Archive for December, 2009

Sashiko at York, a little progress at home

December 22, 2009

Just a few days to Christmas and with the cards and letters written, snow on the rooftops and festive music on the I-Player (from the EBU’s wonderful Christmas Around Europe) playing quietly on my computer, I’m ready to wrap up the last two weeks. There seems so much to squeeze in – a visit to York for the Sashiko exhibition, breathtaking pictures from ikat weaver Susan Jarmain of her Ontario studio and home, scarves from India, Nepal and West Yorkshire, a Habu discovery, and a proper summary of my own weaving experiments.

Snow on the roofs of Wakefield - from my studio


I’ve tended to leave a report of my own work until last in recent blogs, so not here. A fortnight ago I’d just put on a new ‘spaced’ warp as the next stage in my experimental work with natural fibres, recycled wool and tapestry techniques. This is all in the run up to putting on my first proper paper warp (a 16mm half spun finally sourced from Fibrecrafts). Yesterday I finished a piece that began rather playfully but developed into a central sequence of patterns that investigated how to put raffia and recycled wool side by side, and with different thicknesses of raffia and different intensities of beating down. This has meant finally mastering the ‘two shuttle wrap around at the selvedge’ technique, something I’ve fudged in the past, but now, as you’ll see from the illustrations, really become confident with (even though raffia can be very unforgiving at the selvedge end). On the way to this central sequence (blue, green yellow) I experimented with some of the chenille yarn I used in my double weave panels (see September blogs). Here I tried the two different approaches to bringing two different yarns together within a single weft pick: interleaving and interlocking. With this chenille, because it packs down so well, there is very little difference in the outcome.

Raffia and Wool experiment - central sequence


When my wife Susan saw my completion of the central sequence she encouraged me to weave a mirror image of the preceding section and make a complete piece, which I’ve done here. Despite my misgivings with progressing this experiment into a finished piece I’ve learnt a lot from persevering to a conclusion. Not least I’ve started to become really aware of how different yarns and fibres react to different warp spacing and how having such different yarns (raffia and wool) side by side affects colour and a shape across the weft. I’m assembling a very small library of yarns I know well enough to work creatively with. This piece probably uses far too many different yarns for good aesthetic sense, but it is a learning piece, and I’ve learnt such a lot!

Complete experiment


I’m taking time out from all this colour in my next sequence of experiments. These will be with this brilliant white Habu bamboo yarn and some charcoal black recycled rug wool. I’ve been enjoying the challenge of making preliminary drawings by cutting up squares and rectangles of white paper and applying marks and lines in charcoal. Then, probably after Christmas, it will be the serious business of doing my first paper warp on my own loom and recreating at a larger size those three swatches I made for my ‘final’ Bradford work back in October.

Susan Jarmain's Cliffhouse in Ontario


I’m sure it’s snowing beside Lake Eire making Susan Jarmain’s lakeside home even lovelier than her springtime pictures show. Following her exhibition at the Knit & Stitch Show (see my last blog) she kindly  e-mailed me with these images and wrote:  The first two images are of the Cliffhouse where I live and work, a 160 year old Ontario farmhouse that my husband and I restored 12 years ago. It is the only house at the end of a mile long dead end road on a 125′ high cliff overlooking Lake Erie. While we can see no other houses various forms of wildlife including deer and wild turkeys regularly visit us and we certainly enjoy all of the migrations, from the Tundra Swans in early March to the collection of the Monarchs in September awaiting a north wind to assist them on their journey to Mexico.

Susan Jarmain's Studio and Compu-dobby loom


These images are in my studio: the first of my recently acquired 32-shaft computer dobby and the second of my wall of drawings. I am very much a process person – I always start with drawings (watercolours).  They are my way into a project, my way of understanding. The other essential part of my process is my 12′ long table (no image because no work at the moment) where I paint all of the warps.

Susan Jarmain's wall of sketches and paintings


Thank you Susan for so generously sharing these descriptions and images. The power of place is so fundamental to many artists and here is an example of somewhere little short of magical. I could imagine writing some pretty stunning music in the stillness of such a beautiful place.

