A Journey in Stitch

7th December 2022

First published in Inspirations issue #107 in July 2020, written by Ansie van der Walt

Dijanne Devaal’s travelling blankets are perfect metaphors for her life – a collection of places, people, relationships, and experiences collected on her journey through life.

Born in the Netherlands, Dijanne grew up in Australia. ‘My father came home one day when I was nine years old and said to my mother, ‘we are immigrating. It is Australia or Brazil.’ She chose Australia. ‘I was bereft, I didn’t want to leave, they had promised me speed skates for my tenth birthday!’

Now Australian, Dijanne is still very aware of her Dutch cultural heritage. She also has French and possibly Catalan heritage, from the times of various religious wars in the 1600s. The first year in Australia was difficult. As a ten-year-old who couldn’t speak English, life in a small town was lonely. ‘I was teased a lot and was basically an outsider – it taught me to be resourceful on my own. I read voraciously in order to learn English. I like to spend time on my own – I need it to do research and think about what I am making. I think those early years in Australia taught me to be happy with my own company and to search and keep on searching.’

Dijanne’s textile skills and knowledge were collected in the same way as her travelling blanket memories – bit by bit, and piece by piece, from her mother who sewed and knitted for the family, to her artistic aunt and uncle, to her own self-taught knitting, embroidery and quilting endeavours.

‘As a bright child from a migrant family, it was expected that I would become a doctor. I asked my parents to allow me to study textiles, but the answer was a definite no.’

Dijanne ended up studying law and working as a solicitor for about ten years.

‘I came to quilting and stitching prior to a year’s travel to Africa and Europe. I felt I needed something to do with my hands whilst travelling and purchased a book by Pauline Burbidge. I made a quilt from the book, cut entirely by hand as I did not know about rotary cutters. I stitched it by hand but did the quilting by machine on my return.’ In 2000 Dijanne decided to formalise her textile knowledge and did a master’s degree in Visual and Performance Arts via distance learning at Charles Sturt University.

As a textile artist and traveller, Dijanne kept on collecting experiences and stories to add to her own life’s travelling blanket. One of these was her foray into curating. ‘I was frustrated that my work was not being selected for some of the bigger art quilt exhibitions – I wasn’t one of the names, but my work was selling. That gave me the confidence to float the idea of curating my own exhibition in France in 2000 – the Sydney Olympic year. Because it was the only travelling Australian exhibition in Europe that year, it created a lot of interest as every night there were segments about Australia on television.’

The exhibition was called Australian Bounty and had a very real aura about it, a presence that was hard to explain. It was invited to many venues. After that, Dijanne curated several other exhibitions, but hung up her curating boots in 2010, only to be drawn back into it with the Sentinelle series.

‘I work in themes because I want my work to tell a story. I always thought I will be a writer and have dabbled in it, but I find I am most comfortable making stories in fabric.’

The Sentinelle series was about Dijanne’s concern for the environment and the ideas of Australian indigenous people as guardians of the land. ‘I am in awe of their connection with the land, knowledge of that land and all things that grow on it. It seems to me to be very much the way forward as we grapple with environmental destruction on a scale never before encountered.’

‘The female form as an icon occurs in many cultures but is especially prevalent in my European heritage as angels and madonnas.’ Dijanne adopted this theme and made each sentinel about a different environmental concern. ‘They were the same height as me, to indicate that I also must take responsibility.’

‘I travel a lot. It satisfies my curiosity about the world and other people. I like being outside of language – not being able to speak the local language. I need to be extra observant to understand what is going on.’ Dijanne tends to go to one place at a time and really discover it by walking a lot just to observe.

Dijanne started her first blanket whilst she was travelling with an exhibition that she curated in 2001. ‘I was minding the exhibition for an entire event and needed something to do with my hands. The first piece was small, but I liked the idea and it grew bigger and continued out from there. I am always working on one these days as I find it stills the hectic pace, and somehow unwinds my mind into a gentler place.’

‘I never really plan a travelling blanket, but a few years ago I was asked to make and exhibit them for the Quilt and Craft Fair in Sydney and Melbourne in 2018. They wanted at least ten pieces – that was a lot of stitching.’ Normally Dijanne’s blankets are at least 150 cm along one side, but making ten pieces of that size, all hand-stitched, was just not possible within the time frame, so some of them ended up being smaller.

‘The pieces were inspired by places I had travelled to, such as Florence, India, France, East-Timor, and Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever stitched so much in my life – sometimes up to twelve hours a day just to get it finished in time. I love how they change under your hands – the feel of it changes, they change visually, and I like to keep them drapey as they are in a sense a tactile memory piece.’

‘Other than setting some sort of theme, they tend to grow organically. For example, a white and blue piece came about because I had forgotten to pack the piece I was working on at the time and the only fabric I had available was a natural coloured khadi fabric. I had remembered to pack threads, including some indigo threads that I dyed in India while visiting a friend. It just grew from there and as it grew it really became a reflection about my Dutch past.’

One of the other unique aspects of Dijanne’s travelling blanket of life is her use of hand-dyed fabric and linocut prints. As with everything else in life, they just showed up. ‘I work with Procion cold water reactive dyes and they are an integral part of my work. It is important for me to have and to create my own palette. I find that commercial fabric is dominated by trends and pattern that does not fit into what I create. If I need printed fabric, I make my own linocut and print my own fabric.’

Dijanne might not be a writer in the written-word sense, but she is a storyteller. Maybe it started way back when as a ten-year-old girl in a new country, she learned to live outside of language. She learned to observe, to sense and to interpret. And she learned to use her European heritage and her connection to her new land, to create her own palette, to stitch her own story. Her own travelling blanket.

> Website: http://origidij.blogspot.com/

> Instagram: @origidij 

Join our FREE weekly newsletter All Stitched Up!

Back to top