This blog is part two of my busy week at the end of January, a week in which I did a lot of traveling up and down the country – and all connected with the art of tapestry weaving. Here is the story of my participation at a weekend tapestry workshop in Edinburgh at the studio of Fiona Hutchinson. I’m also including a swift but necessary introduction to the work of Sheila Hicks and Anne Jackson, two fascinating tapestry artists I discovered during the weekend.
Although I first saw Fiona’s work during the Tapestry 08 show at Halifax I found out about her tapestry workshop quite by accident – in the Edinburgh What’s On pages. My wife and I had decided we had to have a weekend sans enfants – it had been too long since we’d escaped from the large teenagers that dominate our collective lives. Susan happened to see the notice for this workshop, and then I investigated the detail and wrote to Fiona. It seemed to be exactly what I needed. On these pages you may have read about my encounters with Fiona’s contemporary Sue Lawty – inspiring, valuable days at Bankfield Museum, Halifax. But this workshop promised something different, and for me, at this time, it was most appropriate. The main difference was that this workshop was happening in a tapestry artist’s studio. Although Fiona is a skilled and experienced teacher there was so much ‘about’ in her workspace: to examine, to learn from, and reflect about.
Susan chose our hotel in Edinburgh for the breakfast. We went to the Lairg Hotel in Edinburgh’s Haymarket run by a gentle Latvian couple (who certainly knew how to prepare porridge and kippers). It was a 20-minute walk through Alexander McCall-Smith territory to Patriot Hall Studios where Fiona and several other well-known tapestry artists are based. Patriot Hall Studios is part of Wasps, probably the most successful network of studio communities in the UK, and for those interested in such things (I have been part of one such community for 14 years) their website and example is worth a careful look.
There were six of us – two boys, three girls and Fiona. Remarkably, we seemed to be all of a muchness in our experience and interests. We’d all done ‘a bit’, but we were all ready for the kind of experience that it was clear, from just looking around the studio, that we were likely to be offered. What we probably didn’t know was just how generous Fiona was going to be in sharing her boundless enthusiasm for her art and craft. I had already heard that Fiona was the fastest weaver in the North! A colleague of hers had made me laugh the previous week by telling me just how quickly she could make things happen on a tapestry frame or a loom, but during our 2 days of tuition and hard work, she was always prepared to slow things down, always prepared to sit down and ‘do it’ if you (the student) hadn’t quite got the message. Once we began working on our own little projects there seemed to be so much going on – with advice given, examples shown, anecdotes here and there – I could have happily spent my weekend just observing and learning. But I am leaping ahead.
At the outset we had a brief guide to yarns and fibres. This was delivered from Fiona’s perspective. I use this because . . . this is great because you can do this . . . be careful with these fibres because they don’t have much stretch . . . brilliant! My notes for this first half hour or so will keep me busy for weeks, and I’ll need a research trip to Texere in Bradford to investigate further. Next stop – examples of tapestry weaving. Fiona had assembled on her studio wall a collection of samples. These were both formal technical samples (slits, curves, diagonals, blending – see the illustration below) and free experiments (weird and wonderful yarns and fibres – see the gallery). I’ve photographed most of them and have placed them in a gallery (with Fiona’s kind permission) at the bottom of this blog. For me, such examples are invaluable. I’ve seen and touched these, and this is what makes the difference between working from a book and attending a workshop.
Within an hour or so we were all putting a warp on frame looms ingeniously clamped to the central table in the studio. I’d seen the Archie Brennan designed clamps used in the American Tapestry Association’s workshops, but these are from the UK (Handweavers Studio in London). I’m certainly considering acquiring some. I liked the way you could physically move away from the frame and look what you were doing (and stretch after time sitting down). I admired too the simplicity of Fiona’s approach to warping, and subsequently since the workshop, have prepared two quite successful warps. Our warps were to 8 epi using a 3-twist cotton.
I realised the moment I sat down to start an experimental piece that I was unprepared. I can’t improvise very well. I don’t know where to start . . . and if I have any criticism to make of Fiona’s approach it would be this. There was very little guidance about where / how to begin. With the materials, colours, form? Well, just do your own thing she seemed to be suggesting . . and this was clearly ‘right’ for most of the group who had come prepared with images they wanted to work from. I’m ashamed that I hadn’t, because there had been so much going on in the previous week I’d simply not given ‘my’ preparation any proper thought. I wanted to work with abstraction, but abstraction of what – just forms and colours. Next time, and I really hope there will be a next time, I shall carefully prepare!
