Archive for March, 2009

Structure: Intuition and Invention

March 31, 2009

Last weekend I spent two days at Bankfield Museum, a former 19C millowner’s mansion overlooking the famous Dean Clough Mill in the  town of Halifax in West Yorkshire. I was there to take part in a workshop given by textile artist Sue Lawty. I’ve already written about Sue on these pages back in November. If you haven’t read my blog on her York lecture then I do recommend you do so before embarking on this report. It will all make much more sense!

Dean Clough Mills @ Halifax, West Yorkshire

Dean Clough Mills @ Halifax, West Yorkshire

Although I have heard Sue speak about her work, this was my first opportunity to meet her. She is a bright-eyed, very energetic fifty-something whose regime of running and leading the occasional trek in Nepal seems a necessary part of being a very creative and inspirational artist . . . and teacher. Her workshop technique is impeccable: she is an accomplished facilitator. She talks as little as possible and what she says is a mix of hard factual information with observation, and a personal sharing of what her creative world is about and what it means to her. She is a wonderful listener, having first asked searching questions, but then it’s very much hands-off. She doesn’t pander to her students either. If it isn’t good, effective or just doesn’t work she’ll tell you in such a way that you’ll either realise what you are doing has to go in the bin, or (as in my case) spur me on to make an idea work.

Sue Lawty (with camera) and student

Sue Lawty (with camera) and student

So let’s set the scene: there are 12 of us, all very experienced needlewomen, weavers. rug makers, knitters, spinners (and many all of these), and me – the only male (again), and the least experienced of course. Quite a number of the group are full or part-time students, others include a designer and several ‘totally passionate about textiles’ people. We start with a short introduction by Sue given in front of  ‘Intersect’ a tapestry (not as you’d know it) commissioned by Bankfield for their permanent collection. The piece is shown beside two woven fragments, of Peruvian and Coptic origin, which have so influenced Sue Lawty’s work. I’d seen Intersect on a photograph and was quite unprepared for the mass of detail and subtle colouring which she had woven into this predominantly hemp-made tapestry. I make no apologies for showing my sketchbook entry for this short introduction (DO enlarge the image by clicking on it) because I’ve tried to precis some of the main points in her talk and include a favourite quotation she presented at the York lecture (which I couldn’t write down quick enough when she originally showed it). This text by a potter Claudi Casanovas is now on her blog (along with images of this Spanish potter’s work).

My sketchbook with 'Intersect'

My sketchbook with 'Intersect'

 

Intersect with Peruvian and Coptic weaves

Intersect with Peruvian and Coptic weaves

Upstairs in the Education Room we began our individual work with a piece of aluminum  foil. The task: to create small units of images in 2 or 3 D that would allow us to investigate ‘questions of rhythmic pattern, texture, repetition and interval’. I eventually produced a collection of gull-like shapes which I then ‘flocked’ by assembling them with a random throw. Sue had placed a long roll of black paper down the length of the room. This provided an ideal surface upon which to lay out our work for all to see. Now for the difficult bit – my attempt at explaining my rationale to Sue for the way I knew I wanted to work. This is the first time I’ve ventured to explain an abiding preoccupation: I want to bring together the tactile and analogue nature of a (woven) textile surface with digitally recorded and processed images, static and moving. In this workshop I intended to use digital photography and camera-based slideshows to provoke continuation towards an end result. The result being a material piece AND a digital piece, the latter  possibly incorporating stages of the creative journey, what the Greek philosophers called the poiesis. I got the feeling Sue was very dubious about all this, and, looking at my meagre work in situ, rightly so. It was the kindest of warnings, but a later exercise confirmed for me (by complete chance) that I couldn’t / shouldn’t abandon my intentions. But back to my gulls . . .

A flock of 'gulls'

A flock of 'gulls'

My flocked gulls were thrown and then manipulated by repositioning the individual gulls sequentially, photographing each move, then assembling the photos on the slideshow feature on my camera. In this way I answered all the ‘questions’ we had been set to explore – rhythm, texture, repetition and interval. Only I’d done this with one set of units rather than the thirty or so I would have needed to achieve the same result in a physical, rather than virtual, space.

