04 December 2016

Penny Berens interview: Marking Time and Tides in Stitch

Daily Scratching by Penny Berens, w6" x length 200ft 
UK-born fibre artist Penny Berens produces highly textured and hand-stitched art quilts from a home nestled between Nova-Scotia’s Annapolis Basin and the Bay of Fundy. This dramatic landscape is reflected in her award-winning artwork. 

As a strong proponent of daily practice, Penny is known for her stitched journal, Daily Scratchings, that documents the ebb and flow of her life over the past four years. 

Penny has contributed to Atlantic-Canada’s art quilt scene as a teacher and an organizer, with friend Diane Clapp, of workshops with prominent fibre artists such as Dorothy Caldwell and Sandra Brownlee. She’s a member of her local Artist’s Way Collective and a long time member of Connections Fibre Artists, a long-standing Ontario-based fibre arts group.

Penny’s work has been honoured by CQA/ACC with both the Joseph H. McMurdie Award of Excellence for workmanship in Appliqué and the Canadian Living Magazine Award of Excellence - Innovative Category.  Her work has been shown across Canada, the United States, Scotland and France.

Woodpeckers Live Here by Penny Berens, w15" x h20

How would you describe your work?

I find it very hard to describe my work, it's such an integral part of my daily life that I take it for granted! My work is generally subtle (no bright primary colours here!) but I am always happy when people need to take a step closer to see what is really going on. When it comes to stitching I am definitely not a minimalist.  It is rare to find a square inch of my work that is not covered in hand stitching. 

In this phase of my life, I’ve got two bodies of work going. One is based on my reaction to the natural world around me. The pieces are simple designs made with soft neutral coloured cloth, dyed naturally, rusted or discharged, and covered in hand stitching inspired by the marks and shapes I find in nature.

Perhaps as a result of becoming a grandmother, my other body of work marks the passage of time. For the past four years I’ve recorded the rhythm of my life in a long embroidered scroll I call Daily Scratchings. You can follow its development on my blog, Tanglewood Threads. The finished scroll was featured on Judy Martin’s blog.

The Edge of the Woods by Penny Berens, w22" x h20"

How did you come to be an artist who works with textiles?

My mother and grandmothers were my very first teachers. One grandmother was a brilliant seamstress who darned and embroidered household linens that are still amongst my most treasured possessions. My maternal grandmother was more whimsical.  She made dresses for my many dolls, often embellished with shadow embroidery. By age seven I had inherited my mother’s love of crewel embroidery. My challenge now is to not make perfect stitches! Instead, I work at making my stitches more spontaneous and expressive and that's not as easy as it sounds!

Despite growing up with embroidery and stitch, I fell into quilting quite by accident. I signed up for evening classes in both rug hooking and quilting, in search of a creative outlet when my boys became teenagers. The rug hooking class was cancelled, so I became a quilter. Before long, my quilts became wall hangings, covered with ever more machine or hand embroidery. I earned a City and Guilds Diploma in Embroidery and Design, from Dundee College in Scotland, by night, while raising a family and working full time by day.

Now that I’ve retired from the working world, I make art every day. Seven days a week. As I grow older the days fly by with ever increasing speed, so I have to spend many hours stitching to get all my ideas onto cloth.

Mudflats by Penny Berens, w30" x h24 

Tell us about your process for creating. Where do you find your inspiration and how do you get from that to a final product?

My surroundings inspire me: The untamed Acadian woods, the rocky shores of the Bay of Fundy, the sandy beaches of the Atlantic shoreline, the dykes and marshlands of the Annapolis Basin, the extreme tides and the more gentle changes as the seasons cycle every year. I record growth patterns that awaken in spring and die down in fall. Shapes and markings catch my eye and every day I see something different.

As I grow older I’m also drawn to creating larger pieces over long periods of time; recording daily experiences, recording the past, expressing the passage of time. 

fill sketchbooks with marks and shapes, recording observations and reactions to nature’s changes, not usually with a specific piece in mind, just recording (for memory gets worse the older I get) and playing with repetition, spacing, size. 

When a piece pops into my head, I search out the right fabric and dive in with needle and thread. I work intuitively, perhaps with a thumbnail sketch just to get me started. 

