Archive for February, 2010

Fiona Hutchinson – Tapestry Workshop

February 16, 2010

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.

A recent tapestry by Fiona Hutchinson


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.

Fiona's High Warp Loom


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.

Fiona's Tapestry Class


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.

A personal collection of yarns and fibres


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.

Two 'formal' samples


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.

Frame held with clamps


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.

A tapestry by Sheila Hicks


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!

Anne Jackson - Leaving Eden


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.

Detail from a recent seascape tapestry


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 Tapestry Fragment


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.


Architecture, journeys and tapestry weaving

February 4, 2010

This is going to be a blog in two parts because in the last seven days I seem to have covered so much ground (literally and metaphorically) that this blog has to be a Part 1. This part will cover Tuesday to Friday: attending a meeting with an inspirational architect in Hull, a rehearsal and preparation day in Shipley, the bi-monthly ArtWalk at Westgate Studios in Wakefield, a meeting with tapestry artist Jilly Edwards at her studio in Exeter, a trip (with Jilly) to Dartington taking in the extraordinary Bauhaus-influenced High Cross House designed by William Lescaze in the 1930s, the beautiful estate gardens and a chance to see tapestries by Bobbie Cox in the mediaeval refectory of the Great Hall.

Tapestry at Dartington Hall by Bobbie Cox


Part 2 will cover a nine hour train journey to Edinburgh for a brilliant weekend course in the studio of tapestry weaver Fiona Hutchinson and my book discovery of the year, Weaving as Metaphor: a monograph on the weaver Sheila Hicks.

The 'Lock-keeper's Cottage' Graduate Centre at Queen Mary College, London


Technically my meeting with architect Richard Scott has nothing to do with weaving accept that that it connects rather nicely with my visit later in the week to High Cross House in Devon, the location of a forthcoming installation by tapestry artist Jilly Edwards (for which I am creating the music). Richard’s striking work is, to use the words about the paintings of Bridget Riley (who he admires) ‘full of light and colour’. Richard is currently ‘Design Champion’ for the city of Hull and will be designing a number of new schools for the city under the Building Schools for the Future scheme. I’m currently associated as a composer with the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra and keen to make links with the BSF scheme. Richard is fascinated by music and often expresses his architectural ideas through musical descriptions and language. He worked originally with maverick architect Will Alsop after whose Objects of Curiosity and Wonder I created a work about for string quartet (Kronos Quartet) called SuperCity.

Warping board or Inkle Loom?


The following day, after suffering the coldest train journey of my life from Hull, I was in Shipley to rehearse with my friendly soprano who had the weekend previously put her first warp on her grandmother’s loom after a little mix up with what turned out to be an Inkle loom. I’ve mentioned our musical collaboration many times in this blog so I think it is definitely time for a photo of the two us in rehearsal – this was taken in my studio last summer before our first recital.

Rehearsal at Westgate Studios


After a most valuable morning rehearsing lute songs of Thomas Campion, John Dowland and my own songs to Quaker texts called Improving Silence, I had the pleasure of a few hours peaceful preparation in her quiet and beautiful house for my two days of forthcoming meetings. Back  in Wakefield the resident artists were putting the finishing (and noisy) touches to what is known as the Art Walk, a bi-monthly opening of all the visual art venues in the city. One feature of Westgate Studios contribution was an extraordinary installation by Julie Clarke of 1000 plus origami cranes occupying the stairwell of this four-storey listed building. On the walls of the stairwell there was a sequence of my own poems called The Origami Letters (the final poem inspired Julie’s crane installation), words for music I’m writing for Mark Padmore and the Brodsky Quartet.

A Thousand Cranes


Very early the next morning, after some pretty frantic late night list-making and gathering together of stuff needed for four days away, I’m on the train down to Exeter, a four and half hour trip. Rail travel can be such a very civilised way to travel – when it’s not too crowded – with lots of time to write letters and study The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons by the 5th Century Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh. I’m writing a novel (provisional title  Summoning the Recluse) about two poets, brother and sister, who lived during the Two Kingdoms Dynasty . . . strange but true.

