Archive for January, 2010

Study Day at Farfield Mill

January 24, 2010

It’s now just 2 years since I decided I had to learn to weave. Too many years had passed without me doing anything about a desire I had developed in childhood and hung onto for too many years. After a brief search on the web I picked up the phone and called Laura Rosenzweig, a weaver from Sedbergh in Cumbria. She seemed to be one of the very few weaving teachers within a striking distance of my home in Wakefield. We had a long talk about what I was looking for, what I wanted to learn, even what my ambitions were. I didn’t give very helpful answers I remember, but she said she could start me off, and we’d go from there . . . but she was very busy and couldn’t see me until almost the end of April. So I patiently waited until, just a fortnight before my first lesson, I found myself just 15 miles away from Sedbergh having taken my boys to an Easter residential course with the Cumbria Youth Orchestra. So instead of driving straight home I decided to go and check out Farfield Mill where Laura has her teaching studio. If she happened to be there, then I could introduce myself before my first lesson . . , and she was, and I did. I’ll never forget that drive from Kirby Lonsdale to Sedbergh. It was a fine, rather gentle early spring day and the colours on the Howgills were the softest of greens and browns. The Howgills were completely unknown to me. It was like entering a whole new, and very surprising landscape. I loved it immediately.

Near the top of Holme Fell on a May morning


Driving up that same road last week I recalled that first journey with affection. I was going to see Laura again for a ‘study day’. This was an opportunity for me to revisit a period of initial study during the spring and summer of 2008, knowing now what questions to ask! Here’s part of my e-mail to Laura:

When I studied with you over 20 months ago now we covered such a lot of ground and partly because I’d bought Nancy’s loom instead of (sensibly?) acquiring a little table loom it took me some while to pick up weaving where we left off. I have to admit I was a little intimidated by the Toika – I now realise I shouldn’t have been! I now know how it all works – threading and treadling – but it seemed ‘so’ difficult at first. Bradford College required me to do things a different way – for example I spent nearly a term putting warps on back to front. When I got weaving on my own loom (soon after completing my first HNC project) I went back to your way of working, because so much of what you showed me made such sense.

 From February of last year I divided my weaving practice between home and college producing pieces for my projects on different looms – you’ve seen some of these swatches. When I got to double weave I did everything on the Toika. Like you I had serious problems with double weave, but I did manage to produce some effective work in the end. I’ll bring the result on Friday!!

 Now I’m a whole lot wiser about what’s going on in the weaving process I know I’d benefit from going back to some of the things we did early on: to simply examine the way ‘you’ do things. I’ve noticed there are little glitches and uncertainties in some of the basic operations and I have  quite a list of things I think we could gently and easily cover in a day. The difference I see between seeking your advice and that of the college technican (who was most wonderfully helpful in a crisis!)  is that you work through the whole process and can see the relationship between the initial planning and thinking and the end result. Many of the points I list just need to be talked about and probably don’t need demonstrating at the loom.

From here on I’m going to describe my study day through my sketchbook pages, pages which I created the following day. The list I mention in my e-mail can be seen at the botton of this first sketchbook page.

Above, here’s the list I sent Laura with a couple of drawings I made on the outskirts of Sedbergh. When I first began my lessons I would set off from home very early to miss the rush-hour traffic through Bradford and to have time for a walk on the hills above Sedbergh. On my second visit I stopped below Holme Fell and parked the car by a narrow bridge over the River Rawthy. I discovered Jackon’s Lane, which then was awash with bluebells. Ever afterwards this became my walk, often ending up on the very top of Holme Fell, rain or shine, passing through a magical wood (with buzzards) just below the fell wall. But for once, I didn’t take a walk on this winter visit. I did stop and get out of the car to look at river from the damaged bridge, a whole chunck of wall had fallen away into the river. Just up the road I watched a mixture of cloud and mist lie in the valley below Holme Fell and shown in my second drawing (the ‘clouds’ I should say in my sketchbook were ‘made’ with some alpaca wool – see my last post – pasted onto the pastel sketch!).

