Craft Research and Alpacas by the Sea

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


2 Responses to “Craft Research and Alpacas by the Sea”

  1. Peg in South Carolina Says:

    I was very surprised when you talked about painting from a photograph. I really have mixed feelings/reservations about this. I have done both but painting from nature always gave me much more pleasure and painting from a photograph always seemed somehow stilted and forced. What I would have no qualms about, however, is taking a photo and manipulating it in software to get possible ideas, especially for color and color relationships. And I have done this. The only problem is that I can consume vast quantities of time before I come up for air! I also have some reservations about using the computer printer for printing on fabric unless that is simply going to be a base for, say, embroidery.
    I hope you enjoy your rigid heddle loom. That is the loom that brought me into weaving. Alice Schlein is an American weaver who weaves on very very complex looms and does marvelous stuff. But she also uses a rigid heddle loom for weaving her handspun. It is not unusual for me to prefer these latter textiles to her very complex work.

  2. Nigel Says:

    Peg, many thanks for your comments about working from photos and the use of digital printers. It rather fits the theme of this blog beyond your observations of my work. I love to paint / draw in situ, but there are times (on a train journey is one instance) where I just can’t handle painting at all. I take a lot of digital photos but rarely ever print them, I just display them on a large monitor and go from there. As to manipulating photos I take, I very rarely do this. I prefer to work in manual mode on my digital camera and get the photo I want (the lake photo was taken this way). The image of the stones is a good instance of the way I might use a section of a photo from which to build a design. The out-of-focus effect is not manipulated at all – it’s simply out of focus!!

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