Hilli’s quilt of personality

Hilli busy at work in her studio space.
Hilli busy at work in her studio space.

FROM working in Cannes for the Discovery Channel to making a giant onion in Melling, Hilli McManus’s working life has been varied, to say the least.

Now the Lancaster-based artist and designer is concentrating on something much closer to home – the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials.

For Hilli, it’s particularly special as she lives in Stonewell, the route likely to have been taken by the nine women and one man found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in Lancaster in 1612.

As part of the anniversary, Hilli has been commissioned to make a community quilt from cotton and silk batik squares, each containing an image of a superstition created by people at the workshops she has been holding throughout the county.

Hilli will then sew the quilt together before it goes on show in Clitheroe this summer, before it returns to Lancaster Castle in November and is auctioned in aid of Lancaster-based Stepping Stones Nigeria. The charity, which highlights the abuse of children accused of witchcraft in the Niger Delta, was an inspiration for the project.

Hilli said: “Using ‘superstitions’ as a springboard, I find a way to inform people of the work of Stepping Stones. We have superstitions in common, though they are different from district to district, family to family and country to country, and there are pitfalls in the interpretation of superstitions.”

At each workshop, she gives the background to the Pendle Witches story, where Alison Device cursed a pedlar who then collapsed which led to the trials and Alison believing she had the power of witchcraft.

“This power of belief is as strong in the Niger Delta as ever it was here 400 years ago,” said Hilli. Several superstitions have frequently cropped up at the workshops.

There’s the issue of what to do if you see a magpie. Do you spit, turn around three times, salute or say “good morning Mr Magpie” – all suggestions from workshops. “I’m from Newcastle,” said Hilli, “so the magpie is meant to be lucky to me and United fans!”

Until the workshops are complete, she won’t know the quilt size, as it depends how many people attend the sessions. “That’s the joy and the terror of it, you never know what you are going to get.”

Each square will be edged in green, the main colour of the Nigerian flag, but the bulk of the quilt is black and white.

“This visual inspiration was taken from an image of an antique Nigerian textile and the use of bold block printing in the 17th Century,” she said.

Hilli has worked as a props maker, scenic artist and designer for theatres and exhibitions across the UK, so this project has given her an opportunity to work with the Lancaster community. It’s a challenge she is relishing.

She said: “I’m here to guide a diverse array of characters a lovely, simple technique to bring out the creativity that is in everyone. The workshops are as much about swapping stories as it is about contributing to the final ‘work of art’.”

The project has been funded by Melling-based Green Close Studios, which was awarded Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council grants to stage a programme of events marking the 400th anniversary of the witch trials.