Works in progress are frequently pinned to a design wall for ‘rest periods’, allowing me to study them in quiet contemplation but also in quick glimpses as I go about other activities. Both the thoughtful observation and my reaction to a quick glance are part of my design process.

Winter's Night by Penny Berens, w34" x h54

You are very active in exhibiting your work. What would you tell other artists living in small rural communities about how to get their work out there?

Sharing one's work is part of being an artist, so I’ve always jumped at the opportunity. Every time I have a show I learn something new and, hopefully, each show improves on the last.

With my very first quilt, I nervously filled out an entry form for CQA, thinking that at minimum I would receive a helpful critique. I've since been invited to join groups such as Connections and The Artist's Way Group, whose goals are to hold regular shows.

I’ve also joined groups created for artists outside the quilting world. A local community art centre is a good place to apply for a show and there are many of these in the Maritimes. Networking is of course very important. If people know you exist, they might suggest you for their gallery!  

To hang a good show you need a cohesive body of work, a huge time commitment for quilt artists. Proposals may be daunting, but the worst that can happen is a rejection.....and I've had many!

Resting Between Night and Day by Penny Berens, w50" x h43" 

Tell us about your workspace, what features do you most like and dislike about it?

I love love love my studio. It's an addition to the north side of our home, with a walkout onto a large deck where I colour and discharge fabrics in the warmer months. Windows on three sides provide excellent light and a view of a pond, streams, our garden and the Acadian woodland that surrounds it.  

All those lovely windows do reduce the wall space, though, limiting the design wall and storage capacity. I’ve had to expand into other rooms for those purposes. Somehow we adapt! 

What are you currently working on and why?

I’ve spent the last few summers foraging in the garden, woods and lakes, gathering plant stuff for dyeing. I’m now creating a body of work using these fabrics, stitching repetitive patterns and shapes found in my surroundings.

As a follow-up to my four-year Daily Scratchings project, this year I’m recording the passing of time through small weekly pieces I call Crumbs, all of which include a cruciform shape. I plan to assemble them into one large hanging at the end of the year.

Weekly Crumbs by Penny Berens, w4" x h6" 

What fibre artists are you currently interested in, and why?

I love Dorothy Caldwell’s sense of the land, the vastness of her pieces and her mark making. 

Judy Martin is a poet of stitch. When I first saw her work I could feel her huge quilts reaching out and embracing me from the walls of the Homer Watson Gallery in Kitchener ON. We have since become good friends.

Sheila Hicks’ amazing work with fibre, dating back to 1957, still takes my breath away.  I also admire the work of Judith Scott, who wrapped yarn, string and cloth around found objects, transforming them into beautiful abstract sculptures. Michael Olszewski is an artist I’ve recently discovered, whose very personal work recreates his emotions as he strives to make sense of his life journey. 

There are so many more I could list!

Currently scheduled showings of my work:
My Corner of the World Canada (juried) 
May 21 - October 20, 2016: Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford ON
November 1, 2016 - January 29, 2017: Thunder Bay Museum, Thunder Bay, ON
(More showings TBA.)

Recording Nature
Sissiboo Coffee Bar and Gallery, Bear River, NS
November 15 - December 31, 2016

Artist Way Group show (Title TBA)
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Yarmouth, NS
August 18 – October 21, 2017

Cloth of Time (Work by Judy Martin and Penny Berens)
Mary E. Black Gallery, Halifax, NS
Date not yet confirmed, 2018 

To learn more about Penny Berens and her artwork, please visit her website, Tanglewood Threads.


  1. Exciting, fresh designs. i love what you create!

  2. What a wonderful piece of interesting and inspiring work! Thank you!

  3. Beautifully rich and such a pleasure to read, this interview supports why we all love the work and dedication of Penny Berens, dear friend in stitch an cloth, and a true inspiration to so many of us across Canada an around the world.
    Thank you for sharing...
    Bethany Garner in Kingston ON

  4. Penny...thank you for sharing a glimpse into your creativity. Awesome.

  5. Thank you all for taking the time to read my interview. Susan did a great job pulling information out of me!