Take One: Developing a Woven Language

Participants will need: Strong wooden frame (ideally not smaller than 60 x 30 cm), scissors, bobbins/fork, 6” ruler, notebook. Warp of choice (variety of thicknesses useful) e.g. cotton seine twine. Weft threads of choice (if not sure, bring options) e.g. linen, cotton, other twines, raphia, paper, thin wire etc. Sewing needles/cotton.

 Last weekend I attended the second of two workshops given by tapestry artist Sue Lawty at Bankfield Museum in Halifax. The workshop title (above) summoned a group of 10 textile enthusiasts of varying experience and ability to ‘explore the structure, rhythm, scale, light and shade of a selected yarn’ . . . and we certainly did!

Three samples by Sue Lawty

Three samples by Sue Lawty


I’ve written about Sue Lawty in two previous blogs so I’m not going to dwell too much on how this charismatic and generous artist manages to create such a sense of purpose amongst her workshop students. What I do want to describe here are aspects of the workshop itself: what we did and what the outcomes were.  In the gallery below there are images I have collected of some of the work produced. For some these might seem a little inconsequential, but the effect of engaging in often quite small-scale activities, and what these may trigger or develop into in the future, could be useful and significant  in the longterm.

A Ball of Paper Thread

A Ball of Paper Thread


You’ll see from the opening paragraph we all received from Sue a list of items necessary for us to work with. During a brief introduction Sue suggested we might all work with the same material as weft – a paper yarn (about 10 epi). We were encouraged to make very small warps on our frames and explore freely how this rather difficult and sometimes intractable material might be worked. We were being limited as much as possible – using one material and one material only – and through such limitations encouraged to build a vigorous and knowledgeable relationship with the yarn.

We were shown how the put a warp on the frame using two different approaches. The first was the traditional ‘wrap around’ technique. Sue demonstrated a good way of keeping the tension on the warp by revolving the frame around the warp yarn rather than wrapping the yarn around a stationary frame. The other technique introduced the idea of cutting warp threads to a double length and creating a warp from tying larks’ head knots on one end and tying the other end with the kind of square knot I already use for tying a warp to the front beam in handloom weaving. Keeping an even tension was stressed as so important – and I learnt a necessary lesson here in my failure to achieve this.

My own 'character' - note the edge knots at the bottom

My own 'character' - note the edge knots at the bottom


From then on the most necessary tapestry weaving techniques were quietly introduced – those of us who were uncertain about these were gently and individually helped  (without disturbing or frustrating the progress of the more experienced and able weavers). Those all important edge knots I finally mastered using Sue’s analogy with letters – C one way, D the other – brilliant! And then plain weave itself – just so many, many different ways this can be approached and executed. We were encouraged to think about assembling a kind of dictionary of examples, woven ‘characters’ we knew intimately and that might become part of our own personal language state for weaving. From this dictionary we could then fashioned words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in different scales and rhythms.

A most adventurous piece

A most adventurous piece


I think we were all surprised, amazed, and taken aback by turn at the outcomes such careful execution, sampling and research into the way the paper yarn could be handled. The results of the whole group, even after a couple of hours were so various and most inspiring (look in the gallery at the bottom of the page for a selection). Sue placed a series of craft tables end to end along the length of the room and had us place our frames in a row. She then discussed each, not critically, but making a description of each experiment from which she then applied her own artistic response –’ I would do this, then this and I’d then try this, and did you know that paper yarn takes dye and colour really well . . . ‘ a constant flow of artistic possibility and imagination.

Her words became for me a kind of litany of action: try not to do something you already know; create a dialogue between you and the thread.

Plain weave raphia

Plain weave raphia


From time to time Sue would bring us together, often as a result of a question from  or a dialogue developing with an individual. She showed us, for example, a turning point in her own work – from some twenty years ago following her first visit to Australia. She developed a piece using raphia, a material rich in both limitations and possibilities. What was fascinating here was the unstable grain and colour of the plain weave surface and the sequence of steps Sue began to take to explore the surface texture and structure. As I already know her work using hemp (another difficult / unusual material) specially commissioned for Bankfield (and discussed in my blog on her previous workshop), so much of what was shown in these small-scale examples I could appreciate as the building blocks of technique, material knowledge and practice shown in work produced quite recently.

