The Loom Trip

A Loom Trip doesn’t sound very prosaic, but that is what it became known as over the last few weeks. It was to be a 700 mile round trip to collect my very own tapestry loom from its previous owner, the renown tapestry artist Jilly Edwards. We clinched the deal on this loom back in the spring, but it has seemed impossible to find an appropriate time when I could manage the trip. Finally, a kind  invitation to visit a colleague on the Bradford HNC course provided the necessary glue to seal the trip: the opportunity to give an intimate concert in a beautiful home in the remote Lew valley  in mid Devon.

The Dower House @ Lewdown, Devon

The beautiful Dower House @ Lewdown, Devon


I made ‘the loom trip’ with the textile artist who shared part of my recent Farfield residency, my critical friend, soprano and erstwhile otter expert Alice. She’s been working this past month as an assistant to another tapestry artist, Sue Lawty. Sue is currently engaged on an ambitious piece for a Craftspace touring exhibition opening this month in Birmingham.

Leaving Wakefield mid-morning in the first rain we’d experienced for a month, we made a picnic stop just north of Worcester at Hanbury Woods. This consists of two old commons (sometimes known as Piper’s Common) of some  40 acres now managed by the Worcester Wildlife Trust. These woodland commons contain many ancient beech, sweet chestnut pollards  and oak trees, some over 300 years old. What is lovely about this spot is the way the trees have been planted and thinned out over the years, making the wood feel so spacious and full of light. Last week the leaves were beginning to fall gently, and I found myself tempted to catch those coming my way as an excuse to make a necessary wish! I’m told this is a great place to find those rare chanterelle mushrooms that seem to defy cultivation, but love to grow around beech trees.

After very slow progress through interminable road works around Bristol we turned off the Motorway near Tiverton and enjoyed the scenic route to Okehampton and thence on the old A30 to Lewdown. The final few miles took us deep into a network of valleys on the very edge of northern Dartmoor and onto the estate of the descendants of the author and polymath Sabine Baring-Gould, whose extraordinary novel Mehala I still have plans to transform into an opera – one day!

Mark & Alice search for Otter Spraint beside the River Lew

HNC student Mark & Alice search for otter spraint beside the River Lew


The following day really requires a blog all of its own. It had very little to do with weaving or textiles, more with finding otter spraint and getting nicely wet walking part of the estate, rehearsing Campion and Dowland lute songs, a late afternoon stroll on Dartmoor, performing to our hosts, and then being thoroughly spoilt at the table of the warmest kitchen I’ve been in for some time.

My sketch from the back garden of the Dower House, Lewdown

On Sunday morning reality took over and we set off for Exeter to collect ‘the loom’ from a storage centre on the outskirts of the city. Thence to Jilly’s new home, a small but perfectly formed chalet-like structure in a back garden of a city house. No room there for a large tapestry / rug loom with a 72” weaving width.

Here’s part of the e-mail I received when I first asked Jilly for details:

I think it may have been made in Poland, it has no makers name on it and there have been changes made to the loom over the years! But it is in reasonable condition, it is about 25 – 30 years old.  It has two shafts that are operated by the pedals, the rollers are very sturdy with metal ratchets on both ends of each roller and the shafts run well in the runners and they have metal heddles.  The loom is strong, sturdy and of course very wide.  It is so unusual to see such a loom, which is why I bought it, but I am really not going to use it, so for space reasons and I hate equipment just sitting around, I would like it to go to being used.  Your project sounds perfect . . .

Woven Piece by Ma

Tapestry by Marta Rogoyska probably woven on my loom - now in the Tate London


The loom had two previous owners before Jilly, Marta Rogoyska and Gabriella Falk. For me, it was comforting to know this loom had been used by three professional weavers, and moreover properly maintained by Jilly’s husband Robert.

My Polish Tapestry Loom - in bits!

My Polish Tapestry Loom - in bits!


