A Bird in the Hand

22nd May 2020

First published in Inspirations issue #104 in October 2019, written by Ansie van der Walt

'It is about the sense of achievement and exhilaration of problem-solving during the making process itself.
Appreciating the end process is an added bonus. I love to be my own master and sew, hand-stitch, hammer, and paint.'

Jill Ffrench is like a weaver bird. Those industrious little birds who build their nests strand by strand, knot by knot, until they have a unique creation that only they could make. They work without a plan, a kit, a teacher or a guidebook, yet they create an organic, sensuous, sculptural work of art that is just the right size, the right shape and in the right position to attract the right mate. Jill remembers how, even as an 8-year-old, she spent hours sewing toys next to her mum who was an avid sewer, too.

'I was not interested in buying the hottest toy on the market – I wanted to make one for myself, add my own ideas and revel in the basic challenge of turning a flat 2D shape into a 3D object.'

Around this time, an inspiring visitor to Jill’s school worked with the children to make 3D embroidered scenes. Encouraged to come up with their own colourful designs and patterns, Jill used embroidery threads to hand stitch new techniques that captivated her for hours. Many of these basic stitches are still used on her birds today.

It was only once, as a mother, Jill watched her children create breathtaking pieces using natural fabrics and fibres that she received the push she needed. Picking up needle and thread, Jill started creating just for the sake of creating, honouring her work by using the best quality materials on the market.

‘I took the opportunity to shelter from the long dark Dandenong Ranges winter to pursue a single sewing project – a peacock made from gorgeous pure wool felt fabric and stuffed with soft alpaca fibres. I revelled in the pattern-making process and the complex feather pattern in their display and loved the feeling of the wire through the stitched felt, almost as lifelike as birds are to the touch. I found that once I started, I couldn’t stop.’

It was sometime later that Jill was asked to make other kinds of birds and she challenged herself to try. ‘I had no idea how it would look or if I even could, but I’ve learned to trust the mysterious journey. The results are a surprise and a bit of a treat. The more I make, the more I understand about birds and about my technique. I know how to make corrections and I’m more likely to have the courage to unpick about a million hours of work for the sake of it looking just right.’

Jill grew up with an aviary in the backyard. She spent many hours handling the birds, checking on them, picking them up and talking to them. Today she still has pet chickens at home which means she knows exactly how a bird needs to feel in the hand.

'I begin by sketching out my version of the bird, looking at photos from different angles.'

‘Sometimes part of the felt needs to be dyed, other times I have the perfect colour ready to go. I lay out my pattern, start cutting and cross my fingers that the pattern achieves the right shape or expression. I start slow and stay focused so any changes to the base of the bird can be made as I go. It can be disappointing to ditch a project because the base was never quite right so it’s vital to get it correct at the start. I bend my wire and push the stuffing in around it, making sure that there are no lumps and bumps along the way. Often, I add a stone to the center to change its balance in a certain way, so I have to decide on the pose of the bird very early on. I love the added weight as it seems to give them another life somehow.’

‘Inside my bigger birds, I use wood cut perfectly to size and sanded smooth. As my bird building process has developed, the beaks have changed. At first, I simply inserted a piece of cut felt into the body of the bird, but I realised that a harder texture would look better so now each one is stitched and often stuffed and then rubbed with a wax product that I love to use because it’s completely earth friendly. It’s the only specialised art product that I choose to use, even my glass eyes are just beads that anyone could repurpose from their local charity store. The art is in choosing the right size and integrating them very early so I can add stitches or needle felting as needed. I never add poly or plastics to my work, which comes back to my interests in keeping the planet healthy. I really feel that this planet is full to the brim with unnecessary waste pollution, and what’s wrong with art being able to decompose eventually anyway?’

Jill works when and wherever she gets an opportunity and the best natural light.

'The portability of my work means that I can pick it up and take it wherever I go – in my bed, in the car, on the train.'

Although Jill is often asked to teach, she has yet to take that step. ‘I am still learning and developing my techniques and enjoying the challenges that each bird brings. I always try to be open to questions on social media and to help people who are either new to this or finding their own way. As an international textile community, we all prosper by coming together to showcase our work and share our stories. Patient mastery is one part of it, exposing parts of the making process is another, and for me, they go hand in hand. It is that simple.’

Just like those industrious little weaver birds, Jill understands that the joy is in the process, but also, like those weaver birds who build massive community nests, she understands that a sense of achievement and exhilaration comes from not just making things but making a community. Especially if it is in the fresh air amongst the big trees.


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