Archive for November, 2008

The Weaving Group

November 23, 2008

A Quiet Space to Work

I’ve been away this week to Cumbria. In my profession, every so often, it’s necessary to retreat to somewhere quiet where I can work undisturbed for a few days. Usually, it’s to get a new composition started: quality thinking time. Sometimes, it’s to make some progress when progress hasn’t been good. This week it’s an experimental few days to see if a new location can work some magic on preparations for a concert and progress on a piece that’s getting a little behind schedule. This quiet place, I found last summer, is just one of those special locations that seems to weave its magic from the first visit, and one ends up longing to return to see what else it might reveal. At the moment I’m experiencing it for the first time in late autumn. To get an idea of what this is all about take a look at this little ‘work in progress’ presentation on my website.

I first came to this part of Cumbria earlier this year to learn to weave. Once a week my former teacher weaves with a small group of fellow weavers at Farfield Mill in Sedbergh. This 19C woollen mill has become a centre of excellence for textiles and has its own studio community of weavers, embroiderers and many other crafts. A working mill until the 1960s it was saved by the town’s residents and still manages to operate its Dobcross looms for special woven projects. On its fourth floor there’s a varied collection of hand looms, and this is where the Friday Weavers meet to spend a day working on projects that they leave in situ for the many visitors to see.

As I hope to join this group on a regular basis from the New Year I was kindly invited to join them for lunch. The result was I got to spend the most valuable afternoon studying the varied projects the members of the group were working on. I can’t really begin to do justice here to all the notes I made, the questions I asked (which  were most generously answered), the ideas that were generated, and the inspiration I received.

Margaret's self-dyed weft yarns

3 shades of Indigo

Margaret was working on a table mat, ‘something simple’ she reckoned! It looked far from that (see the pattern, a ‘goose eye’ by Margaret Davison,  in the gallery below). Her warp was in white linen and the weft was going to be in three shades of blue linen, self-dyed (3 stages of indigo).  When I arrived she was half-way through threading heddles and I noticed that she had hung the reed from the castle, having initially used the reed as a raddle. She then brought the reed around the back of the loom ready to thread. Once threaded the reed would be removed and replaced ready to sley from the front. I mentioned to her that on my Toika loom the raddle has special hooks to allow it to be hung from the castle in a similar way. I noticed Margaret’s slip knots (again, see the gallery) were beautifully executed, and I resolved to master this elusive knot, not quite in my repertoire yet – it’s doing it one-handed that defeats me!

Susan's Folding Loom

Susan’s Christmas decoration was in its final stages when I got to talk to her. She was using a little folding 4-shaft loom (like the one I did my first weaving on) and executing a pattern that is the sort of thing that could have been done on a inkle loom. It’s a warp-faced narrow piece she was going to split into a number of similar hanging decorations. The thick green wool she’d dyed herself, adding a red cotton and a glittery gold fancy thread. The weft is a very thin read cotton. Look at the finished piece in the gallery below. Later in the afternoon  Susan moved over to a Dryad Carpet Loom that the weaving group had brought into service for the first time. This is a copy of the loom William Morris designed and presented to the V & A. I’d come across a V & A publication from the 1920s on weaving carpets. It had a really excellent summary of the techniques, and at the back of the book the very plans for making such a loom yourself. It’s something I really want to have a go at (not making the loom I must add, just weaving on it).

Lauras Rug

Laura's Rug

On a big floor loom Laura was working on a commission for a large rug. Before I arrived she’d re-sleyed the warp to make it denser and was now getting down to some serious weaving.The warp is cotton – orange and yellow @ 40 epi, black at 60 @ epi. The weft in plain-weave is @ 12 ppi and for this she was using 3 Roughfell 2-ply yarns simultaneously bound alongside a single-ply Bluefaced Leceister thread. Laura described to me how she prepared the warp: she works out how many ends she needs of each colour and makes a separate warp length of each; she then works out the threading pattern through the reed (which she uses as her raddle), threading one colour at a time. 