Well, that’s all you really need to know about my tapestry loom for now. I got it back to my studio late on Sunday night and early Monday morning my eldest son and I found a space for its dismantled parts in my small studio where it will stay until I rearrange my large studio to accommodate it. I’m not planning to start using it until early January as I have my fifth HNC Project to complete. Then, all being well, ‘A Study of Tapestry Weaving’ becomes the focus of my final 6-month project, a project that I shall artfully connect to the collaboration I’m making as a composer and digital artist to a major and really ambitious installation Jilly Edwards is creating for the famous High Cross House on the Dartington Estate.

The real meat of this ‘loom trip’ was the opportunity to meet Jilly Edwards and visit her (temporary) studio. We spent a fascinating four hours in her ebullient and generous company and came away knowing that we’d met a very special artist.

Jilly and a Texture of Memory

Jilly and Textures of Memory


What I’d like to try and do here is to discuss what I think makes this tapestry artist so special, and to describe those elements of her practice that might speak to the wider textile community that I know occasionally read this blog. Jilly’s work is well documented in print, but not discussed widely on the web. I hope I can give a personal angle to my own enthusiasm for her tapestry art. I’ve certainly no wish to duplicate any of the writing on her work by the likes of Margot Coates (whose excellent monograph on Ethel Mairet I discussed back in May this year).

Curiously enough Jilly’s textile journey began under the tutelage of one of Mairet’s assistants Joyce Griffiths, who taught Jilly to spin. She studied first as a handweaver, but knew she wanted to explore tapestry. She even adapted her Toika loom by building up the back beam to get a slanted warp (as used in the West Dean workshops). Studying with Fiona Mathison and Maureen Hodge  in Edinburgh as a ‘special’ student  (alongside Jorunn Finne and Anne Newdigate-Mills) she adopted the haute lisse, sold her cloth-weaving loom, and didn’t look back. She now uses the vertical loom of Archie Brennan’s design made from ‘Accro’ props and scaffolding, the favoured loom of the famous Dovecote Studio. Pictorial tapestry has only occupied a small part of Jilly’s career. She seems to have progressed quickly to the abstract forms, and acknowledges the influence of the Albers and the Bauhaus, the St Ives school (particularly John Wells and Patrick Heron), weaver Leonore Tawney, and the American minimalist painter Agnes Martin.

Painting by Agnes Martin

Painting by Agnes Martin


Although Jilly’s work is embedded in many of the traditions of tapestry making, when it comes to displaying her work forget everything you might have thought previously about the medium. This isn’t (necessarily) about woven cloth you hang on a wall. Her work is definitely (and mostly these days) ‘off the wall’ (in fact that was the title of a ground-breaking show at the Crafts Study Centre in 2006).

Detail from Texture

Detail from Textures of Memory


Her signature piece associated with that show is Textures of Memory of 2005. This is a piece some 12 metres long and 5 cm wide. It has become indelibly associated with the artist through its selection as the poster image for the Tapestry Group’s Tapestry 08 exhibition in Halifax. And there it was, in a very smart box in her studio, for us to pick up and explore. But I jump ahead . . . let me introduce you to her studio space.

Nigel looks closely at some sketches in Jilly's temporary studio space

Nigel looks closely at some sketches in Jilly's temporary studio space


Jilly has just moved house and is awaiting a purpose-built studio in her walled garden. Meantime, she’s joined Exeter’s principal studio community (Exeter Art Space) sharing a high-ceilinged (rather chilly) space with a painter she rarely ever sees.

Work in Progress on A Sense of Place

Work in Progress on A Sense of Place


The woven work ‘in progress’ is tantalising in its rewriting of traditional form. At the loom we saw three strips made up of sequences of small 5cm x 12cm pieces. Imagine a woven piece the size of a railway ticket. To Jilly the stuff of journeys is pretty central to her thinking, and railway tickets assume a significance all their own, proving evidence of the journey and its date and time. The tapestry strips (and there were three on the go) are to be viewed front, back and sides. These strips are able to inhabit space in a totally new way. The sketch below (on the wall behind her loom) shows just one example of how such strips might be laid out.

