Tagged: Deirdre Nelson

Oct 08

The Napkin Project exhibition

Last month I attended The Napkin Project‘s exhibition of contributions for Saffron Gardens, a new dementia care facility in Bristol. The project embraced the theme of ‘home’, with volunteers across the UK embroidering napkins to reflect what the word means to them. The napkins are destined to be used by people with dementia, hopefully stimulating memories, inspiring interaction, etc. This comment from a contributor helps to explain the impetus behind the project:

My father has dementia and I have often noticed the urge for him, and other residents in the care home, to play with the edges of things – be it fabric or a table edge. In fact, I often leave a cotton hankie (brightly patterned Liberty squares) for him when my visit is over – a sort of textile reminder that I’ve been there. Something physical for him to hold.

It was touching to see the 120 napkins hanging, slightly mournfully, en masse. Their brown-paper hanging tags carried words like ‘comfort’, ‘security’, ‘safety’ and ‘love’. 250 napkins had been sent out to embroiderers of all ages, levels and abilities (no-one was excluded), and the organisers, Willis Newson, were gratified by the relatively high response rate, considering the heavy investment of effort and time required to complete one in the three-month timeframe.



I had stitched one of the napkins, partly inspired to contribute by my own experiences of having close relatives in care. And it wasn’t surprising to me that affecting human stories hover behind many of the napkins. A fellow napkin-embellisher, viewing napkins beside me at the expo, revealed that she had just lost her own mother to dementia a few weeks before; in fact, she had hand-delivered her napkin to the organisers while visiting Bristol for her mother’s funeral. Amidst that turmoil, she valued the experience of embroidering her napkin, she said. It gave her something positive to focus her grieving energies on.

So, what did ‘home’ mean to the contributors? Here are some of the common themes.




Teapots, teacups and cakes.





Plates, of course, to put them on.

Blue plate napkin

A good read.



Gardens, trees and flowers.

Napkin for The Napkin Project




Animals, birds and pets.





Julia Laing’s contribution


Creative spaces where much making is done.





And places we have literally created ourselves.

Paintbrush napkin

Home is the place I have made


A place of warmth.




Home as a place we feel safe, where we are free to be ourselves. Ironically, it may be far from our actual home, under canvas, or under no roof at all.


The Napkin Project has just uploaded an entire set of (much better) pictures of all napkins received to date over on Flickr, so do go and have a browse.

I was so pleased to be involved in this very practical creative project. It has been thought-provoking. In seeking to define an intangible – what creates a real home rather than just a place where we happen to be existing – it hints at crucial ingredients of care. I hope that it succeeds in providing amusement, comfort and stimulation to the residents of Saffron Gardens. And perhaps it will establish, in its small way, a new paradigm for working with dementia patients?

It was clear to me, attending the exhibition, that it has already provided comfort to a lot of relatives of people with dementia. So many contributed, and this appears to have been a positive means of channelling grief, sadness and loss. There’s so much intertwined in the fibres of those napkins.

If you haven’t completed your napkin yet, don’t worry. Finish it in your own time and return it because it will still be very happily and gratefully received, the organisers assure me. Most importantly, it will be used and handled by real people with dementia. If you would like to stitch a napkin but didn’t apply, Willis Newson allowed me to take a couple in the cream shade to give out,  so do get in touch – especially if you can pick one up from Bath. Thank you.


Sep 02

The Napkin Project



Textile notebook by The Napkin Project


If you had dementia, what would the textiles in your environment mean to you? Could they have a therapeutic value?


Purple flower

A flower from my embroidered napkin


Such issues are addressed by The Napkin Projecta joint venture by artist Deirdre Nelson, care-home provider Brunelcare, and arts consultancy Willis Newsonsupported by Arts Council England and Bristol City Council. 

In planning Brunelcare’s newest dementia care home, Saffron Gardens, Deirdre was tasked with contributing to the well-being of residents through art installations. She set out to communicate how important creativity can be to those living with dementia. Here’s more from The Napkin Project’s website:

When is a napkin not a napkin? When it’s something to keep your hands busy.  Or a bag.  Or a hat.  Or an aide-memoire. When she was involved with a project to create artwork for a new dementia care home, artist Deirdre Nelson noticed that residents in Brunelcare’s existing Saffron care home were often fascinated by the textured edges of items, playing with, handling and exploring objects such as the napkins they used at mealtimes.  A member of staff told her that one resident would join napkins together to carry  her possessions around with her or that another used hers as a vase to hold flowers; a napkin became more than just a napkin.

To that end, she recruited volunteers to embroider napkins with resonant images, and I put my hand up. 


Napkin Project WIP

Flowers in progress


My father’s last years were spent in a succession of Bristol hospital wards and care homes, none as forward-thinking as this one sounds, sadly. He had many health problems, including dementia, so this concept really struck a chord with me. I wanted to contribute.

Part of the task was to write what “home” means to us on a parcel label. After much mulling, I settled on: “Watching the flowers grow in the garden” – partly to reflect a year in which I’ve taken on an allotment and realise that I’d probably feel at home anywhere with a small patch, plot or even pot of earth with something (almost anything) green, alive and growing. 

My needlework contribution is very traditional, very cutesy, and not particularly imaginative. But I found it so relaxing to do. I hoped that the flowers, in crochet-like cast-on stitch, would be nice to handle.

I began by marking out by eye a flowing line of flower heads with a row of pins. I picked the thread colours as I went along. Making the flowers in this curious stitch which is midway between knitting and embroidery, I felt like a Borrower – casting on tiny stitches to my embroidery needle, slipping the needle through them and pulling them gently into their little petal loops. Finally, I added the stems and leaves.



Finishing the final stem


True to form, I used up little scraps of embroidery thread, much of it vintage; an arm’s length was enough to complete each flower head, even less to create a split-stiched stem.



A growing row


Although the official deadline to contribute is past (it’s actually today), it isn’t too late to contribute to this project; if you come along to the exhibition on 12th September, you can embroider a napkin there and then. Do go to the project’s Facebook page to view some of the contributions. And you can find the project on Twitter. And on Flickr. And Instagram.



My completed napkin


If you fancy trying your hand at another joint embroidery project, you could take part in UK charity Plantlife ‘s Patchwork Meadow, a Bayeux tapestry of Britain’s plants. And I’m sure there must be many other joint embroidery projects out there. If you happen to know about one and would like to share details in the comments, that would be really welcome. Thanks.



Napkin folded


PS Here’s a useful little film showing you how to do cast-on stitch. I didn’t use a milliner’s (or strawmaker’s or beading) needle with a narrow eye, but wish I had because it was tricky getting the needle through all the cast-on stitches.

PPS Delighted to see the napkin featured in situ at Saffron Gardens in The Guardian’s coverage (29th November 2013). Look out for image 11. Thanks so much to embroiderer Susi Bancroft for spotting it and giving me a nudge!

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