Rosies Place Mat

Rosie's Place Mat

Rosie was in the closing stages of weaving a place mat on a 4-shaft table loom. The warp was in white linen, the weft the same but with the occasional blue (hand-dyed) linen stripe (see below in the gallery). The mat is a balanced weave of twill (almost a herringbone) ends and a plain-weave middle. It was beautifully simple and the touches of colour ‘really’ effective. This for me is a perfect example of woven design and execution where less is definitely more!

Anna's Bute Loom (1912)

Finally there was Anna’s ‘3 piece’ – a project to make a jacket, waistcoat and scarf from the same pattern. Anna is working with the oldest loom in the collection, a Bute from 1912. It’s a four shaft, 4 treadle floor loom. She’d prepared, like most of her colleagues, a computer draft of her design. This shows brilliantly exactly what was going on. For me, being able to study this plan against the loom and garment itself was so valuable. I have to admit to having great difficulty imagining the process of threading a warp-based sequence of patterns via the heddles. I was reassured by an experienced weaver later in the week that it takes a long time to be able to do this, but working with computer software really helps to develop such visualization skills..

Annas Plan

Anna's Plan

I can say now with confidence that I truly understand her computer draft – having spent some time puzzling over it and coming back the following day to check it out. Anna had taken her inspiration from a slub containing three colours, orange, gold and brown. She created a warp in a series of segments mixing cotton and silk of these three colours together – a thick and a thin (a repp?) wound onto the warping table simultaneously. Her tie-up and treadling pattern is based on a simple 2:2 twill (12,23,34,41 and 13,23,24,14, both or which can be reversed). This whole project was great for me to study at the stage she had reached – nearly complete.

Finally, it’s time to present a gallery of images that extend the pictures I’ve already shown above – with warm thanks to the generosity of the Weaving Group at Farfield Mill.


A bit of a bad day in the workshop

November 14, 2008


Notice the error? I did'nt at first

Notice the error? I didn't at first

I’m sure everyone who has learnt to weave has a day they’d rather put behind them and quietly forget about. I’ve had four brilliant sessions in the college textile workshop and came away each time feeling I’d made real progress. Today was my fifth session and I had planned at the outset to complete the blue and white warp I had started two weeks ago. I’d decided after making (quite successfully) three plain warps I should do a pattern with two colours.

Two Warp Yarns

Two Warp Yarns

I took my inspiration from that yellow and black warp I’d studied on the Ethel Mairet scarf I illustrated here a few weeks ago. I found two interesting yarns, a blue linen (Glenary waxed @ 14 epi ) and an off-white cotton and wool mixture (Herdmans softened @ 17 epi). They looked great together. A fortnight ago I’d had no problems getting the warp as far as the threading stage. I reckoned I could knock this off in an hour or so . . .

When I sat down to do this I found to my horror that I had put the warp on the front beam. I’m supposed to be practising warping back to front. Now, I can warp front to back, and this is, in retrospect, what I should have done. But no, I took the warp apart and re-raddled it on the back beam. Mistake no1!! I discovered linen really does not like being raddled twice. I even managed to put the wrong end of the warp on the back beam batten! Finally, I abandoned it and made another warp.

3 Chained Warps

3 Chained Warps

Now preparing warps is getting a whole lot easier for me. I’ve almost stopped losing count of where I am (I usually warp in lengths of 20). I have also (finally) learnt to chain the warp when I get it off the warping frame. The patient person who gave me my first instruction on this went over and over this process. Could I do it!? Eventually I learnt after a fashion, but only after practising with a piece of rope. It took a moment of truth in my own studio last week to finally crack it, as I realised I’d missed an important part of the jigsaw of the process – what you do at the end – tieing up the final loop in the warp to the final loop in the chain itself (which stops just before the cross! 

In the college workshop I’ve seen Andrea put the lease sticks into the cross whilst the warp is still on the warping frame. I decided that I wouldn’t do this for once, but see if I could it at a later stage (imagining that I’d want to hang up the warp or transport it home). The first time I tried putting the lease sticks into the cross – disaster! I thought I’d done it correctly (untied the safety thread around the cross) to discover I’d missed a chunk of cross threads. Nothing for it but to warp again! Second time around I managed to do what I wanted, but I did tie the warp using the choke ties I’d learnt to tie initially (and never seen used in the workshop). 

