The lesser spotted St. Leonards-on-Sea Cuckoo

Feathers from my chickens

After the sad demise of my hens, I needed to make things and to do something special with some of their feathers, salvaged from the hen pen.

In Shetland I’d been dreaming about making a fancy dress costume for a forthcoming party at the community space where I have a studio: The Compound / W.Ave Arts Bexhill. The Fancy Dress theme was T&C – your costume had to begin with either/both letter(s). I wanted to go as a Cuckoo, and realised I could incorporate a few precious feathers.

I had three goals with this costume: 1. Do not get Perfectionist; 2. Incorporate precious special feathers; 3. MAKE TIME FOR CREATIVE PLAY.

I don’t have a tailor’s dummy and there’s no mirror in my studio. Also, the box with all the different sewing machine attachments (and the manual) is somewhere in the boxes we are yet to unpack from our move. All of which to say that this was very improvised! I used paper to help visualise my design and settled on creating a kind of cape, with a tail at the back, two armholes, and two wing-shaped front sections that could be thrown back over my shoulders. For the basic design I used an old linen sheet worn through in the centre and dyed grey, in homage to the grey plumage of the cuckoo.


Here are some pics of playing with the basic shape – thank you, Mark!

Felix in basic shape of cuckoo cape

back of cuckoo cape

back of cuckoo cape, wings in

Once I had the basic shape and could get it to stay on my shoulders (the trickiest part of the “fit”), I adorned my cape with soft feathery shapes cut from the same sheet, and two old shirts of Mark’s in shades of white and grey. I created a “tail” from feathery shapes cut from dark grey, with diamond-shaped ends, to speak to the tail feathers of the cuckoo.

The wings and tail, with shirt "feathers" sewn on

closeup of the sewn-on "wings"

Next came the mask, which I made with the same fabrics, and again cut out initially from paper. I had a few sensory needs with this mask – it had to be soft, wearable with glasses, and comfortable to wear; it also needed to look birdlike and to incorporate special chicken feathers.

This is what I came up with.

Cuckooo mask seen from front

Cuckoo mask seen from back

I noticed in pictures that the Cuckoo has yellow eyes, so I decided to pair my mask with my yellow-tinted glasses.

Felix in cuckoo mask with yellow glasses

I wore the cape with my charcoal grey playsuit from The Slow Wardrobe – the ideal shape to sit under my feathery wings. For my bird legs, I wore yellow footless snags and some fluffy yellow birkenstocks that were a treasured gift from a friend. Here is the whole outfit as worn to the party!

front view of cuckoo costume with arms out

back view of costume with arms held out

Throwing shapes in my outfit

Standing with my wings outstretched from the front

Wings upstretched from the back

I had so much fun making this costume and it was a genuine reminder of the value of playing and trying things out. I experimented with finding ways to follow the curve of the fabric when sewing on the feathery shapes, and to guide the fabric through the machine without pushing it. There was much to discover about tension and learning to spot where there was too much tightness or tension happening, or when two layers of fabric were coming together under different tensions. And I had to really puzzle how the shoulders worked. My initial design had not accounted for how much smaller the gap is between the tops of my shoulders when compared to the gap between my armpits; it just fell off when I tried to wear it, and I had to add darts and take out a large piece of fabric to get the whole thing to sit right.

I love this kind of learning – it’s what I’m always trying to model in The KNITSONIK School and in my books; learning through doing, problem-solving, mess-making, trying things out.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about teenage me. I retrieved an old tapestry from my parents’ house that I made in art school for my A-Level in Art.

It’s a tapestry of a Goddess created from a drawing I made in the Cairo Museum when I was 18 years old. I wanted it in my home at this time because it’s beautiful, because I want The Goddess in my house, and because it reminds me of how, when I was younger, I was really good at just going for it with creative projects. I didn’t hesitate to just dive in and make stuff – there was no worrying about the materials and whether or not I had sufficient skill to do the task; I just went for it and believed that I could do it.

I stapled a piece of hessian onto a frame, went to a yarn shop, and bought different yarns based on colours and budget. I got a thick tapestry needle, set the frame up on my easel, and in a series of glorious all-nighters, free-style stitched a Goddess of glory and wonder.

Closeup of the Daphne tapestry

I want that energy again.

Moving to St. Leonards-on-Sea has been about a lot of things but for me, the main goal is to revitalise my arts practice and to get back to MAKING ART. Somewhere in the quarterly VAT returns, the struggle to keep my business going through the pandemic, the escalating prices of postage, the cost of living crisis, the need to constantly write MaRK£T1nG! content and to MAINTAIN AN ONLINE PRESENCE, my state of mind has become more anxious and ragged, while the space in my life for actual making has become smaller and smaller. Yet without that, KNITSONIK has nothing. So the cuckoo outfit felt like a glorious step back towards what really matters: playing, creativity, learning, curiosity, wonder and openness. Importantly, there was a sonik element as well: a small cuckoo whistle that I used to announce the namesake of my fancy dress costume.

Related to all this, I cannot recommend highly enough Rachael Matthews’ magnificent new book: Rag Manifesto. It fizzes with creative energy and is written with generosity and humour. It will make you want to start weaving everything, and – perhaps best of all – will encourage you to try new things with heart, vulnerability, sincerity and hope.

Shout out, too, to Mark for taking all the photos of my costume in development and for his own amazing costume. Mark went as Tinfoil Hat Brigade, with a BBC microbit bracelet “monitoring 5G” and another one spelling out conspiracy theories on the back of his tinfoil hat. On his other hand, he wore a microbit bracelet which you could touch to complete a circuit, causing the LED display to display either a tick or a cross. The tick meant “yes I can talk to you / yes the 5G situation is OK” and the cross meant “no I can’t talk to you no / no the 5G situation is bad”. With his responsive, LED jewellery, he paired a t-shirt that says SAY NO TO THE SEA / THE SEA ISN’T REAL. Thanks for being the best partner in creative mischief!

Mark as tinfoil hat brigade


11 thoughts on “The lesser spotted St. Leonards-on-Sea Cuckoo

  1. That really made me smile! It must have been a great party. Your Goddess is beautiful too. I remember rag rugs in my grandmother’s house when I was a child, and I’ve always meant to find out more about the process, so I will definitely check out Rachael Matthews’ book. I love the way you connect people to other people!

  2. I love what you created and so happy you had joy in doing it (minus probably some sewing frustration which I can definitely relate!). It is BEAUTIFUL and inspiring and yellow Birks are a perfect completion … after the special feathers. Thank you so much for your time in creating this post. Much needed inspiration after a long week of work and living with momentarily grumpy teachers. Thank you for sharing your creativity and joy.

  3. also, I LOVE Mark’s conspiratorial costume – there should be more space for playful pisstakes in everyday life – SAY NO TO THE SEA!

  4. The St Leonards cuckoo is a completely joyous and glorious creation! May its resourceful, mischievous spirit be channelled into many future acts of can-do creative making!

  5. What a fantastic costume. You must have felt you were flying and singing the whole time you wore it.
    A memory to return to over and over when worldly things get you down.

  6. What a great goal: to get back to playful art making, to make time for creativity and not give into the busy-ness demands.

  7. What a treat to see this process! You are one of the most creative, joyful, and curious persons I “know.” May the goddess continue to be with you.

  8. Your creative way of representing a cuckoo is so inspiring in every way. And how great that you have a studio space!!

  9. Your cuckoo costume is AMAZING – I love that you just took yourself off down to the studio and created such a glorious, exuberant outfit complete with cuckoo call – entirely from your imagination! The art force is strong in this one XXX

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