Fish Tattoo

My niece, Danya, looked through her grandmother’s portfolio from RISD and really liked this drawing of three fish in a circle. It’s dated Feb. 4, 1944, so my mother was 19 years old when she drew it, the same age her granddaughter was when she chose it as the inspiration for her tattoo.    

drawing by Mary Hartwell (Mavor), 1944

Mary and her mother, Louise Hartwell, 1944

Danya is my brother Jim’s daughter, the youngest and only girl out of 5 grandchildren. She worked for me for a few summers, putting kits together when I still made them at Wee Folk Studio. She is now a sophomore in college, where she is discovering art history. For her tattoo, Danya traced one of the fish from the drawing and made a black ink copy complete with bubbles. She brought it with her to the tattoo parlor and had the fish tattooed to the inside of her right arm. Now, she has a constant reminder of her grandmother, whom I think would be quite amused at the idea.     

Danya showing her fish tattoo

Danya's tattoo

Danya with her grandmother, 1990

Pins (part 1)

The peapods were the gateway to my life of stitching. I started making peapods and other pins in art school, as a totally separate project from my class assignments.  Some of my friends knew about them, but my teachers hadn’t any idea.


One day during class, I was listening to a critique, sewing some peapods, when my teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges, noticed what I was doing. She looked more closely, asked me a few questions and said, “Why don’t you do this kind of thing for your illustrations? Try sewing them.”

Watermelon pin 1977
Bunch of Grapes Pin 1977

With that simple encouragement, I stopped trying so hard to communicate the pictures in my head through a brush or pen. Given permission to work outside of the usual illustration mediums, I found that I was much happier and energized. I was no longer struggling to keep in step, but, with a needle and thread, I could dance.  For some reason, I’d been under the impression that in art school, one does “serious” fine art and I’d kept my interest in sewing and handcrafts underground. I rediscovered the joy of creating and learned to trust my hands and gut feelings to help work out challenges.


After graduation, I added more designs and started mass producing pins and selling them on a wholesale basis to shops. I had to really push myself to call shops and arrange business calls with my basket of pins in hand. I was more content sitting at home, covering little red beads with sheer lavender fabric to make bunches of grapes or sewing strings of green wooden beads inside a velvet ribbon peapod.  Despite my shyness about pedaling my wares, I found the marketing part of the business to be a creative excercise. I’d spent my teenaged years working in my mother’s import shop in Woods Hole, From Far Corners, and the experience dealing with customers and learning the difference between wholesale and retail sales was helpful.


I started making custom pins of people’s cats, based on photographs they sent. I remember that Siamese cat owners were particularly fussy about their breed and one time had to redo a blue point. The cat ears are made from a coiled wire bead, which is cut in half.

back of Cat pin

Some of the pins like the cat and the watermelon have a cardboard shape inside to give them stability. I’d sew a little pocket, turn it right side out and slip the cardboard in, put in some stuffing and sew up the pocket.

cardboard patterns for pins

I used my Singer Featherweight, the same machine on which I learned to sew, to do the machine part. There was always a lot of hand sewing to finish and attach the pin back.  I had some labels printed with my name and sewed them under the pinback. They were the same kind of labels you get at fabric stores for sewing on your children’s camp clothes.

In the studio 1979

This is the first of 3 parts.  The story will be continued in PINS (part 2).  

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Close-ups (foxes)

Maybe it’s because of their warm color and their pointy ears, noses and tails, but I find foxes appealing. This group of foxes starts with a detail from “Laplander”, a tempera painting on brown paper, which I did in art school. Then there’s the tail portion of a wooden toy I made in 1986 and a “faux” tile I painted in my kitchen in the early 90’s. See all of the faux tiles in another post here. Next is a felt purse, which I used to sell as a kit about 10 years ago and then a detail from my 2001 children’s book, In the Heart.   

detail from "Laplander", 1976

detail from wooden toy fox, 1986

detail of faux tile, 1993

Fox felt purse kit, 2000

detail from the book, "In the Heart", 2001

Note: See other posts in the Close-ups series archive here.

My Studio 1977

Recently, I found a set of four pen and marker drawings in an old portfolio. Seeing my old apartment in Providence brought the 1976-77 RISD school year back into focus. I remember that we were given an assignment in class to go home and draw all four walls of our rooms.

east wall of my studio in 1977

During my years at RISD, the illustration dept. did not have studio spaces for students, so we turned our bedrooms into our studios. This is the first year I lived outside of a dorm, in an apartment with decent sized rooms. Over the year, I filled up my room with materials and work areas. This was a transitional period in my art, where I was moving away from drawing and painting to 3-dimentional pieces. I was making a lot of dolls, including these Can Can dancers that I can see in the drawing, on the floor. I taught myself how to make dolls with wire armatures, so that they could be posed for photographs. I must have seen some dolls made with stuffed nylon stockings and tried making some myself. At the time, there were no instruction books or classes on this kind of soft sculpture. The school’s textile dept. was more oriented toward weaving and fabric design, which I was not interested in. I wanted to tell a story through my artwork, so I continued taking illustration classes, teaching myself something new with each assignment.