 Another beautiful place is the ancient city of York just a 50-minute train ride away. Instead of my usual weaving study day (now usually at home rather than at Bradford College) I invited Alice, my Farfield  Mill Residency colleague (see August blogs) to join me to visit the Japanese Sashiko Textile exhibition at York Art Gallery and attend a short introduction by its curator Michelle Walker.

The courtyard of York Art Gallery looking towards York Minister


I visited Japan first in 1988, but have been fascinated by its culture since I was a teenager and began to study the Ukiyo-e prints (my grandfather had one in his hallway, which I’ve now inherited). Japanese textiles, as I’ve come to learn very recently, are ‘something else’, experimental and close to the very edge of what can be described as textile. Sashiko is a rural tradition of textile design, making and embroidery, but a tradition that has had a striking impact on the likes of Nuno and weaver / designers such as Misao Iwamura whose book Plain Weaving (the English translation sadly unavailable from Habu but clearly hugely influential in the USA if Brooke’s wonderful blog thedailypurl is anything to go by – this blog must rank alongside Artemis’ Confessions of a Junkaholic as one of the most beautifully presented and authored I have yet to see). 

The Sashiko Show poster - the women log haulers of Sado Island


The York exhibition takes over the whole of the large ground floor gallery. We spent three hours plus a half hour introduction from the curator, and it simply wasn’t enough. The show is the result of Michelle  Walker’s three-year AHRC labours including several trips to the remote island of Sado in Northern Japan. It’s clear that her visits have just managed to capture recollections of the dying embers of a traditional way of life, a life grounded in recycling, making do and mending, and most significantly a relationship with clothes for living and working that if we ever had it in Europe we lost it centuries ago.

A Sashiko Fisherman's Jacket


Imagine as a fisherman, farmer or village firefighter (very important role in timber-built Japanese villages) your daily workwear is created by the women in your family – for life. A work jacket will be created from remnants, home-grown hemp, latterly cotton imports, dyed indigo, stitched in running stitch with elaborated often symbolic patterns ‘protecting’ the owner, constantly repaired by adding layer on layer of material the padding providing air pocket warmth and protection. These unique items, found all over Japan, began to be recognized in the middle years of the 20C when Japan developed its own arts and crafts movement, in which our own Bernard Leech played such a part. Leech’s friend Soetso Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and the potter Soji Hamada were hugely influential in safeguarding Japan’s fragile culture following the famous Dartington International Conference of Potters and Weavers in 1952, a conference Leech organised.

 Each traditional item in this exhibition is an art work, but designed and made as a garment for life. Although the running stitch designs are striking I found the weaves of the cloth on which they are embroidered rich, curious, and inexplicable by turn. I just kept wanting to touch the cloth and get really close enough to see what was going on. Throughout my time in this exhibition I thought ,as I hastily sketched, that I wasn’t doing this justice. Here was a kind of textile that really affected me. Much of what I was looking at had been worn, and really worn for many years. I thought about those few clothes in my life that had sustained even a short period of regular wear – favourite work jackets so worn and patched to have been ‘disappeared’ by my caring wife – Nigel, you can’t keep wearing that! So, one’s relationship with what one wears changes and becomes so transitory.

Coloured fabric from remnants - NUNO


What is so invigorating about this exhibition is its link with the new. There’s a vivid collection of sashiko-inspired garments and textiles from Tokunaga Miyoko. Striking shibori designs feature strongly. Then there is the experimental textile creations of NUNO, particularly those fabric creations made from coloured remnants sewed onto water-soluble cloth that disappears except for an inner structural thread that keeps everything together. Alice reminded me that we’d seen some recent wrapping cloths or furoshiki in the Japanese tradition exhibited at the Saltaire Festival in September. I remember now having a demonstration of the versatility of the furoshiki by Michiko Yasue – and here at this York exhibition in the archival film from the 1950s unearthed in Sado’s museum, there were the cloth bags and carriers made from a single square of indigo dyed cotton. You have just got time to catch Michiko Yasue’s brilliant Advent Calendar on her myfuroshiki blog. But do you dare take your furoshiki to Sainsbury’s and forgoe the plastic bag . . .