My drawing of a sampler for Great Edifice 1985 by William Jeffereie

My drawing of a sampler for Great Edifice 1985 by William Jefferies


Another aspect of Sue Lawty’s approach to developing a personal language was the close study of existing forms, often from outside the usual field of reference for a tapestry weaver. She particularly acknowledged the influence of basket making and had available on her ‘book table’ a fascinating volume on Contemporary International Basket Making by Mary Butcher (newly appointed artist in residence at the V & A). Sue made a special point of using books she had brought with her to illustrate and discuss ideas and examples both with the group and individuals. With me, she mentioned the practice of weaver William Jefferies, a name I’d just come across with reference to a blog I’d discovered by Steve Bremner. On the table she had a short monograph about Jefferies with a great illustration of his abstract work making use of what Sue described as rhythms of knotting. I intend to find out much more about Jefferies, though there currently seems little in print and on the web.

All in all there was so much to take in from what amounted to a very informal style of workshop guidance. If you were alert you could find yourself picking up nuggets of information and guidance being spread informally around the workshop space. Sue was always ready to answer the most mundane and seemingly simple questions. I asked just how she made joins between separate lengths of weft yarn. The answers I got were rich and various, often the result of much trial and experiment over the years – and Sue made one feel that such questions were important and necessary – and that she had asked them and in some cases was still asking them. It was clear her technique never stood still. There was always a different way in a different context, with invariably a different material.

Towards the end of the two-day session Sue mentioned her participation in an up and coming touring exhibition called Taking Time. Searching for a web reference to this uncovered a fascinating trail of personal enquiry and research . . . into what is known to makers and craftspeople as Slow Movement. This ‘movement’ has been particularly championed by Craftspace, a Birmingham-based organisation that promote craft as a rich activity and medium in educational and social contexts, who support and contribute to all kinds of projects from exhibitions to craft within therapy and rehabilitation. Their take  on the slow culture is that ‘Slowness is particularly associated with craft skills: skill which is acquired over time, cannot be rushed and is intuitively learned. Many makers today are developing critical positions in response to our consumer behaviour; questioning modes of production through new processes, looking at issues of stewardship and sustainability, as well as collective making and reworking everyday objects.’

From discovering Craftspace I was led to the work and blog of curator and maker Helen Carnac who has been the driving force behind Taking Time. Her blog documents how such an exhibition is being assembled and provides valuable links to a whole community of people related to craft, design and making that (with two exceptions) I had never heard of.

Going deeper in Slowness I explored some of the roots of this movement. From Carl Honore’s book in Praise of Slow (and the intriguing Under Pressure about parenting) to the work and writing of design guru and facilitator of SlowLab Alastair Fuad-Luk whose latest book Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World (Earthscan, 2009) brings together nearly ten years work under the slowness banner. Then there was the discovery of the Landscape and Arts Network and a powerful exposition of Slow Making by Jane Frost who says about her paper: Slow Making is done with reflection, care and consideration of the environmental effects of the source, process and use of materials
Slow Making is relationship and action’.

The figure of Richard Sennett, whose book The Craftsman I’ve probably mentioned in these pages, is a central one in relating craft and making to the Slow Movement. Much of the current rationale and ammunition for practising slowness comes from this very readable book by this professor of economics from the LSE. There are, I gather, two more volumes in the pipeline.

Matthew Harris - Scorched

Matthew Harris - Scorched


Finally, here are a few words about textile artist Matthew Harris. Investigating links between music and textiles in the course of promoting my Textiles and Music Interact! project completed last month, I discovered a collaboration between jazz musician Keith Tippett and this textile artist from Gloucester (who I then discover is one of those showing in Taking Time). I wrote to Matthew about my project’s work and he most kindly responded with some fascinating illustrations and writing about his music-related work. He’s currently involved with Michael Brennand-Wood in the refurbishment of Bristol’s Colston Hall and has taken inspiration from the graphic musical notations used by composers such a Karlheinz Stockhausen. In an essay on Harris’ catalogue Trace Elements (University of Gloucsetershire 2008) Brennand-Wood writes: ‘Both Music and Textiles rely on sensory engagement to access content. They are so clearly constructed, orchestrated, scored and designed; yet initial response is often a primal reaction to colour, texture, iconography, sound and rhythm’.  There’s a profile article on Matthew by Ian Wilson in the May / June issue of Embroidery.


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