Our first task was to review preparing a warp on the warping board. Laura had brought with her a chain of silk yarn at 24 epi. It had been warped in pairs from two cones, a mild blue and a subtle blueish purple. One of my current problems was how to deal with ‘springy’ yarns, particularly paper. After all this time it was so good to see this essential operation repeated in the hands of someone who does it all the time, rather than me, who does it only occasionally. I do say to myself, winding and chaining a warp is something that can be fitted into a short half hour period. But do I find myself doing this ? . . . very rarely.

Now the illustration above reminds me that for a long time I had been taking Debbie Chandler’s example and just winding my chained warp around the front beam instead of hanging it from it, as Laura does. This is just so sensible. I’m sure I must have it the notes I made during my first lessons, but somehow have neglected to do it ever since.

Picking out ends from the cross placed in the hand is something I thought I could do quite well. With a silk yarn – I had never tried anything so delicate – I realized there were serious deficiencies in the way I do it. Laura’s observation of my technique, and patiently correcting it, has dispelled any fears about working with such a thin yarn. Wonderful!

Tieing-on to the back beam apron rod is something I have trouble with. I’ve tried various ways recently, seeking to improve making the ends in each group of ends to be tied to be of even length, and of course to make a strong worthwhile knot. Laura made a great suggestion that I might tie the apron rod to the castle. Never thought of that!

Raddling through the reed is one of the distinct advantages of the ‘front to back’ method. I received lots of sensible advice here. By this point in the proceedings I’m really looking forward to the next warp I have to prepare . . . except that it is to be made of paper! Laura admitted that for her first project (Organics)  on the Bradford HNC she used a paper warp, and rather wished she hadn’t.

I wish I could share more of these sketchbook notes, but they are not so colourful as these above. So I’ll make a swift digest of the other things we looked at. ‘Reading the sett, choosing the reed’ developed into a really valuable discussion. I know I’ve read about this issue, but to hear Laura give so many examples – ’24 epi? right let’s use a 12 dent reed’. ‘You only need a 6, 8, 10, and a 12’. ‘When using chenille (which I do), always double it, it needs to be tight’ . . . and lots more of the same. I need to experiment, experiment, and experiment some more to get this way of thinking really into my system.

I quizzed Laura on threadings and tie-ups as all my tuition with her previously had been on a table loom. She is definitely ‘not’ a complex weaver, prefering to work with simple patterns and with rich yarns and fibres; and with her the finishing is all important. She also likes to leave some of what she weaves, colour and pattern-wise, to the moment of weaving. The first major project I experienced I watched develop, as a student appearing in  her studio regularly, was one such piece – a big loom-width throw. This had an incredibly rich sequence of stripes (colours and yarns), arranged (she said)  intuitively rather than pre-planned. The choice of the weft was correspondingly ‘free’. She had a bag of pick weft-lengths, which she’d dip her hand into, not knowing what might come out! She tells me she does ‘play’ with designs on the computer to generate initial ideas. Not something I’m ready to do yet, as I spend far too much time on the computer creating music as it is. She reminded me that on a jack loom (she has a Harrisville – and has always used this) she can change the tie-up mid-project, i.e. with the warp on the loom.

Laura Rosenzweig's Fieldscape warp on her Harrisville jack loom


During lunch, a delicious spicy soup in the Farfield cafe,  Laura talked about her recent two-week study trip to Northern India, which sounded fascinating. I won’t begin to describe it because she mentioned that she has been booked to give an illustrated talk to her local guild on 12 June, details to follow. I’ll be there with my notebook . . .

Afterwards we tried winding a paper warp and then putting it on the loom. As I’m planning to do this soon in my next project , this was an invaluble experience. The secret is – lots of ties on the warp before you chain it. When putting it on the loom an extra pair of hands when tieing-on looks like a good idea. She gave me some good advice about using lease sticks when working on unpicking from the cross. Tie the lease sticks holding the cross on the corner of the back beam and the side beam, or do what Graham Preston at Bradford suggested – hanging the lease sticks from the castle just behind the tied-up beater. I’ve written about this in an earlier blog in October last year. We chatted a little about double weave, but as I hadn’t been able to bring examples of my work in this technique that will be for another time. I need to examine carefully some of Laura’s work in this medium and discover how she plans it and warps a double warp. 

