Jem Olsen, Ballarat, Australia

Australia, embroidery

Dear Textiles, 

Like for so many others, my love for you began with a dear Nana who taught me how to sew. Whenever I think of her, I can’t but help also think of you, so strong is the connection between my early memories of my Nana and of textiles. I am so grateful that she introduced me to her own love of you at such an early age. And now here I am, some 35 years later, a textile artist, creating works that allow me to voice my thoughts and concerns and that through their completion make my heart sing!

The town of Ballarat where I live and the place of our many collaborations together thus far, was established during the gold rush in the mid-1800’s and is the site of the Eureka rebellion and massacre of 1854. The latest piece we’ve created together is inspired from that time – a 3.5m length of calico onto which is stitched the statement of a police officer’s wife who lived on the goldfields, a lady by the name of Catherine McLister, of the sexual harassment she experienced from her husband’s boss – the town’s Police Commissioner. 

When I first read Catherine’s statement and learned more about her story, I had a very emotional response and strong yearning to connect with her through you. Catherine’s words resonated so deeply – both in terms of the growth of the recent #metoo movement and some pretty awful workplace harassment I’d experienced the previous year.

In working together to connect with Catherine and her story despite the 170 odd years between us, our daily stitch sessions together provided an outlet to channel a lot of the pain, grief and loss we’d both experienced, at times right there at the very site of her former residence here in Ballarat! And as we slowly came to the end of our daily stitch sessions, all the while against a backdrop of some very high profile men being finally brought to account for their own sexual misconduct and abuse of women, it was like we were helping bring about a sense of peace; a laying to rest of experiences past, to make way for a more hopeful today and tomorrow. I will be forever grateful for the wonderful collaborations I’ve shared with you; especially this one dear textiles. This one was and will always be, a very special one indeed.

Lots of love,


P.S. You can find out more about Jem at and on Instagram at @jemolsen. The photos in this post below are by Louisa West. The photo at the top, a cropped photo in of the work in progress, is by Jem Olsen. To see a video that Jem made about this piece, click over here:

Heather Burgess, Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland



[Note: Heather Burgess, of Rag Button, sent me the following text and photographs (see gallery at the bottom of the post), about Volume 1 of The Collar Series’, which follows being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. You can learn more about Heather and the series on Twitter (@ragbutton) and on Instagram (@ragbutton).]

The Collar Series

Volume 1: The Delinquent Butterfly

“Hidden like a sentence deep within”

In 2012 I was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer at the age of 32 (this type of cancer effects the Thyroid gland that sits in the front of the neck). In response to this I have been developing a series of collars, an item sometimes worn on the neck for decoration. They are an expression of the above event, my therapy and my catalogue of information. The Collar Series is made up of 3 volumes containing 3 collars in each, Volume 1 – Diagnosis, Volume 2 – Treatment and Volume 3 – Recovery.

There was nothing to see before my diagnosis, everything that was happening was hidden deep inside and on the surface all seemed just fine.

The collars progress and appear altered from the first to the last. Small changes and hints are discreetly added. Text from old books and printed words will offer an insight into my feelings and the information revealed at diagnosis. The pieces are created using techniques I love and that give me comfort, patchwork, machine embroidery, hand stitching and using little bits of materials to construct the body of each collar. To those viewing the pieces they will look like nice pretty collars, decorative and aesthetically pleasing, but with an undertone of things that were to come, the darkness that is a cancer diagnosis.

I have chosen materials that give a fragile or delicate appearance, as the neck is a delicate part of the body. The stitching is a combination of both hand and digital embroidery; I employed the use of digital embroidery to stitch out the thyroid cancer cells (taken from my own pathology slides) and butterfly, these can be seen on the left hand side of the butterfly, a dusky purple colour (thyroid cancer cells are roughly this colour).

Dimensions and Materials

One collar 28cm (L) x 29cm (W) x 1.5cm (D, flat)

Blue wool fabric, linen, silk, silk crepeline, vintage fabric, embroidery thread. Machine stitching, hand stitching, digital embroidery, template patchwork, patchwork and inkjet printed fabric.