Straws in a Lindenmeyer Sequence

Straws in a Lindenmayer Sequence

For Exercise 2 we picked a piece of paper off the black paper sheet with a number written on it. This directed us to a table with 12 sets of material: willow canes, a pile of unusual yarns, leaves, a brush head, . . .  and for me – a box of neon-coloured drinking straws. Beside these materials we found every conceivable type of device for assembling our materials – except glue. This was banned. Although, as I found a roll of masking tape in this collection, I appropriated it later, much to Sue’s disappointment.

Neon 'Spin'

Neon 'Spin'

The extraordinary thing about my chance-selected material was that for some time now I’ve been considering working with neon colours on my loom. In fact I tracked down a supplier of neon yarns. The reason for this is because of my desire to signal the urban context of my weaving. My studio window looks out onto the central thoroughfare of Wakefield, clubs, pubs, banks, shops, bus stops and all. No green anywhere, just the ever-changing skies above the rooftops. So, in some ways, I was already prepared to work with straws of four neon colours: green, yellow, purple and orange.

Both the pieces I created used a natural language algorithm called the Lindenmayer System or L-system, an algorithm I regularly use in my musical work. I wrote a brief axiom that generated a sequence made of four colours and with that I could start assembling and inventing a surface of straws. Every stage of the process of making I photographed, significantly taking photos occasionally with a negative filter. This revealed a completely different set of neon colours: wonderful blues and violets. As my piece took shape I realised it could have the qualities of a mobile, a 3D piece I could ‘spin’, and this became its title. Back home after the first day I put together a sequence of digital images and applied a music track of about 2 minutes in duration. Play this by clicking here.

'Spin'

'Spin'

TRIO - the materials

TRIO - the materials

The second day of the workshop enabled me to do something completely different with my neon straws. First, I put together exactly the same number and colours of straws I had used previously. This time, instead of using the whole straw, I deconstructed it into its three separate parts: a long length, the concertina section, the drinking portion. I made a number of different assemblages. I did compass images of these collections (NESW), then I threaded over a thin piece of dowling a sequence of short straws lengths fastening each end of the dowling with a plug. This column of neon lengths I then suspended against a notice board and ‘swung’ it – the title of the piece became ‘swing’. I photographed each section of the column (about a metre in total length) and then swung the cane photographing many different angles of swing.

Cane shapes

Cane shapes

Where these experiments all came together was in finding some really bendy willow cane. This I could fashion with discrete pressure to produce curly shapes. I then assembled three such shapes, photographed the result, then proceeded to thread my 3 collections of length-sized straw parts in Lindenmayer sequences onto the three canes. The result was intriguing if delicate and next time I do such a thing I must remember the ‘taking it home’ bit. I did get it home, but I had to reassemble some of the straw pieces that came away when I put it in my car. Hanging from a notice board in my studio it takes on a quite different aspect from being on the floor where it was constructed.

TRIO complete

TRIO complete

Sue didn’t say very much about my labour of a whole day. But I knew it didn’t really observe (for her) many of those questions she hoped we’d explore and find answers for. For me, I felt I did tick those boxes, but it was difficult to demonstrate the digital outcomes there and then. Each piece I made has alongside it a digital partner which answers the questions and displays them in the context of the making process. I may have done myself a disservice by following my own inclinations, but I came away feeling I had taken an important step, and done so in the presence at least of an artist I so admire.

Interesting Interruptions

March 28, 2009

I’m writing this blog on the train to London to see my daughter Frances and attend the first rehearsal / workshop of my latest orchestral adventure, Utopias. The blog is a little earlier than usual because this weekend I’m spending two days on a course at Bankfield Museum, Halifax with weaver Sue Lawty. Train journeys are good spaces for blog writing and I usually write up my workshop  sessions at Bradford on the way the home. But not yesterday, because I had a trip by car to make in the middle of the day to visit Don Porritt.  

Don Porritt and his prototype tapestry loom

Don Porritt and his prototype tapestry loom

Don has become a bit of legend in hand-weaving circles as a specialist in loom construction, repair and maintenance. I first met him when he visited my studio to assemble my Toika loom. I had dismantled it (to his instructions) at its previous owner’s and had carefully labelled every part. During the hour or so it took to reassemble it he gave an engaging summary of his fascinating career: mechanical engineer and gold and silversmith, renown teacher at  Leeds College of Art, to loom designer and specialist.  His interest in the loom came about when his wife announced she intend to learn to weave. So like the resourceful person he is, he built her one, and to his own design. He quickly realised that there was market for his expertise: as an engineer who could repair and balance looms, often building replacements for worn out or damaged parts; as a agent for selling looms and accessories, particularly for the Finnish company Toika. A travelling scholarship had already taken him to Finland in the 1960s, and with a little knowledge of the language, he was able to make a technical contribution to Toika looms, which he maintains today.