Sketch for a Sense of Place

Sketch for A Sense of Place


Some of these railway ticket sized pieces are presented singly and permanently in glass-faced boxes, a tapestry in miniature displayed like a prize butterfly. Bigger pieces, such a seesaw-like construction about 5-foot long has the woven pieces wrapped onto a steel armature. Also, there are the transparent Muji boxes with compartments containing rolled up tapestry lengths (3cm x 6000 cm approx), rail tickets, delicate leaves, and in one I saw what appeared to be a miniature book.

A box of delights

A (Muji) box of delights


I was really intrigued to read prior to my visit that this artist ‘creates her own language for recording sights and feelings, using colours, shapes and marks that hold specific meanings for her, finding expression in the quality of edge or line’. And there it was, in front of me, exactly that.

In these curious and gently coloured flowing gestures of tapestry there are contained observations and expressive responses from everyday life. The repetitions of regular journeys, celebrated afresh every time as the light, circumstance and seasons change, are found alongside the shock of the new, landscape experienced for the first time. It is tapestry as language, tapestry that will hold and display found objects, objects that act as an aide memoire for the artist, and so a colourful mystery story for the viewer written in a novel script .

One way of really appreciating Jilly’s approach to colour and woven gesture is to get to see The Art Textiles of the World Great Britain Volume 3 published by Telos. This features a section of Ma, a beguiling 90 x 230 cm tapestry of wool, linen and chenille weft on a cotton warp. The play and depth of tone in the central blue panel is unlike anything I’ve encountered in tapestry. You’d be forgiven, seeing it at a distance, in believing it to be painted. Here’s the whole piece:

Ma - Jilly Edwards 2001

Ma - Jilly Edwards 2001


What so much of her work seems able to convey is the outcome of a contemplative making. The artist seems to be saying through her work: I weave this so I can think that, or indeed, not think, but open myself up to the eternal now. Is this a kind of Zen-ness of tapestry weaving? The new work for High Cross House at Dartington in Devon is aptly titled A Sense of Place, probably some 90 separate pieces all told – large and tiny – that will reflect qualities special to each room in the house, but also will recount experiences, describe journeys: to engage through touch and texture with the perambulating viewer. There will be music and soundscapes too, gently colouring each space, entering into a dialogue with the many unique forms Jilly is already weaving. The  Bauhaus influenced house conceived in the International Modernist style in the early 1930s is already a totally integrated design inside and out. Jilly is part way towards assembling a further layer of integration with the inside and the outside through the line and trace of thread and weave. It is such a fascinating and compelling idea.

One of a set of five 'open-ended' double weave hangings in progress

One of a set of five double width hangings in progress


Highly Recommended!

Highly Recommended!


Back in my world of handloom weaving I’ve now completed three of the five  double width panels I’m making with the remaining section of the double weave warp I created in July. It’s been going very well and I’ve had such inspiration from studying a remarkable book from Sweden. Forma Monster (aka. The Textile Design Book) by Karin Jerstorp and Eva Kohlmark is the book I should have had at the start my HNC course. As a manual of basic design strategies and thinking it is unique, and I love it. I can’t recommend this book too highly. There’s an English version published by A & C Black (1992).

I went into college briefly this week to discuss with Graham my proposed workshop day from now until January. I’m hoping to use one of the computer-controlled looms and get to grips with the WeaveIt software. Visiting the library I discovered a copy of Ursina Arn-Grischott’s Double Weave. Recommended by many followers of this blog when I was studying double weave, it is really one of the most exciting and beautiful books on weave I have ever seen. Be warned, it is seriously expensive!


2 Responses to “The Loom Trip”

  1. Theresa Says:

    Wow, what a weekend journey, both in the living and the reading. Congrats on the new loom. Thank you for taking me to learn about someone I never would have known about.

  2. The Summer Show . . . is here again « Nigel’s Weaving Blog Says:

    […] rich natural world where the rugs were woven, a remote valley on the edge of Dartmoor. This area, which I visited last autumn, had been the inspiration and source for all the maker’s work across all the projects of the […]

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