraiture. She works large and with impressive realism, combining the precision and color sense of a pointillist painter with the narrative skill of a novelist. Her work, above all, is thoughtful and thought provoking, and it’s been a thrill to gain a deeper sense of her process this session as she’s been teaching in our textiles studio.

Ruth (in the red shirt) talking through her process during a demonstration in Upper Textiles.

In her workshop Embroidered Portraiture, Ruth and her students are approaching needle, fabric, and yarn as tools to transmit what they see, not merely what they think they see. In the process, Ruth has presented them with a crash course in observational drawing, color theory, stitching patterns, and more. To see the tables strewn with reference photos and pencil sketches and yarn samples doesn’t fully illustrate the time and care that go into these works—a full portrait generally takes Ruth about a year to complete!—but it does help to deepen our appreciation for the craft and mastery behind each one.

Stitching samples, color theory explanations, and colored pencil drawings from Ruth's Penland workshop

If you’re intrigued, we’d highly recommend taking a few minutes to read Ruth’s own description of her process and motivations on her website.

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Photo of the Week: Eight Shots of Spring

Penland runs well over 100 workshops every year, and this fast pace means it can be hard to fully appreciate the creative leaps and transformations that happen—quietly but powerfully—in each one. Before we move on to the exciting flurry of summer workshops starting this Sunday, we want to spend another moment or two taking in all the great things that came to life during our spring sessions, from new shoes to new furniture designs to new friendships. Below, we present a mini slideshow of eight photos, one from each of our eight-week concentrations and an extra one of the sweet moments in between. For more spring photos, including shots from our spring one-week workshops, head over here to view our longer album.

"Experimental Editions" with Marianne Dages
"Meta-Furniture" with Tom Shields
"Persuading Metal" with Adam Whitney
"The Perfect Union: Paint, Collage & Transfer" with Holly Roberts
"Wheelthrowing and Handbuilding Techniques" with Sunshine Cobb
"Sculpture with Fierce Intention" with Christina Shmigel
"From Shoes to Boots: Footwear 101" with Amara Hark-Weber
...and a moment of friends and spring green outside The Pines


Registration just opened for our next round of fall and spring workshops—take a look at all the great instructors we have lined up! There are also spaces open in many of our summer workshops starting as soon as May 27th.

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Kalamkari cloth by Lavanya Mani
Lavanya Mani, “The Emperor’s New Machine,” natural dye on cotton fabric, 6 x 9 feet

Some things just never get old, like the power of a good story or the draw of color and pattern. This helps to explain the enduring appeal of kalamkari, an intricate process of decorating and dying cloth that has been practiced in India and Iran for over 2,000 years.

This summer, we are thrilled to bring kalamkari to the Penland studios in a session 1 textiles workshop taught by Indian artist Lavanya Mani. What’s most exciting, perhaps, is the wide-ranging appeal of a process that seems quite specific at the outset. For weavers and natural dyers, there will be deep exploration of mordants, tannins, and natural dyes like madder and indigo and new insights into how to layer and combine them to create a vivid and expansive palette. For painters and storytellers, there will be the opportunity to use cloth as canvas and bring narrative to life through brush, block, and color. And for process nerds and material enthusiasts, there will certainly be new techniques to master and refine as Lavanya reveals the important sequence of steps used to build up a kalamkari cloth.

If kalamkari doesn’t sound familiar, then perhaps chintz does. The refined floral prints of chintz fabric that rose to such popularity in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries started as kalamkari imported from India. But the process itself can be used to achieve a much wider array of results. Take Lavanya’s own work as an example: her pieces are much closer to paintings, saturated with color and thoughtful details rendered in an expressive hand. Many draw on themes from literature or Indian history to build insightful narratives that speak to power dynamics, the experience of womanhood, and more.

Kalamkari piece by Lavanya Mani
Lavanya Mani, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” natural dye and appliqué on cotton fabric, 9 x 11 feet

In her piece “The Emperor’s New Machine,” Lavanya sets up a Vaudeville-esque theater of saturated curtains and trimmings and places the sewing machine at center stage. The work includes entertaining circus-like details, but it also speaks to India’s independence movement and the role the sewing machine played in enabling India’s people to produce their own garments without relying on British imports. Another piece, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” mixes colonial and Indian imagery amid the lush flora and fauna of the Indian landscape.

For artists who would like to tell their own stories in color and pattern on cloth, we invite you to join Lavanya in the studios May 27-June 8 for two weeks of intensive kalamkari exploration. Students can expect to make samples, create an extensive dye card, and produce kalamkari pieces of their own. They will leave with a complete toolbox of steps and techniques to continue their kalamkari practice at home.

See below for the complete course description for Lavanya’s Kalamkari workshop. Other open workshops during session 1 include:

  • WoodTable Talk with Jason Schneider
  • PrintSymmetry-Fold Intaglio & Kite Making with Koichi Yamamoto
  • LetterpressFreedom of the Press with David Wolfe
  • Hot GlassEssential Shape with David Naito


kalamkari design of a cardamom pod
Lavanya Mani, “Cardamom,” natural dye on cotton fabric, 18 x 20 inches


Lavanya Mani, May 27-June 8
This workshop will explore kalamkari, a traditional Indian drawing, printing, and dyeing process once known famously as chintz. Through lecture-demonstrations and hands-on application, students will learn how kalamkari was made historically, how it is practiced today in various parts of India, and how it can be adapted for the contemporary studio. We’ll create strong, vivid colors using classic dye. We’ll cover fabric selection and the procedures and techniques for preparing fabric so it is receptive to the dye, including scouring, and pre-treatment with tannins and mordants. All levels. Code 01TA

Studio artist; exhibitions: solo at Chemould Prescott Road (Mumbai), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Kochi-Muziris Biennale (India), Galerie Pagoda (Paris), Pearl Lam Gallery (Shanghai).