A Helpful Sketch

A Helpful Sketch

For some reason the raddling process with this mix of yarns seemed to take forever. I found the linen increasingly difficult to handle and the lease sticks kept falling out. Holding the two bunches of yarns – those raddled, those yet to raddled – seemed really awkward. Eventually I got to the threading stage and then to my disappointment I lost confidence in my ability to remember all the successive stages thereafter. Here my photos and sketch book drawings came to my rescue. I went into the computer suite and brought up the web Gallery of Images on my Mobile-Me .Mac site. This gallery contains a complete photographic record of the HNC course to date and my workshop sessions. If there are any images interested readers would find useful they can be downloaded – or you can even upload images of your own that you think are complementary and you’d like to share. Even with this photographic record I do find making illustrative labelled drawings in my sketchbook really useful.

By the end of the day I’d only got to the threading through the reed stage, but I had begun to realise I’d actually learnt a great deal. I made a check list that included:

  • Make sure the loom is positioned back to front before you bring the warp chain to the loom;
  • learn the appropriate knot for fixing the batten to the apron cloth;
  • remember how to hang the lease sticks from the castle;
  • don’t forget to allow for the selvedge when threading the first heddle;

This list goes on quite a bit!

A Linen Yarn

A Linen Yarn

Here I’d like to back track and discuss my warp plan. Because this is only a trial warp I’d decided on no more than an 8″ width. My yarns were: Blue linen / 14 epi ; off-white mix / 17 epi. I warped these two yarns in sequence of 20 (blue), 20 (white), 40 (blue and white wound together), 20 (white), 20 (blue), 4 extra for selvedge. This made 124 epi. What I had certainly not anticipated was the difficulty I experienced wwith the linen yarn. If you look at the photo on the left you’ll see it is a very uneven thread in its thickness and it gets easily distressed. Linen comes from the flax plant linium usitatissimum. It’s the strongest of the vegetable fibres, much stronger than cotton. It’s a lovely texture for clothes, but wrinkles easily. In commercial weaving I learnt from Graham (who kindly offered a solution to my problems handling the stuff – spray a little water on it) humidifiers are used to help in the threading process to keep the yarn manageable. 

So a long and rather frustrating day, but in retrospect I came away from it considerably wiser (and more determined than ever). There were a few moments when I did feel tempted to walk away from the whole business, but with only one day a week I can devote to this study it didn’t seem a good idea.

A studio afternoon: a workshop day

November 10, 2008

Last week I succumbed to taking an afternoon off to work in my own studio as well as spending a day in the textile workshop at Bradford. I reckoned if I didn’t dedicate some quality time  to developing my skills in drawing and painting I’d make no progress in this area, so I had to set aside an afternoon. Most of the weavers I admire seem to come from a Fine Art background, or at the very least have had some prior experience of basic skills through attending an art foundation course. Sadly, my drawing and painting have been holiday pastimes. The more I consider what this whole craft is about the more I sense the necessity of finding ways to abstract the experienced or imagined object. I reckon this can only be done through mark making on paper, and experimenting with the fluid analogue medium of paint. Photographs take you some way, but unless you are going to use an SLR camera with ‘real’ film and do the developing yourself, nothing quite compares to the intensity, patience and careful concentration required by drawing from life.

A 3-part Sketch

A 3-part Sketch

A whole afternoon sounds very extravagant: it was probably a couple of hours at most. But I had planned carefully in advance what I wanted to do. I had some recent photographs of the ferns in my next-door neighbour’s garden, now gradually turning from green to golden brown. I knew I wanted to try out this technique of making an image and then extracting a portion of that image to make a new image the same physical size as the original, but magnified. It’s the double set-square trick that allows you to make  ‘windows’ of different sizes. It’s a great exercise, and one that I could sense produces potentially valuable results in the cause of abstraction.

The other task I set myself was to practise working with gouche, a medium I was unfamiliar with prior to this course. I painted a sequence of colour slabs, oblongs and squares, trying to produce a surface devoid of brushstrokes. That exercise in itself was invaluable: I realised quickly one needs a gentle touch with the brush. When my coloured slabs had dried I cut them up into discrete pieces and started to play around making arrangements, simulating some of the gouache and water-colour sketches for woven pieces beloved of the Bauhaus weavers.

