A Research Day at the Crafts Study Centre

One feature of Bradford’s HNC course is Historical and Contextual Studies. Whilst we are being encouraged to be designers and weavers experimenting constantly with visual ideas, design development and yarn technology, this subject provides a necessary and welcome balance. My only concern is that we get very little of it! After an inspiring start much time has been devoted to individual tutorials to support a 15-minute presentation on a subject of our choice, and this chosen subject can be some distance away from the business of woven textile design.

The Craft Study Centre

The Crafts Study Centre

Unlike most of my colleagues I really wanted my own study to focus on historical and contextual issues surrounding an instance of woven textile design. My subject chose itself – from a book I noticed in the College Library when the class was sent off to the library to ‘find something that interests you, and then talk briefly about why’. The book has remained on my studio shelf ever since. 

Margo Coates monograph on Ethel Mairet

Margo Coatts monograph on Ethel Mairet

My subject is the person often referred to as the ‘mother of English hand-weaving’, Ethel Mairet (1872 – 1952). Under her tutelage most of the major figures in textile design and practice passed through her workshop: Marianne Straub, Peter Collingwood, Alistair Morton to name just three. Her influence was immense, her work in weave, dye and design highly original, her legacy almost forgotten. As soon as I saw her work I was smitten. To use a Sue Lawtyism ‘it made me tingle’. Its look, even from a photograph, just made me sit up and think – ‘this’ is a model I can attempt to aspire to. And from that moment I looked forward to the day when I could visit the Ethel Mairet Collection at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, Surrey. And now I have . . .

Ethel Mairet making her first experiments at the loom

Ethel Mairet making her first experiments at the loom

The Mairet Collection is extensive and various. There are her sample books, and complete woven pieces, her very large collection of samples of ethnic, traditional and contemporary weave  and embroidery (including many pieces by the French innovator Paul Rodier), her letters, her travel journals, and her library. I decided, on what I’m sure will be the first on many visits, to concentrate on just two pieces from her ‘yellow and black’ series of the 1940s: a scarf and a length of dress material. I wanted to attempt an analysis from the originals, take photographs, and make detailed drawings with the objective of recreating a sample of each woven piece.

Jean Vasher is the Collections Manager who dwells on the top floor of this Bauhaus-like three story building on the campus of the University for the Creative Arts. The lower floors of the building contain two galleries – a permanent collection of ceramics, print, weave and calligraphy, and a space for visiting exhibitions (currently the ceramicist and sculptor Halima Cassell). Both galleries are open daily to the public. The top floor is for bona-fide researchers only. I’m quite used to working in the special collections of university libraries and handling rare musical manuscripts, but this was my first time in a textile archive . . . and I enjoyed it hugely, mainly thanks to Jean’s generosity and interest. Early on we hit a number of problems – we couldn’t find one of the pieces I wanted to see; we couldn’t even find reference to it even though there it was in Margot Coates monograph of Mairet courtesy of the Crafts Study Centre. Never mind I thought, I had one of my two choices to sit down with – the dress length and over 4 metres of it.

There is nothing quite like that moment of handling (with silk gloves of course) a piece that you have gazed at for months on a photograph. It was so light, and smooth to the touch and the grain of the colours just so different from the photo. I could imagine the pleasure my wife would have had making it up into a dress for the kind of spring day that had blessed leafy Farnham in blossoms and sunshine as I stepped off the train from Waterloo. She would have looked wonderful in it too. The design itself is just a repeated block of balanced plain weave 6 x 6 cm square: machine spun, dyed and undyed Welsh wool weft on a warp of the same yarn plus machine-spun dyed cotton. The colours of black and yellow, against undyed wool in the weft, modulated the wool’s colour mysteriously and beautifully as it was crossed by the warp of yellow and white cotton. In that 6 x 6 cm square there were 52 ends in total, so pretty fine. It was a good piece for a novice to analyse, but in doing so I realised just how much I owe to Graham’s advice and experience back in the Bradford workshop.

This was good I thought, and then I dropped the bombshell on the unsuspecting Jean. Where, I asked, are Mairet’s technical notes for this piece? It’s not a sample after all. Well, we looked and looked through the catalogue of the collection and there was absolutely nothing. There weren’t even any dye records – anywhere. We found a published list of some 40 pamphlets she had written on technical matters – but where were these in the archive? It was only after some lateral thinking that Jean realised that in preparing the collection for the archive Mairet’s former student Marianne Straub had made her own notes and analysis on many of the items in the collection. We tracked these down to an old card index. Not that much to go on, but better than nothing. This posed some interesting questions: did Mairet simply produced the samples and expect her apprentices to analyse and work out the pattern?Well, it seems she did. Even her notebooks rarely include any kind of technical description when she was researching and travelling (which she did all over Scandinavia and Eastern Europe) . . . and I looked through some of them. You can find out exactly what she spent in Sarajevo market in 1930, but as to any helpful technical description of any piece of ethnic weaving she looked at, forget it (although it is clear she did buy many pieces to take home). There’s nothing. But before I attempt any definitive statement on this issue I have to contact Margot Coatts, whose wonderfully researched study on Mairet I recommend unequivocally, and ask her for her thoughts.