I went to visit his workshop in Menstone, about 12 miles from Bradford, to pick up a 10 and 12 dent size reed I had ordered. My loom had originally arrived with a 6 and an 8 dent reed as its former owner had only intended to weave rugs. Arriving at his wonderfully organised two-floor studio I spotted the prototype of his latest design project – a portable tapestry loom. What you can see in the photograph is the loom without its neat folding legs – these collapse when not in use and cleverly attach to the frame. He’s currently making three of these looms and hopes to have at least one ready to show at Woolfest in the summer.

The next stage of my block pattern

The next stage of my block pattern

Back at college, after seeing more of the West Yorkshire countryside than I had anticipated, I concentrated on developing the block threading lifting plan for the dobby peg system I have been using for the past fortnight. Last week I did my first dobby peg plan, just an eight lag 16-shaft pattern. This week I reflected on this first pattern and made further changes to it, weaving a new sample section. As a response to the traditional lifting plans for block threadings I’d studied on the dobby loom, this one was possibly too subtle (and too limited), but it did demonstrate a different approach. I decided that what I needed to do next was to enlarge to scope of the lifting plan to two sets of 8 lags, the second having a marked contrast to the first and making much more play with longer floats than the previous one used. This took much thinking about at the ‘design on squared paper’ stage. Eventually I put something together that plays on the plain-weave ‘miss a lag’ pattern I had used previously. This is a great conceal and reveal pattern, and Graham (the workshop technican), was enthusiastic about some of the effects I was beginning to achieve, albeit that it had not been my intention to consider the project brief at this point. I simply wanted a) to get to grips with block thinking, and b) work with neutral colours on a ecru cotton warp. Regrettably, I had a number of false starts to getting this new longer pattern on the loom. First time around I managed to drop the lags when fitting them on the loom . . . and, of course,  some of the pegs fell out. I then realised I’d put the pegs into the wrong side of the lags! This means that on the photo there’s only a few picks of the new pattern completed – to test the pegs were properly engaging the shaft springed pulleys on the dobby. I just ran out of time to do more.

Detail of this enhanced weave pattern

Detail of this enhanced weave pattern

In counterpoint to this activity I got to see some valuable examples of degree student work, as a result of last minute preparations many students were making to take part in a local competition, closing date today. Graham was holding a kind of clinic to help these students produce an extra level of information on the loom tickets than that normally required by the college. This included such necessities as registering the weight of a square centremetre of woven fabric. Because of this I got to see a really intricate Jacquard woven hanging in Chenille and a series of samples boards produced as a result of a student’s African adventures last summer. Her delightful sketchbook I featured in this blog back in February. I came away from viewing these knowing that what I can possibly do in two years on the HNC course is unlikely to get anywhere near such invention and technical confidence. A salutary reminder that I have so much to learn, and so much ground to cover.

My Current Studio Project

My Current Studio Project

Back at my office / studio, during the evening before my workshop session, I had the pleasure, and it was a pleasure, to complete putting a new warp on my loom. Suddenly every thing worked as it should: tying up to the back beam, raddling through the reed, beaming on to the back beam (using sticks rather than paper as a separator for the first time), tying on to the front beam and getting  that all important even tension across the warp. I was so pleased with myself that I phoned my wife to come up to my office and see (judge) the result. It was a lovely moment to be able to say I did ALL this myself, and to weave a few picks too!

Finally, I received an e-mail this week from the Craft Study Centre at the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham to remind me of their Visual Arts Data Service. (VADS) provides a central resource of over 100,000 high quality digital images, which are copyright cleared and completely FREE for use in UK education and personal research. The images cover a broad range of visual arts subjects including: ceramics, furniture, glass, jewellery, textiles, architectural drawings, public monuments, religious buildings, urban design, product & packaging design, drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and photography.