Throughout the day we were introduced most informally to all kinds of examples and illustrations, most of them arising seamlessly from what individuals were doing and attempting. In the middle of our worktable there was a litter of books from which Fiona regularly illustrated tapestry work. The find of the weekend for me was definitely a monograph on Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor. One of the most beautiful books I have ever put my hands on it illustrated a huge collection of tiny tapestries woven on a simple frame loom over a period of some 30 years. These tapestries were woven as a kind of diary / sketchbook recording travels across the Americas in the 1940-50s. They present local yarns, fibres, colours and traditional forms, often in very non-traditional ways. Hicks, now in her 80s, works from a studio in Paris and creates often vast tapestries for public and commerical buildings. When I photographed and e-mailed my critical friend images of a few pages of this book she immediately responded with even more enthusiasm and delight than I had expressed. We’ve discussed buying this book together . . . but be warned it is ‘seriously’ expensive.
Another ‘find’, enthusiastically endorsed by Fiona, was the work of Anne Jackson. I’ve already mentioned in recent blogs my work for Jilly Edwards in the South West. Anne is another weaver from Devon and shares much in common with both Fiona and Sheila Hicks. Her technique and approach is both unusual and inspired. She does not use a loom or frame, but what appears to be a cork board onto which her warp ends are pinned. This means her work can start anywhere she likes and frequently takes in other media. The visual and textural range of her tapestries is extraordinary and ‘different’. When time permits, and I’m next down in Exeter, I shall see if I can arrange an introduction and a visit to her studio. I’m intrigued by what she does and how she does it!
The first day was just wizzing past. Lunch – forget it, too much to do – although Fiona sensibly warned us to take a break and go easy on ourselves. As the day progressed we discovered more and more about her own work, her background, her creative story and her techniques. It was all done so informally and delightfully. Her studio is full of blue things. She loves the sea, and as a serious sailor from a nautical family this natural world is a popular theme throughout her work. There are surprising and vivid expressions of waves, foam, the rich colours of the deep – in weave, in paper and stitch, in experimental combinations and forms. There were striking examples of different styles of presentation, and on the final day of our course we were treated to a tutorial on this important aspect. Here, she approached us as serious artists tackling things like pricing and display of our work.
At 4.30pm we stopped and I met up with my wife who had been doing the Scottish National Gallery and was buzzing with her ‘finds’. She’d done a lot of walking! We found a really good Oxfam bookshop and equipped ourselves for some serious bedtime and travel home reading . Then, finding Sound of Music sold out (Susan’s choice – she loves a ‘show’ having been an MD for many amateur productions) we found a Thai restaurant and a thoroughly acceptable meal.
After another serious Scottish breakfast Susan went off to see GreyFriars Bobby and the National Museum and I went back to Patriot Hall. Day two began with thoughts about a second project / or a continuation of one’s first. I choose the latter and this is where I began to do things with tapestry that were for me a personal breakthrough. Until this point I had been a cloth weaver trying hard to think himself into tapestry. Fiona, with great patience and demonstration, showed me so many approaches to making it happen on my own terms. She took a little sketch I’d made previously and analysed it from her perspective. She explained what she saw in it – certainly not what I was currently seeing in it. Her analysis was fascinating and so valuable. I shall never look any quick sketch I do in the same way again. And what she saw I attempted to do. I only produced a very little sample, but it feels like the real thing, and I intend to really practice and take forward so many of the aspects that make it what it is: assembling a palette of threads that allow for very slight gradations of tone, learning to make shapes, curves, balanced structures always knowing where you are with the ‘passes’ – a new way of thinking for me – the full pass, the half pass, ‘laying in’ a thread before making the pass, securing the thread you are about weave . . . and when you finish weaving it. So much to take in, but the effect was terrific.
My colleagues on this course I know got so much out of it too. Fiona generated a lovely atmosphere through the weekend. She never complimented any of us directly. There was seldom a ‘that’s good’, but there was such encouragement by example and additional idea. You’ve done this, but you could do that and that. It was an inversion of what most good teachers do – three wishes and (sometimes) a star.
I didn’t realise how exhausted I was at the end of the second day until I got on the train and promptly went to sleep. It was a great weekend, and I learnt so much.
Coda: During the workshop I’d found the techniques of laying in and tieing in new weft threads a bit confusing. Although I have access to a wonderful digest of techniques and examples prepared for students in the Tapestry Department of Edinburgh School of Art (where Fiona studied), these particular techniques were not illustrated. So I wrote to Fiona a few days after the course and asked if she’d kindly add illustrations of this practice to the valuable notes she supplied us with during the weekend. In a few days I was sent a page of excellent diagrams – thank you Fiona.