Marianne Straub's archive accession card

Marianne Straub's collection accession card

I decided I needed to look at some woven pieces that had similarities with the scarf I’d originally hoped to examine. With the aid of Straub’s card index I found something similar and Jean kindly got the box from the store with these treasures neatly wrapped in tissue . . . and there was the scarf I had really come to see hiding under an accession number missing from the Straub index. It was breathtaking, everything I’d hoped it would be, and more. My only problem was that I was running out of time so I couldn’t do the close analysis I’d made on the dress length. However, with Jean’s help (and she’s not a weave specialist) we sussed it out from the brief description: a machine-spun, dyed cotton slub and undyed chenille weft on a machine-spun, dyed cotton warp: plain weave, spaced-reeding, fringed ends and all in lovely delicate 114 cm x 18 cm length. The chenille, the only use of chenille in her entire archive as far as I could see, was often used in a discontinuous weft pick. The scarf is, essentially, two patterns made up of 4 horizontal blocks that repeat the whole length of the scarf. The alternation and content of these patterns is ingenious to say the least. The whole scarf is so contemporary: it is fluid, unbalanced, presents a kind of fuzzy logic surface computer analysis would have found hard to unravel. Each pattern section is never quite the same because, for example,  in the sections of discontinuous weft the sequence of discontinuity is always different.

The reverse of the card shown above, and the detailed of any in the index.

The reverse of the card shown above, and the most detailed of any in the index.

Finally, I do need to mention my all too brief survey of just two of the many pattern books. I chose books that focused on subjects the HNC class had been studying: distorted weft, experimental bouclé, leno samples, the use of cellophane (very brave and unusual in the 1940s – introduced to Mairet by Peter Collingwood), and inlay techniques.

All in all it was quite a day, what with a rehearsal on London’s South Bank to get to as well. I left Wakefield on the 5.17am and got back just after midnight – but it was worth it. Seeing Mairet’s work at first hand was an experience I know I shall hold on to as a touchstone in my weaving practice. There’s something so very right about her work: the product of the complete textile craftswoman, virtually self-taught, a dedicated teacher, researcher, businesswoman, and a highly cultured and socially aware lady (her library with its complete sets of William Morris and Lewis Mumford books a testament to that). And there’s so much more – her Ceylonese adventures and her work with vegetable dyes. For me there’s also something special about her past that makes me smile – as a young woman she trained at the Royal Academy of Music as a pianist and didn’t begin to weave until her later thirties. She never thought of herself as a great technical weaver, but she had such imagination.

Note: current restrictions mean I can’t illustrate this blog with the photographs I was allowed to take at the Mairet Collection. I have applied for permission from the Crafts Study Centre to include a selection in this blog, but it may be sometime before I get the go-ahead. In the meantime I can put these images on my private on-line gallery here because they are not accessible directly from any web search engine. I do intend to make coloured and detailed illustrations of the two items I studied and, as soon as possible, recreate woven samples of these lovely pieces.

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One Response to “A Research Day at the Crafts Study Centre”

  1. Peg in South Carolina Says:

    Oh my! I cannot imagine what it was like to actually handle those textiles, silk gloves and all. I am surprised they even let you take photos. What a day you had! And what a day you made for the Collections Manager! I have dug out Straub’s textbook on weaving to look at it again. I also have John Tovey’s book and he seems to fit into that same tradition, as does Ann Sutton. I have two of Sutton’s book (and her biography) and I treasure them. I’m sure there must be places in England to see her fabrics? Another weaver you might check out is Malin Selander. I have her book called “Swedish Swatches” and they are quite amazing. The weaving is simple yet beautiful and imaginative. I was taken by the yellow, black and white but would love to be able to feel it–not the plaid at the beginning of your photos but the scarf at the end. The photo of Jean holding it does give me some idea but……… Randall Darwall is my American weaving hero. I once attended a one-day workshop with him and his process is to design the warp, including the dyeing, and put it on the loom. The loom then goes to one of his trusted weavers who follows her own weaving instincts as to how the warp is to be woven off. I do not know if he still follows that procedure. But that was his modus operendi about 10 years ago.

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