Myfuroshiki - from West Yorkshire!


After tearing ourselves away from the Sashiko show I had to take the opportunity to visit a unique bookshop just a minute’s walk from the gallery. Janette Ray specialises in books on architecture, arts and crafts, gardens and artists’ monographs. Whenever I go to York to hear the choir my son sings with (the excellent York Cantores), the shop is closed. So suddenly we were there and whilst Alice investigated the Gardens’ shelves (her undergraduate dissertation investigates links between gardens and textiles) I got stuck into Architecture, discovering a book I know I should have bought (and may still). The Crystal Chain Letters – architectural fantasies Bruno Taut and his circle by Ian Boyd Whyte (MIT Press). All further fuel and inspiration for my Utopias orchestral project. Altogether a perfect day . . . complete with a park bench lunch in the sunny Castle Gardens . . . and a welcome train journey for once (a car in York is not recommended as we discovered to our cost the following week attempting to drive to the university for a rare performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia).

Outward going scarves (for daughters)


Back at the studio there are a number of Christmas gifts both outgoing and incoming. There are scarves for two of my daughters, one from India, the other from Nepal courtesy of Tearcraft. Nothing fancy, simply fun to wear for a quiet night in with friends (and not expensive to send!). Incoming, well, a scarf for me woven on a little rigid heddle loom in greys of silk, mohair and hemp with the most vivid linen blue I can hardly begin to describe (from Habu – acquired I believe with great daring of the plastic card at the Knit and Stitch Show). There is nothing more I could possibly say about this lovely scarf except share my photo of it.

Incoming Scarf - hemp, mohair, silk and a linen blue


A Christmas Coda: I took the otter expert to hear her first Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Wakefield Cathedral before she wisely escaped the snow and ice  to South Africa for Christmas. We arrived early and stood before sculptor Austin Wright’s and weaver Theo Moorman’s Wakefield Nativity (featured on these pages in January when I made a complete photographic record of it). There is something still so powerful in that story of those Men from the East travelling to uncover the truth of a supposed incarnation. And the message they might leave us today . . . in the (paraphrased) words of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in his sermon before King James on Christmas Day 1622.

Let us see you fall down.

Let us see what you offer.

There now remains nothing but to include

Yourselves and bear your part with us

And with the angels

Who this day adored him

Vade et fac similiter (Go and do likewise)

 (from the poem Text is a Star by Margaret Morgan)


Theo Moorman's Balthasar (from the Wakefield Nativity)


Susan Jarmain, Rob Ryan & The Paper Cinema

December 8, 2009

Paper has inadvertently become the signature of this fortnight’s blog. I certainly didn’t plan it. It has just happened that way with a number of interesting and arresting surprises. I have been preoccupied with paper yarn for a little while, but I’ve had real difficulty finding the right shifu half-spun yarn (about 8mm when flattened out) to execute the project I begun a month or so ago. If anyone out there knows of any such yarn then you’ll be in my debt. I have, though, finally ordered something similar, but it is 16mm.

Susan Jarmain -Worm Words. Silk 51 x 175 cm


My plan had been to feature the work of the major weave exhibitor from Canada at last month’s Knitting and Stitching show. I’m going ahead with this, but my preoccupation with paper will surround this ikat weave feature. Susan Jamain’s beautiful catalogue has been well travelled this last fortnight. Back and forwards from my studio to home and on many of the journeys I’ve made by train to rehearsals. This is one catalogue I’ve fallen in love with and rejoice at having on my shelf. Congratulations to Susan for not indulging in all that pseudo academic interpretation speke that so many textiles artists attempt – some good and interesting, some so terrible that you could do without it. I suspect Susan has a lot to say, but her images speak so powerfully, so she lets them speak. Her catalogue has a number of innovations I really admired: a whole section on process without a word of explanatory text and a 10cm x 14 cm woven piece. Her website I mentioned last week again has no text commentary, just wonderful images.