Better Blocks

March 24, 2009
camellia-8jpg

The front garden camellia

I’m pleased to say this week has been a whole lot better than last. Perhaps it’s the change in the weather. Spring has arrived and our beautiful  front garden camellia is so full of flowers there’s very little green leaf in counterpoint to the pink. In the park across the road the forsythia is casting its bright yellow in swathes, leaves are really budding on the trees. Nature aside, the warp on my studio loom is nearly in place, and despite a few hiccups (like ‘dropping one of the shafts last night as I tried to access a few more heddles from behind the shaft pulley tie), I’m pleased with the possibility this warp now affords. The addition of the blue, a very soft synthetic bouclé, is a definite improvement. I saw some really imaginative warps using bouclé yarns currently in progress by year 1 degree students. For (mostly) first time weavers these students are producing some impressive work – every loom in the workshop is currently in use. So it’s like Spring in the workshop – a riot of colour.

Almost ready to go

Almost ready to go

I suddenly looked at my loom one very early morning this week and thought, no I won’t look at ‘the book’ (Debbie Chandler’s Learning to Weave), I ‘know’ how to do this, and if it goes wrong then I reckon I can fix it. Two of my favourite on-liners this week kindly identified Peggy Osterkamp’s three volume reference guide as being the ‘by the loom’ reference. When the next commission comes along I might treat myself. Until then it will have to be Debby Chandler and Marianne Straub (not forgetting Laura Rosenzweig’s invaluable teaching notes) as my loomside helpmates. Last week’s blip really toughened my resolve, and I noticed last night there was a more measured quality present in all I was doing to thread my warp.

In the workshop last week I had two quite successful sessions. In the first I replaced the Satin/Sateen peg plan with a more straightforward lifting pattern. This is pretty much a plain weave with one of the two block patterns carrying alternate blank spaces to enable a single float to lie across the tabby pattern. With the neutral yarns I’d chosen this worked very well, and I was inspired by the effects I could get. I’ve now learnt to change sets of lags and I find myself really playing with the possibilities that the forward / neutral / reverse lever on the dobby looms provides, that and skipping parts of the pattern. 

First session block weave

First session block weave

The second session began quite late in the day, but had a happy outcome. I wanted to design and weave from my own peg plan. I decided on a variant of that hopsack I’d used in my last project, the one that creates an arrow-like pattern with the arrow  able to point to the left or right, individually or back to back. I planned it out on squared paper then, with a short tutorial from a friendly part-time degree student, prepared the lags myself. First you have to find a chained length of lags that’s served its purpose. Next you have to knock out the existing pegs with a neat little tool that I’m sure has a name, but I don’t know it yet. With a hammer and this tool inserted into each hole of the lag (turned upside down) you knock the pegs out with the lag placed into the top of a box with no top or bottom (name someone please) .Then with an empty collection of lags you insert your own pegs, knocking them gently in with a hammer. The final part is to turn your lags upside down so the pegs are facing down onto a hard surface. Now you take the bottomless/ topless box and place it over the collection of lags and tap gently to make sure that pegs are pegged at an even height. If not, it’s possible some pegs might not engage with the dobby mechanism.

Still Life with Pegging Tools

Still Life with Pegging Tools

My own peg plan

My own peg plan

With all this done the lags are placed on the revolving cylinder on the dobby  (you have to use a step ladder to reach this comfortably). My pegs dutifully engaged, I had about an hour to start to experiment with patterns I could make. The result is not brilliant, but was enough for me to recognize what I have to do next week to improve the weave. I was not exhausted as I had been last week by weaving on the dobby, which is probably the result of watching how gracefully a year 3 student was weaving on a similar loom next to me. I’m always a little reticent watching nearby weavers so acutely – for all the reasons I’m sure you can imagine – so I make a point of introducing myself and asking if they mind their work being scrutinized, if only from a distance. As a coda to my workshop session I must acknowledge the time Graham, the workshop technician, so kindly spent explaining to me how 8-shaft patterns can be achieved on a 4-shaft loom. This was fascinating and as I want to do his explanation justice, I’m going to save it up for the future when I’ve tried some of his suggestions myself.