I experimented on my own with materials and techniques, always adapting and changing my approach.  Looking back, I can see that working on illustration assignments with a clear deadline, forced me to concentrate on the narrative part of my artwork and kept me from becoming too focused on the process of creating.  My goal was  to effectively communicate an idea, not just show how well I could sew something.  Ironically, the 3-dimentional work was much more time consuming, but it didn’t seem to matter, since I was inspired and having much more fun! I no longer have the Can Can Dancers, but found this photograph.

Can Can Dancers, 1977

I brought my trusty Singer Feather-weight sewing machine to school and set up a sewing table.  I used this machine for years until I got a Bernina that could do fancy stitches. Today, I rarely get out a machine, but do all stitching by hand.

south wall of my studio in 1977

The table was an old thing of my grandmother’s that I painted orange. It’s still very much in use in my studio today. I got my old sewing machine out of storage to take its picture.  It runs forward and back and is  good for stitching small things.

Singer Feather-weight

A few years earlier, while in high school, I sewed the quilt pictured on the bed on the Singer Feather-weight. It was the first of just a few usable quilts that I’ve  made.

west wall of my studio in 1977

I plan on redoing this quilt, taking out the thread ties, putting on a new back and hand quilting the whole thing. The fabrics were all pieces we had in the house, mostly from clothes that my mother, sister and I made.

my first quilt, about 1972

I can identify many things in this drawing, the stereo speakers, my red hat, flood lights, rolls of paper, and the rug hanging on the wall. My mother gave me this beautifully woven wool rug and it seemed too nice to put on the floor.

north wall of my studio in 1977

 I still have the rug, which I now keep on the floor in my studio.

Scandinavian wool rug

Mum’s Knitted Hats

For as long as I can remember, my mother, Mary Mavor, was always knitting. In her lifetime she produced hundreds of hats, sweaters and blankets, offering them like warm hugs to her friends and family. She was most prolific with the hats, which had side flaps and a pompom on top. She started making them in the 50’s, when we were kids. The hats were not just for children, but for her adult friends, too. She’d find out what colors they liked and measure their heads, frequently testing the hat size  half way through the knitting process. Just yesterday, I saw one of my mother’s good friends walking up Water St. in Woods Hole, wearing one of her hats. It’s such a cheerful reminder of her spirit.

My sons Peter and Ian in their grandmother’s hats, 1991

my son Peter in 1984, machine applique by Salley

Mum knitting, with Dad on the right, 1951

My sister, Anne Mavor, wrote a piece about our mother and her knitted hats for Interweave Knits Magazine’s Holiday issue in 2006.

Anne’s article in Interweave Knits Magazine, Holiday 2006

Here’s a sample from the article:

“Even though Mum never taught me how to knit this hat, I watched her knit hundreds of them. I know the click of the small double-pointed needles as she followed the pattern round and round. I know the curve of her hands as they lifted up a strand of blue yarn, wound it around the needle and then picked up the white. I can close my eyes and still see her hands moving, reading glasses balanced on the end of her nose, tongue working in her cheek.”

Anne with her husband Dennis and their son Rowan, 1990

Anne and Mum in 1952

Anne describes how after our mother died, she found Mum’s zipped knitting needle pouch and decides to learn how to knit the same hat with no pattern, just a sample hat to work from. She eventually figures out how to knit the hat and writes directions, which are included with the article. She writes this at the end:

“The night before Mum died, I sat beside her bed listening to her labored breathing. She and I were suddenly not mother and daughter anymore. We were two women sitting in a nursing home bed-room, one dying, the other living for a while more. Two lives with intersecting circles that included a pouch of knitting needles and a particular three-colored hat with earflaps.”

Close-ups (Winter Trees)

This group of trees starts with a paint and crayon picture I made as a child of 7. Next is a detail of a painting I did in art school and then part of an early fabric relief winter scene. The last two are taken from my book, Pocketful of Posies

snowman and trees, 1963

from “Laplander Mural” 1977

detail from “Skating” 1987

from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

from “Pocketful of Posies” 2010

Note: See other posts in the Close-ups series archive here.

Fall Friends

Fall Friends was made in 1995, in between book projects.

Fall Friends, fabric relief by Salley Mavor 1995

During this period, I used cotton velveteen quite often for the back grounds. In this case, I dyed the fabric for the sky and hillside. The clouds were made by painting on a rice based resist liquid that I can’t remember the name of, but I think it is Japanese. You get a softer look than batiking with wax, which can have a cleaner edge.

Detail from "Fall Friends"

The bush trunk is wool covered wire and the smaller wire branches are wrapped with embroidery floss. The border is made of upholstery fabric, with all of the embroidered edging done by hand. I used to do a satin stitch with the sewing machine, but found it to be too flat and mechanical looking.

Detail from" Fall Friends"

This is a drawing I did as a student at RISD in 1977. It’s pencil on layered pieces of tissue paper, which has yellowed over time from rubber cement. I think of it as an early example of  my interest in experimenting with different working surfaces. Soon after this, I started combining materials and doing more and more 3 dimentional work.

Drawing by Salley as a RISD student, 1977