The final part of the day was looking at using a rigid-heddle loom. As you know I’ve recently acquired a Tessanova (see last weeks blog), so I was interested to see in Laura’s teaching space at Farfield a couple of small looms of this type. She warps such a loom up just as she does a larger floor or table loom, but admitted they were not simple to use, though you could do wonderful work on them.

The Howgills in January


Tea in Sedbergh followed, with a obligatory trip to one of the many second-hand book shops. I acquired The Garden by Vita Sackville-West  ( having read The Land, this is the sequel written during World War II). Then before turning for home and light failing altogether, a brief walk along the River Rawthey, the river high and thundering away after the three weeks of snow and recent rain.

The gardener half artist must depend

On that slight chance, that touch beyond control

Which all his paper planning will transcend;

He knows his means but cannot rule his end;

He makes the body: who supplies the soul?


from The Garden by Vita Sackville- West


Craft Research and Alpacas by the Sea

January 18, 2010

Over the short Christmas holiday I’ve been exploring China of the 3rd Century and researching two historic characters as the basis for a series of short stories. Then once the first week of the New Year had passed, and a batch of orchestral parts checked, I settled down to write my first academic paper on textiles (albeit textiles that interact with music).

After Wang Wei (721) - A section from Clearing after a snowfall along the river. Pencil 15 x 10cm


To even attempt this task required much reading and a full day of library research: a crash course in textile theory no less, focusing particularly on materiality and temporality, and the effect of digital technology on creativity.

Those who follow this blog won’t be surprised that the subject of my paper is Fifteen Images, the collaborative work (where textiles and music interact) given its premiere in August 2009 at Farfield Mill, Cumbria and later released as web software in November 2009. I was inspired to write this paper by an announcement last autumn of a new journal Craft Research. As Fifteen Images neared completion I realised it shared  many aspects of the Slow Movement (see blog for 8 November 2009), which, in its manifestation in Craft in the recent Taking Time exhibition, puts much emphasis on dialogue and documentation of process and reception. Taking Fifteen Images out on the road later this year as an installation, exhibition and performance to galleries, arts centres and museums, I reckoned it would be useful to have something substantial published about its genesis, making and content.

A digital photograph v a watercolour (Alison F.Bell) from Leonardo Vol.42, No3 June 2009


So what’s this materiality all about? Well, it is word I heard several critical voices raise when I first starting talking about Fifteen Images to the textile community. “Animating digital images of textiles? Surely you lose the materiality of the textile sources”. So first find out what materiality in textiles means (because in music its meaning is quite different) . . .The definition I came to like best (and I explored quite a few) was by Reiko Sudu, the Japanese textile artist who founded Nuno (see the images from the Saishiko exhibition in last month’s blog). She is quoted in a web article as saying of her textiles that they were “not just a pleasure to look at, they are a marvel to be experienced with all five senses: the feel of textiles in the hand or on the body, the periodic rustling sounds, even the taste on the lips.” The article continues: This sensory approach is the unspoken narrative of textiles, that centrifugal shift from seeing to touching, which is wholly experiential. It could be described as the space between material and materiality; the space between the rigour of the making and the sublime outcome, in which the artist as maker is guided by her or his intuitive responses; the space between cloth and surface.

The real thing . . . textile image of Image 1 (Fifteen Images) © Alice Fox


My own feeling about the loss of sensory embodiment in animated digital images was that the Fifteen Images, in the novelty of its images of textile structures and its time-based animation controlled by the music, more than made up for any loss of being able to touch it. Anyway, how often are you actually allowed to touch textile surfaces in an exhibition? In researching the literature I was fortunate to discover two instances that go some way to support my position. The first on the issue of temporality – the effect of time on fibre in textile making and presentation – was in an introduction by the Australian curator Suzi Attiwill to her exhibition a Matter of Time in 2005. The second – dealing with materiality – I found in a series of impressive papers  by the print artist and researcher Cathy Treadaway of the University of Cardiff.

