Dr Karen E McAulay

Librarian and postdoctoral researcher in Glasgow, Scotland. I am in lockdown with my husband and youngest son.


29th May 2020


Stitching a Lockdown Journal


The day I drove instead of taking the bus to #Glasgow, was the last day I went to work. My lockdown existence began that afternoon, as I cleared my not-very-big desk and set myself up for working from home.


I decided to keep a lockdown journal in my leisure time. However, rather than writing it, I would stitch it. Sewing is a hobby – it’s not my work. Having said that, in recent years I have often enough attempted to interpret my research world in a textile form, so I was more than prepared for the challenge of documenting this very weird episode in an unconventional way.


It has proved both absorbing and time-consuming! I’m a librarian for 3.5 days a week, and am seconded to do postdoctoral research for the other 1.5 days. I soon realised that there wasn’t a great deal I could illustrate about my life as a stay-at-home librarian. I managed to depict a laptop one day, a spreadsheet another day, and – wait for it – a migraine occasioned by the spreadsheet, on yet another. Spreadsheets have occupied many of my librarian hours during this lockdown!


Depicting everyday tasks has proved a more fruitful source of inspiration. The ironing-basket applique turned out well, as did the washing-line one – and the tongue-in-cheek apron picture early on, when I realised that I had suddenly become a one-woman production line of laundry, soups and banana breads, not to mention all the other meals.


I’ve even experimented with embroidery, Jane Austen style (Jane Austen Embroidery, by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin - https://www.pavilionbooks.com/book/jane-austen-embroidery/).


Things suddenly changed when I tripped over the outdoor-painter’s dustsheet and broke my foot. It’s a painful way of relinquishing some of the domesticity to the guys in the house, and has meant an even more sedentary existence for the past three weeks. Yes, I stitched my fall from grace, and the gargantuan moon-boot that I’ve stomped about in since then!


Sitting around even more than usual, I’ve cross-stitched my own interpretations of graphic art that I found on the Scottish music publications which are the current focus of my research. Most recently, I did a freehand cross-stitch “sampler” about Dominic Cummings’s ill-advised trip to Durham.


But what I was really looking forward to, was sewing the graphic art appearing on a tartan-design Scottish songbook cover. I spent several nights trying to satin-stitch and back-stitch the 1950s lettering onto tartan. All I ended up with was a pile of snipped-out stitches as not one but two attempts hit the dust. It wasn’t going to happen. And yet, I felt I simply had to do something with tartan. I’d ordered it on eBay especially for the journal, after all!


But why should it matter so much to me? My research is about three Glasgow publishers, active in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Since (a) I’m a musicologist who has specialised in the study of historical Scottish music, and (b) these guys published an impressive number of publications, not all with a Scottish theme, I decided I would only focus on their Scottish output. And that’s how I came to be reading a chapter by Meghan McAvoy called ‘Slaying the Tartan Monster’, in a book of conference papers entitled, Understanding Scotland Musically (2018). I had contributed a chapter myself, and I’d heard Meghan’s paper at the conference, but at the time, I hadn’t realised how pertinent it would be to the research I’m doing now.


From Meghan’s paper, I was led to Tom Nairn’s book, The Break-Up of Britain, which has a couple of chapters specifically about Scottish nationalism and – yes – commentary on the concept of the ‘tartan monster’, ie, the obsession with tartan and Scottish kitsch in some parts of Scottish society, not to mention visitors to Scotland. Whilst some folk love it, other people find the tartanry an extreme embarrassment. This week I decided to dive into Nairn’s book during my research hours, and I have another more recent publication, Ian Brown’s collection of essays, From Tartan to Tartanry, lined up after that.


The ‘tartan monster’ is a metaphor. But – well, don’t tell me you haven’t at some stage seen a grotesque tartan depiction of the Loch Ness monster – or the monster wearing a tartan tam-o-shanter. If I couldn’t stitch Kerr’s 47 Popular Scottish Songs title, then I thought I could stitch a tartan Loch Ness monster. This evening I signed up to listen to one of my work-colleagues doing a Scottish music gig from his front room, then set up my sewing machine, ironing board and fabric stash in the dining room so that I could mess about with fabric at the same time as enjoying his music. And the muse was good to me – we now have a tartan monster as today’s journal entry. I have to admit that really, a bigger monster would have showed the tartan off more effectively. You wouldn’t really know mine WAS tartan unless I told you! Still, it’s a Loch Ness monster, and I feel I’ve done the ‘tartan monster’ metaphor justice.


Dare I confess that I’m very tempted to buy a little china piece of Scottish kitsch – from the right era, naturally – I had a little browse on eBay before I started sewing! (This was meant to be a search for more music, since I can’t access the music in our own library, but somehow I expanded my search out into – ahem – other media too. I haven’t bid for this item yet, but there’s a good chance I may!)


I can’t describe my stitching adventures as research – I sew because I find it relaxing. But I do nurture the hope that perhaps the research-related journal entries might catch the attention of people who would otherwise not take much interest in the research of a Scottish musicologist and librarian. If I can bring the subject alive in a new and refreshing way, then surely that can’t be a bad thing.


And who knows – I might yet repurpose one or two of my stitchy experiments as Christmas presents. We’ll have to wait and see!

If you’d like to see the whole sequence of Karen's journal entries, you can find it here: https://karenmcaulay.wordpress.com/2020/05/04/stitching-a-lockdown-journal/