• Ruth Nichols-Pike

Introduction to the Cloak Project

I have always thought that cloaks and capes have a certain mysterious, magical quality. This idea of being enveloped by a garment, and the simple act of throwing the fabric around one’s shoulders has beautiful, transformative associations. From invisibility cloaks to the classic garment of Red Riding Hood, cloaks and capes crop up repeatedly in folktales, perpetuating the fantasy/fairytale associations they often seem to conjure.

Embellishment with hand embroidery and beading.

My particular interest in such garments arose partially as a result of work by Surrealist painter Remedios Varo. Varo uses costume to great effect in her work, clothing her characters in wonderfully inventive garments that seem to create interesting interior environments, or to facilitate a surreal but curiously believable method of travel. With lengths of flowing fabrics resolving in wheels, and cleverly concealed pockets for necessary artefacts, Varo’s designs consistently transport her audience to another world in which these surprising features are perfectly natural alongside curious birds and boats and forests and potential quests. This idea of clothing as a magical object is such an intriguing one, besides which is the majestic and opulent effect of flowing folds of fabric that feels rather regal and reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite depictions of the Arthurian legends.

Before returning to Edinburgh College of Art for the MA Illustration course, I had previously completed my undergraduate studies in Performance Costume. The textile element of the course particularly interested me, working a lot with embroidery, silk painting and various methods of fabric manipulation to create different surface textures and imagery. Moving forward, I am curious to explore the link between illustration and costume design; this idea of ‘illustrated clothes’ and to what extent this is different from surface textile design. What effect does it have on us when we wear images? And how does essentially wearing the images of a story change our experience of it?

Phoenix lino prints onto fabric, arranged on a mannequin.

Since starting the MA Illustration I have been experimenting with lino print, onto paper and onto fabric, resulting in different effects. While the prints onto paper result in a clear, defined image that can tell a narrative in its own right, I was especially interested in the textile lino samples, and the ways in which the image could be developed using embroidery and beading. One example is my Phoenix lino print; using white ink on red silk satin fabric, the result was a decadent, luxurious looking combination which was a beautiful canvas upon which to work. I embellished the surface of the print using orange and gold embroidery strands alongside green threads and metallic blue beads. These blue/green tones gave the creature peacock-like feathers, while the addition of silver sequins seemed alike to a dragon’s scales. In this way the act of embellishing the piece became a process of storytelling, changing the creature into different forms and creating a magical new hybrid: this suggests the idea of ‘shapeshifting’ which brings me to the next part of the project.

Swan at St Margaret's Loch, Edinburgh

One folktale I came across which features a particularly fascinating cloak design is the story of the ‘Swan Maidens’, shapeshifting women who can alternate between human and swan form. Each woman has her own swan ‘skin’ cloak which she puts on to transform into a swan. In the narrative, one woman has her cloak stolen from her and she must remain in human form until she eventually locates it and can return to join her sisters as a swan. Swans have featured greatly in my work this year; initially inspired by the beautiful swans on St Margaret’s Loch, Edinburgh, I became very interested in the magical qualities of these creatures and how their beauty and imagery could influence my work. As the story of the swan maidens involves a cloak that facilitates this magical transformation, it seems the perfect story with which to explore the wearing of narrative illustrations on the surface of a fabric. I can envisage the images acting like traces; fragmented images of the narrative that surrounds the garment. In a similar practice to the gathering of folk tales, relevant narrative images will be patchworked together to produce something completely wearable and immersive.

Embroidered lino prints on a mini mannequin.

The plan for the cloak as it stands is to cover the surface with embroidered lino prints, exploring imagery related to swans from my research, and finding a way to add small references to Edinburgh within the imagery. In this way, I hope the cloak project will be an inspiring way to explore these ideas relating to magical garments, with the potential for performance, photography or display at the end of the project.


Shaw, J. (2017). Shapeshifting Goddesses by Judith Shaw. [online] Feminism and Religion. Available at: https://feminismandreligion.com/2017/05/21/shapeshifting-goddesses-by-judith-shaw/ [Accessed 04 Apr. 2021].

Windling, T. (2013). Into the Wood, 32: Swan Maidens and Crane Wives. [Blog] Myth and Moor. Available at: https://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/08/swan-maidens-crane-wives.html [Accessed 04 Apr. 2021].

All images copyright 2021 by Ruth Nichols-Pike