Cathy’s paper Materiality, Memory and Imagination seemed to address many of the questions raised in making and viewing Fifteen Images. Look back at the second image in this blog taken from Cathy’s paper published in the Leonardo journal last year. Over the past few years Cathy has set up  a number of Case Studies with artists to explore how their practice is affected by the use of digital tools and communications technology. She describes working collaboratively with these artists often ‘iteratively and in layers, . . to develop a series of images for digital ink-jet printing onto fabric . . . in different locations to create the artworks’. Her conclusions are that ‘materiality and remembered physical experiences stimulate the imagination and are crucial to the development of creative thought. Perceptions of the physical world informs our interactions with digital technology and the ways in which visual representations are imagined and developed into artworks.’ In other words provided we have a rich experience of physically making images with our hands our work produced with things digital shouldn’t suffer.

Those adventurous types who’d like to explore this subject further can download a copy of my (unpublished and yet to be reviewed by my peers) paper Textiles and Music Interact here.

Parterre under snow 17 x 10cm ink and pastel


That’s the serious stuff over so now I can talk about Christmas! On Christmas Day I started a new sketchbook specifically to give to an absent friend enjoying the holiday in the southern hemisphere. This was a good excuse to develop my paltry drawing and painting skills, which I more than ever appreciate are so vital to the practice of any serious textile artist. All the ‘home-made’ illustrations on this blog are taken from this sketchbook. On Christmas Morning I got myself to the special Christmas meeting at Ackworth (home of those famous embroidered samplers) where I had the joy of accompanying the wonderful young recorder player Pippa Ovenden, currently at the Royal Academy of Music and of whom I’m sure we’ll hear more. Christmas meeting for Quakers is probably the only time you are likely to hear any music (between silences of course) as most weekly meetings are predominantly silent. It was a lovely experience for me as it took place not in the meeting house itself but in what is called Centre Library in Ackworth School, a glorious early 18C building built under the auspecis of Thomas Coram (who regularly commissioned music from Handel). It was attended by many non-Quakers from the village who clearly view the occasion as the alternate Christmas service.  In the afternoon, to escape the present fall-out, I went to visit the ‘my’ parterre in Thornes Park to see how it was getting along after a heavy snowfall. I got frozen making this drawing above, but I like the result.

A View from the train 25 x 10cm waterbased dyes and ink


My family and I went for a few post-Christmas days to the seaside town of Whitby in North Yorkshire. Home of Captain Cook and Bram Stoker’s Dracula this is an exciting place to visit as the winter storms blast across the North Sea. I travelled with my daughter Meg by train via Middlesborough and had the joy of crossing the North York Moors, quite magical in the winter sunshine as the countryside lay under a blanket of snow. Above you can see a page from my sketchbook based on a photo from the journey.

Meg with Alpaca (in North Yorkshire)


At Sandsend just to the north of Whitby we stay in a friend’s cottage where outside we can look out . . . across a field of alpacas! As you can imagine I couldn’t resist knocking on the door of the owner and asking if I could go and meet them.

Knitting Wool spun from Pauline's Alpacas


Pauline has been breeding alpacas for several years and now has a herd of twelve (with more to come). Did you know there is a herd of 500 in Sheffield?! My daughter Meg and I accompanied her as she went out in the snow to feed them. They seem a very friendly bunch of creatures and don’t require that much looking after. Their field, with a couple of open-sided stables for shelter, faced the sea and was, on the day we visited them, bitterly cold in a biting wind. But I suppose if the original home of your forebears was in the high Andes then North Yorkshire in late December probably seems a bit tame. Back in Pauline’s warm and spacious kitchen she most generously showed us samples of various fleeces, and the results of her own spinning, dyeing, knitting and weaving (on what she describes as a knitter’s loom).

Surf's up at Sandsend


My wife described our break in Whitby as a 3-novel holiday, and while she read and the children (pretty much adult size now) chilled in front of the TV (one DVD after another . . . thanks David for Kung Fu Panda – just what I wanted!), I walked by the sea in the hail and snow to watch the mayhem as the waves threw themselves at the coast road. It was thrilling and chilling, and so cold I stopped thinking altogether and came home in a daze to thaw out.