Altar Tapestry by Bobbie Cox


Down in Exeter for coffee time, Jilly took me to meet Christine Sawyer in a lovely little café looking across the green to the Cathedral. Christine is one of four weavers who live close to Exeter and meet regularly with Jilly to share their work and ‘news’. From there we went to see briefly an altar-piece tapestry by Bobbie Cox, about whom more later.

Watercolour by Jilly Edwards


Next stop was Jilly’s studio at ‘the Castle’, Exeter’s studio community, where we talked non-stop until late afternoon, discussing my role in providing a musical amplification of Jilly’s exhibition / installation opening in May. I’ve promised not to say or show anything of her work in progress for this show, so I’ll simply say ‘don’t miss it’. I will however mention a piece that I don’t think is to be in the show as it was a commission that is finished and ‘gone’ from the studio. It is a piece that holds (for me) a clue to a persistent theme in Jilly’s work – a record of a journey, in this case a cliff top walk. Jilly had a series of different watercolour sketches of her proposed (now finished) tapestry and finally a version painted on fine quality paper, which I photographed.

Dartington Hall and Gardens


Next day Jilly and I got on the train and travelled the 40 miles or so southward to Totnes, the UK’s first Transition Town, and close to the beautiful and historic Dartington Hall Estate. This former College of the Arts has a personal association for me as I was a consultant / composer in residence there during the late 80s early 90s. Its foundation by American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband Leonard in the 1930s is the stuff of legend. It became in the 1950s the location of a fabulous summer school and music  festival, and the creative home of many significant artists and craft people, notably the potter Bernard Leach, the poet Tagore and musician Imogen Holst. In my time there contact-improviser and dancer Katy Duck, composer Frank Denyer to name but two extraordinary people from a host of others who made my regular visits such a delight. When you visit the mediaeval Dartington Hall itself you can find yourself staying in a room with a Winifred Nicholson on the wall and a Bernard Leach Bowl on the windowsill.

High Cross House


Before reaching Dartington Hall itself our first stop was High Cross House where we spent half an hour taking photos of the exterior and the garden before getting ready for a meeting with the Live Arts officer of Dartington Arts, an organisation that runs an impressive programme of theatre, music and ‘live art’. We walked to our meeting via the beautiful gardens, the sun coming out for us after a brief period of rain, which made plants and trees sparkle.

Dartington Gardens


Finding we’d got a few minutes in hand Jilly took me to see some more of the work of Bobbie Cox, this time two majestic pieces in the refectory. I felt so privileged to being shown and guided around her work by someone able to read this woven work with such authority. Thank you Jilly. Cox was once resident at Dartington and although latterly has become known for her work with ikat, wove some large pieces at and for Dartington using locally sourced wools and plant dyes. Bobbie Cox is now in her 80s and still busy weaving, but now in Gloucestershire. She says of her work:

“I like to think that my tapestries are dialogues between the idea, the material and the methods, between the known and unknown, and ultimately between the finished tapestry and the space it is intended for.”

Before I could come up for breath the meeting was over and I was taking a taxi away from the estate down the road beside the River Dart into Totnes and the railway station for my next destination – Edinburgh. The story of the river has been wonderfully told in Alice Oswald’s award-winning poem Dart. Oswald lived on the estate with her family for some years, beginning her association with the place as a gardener, an experience that features in first collection of poems The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Here is one of my favourites from that collection called Prayer.

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand

with Time bent round into my reach. I touch

the circle of the earth, I throw and catch

the sun and moon by turns into my mind.

I sense the length of it from end to end,

I sway me gently in my flesh and each

point of the process changes as I watch:

the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.


And all I ask is this – and you can see

how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,

is not a soul, is small and creaturish –

that every day the sun comes silently

to set my hands to work and that the moon

turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

 Jeanette Winterston says of her that ‘Alice Oswald is the real thing – a true poet of great power and capacity. She writes about the natural world and our relationship to it, reminding us that there is such a thing as a world we didn’t make, and one that we badly need, for sanity’s sake.’ A 21C Vita Sackville-West perhaps?