Guest post with The Arts in Wiltshire

Penny Wheeler talks about collaboration, seam Collective and the shiftWorks project…

Collaboration is hard-work, time-consuming and results in a mountain of emails BUT it can give you brilliant ideas, support and encouragement… and take you further than you dreamed possible.

shiftWorks is the first Arts Council funded project for seam Collective, a collective of 12 emerging textile professionals based in and around Bath. The shiftWorks project is a celebration of contemporary textile design and 50 years of the shift dress. Nine textile artists/designers/makers have taken one shift dress pattern and created nine very different shift dresses.

One focus for the shiftWorks project has been collaboration; between members of seam and with the public; what was unexpected was collaboration over ideas and the support we have received from other arts professionals.

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Collaboration between members of seam
Starting out as an artist/designer/maker can be very isolating. seam Collective was formed to provide mutual support, promote members’ work and contemporary textiles, and focus on local opportunities. Sometimes you can make more of an impact as a group. Our individual practices are quite diverse but shiftWorks has given us a cohesive, engaging project that celebrates textile design.

However collaboration comes at a price, that aforementioned mountain of emails! Each member needs to be kept informed, discuss options and agree or reject decisions. We are managing this by using Trello, a web-based visual project management application for collaboration. Trello works brilliantly for sharing and commenting on imagery, keeping a record of discussions and decisions, and reminding people about deadlines. However we do need to find a better way of managing lots of small jobs e.g. marketing tasks – they can become overwhelming and we need to do further work on overcoming this.

Collaboration over ideas
Collaboration through conversation, between ourselves and with other arts professionals, has been fantastic for defining and refining our ideas for the shiftWorks project. It is a joy to talk about the project to enthusiastic and open fellow professionals, and the ideas we shared have helped us to expand different aspects of the project.

These conversations may have been over the course of a year, within seam Collective when refining the idea for shiftWorks; or just one initial telephone conversation, with Zoe Li from SAW (Somerset Art Works). Zoe gave us the idea of inviting the public to send in photos of their favourite shift dress. We had been struggling to find a simple idea to engage the public that would work right from the start of the project.

Collaboration with the public
We have invited the public to collaborate with shiftWorks by:

  1. emailing us a photo of their favourite shift dress,
  2. making their mark with hand embroidery on our graffiti shift dress at our exhibitions

The favourite shift dress images received, with their accompanying stories, are fascinating and help to ground the exhibition by showing how the shift dress has been worn by real people over the last 50 years.

Display of favourite shift dress images received from the public Photo Credit: David Kennedy
Display of favourite shift dress images received from the public Photo Credit: David Kennedy

We are aware that it takes time to find an image, scan it and send it off, but the 33 that we have collected so far enhance the exhibition and prompt visitors to talk about their own memories of the shift dress.

Our biggest collaborative success has been the graffiti shift dress. We provide sequins, buttons, ribbons, yarn, fabric and needles for visitors to the exhibitions to have a go at hand embroidery on what started out as a blank, black shift dress. It has been very popular, sometimes completely swamped with visitors!

Visitors making their mark on the Graffiti Shift Dress at Select Showcase Photo Credit: Penny Wheeler
Visitors making their mark on the Graffiti Shift Dress at Select Showcase Photo Credit: Penny Wheeler

More collaboration
There are more instances of collaboration I could have mentioned, notably Carol Carey from SAW helping us with our funding applications, a shiftWorks fashion show at Eastville Project Space in Yeovil as part of an evening of immersive sound and light(arranged by Zoe Li) and coming up a shiftWorks tea party at Trowbridge Arts on Thursday 26 November to consume the Living Shift dress, among others.

We have been happily surprised by the support we’ve received from local arts professionals – is this normal? I would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on collaborating by sending in your comments on this blog site or email

shiftWorks at Trowbridge Arts Photo Credit: David Kennedy
shiftWorks at Trowbridge Arts Photo Credit: David Kennedy

shiftWorks has been exhibited at Yeovil as part of Somerset Art Weeks Festival 2015, Cheltenham as part of SIT Showcase 2015 and is now at Trowbridge Arts until Christmas. For more information, exhibition dates and venues for 2016 see

Penny Wheeler, seam Collective Chairperson and shiftWorks Project Manager

This blog post first appeared on The Arts in Wiltshire on 11 November 2015.