. . . probably the only excuse they'll be in this blog to present Dave & Peter

. . . my sons David and Peter


Back home for New Year on the day itself Susan and I walked around the (frozen) lower lake at Nostell Priory where we watched flights of duck perform intricate manouevres whilst a family of swans looked on and I attempted to catch our visit with photographs. I had almost given up when I managed to take this.


The lower lake at Nostell Priory


The day after another photo-opportunity presented itself in Beverely, a beautiful market town just 50 miles down the motorway where my mother-in-law lives. As I was walking through the market I came across a tray of coloured stones on a jewelry stall. The photo I took has given me some striking ideas for woven textile design and /or tapestry. Here’s an out-of-focus close-up that I’m planning to take as a starting point for some of the ol’ visual realisation.

From a tray of stones - idea for woven textile / tapestry design


Well into the New Year my Christmas present finally arrived from France. Susan had found (on e-bay) a vintage rigid-heddle loom called a Tissanova. It has an unusual design (that I haven’t quite figured out yet – as there were no instructions in the box), but it is really portable, small enough to put in my rucksack to take to Wales this summer. There was quite a bit on the web about this loom and the work of its enthusiasts. I even managed to find pages 2 to 4 of the manual (in French) and lots of photos of the loom in use and examples of woven pieces. I also have Sarah Howard and Elisabeth Kendrick’s lovely and inspiring book Creative Weaving. This looks at weaving with a rigid heddle loom and is full of helpful illustrations and lively weaving ideas. If there’s anyone who reads this blog with a Tissanova and would like to share their experiences of it that would be wonderful!

The Tissanova (model b) loom


Another thing to arrive after Christmas was a photo of a Rajastani weaver from my brother in law who was holidaying with his family in Udaipur, India. My former teacher Laura Rosenzweig has also been in India recently – on a textile study trip. When I spoke to her on the phone before Christmas she was clearly so inspired and excited by what she’d seen. Perhaps she’ll share some of her experiences on her website, which has a section devoted to images of the places she loves to visit. I’ve planned a day this month to visit Laura for a day’s tuition: an opportunity for me to go through much of what she taught me during the spring and summer of 2008, before I started the Bradford course. I feel I now know what questions to ask, and she’s kindly agreed to prepare a revision day for me.

A Rajastani weaver - photo by Ian Redmond


Life looks ridiculously busy over the coming months. There is such a lot to do in all sorts of directions. I fear that weaving is going to suffer somewhat as I try to fit everything else in. My current objective is to try and keep a weekly weaving day in place and make time each day to give some attention to this craft I have come to love. There’s a forthcoming weekend course with tapestry weaver Fiona Hutchinson in Edinburgh and lots on exhibition-wise to distract me further. What I really need is to find a few days when I can give my whole attention to drawing, designing and weaving. I’m all set to make this series of paper and raphia pieces based on the designs I created at the end of October, but life in general seems to be intervening with a vengeance right now.

Scorched: A graphic score by Matthew Harris

Scorched: A Graphic Score by Matt Harris


Coda: This morning my critical friend brought her soprano voice (and a copy of Embroidery journal for  Jan- Feb 2010) with her to our first rehearsal of the New Year. In the journal there’s a feature on textile artist Matthew Harris and his ‘musical’ commission for Colston Hall. Suffice to say my scores don’t look like that – although back in the 1970s I paid my dues to such approaches. As for our music-making it’s amazing sometimes what has developed and become fixed after a month of being away. As they say in Russia ‘ you learn to skate in summer and swim in winter. We have a recording in February to negotiate so today’s progress was pretty important. She tells me she’s busy sorting out her ‘garden room’ as a proper studio (mainly for printed textiles). It always excites me to hear someone preparing purposefully get down to the business of being creative. For any serious artist the studio is so crucial, but a studio that faces on to a garden, well that is pretty special. She has my every good wish for all her future work.


View from the Garden Studio

A (summer) view from the 'garden room' studio