Susan Jarmain's woven piece for my catalogue


So having set myself to write about Susan’s work I had to do some homework on ikat, the technique she uses to create her unique and beautiful work. It isn’t an entirely new world to me as I attempted earlier this year painting Chinese characters on to already warped ends. I now learn this is a Japanese technique called katagami – a technique using paper-stencils. I also discovered one of the great non-Japanese exponents of this approach, a contemporary of Anni Albers at Black Mountain College – Trude Guermonprez.

Illustrated Guide to Resist Dyeing in Larsen's A Dyer's Art


My chief source for ikat has been a book I was kindly given a few months ago and which I had barely looked at (I’m ashamed to say there are rather a lot of books in my studio that fit that description – I could do with a month to catch up). The Dyer’s Art: ikat, batik and plangi is a very large, exquisitively illustrated volume by Jack Lenor Larsen, a name I have only recently become familiar with on account of his interest in gardens (another story for another blog). I spent a morning recently reading the section on ikat and resist dyeing generally. What I discovered was that this book was not actually by Larsen, but a Swiss anthropologist Dr Alfred Buhler whose books on ikat (1943) and ikat, batk and plangi (1972) are pretty much reproduced in Larsen’s book along with Buhler’s spectacular photos from his fieldwork across the globe.

Susan Jarmain works almost exclusively in silk, this fibre that amplifies reflection and takes dye so well. She uses just three colour Telana dyes, protein premetallized dyes, formally known as Lanaset Dyes created by Ciba-Geigy. It would appear that no resist techniques are employed, but the dyes painted directly on to the warp ends before dressed and tied on the loom. The process of sketching in pencil, pastel and watercolour precedes the dyeing process. From then on the work seems to be predominantly warp-based ikat with images and textures painted directly on to the warp ends. Quite how every end is made to line up . . . but that’s part of the magic of ikat.

Stone Glyph #3. Silk 45 x 50cm


The subject material behind all the work exhibited at Harrogate was the natural world that surrounds the artist’s lake-side home in southern Ontario. In the exhibition this was illustrated further with drawings by her brother Nick Johnson. Sometimes this natural world is very small scale: butterflies, stones, leaves, sand, driftwood sticks. Other ikat constructions look to the larger landscape: cornfields, waterscapes, fall colours of the turning year.

Jarmain's travelling loom and draughts


When my friendly Knit and Stitch guide for the day and I first entered this extensive exhibition space we both found ourselves on our knees looking intently at one of the weaves from Susan’s Leaves, Sand, Moths series. Just how were these effects achieved we asked each other? Both of us were hardly versed in ikat lore and if in answer to our curiosity Susan appeared (as we were about to place exploring – grubby? fingers on the tassled silk ends) generously guided us into her particular world, letting us feel the silk on a piece of woven silk cloth specially available for such a purpose. She showed us her mini travelling loom, dress-making pins fixed to foam board, with the weft ‘woven’ with a darning needle. It’s clear Susan makes pretty accurate mock-ups of her bigger pieces (around the 120cm x 80cm mark). I imagine there is a sophisticated multi-shaft loom in her studio to achieve some of the extraordinary effects created on these not insubstantial pieces.

Purple Sand #2 . Silk 112 x 71cm


The exhibition showed a variety of different constructions: panels in triptych, an assemblage of eleven panels overlapping one another and in different sizes looking a little like one of those Hockney experiments photographing the Grand Canyon with a Polariod camera, cocoon-like wrappings of plainly dyed silk, oblong map-like structures displayed bent and angled,or presented wave-like across a wall, even a series of glyphs from stones arranged in a kind of alphabet (which reminds me to find space to write about Tim Ingold’s fascinating book Lines discussing the connections between weave and written scripts). So how might we read this artist’s work? For me much of it has a sculptural quality, and this is reinforced by a quotation (prefacing Jamain’s catalogue introduction) from curator Margit Rowell. This refers I think to her study of Picasso’s sculptural constructions pre 1932 which consisted of two-dimensional components or ‘flat planes’ with ‘no thickness’. Jarmain’s work is painterly, but it is woven and often  inhabits 3 dimensional space in mobile-like hangings or projections from a wall.