Second Session Pattern

Second Session Pattern

One of the features of the Yorkshire Craft Centre where I weave every Thursday is its regular exhibition programme at a most generously-sized gallery. At the moment there’s a show by  Group-Seven, seven artists, some with connections to Bradford College. It’s a real mixture including painting, photographic collage, and print. The latter is represented by Amrik Varkalis whose work I loved the moment I saw it. There’s a set of  engaging mono prints of a family, almost cartoon-like figures like a child might drawn, set against a caricature of a northern urban townscape. But what really caught my eye was a series of large, unframed  and adventurously colourful still-lifes that I just wanted to take home and put on the one empty wall in my studio, the wall against my composing desk. If anything was to convert me to print it is this sort of work that carries in the simplicity of its mainly primary colours such life and energy. It’s a ‘must see’ if you are near Bradford. You can see more of Amrik’s work here.

Print by Amrik Varkalis

Print by Amrik Varkalis

And to continue this theme – on Saturday afternoon I spent a rare half an hour in Leeds City Art Gallery where the whole of a long gallery wall has been put aside to show the gallery’s permanent collection of still-life paintings. I still can’t cut loose from my fascination with Winifred Nicholson, and there she was represented by Renee’s Room, a classic from the 1930s, though subdued, a still life of a plant beside a window with a sliver of a land and seascape present. I made an annotated drawing, again fascinated by her restrained use of colour. There was also a lovely ‘Flowers on a pink ground’ by a contemporary Ivon Hitchings, a painter who is often aligned with Nicholson. Studying woven textile design has so made me aware of the magic of colour organisation, play and structure, and in paintings I’ve looked at for years. It’s been worth all the hardwork and worry at the loom to have had such technique and mystery revealed. As Anni Albers said in her book On Design, you can only understand such things by working the material in your hands. So true.

Renee's Room - from a sketch of the painting at Leeds City Art Gallery

Renee's Room - from a sketch of the painting at Leeds City Art Gallery

So much to learn

March 15, 2009

I was going to call this blog ‘disasters I have known’, but I thought that a little negative. Come on, we in the blogging community of weavers all make mistakes, only we don’t use them that often as material for our reports. I thought I might do just that this week because I realised, after getting over the disappointment of a session that went wrong at home this weekend, I had learnt such a lot and been reminded about so many aspects of good practice. Writing about such a session seems a good way to lay it to rest.

Blocks are the current subject on the HNC technical curriculum for the 3rd project of Year 1. Last week I duly spent quite a useful day at the College workshop making some progress, weaving for the first time since the February weekend on a George Wood dobby loom. More on that later. Let’s start with my weekend disasters, and my attempt to start a ‘blocks project’ at home. My home, when it comes to weaving, is actually my office (my wife would say it is my home because I spend so much time here!). I call it a studio because it is in a building of artists’ studios, and as I’m a musician the two rooms I have are  full of studio equipment – computers, recording gear and  . . . my loom. In some ways this is not a good thing, but I live in a small house with a large family and unless I had a folding table loom I don’t know where I’d weave (even that would be difficult). Anyway, I’ve had a studio / office all my professional life except for 5 years when I stayed at home to look after my (then) infant children. 

My loom is a Finnish Toika, a 4-shaft 6 treadle floor loom acquired from a lawyer (a rare-breed sheep enthusiast) who planned to weave rugs in her retirement. That didn’t work out so I was in the right place at the right time to acquire what is a beautiful loom with all the bits – and, generously, some beautiful wool from her sheep. The loom can be expanded to 8 shaft, but I haven’t got around to that yet. It came with 6 and 8 dent reeds, because the original owner only wanted to weave rugs. I’ve ordered a 10 and a 12, but they are still in Finland I think. 

A 2 Block 4-Shaft Weave

A 2 Block 4-Shaft Weave

For this blocks project I did want to weave some of my swatches on the Toika, and a little research (I’ve already mentioned on these pages) showed that there were many ways I could do this using just 4 shafts. One of the most interesting approaches I found in a chapter of Debbie Chandler’s book Learning to Weave. This chapter discussed and demonstrated the Atwater-Bronson lace weave  ‘ structured so that some threads group together, leaving spaces or windows in the fabric’. I spent half an hour one evening last week puzzling over the drafts and then writing them out to explain the detail to myself. It’s an intriguing way of doing things, even though without actually doing it myself, I couldn’t quite visualize why the threading left spaces or windows in the fabric’. I knew if I did it, all would be revealed. Step one, as you can see from the weave diagram above was to change the tie up on my floor loom, something I hadn’t done before. This little exercise, which proved very easy in the end, really made me examine how the countermarche loom works. Until this point (I’d just used the standard tie up) I’d not properly understood the clever mechanism of lams. To get the tie up  shown above I just had to change pedal 2 (LH) set up as 2 &3  to 2,3,4, and pedal 3 (LH) set up as 1 & 2 to just 1. That was all.