Painted Blocks

Painted Blocks

When I had an interesting pattern I took a photo of it (my camera on a tripod and using the 2 second timer), employing flash to hide any joins and shadows. This was a great exercise to try, and I plan to go further with it next week by mixing and painting just the colours I’m using for my organic project.

When I arrived at the college workshop on Thursday morning I found Sandra, a 2nd year HNC student, had taken a leaf out of my book to come into college to practise feeling comfortable about putting a warp on a loom. Fortunately for me, Andrea also appeared and was able not only to advise me that I needed to extend my current swatch, but was also able to quickly and effectively show me how those Bauhaus weavers wove those weft-based blocks of different colours across their carpets and textile surfaces. I had intended to experiment (because I couldn’t find a reference to this technique in any of books on weaving I have at home), but it saved a lot of time and effort to be shown very clearly how it was done!

The business of extending my current swatch took some serious time, thought, experiment and execution. In fact so much time, that I made no further progress on preparing another warp as I have done each week for the last month. But I have something that now fits the requirements for one of these eight swatches due in mid December, and I’ve managed to do all the writing up, noting all the technical steps involved in creating this piece of work. What you can see in the sequence of photo illustrations below is the bare-bones of the technique as shown by Andrea, and how I managed to integrate this technique into my extension of last week’s swatch. What I’ve attempted to do in the second stage of this swatch is to take the greens I’ve selected for decorating the yellow and orange surface as the main surface colour of the top half of the swatch. The problem with doing blocks with these three greens was the disparity in the yarn thickness: the darkest almost turquoise green was much thinner than the other two. This made it necessary to weave a double pick to every single.

Graham gave me some interesting advice about working with yarns of different qualities and textures, kindly demonstrating some possible techniques. He took away one of my more extreme yarns to see if it had any Lycra in it. I gather the test for this is to place the yarn near a steam iron. If it’s Lycra the yarn should then crumble up dramatically. This can produce wonderful textures when the yarn is woven into a warp. I finished my workshop day by spending time in the computer suite getting the feel of working on my sketched and painted images in photoshop. I needed to remind myself how to print and transfer all my collected images from my internet server onto the dedicated space I have on the college server.

A Contemporary Egyptian Tapestry

A Contemporary Egyptian Tapestry

At the end of last week I decided I should share my review of  Sue Lawty’s talk with the HNC class, with the intention of promoting a discussion on and around tapestry weaving and the business of abstraction. So I e-mailed the group and the staff with my blog address. A few people have acknowledged the mail, but I think the notion of any kind of discussion is probably a bridge too far! Anneli kindly sent me some images of wool and cotton tapestries from a gallery in Egypt currently exhibiting at Gallery 47 in London. I admit these are colourful images, and probably highly accomplished, but a world away from the sparse, restrained Coptic images Sue Lawty showed us last Monday from the V & A collection.

Sue Lawty, artist and (tapestry) weaver

November 5, 2008

I put the word tapestry in parenthesis because this fascinating artist doesn’t. Perhaps it’s assumed, because after all it’s probably obvious that this is what her woven work is. For me the omission is a good excuse to deliberate on what I think I’m up to in the practice of learning to design and make handwoven textiles, and where the differences lie. For me, tapestry isn’t in the game at all. The word belongs to a different language all together. Tapestry – a picture woven with threads of yarn. So what if that picture doesn’t represent a girl with a melon (and do look at Lynne Curran’s woven tapestry here) but is an abstract image that contains structural and tactile clues,  something of the essence of this girl, her melon, (and her melancholia?). Such woven images are contained in a border that resemble that of the painter’s frame or the canvas edge. They are not worn, or part of a furnishing; they have no function except to articulate a (pictorial) space with a representation of a real, remembered or imagined image. This image might tell a story, evoke a landscape, bring together the impossible or fantastic. The French word for tapestry, tapisserie, perhaps significantly, has a slightly different meaning: a  ‘collection’ of images that may together tell a story, but also demonstrating aspects of one thing in a non-linear sequence of secondary images, arrange like a series of satellites orbiting around a planet.