Illustration from A Dyer's Art shows a Madegascan raffia funeral shroud 4 x 11 foot


In my research on ikat I did come across the raffia warp ikats of Madagascar. As I’m working with raffia at the moment I was intrigued to see illustrations in Larsen’s book that show ikats with the appearance of finely woven matting suggesting that the raffia fronds (usually supplied in 4-5 metre lengths) are spun into yarn. But could I find any such yarn available on the web? Nothing doing. Raffia seems to take dye so well, as the matting and wall-covering specialists Philip Jeffries demonstrates (better e-mail them for some advice!).

The (paper) Angel Gabriel in Wakefield Cathedral


Back home in Wakefield it is getting on for Christmas and those reading these pages last year may remember my piece about Theo Moorman’s large woven tapestry made for the city’s cathedral (a tapestry I documented in photographs). The tapestry is now up until Candlemas, but there’s an addition to the cathedral’s Advent decorations – a life-size paper sculpture of the Angel Gabriel by weaver and paper artist Shelagh Wing. I recently talked to Shelagh, a cathedral warden and former art teacher, at a cathedral get together after the Advent Carol Service (my sons sing in the choir) and she told me all about her burgeoning work in this paper world. She began making paper accompaniments for flower arrangers and has never looked back. A picture of this angel on her website prompted several immediate orders for similar figures – so she’s busy. As a tapestry weaver her last exhibition (of landscapes) at a local gallery sold out completely.

The Night Flyer


The next paper encounter was last weekend. I was invited by my Farfield collaborator Alice (see the August blogs) and her daughter Hazel to join them at Yorkshire Sculpture Park for a show by the Paper Cinema. This is a three-piece group – 2 makers / paper puppeteers and a musician / composer. Brilliant is the only word to describe an experience that held an audience of children and adults spellbound for over an hour. Two ‘films’ with hand-drawn (in ink) on stiff paper filmed live and projected with live music – a rendering of Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World and a fantasy adventure featuring a boy on a bicycle, lots of birds and train travelling to Scotland. Enchanting! (there’s another word to go alongside brilliant).

Rob Ryan cut out paper print as a tapestry


Paper was definitely a current theme at the Sculpture Park Visitor Centre with a commission from paper artist Rob Ryan to construct huge paper cut out assemblages to decorate the gallery of large windows that run down one side of the centre’s concourse. These are a little difficult to get far enough back from to get a good impression, but upstairs in a mezzanine gallery there’s an exhibition of the Rob Ryan so many people know and love (mainly through his charming and engaging books, one of which I ‘read’, enjoyed and puzzled over during my summer holiday). Many of his cut out and print paper pieces have the dearest, sweetest poems. These speak of the simple things that make us fall in love, form firm friendships, and generally treasure life. YSP have published a book showing how Ryan works and you can download excerpts from it here. What intrigued me was a tapestry of one of his most celebrated pieces made by Nepalese weavers for the Rug Company. Those who read my recent adventure with Area Rugs in Dewsbury might like to travel ‘up market’ to this London company whose designers include Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.

Tapestry study in raffia and wool (November 2009)


After our visit to the Sculpture Park we all went back for picnic tea at my studio. I’d just put a new warp on my loom similar to the one I used to make my latest (predominantly) raffia tapestry. This time I have spaced the warp in the reed leaving a single dent between each end. Alice and Hazel both had a play on the floor loom – their first experience. In minutes they appeared as though they were experts and the little piece they wove in turn looks better than anything I usually do . . . but I beat Hazel at Japanese chess (Go), which did a lot for my self esteem as I usually lose when playing my youngest daughter Megan-Ruth.

As a coda I have to report that my song cycle Pleasing Myself is now finished and available on my web archive. This is a group of six songs to my own poems inspired by the textile pictures of Janet Bolton. I loved writing these songs and look forward to their performance next year in Cardiff. The score, which you can download as a PDF, contains reproductions of all six of Janet’s images (by kind permission).

Three Happy Girls Flying Kites - Janet Bolton

Three Happy Girls Flying Kites - Janet Bolton