The Culprits

The Culprits

Sometime ago my wife found some cheap craft yarn in a charity shop. It was thick, chunky, polyester and about 5-6 epi. There were three colours, just what was required for this exercise, together with the 6 dent reed I had. At this point I should have recalled a disaster from the past – the first time I tried to use chenille. I keep a bit of this yarn on my desk just to remind me of that terrible Sunday when, try as I might, I could not get this lovely material on the loom (then a folding Ashford 4 shaft I was lent by my first teacher). When I came to pick the threads off the cross in my hand (remember I learnt the front-to-back method of raddling with the reed), I couldn’t even see the separate threads! Everything merged into a blur of red.

Past Evidence

Past Evidence

A second disaster was making the warp length too long . . . and this is really stupid . . . I measured for 5 metres . . . and forgot (can you believe) that I needed to measure  the whole journey around the warping board, not just to the end peg! Such thick yarn also needed really careful handling and lots of choke ties to keep things in place. Two of the five warp lengths just became confused and unusable as I tried to prepare to sley them on the loom. I managed 3 out of 5 – but I had far too much length. I realised, and not for the first time, that for me the practice of warping just has to be done regularly, and very very thoughtfully and carefully. I found, to my shame, I’d forgotten so much. For example, when I came to do a slip knot, to temporarily  tie together  the groups of ends sleyed through the reed, I’d forgotten how to do it. There’s quite a long list of such things to remember anew I have now pinned to my notice board.

Three out of Five

Three out of Five

After all that humiliation my day at college last week sounds rather good. I received my assessment for my second project, and despite the doom and gloom of the group critique when it looked for a while that I might have to resubmit, that has been avoided. Along the way I’ve had some very generous and helpful comments from present and past students, as well as some of the on-line community. Thank you all. I haven’t replied to all your comments, but I’m grateful for what you’ve suggested I think about . . . and I will consider all you have said.

Sateen and Satin Blocks

Sateen and Satin Blocks

After my assessment tutorial I spent the day working on a George Wood dobby set up with a Sateen (weft) / Satin  (warp) dobby pegging. I’ve woven with these patterns in my first project and in my first experiments under the wise tutorship of Laura Rosenzweig, a professional weaver from Cumbria who gave me my first lessons in weaving. It was reflecting on my success with these patterns in neutral colours that shaped my first ideas and experiments for this blocks project – with an 8″ 14 epi cotton ecru warp on one of the George Wood dobbys. I gathered two collections of yarns: a synthetic group and a mohair group. Black, grey, black with gold, lighter grey, grey with brown flecks covered most of my colour palette. Weave on this dobby was hard work after the ease of the Louet dobby the previous week, and the pattern itself didn’t help because I invariably had to ‘catch the selvedge’. With some of the yarns I had to beat very gentle to make the Satin pattern clear at all. I started to get into the idea of playing with the sequence of pegging, using the reverse lever position and skipping sections. But it was hard work in comparison to the Louet – you can’t really sit down at this loom – I was so tired by the end of the day I managed to leave my portfolio (presentation board of swatches, sketchbook and file of loom tickets) on Bradford station and had to drive back to Bradford later in the evening to collect them. Thanks to Harry for handing them in to the station staff.

My first scarf - with Sateen / Satin Patterns

My first scarf - with Sateen / Satin Patterns

What you see on the photo above of my day’s work doesn’t appear to amount to very much, but it has given me plenty of ideas for working on something with neutral colours – something I so enjoyed doing when I first started weaving.  Sometimes, for me, colour seems intimidating and a blight on the imagination! Next week I plan to make my own dobby pattern, pegging a few lags and fitting them in place myself. Before I do so I might just put a different warp on the dobby that’s available, just to remind myself I can do it really, and the back to front method, raddle and all. I’ll have to make sure I’m in the workshop ‘very’ early to fit all this in.