At York Museum on 3 November Sue Lawty presented a talk on her work at what must be one of the most comfortable lecture halls in the country.  She talked us seamlessly (for nearly two hours) through a collection of slides that, with a brief excursion into a figurative piece from the beginning of her career, represented her work since 2005 when she began her association and collaboration with the V & A. She made the point at the outset that there seemed to be a kind of circular, even non-linear quality to the progression of images, because the present for her was continually calling on memories of the past. Creativity for her was certainly not a linear process. She found herself finding and taking the same paths, but with a different intent and backdrop of experience.

Since the beginning of her time at the V & A she has kept a blog. This is full of wonderful images of her work, her travels, her sketches and the many references that underpin what eventually comes to be woven. The blog has many revealing and touching moments, as when she recalls how she came to discover weaving:

At art school in Leeds in the mid 70’s, I followed a degree in Furniture Design. Unn was then a part-time tutor on the Fine Art course. She ran a textile studio which happened to be opposite our design studio.The room housed half a dozen vertical tapestry looms and a handful of students working away on various projects. One loom carried Unn’s current tapestry – a detailed semi abstract dreamlike composition in deep blues as I recall. This artist taught by example, and in so doing provided a very rich learning environment of sketchbooks, samples, personal art books and exhibition catalogues – indeed an ‘artist in residence’ before the phrase ever became commonplace. The atmosphere in the room was one of very real creative charge. I was on the outside, looking in – yearning to be involved in this world. An invitation from Unn to step inside, and my life changed (though I didn’t recognize it at the time). A visual melee of rich, enticing colour, earthy smells of strings and twines, intriguing posters and conversation – I soaked it all in. I could almost taste the excitement. And when a loom became free and I was to feel first hand the twangy, taught parallel lines of my own linen warp and hear the rhythmic thud thud of beating down of the weft – I knew I had arrived. Halfway through my final year, whilst I still had use of the college workshops, Unn suggested I made a loom. This I did, copying the Scandinavian design.

So how does her work and her passion for weaving connect with those who weave in a different mode; in that world of designing and making in which the made outcome has a function tied up with human action, human living, often replicated in series, but not confined to being exhibited on one wall, one space. Nevertheless, such an article of handwoven design has what Lawty calls ‘the individual mark of the hand, perhaps an ever precious factor in our increasingly technological and virtual world.’ And so, I came away from her talk feeling that the essence of her approach to weaving, however off (and on) the wall it was, held vital and transferable ideas about the message and expression of woven material.

Landscape predominates her work, but not its colour; her work is largely colourless. There are no bold colour statements. Texture and contour are everything. Hemp, raffia, paper, stone, lead – all contain a dull, bland colour palette that does not reflect light but absorbs it. Natural patterning on rock, patterns made through human intervention (the footprint, the broken stone, a rice harvest on a Nepalese hillside) she translates as a kind of unintelligible text, a linear sequence, so you tend to read the image from left to right. She stresses the making the piece and the image at the same time, but work is often a sewn assemblage (as in her piece for the Bankfield Museum collection titled Terra) of sample-like swatches. Sequences, series, collections, assemblages, left to right, right to left, up and down. Pebbles so tiny, but in their thousands seemingly woven across a 6 metre wall space – as in Order – only work as an image in this way. There are also maps, paths, aerial views, and panoramas (she has climbed and trekked in the Himalaya and the Alps). Recently woven work from different cultures, particularly the Coptic and Egyptian from the V & A’s collection, has an increasingly important role in her scheme of things.

All in all the range of sources is invigorating. Her work has a fantastic energy: contained in woven sequence, bound by the conventions of warp and weft, and the result of such patience and restraint. Her very generous talk was threaded through with a sense of passion for the way weaving was for her the medium that truly expressed what she saw and experienced of the natural world and as well as those mysteries of scripts and languages we ‘read’  in the textures of rocks and plants. She may have started out with pictorial, even figurative work, but she now has found a way into an abstract domain that feels to me closer to what I sense I struggle with, translating something that comes out of life into the keenest of abstractions. 

See Sue Lawty’s work at the Cloth and Culture NOW show at Manchester’s Whitworth Museum – until the end of December. Not to be missed!