The Summer Show . . . is here again

It’s that time of year when universities and colleges provide the important stepping stone every student in textiles and the visual arts needs to enter the professional world. I’m planning on doing three ‘final shows’ this year. The first was at Bradford College where I studied between September 2008 to 2009. I choose four collections from the HNC in Woven Textile Design to examine in detail, and that means their respective records of Visual Realisation, Design Development, Technical Notes, and individual items of work. I was richly rewarded. I also much enjoyed browsing other collections, particularly those of the knitters. All three that I looked at were so imaginative. 

In writing about such work there is a current and serious issue about what might be illustrated.  Although I was told subsequently that no photography was allowed, I saw no signs anywhere amongst the exhibitions stating this, whereas at New Designers (the collegiate show in London this week – see below) most stands (and even individual work) had this ‘warning’ displayed prominently.

Most degree shows contain  student work to be assessed in situ by examiners so there is requirement that sketchbooks and portfolios showing planning and process are available to view. What are we seeing here? Something cosmeticized for the external examiner, or  a genuine ‘warts and all’ record. Curiously enough I find both approaches quite acceptable (as long as I can read the writing, and sadly I struggled with some). But should I even mention these documents here, let alone give some examples? Is this ‘allowed’, or must the general viewer avoid the temptation? Isn’t the finished work enough? For me (and for some others I know) the fascination of the woven medium does lie in the process; how the artist/designer moves from an idea to its woven realisation.  I also have to admit I preferred some of the experimental work to what ended up in the collections. So, having been severely censured the other day by a Bradford student for showing material of this nature on my blog I’m hoping that what I place here will be acceptable. I’m assuming a rough crayon sketch is allowed, but photographs of work in situ definitely not. So, I ‘m largely confining myself to those promotional illustrations such as business cards and postcards that usually accompany a student’s presentation. If individual students whose work I have chosen to feature here still feel uncomfortable about this, or indeed about me writing on their work in the context of an unrefereed blog, then just leave a comment on this blog and I’ll consider removing the offending material!

Woven work illustrated on a promotional card by Gail Bryant


Although, as I know my blog demonstrates, I have been able study many forms and approaches to woven textiles over the past two years, and indeed been fortunate to get close to the work of some major artists, I have no pretensions as a critic, merely an enthusiastic observer who has a little experience of making himself. The blog has been important here because  trying to describe a piece of work seems so necessary in building understanding and knowledge. That is my rationale. 

What I have found particularly challenging as a student was, at first, developing a critical response to my fellow students work. Most of us didn’t carry the critical language and concepts of textiles with us, so there was a lot of kind  encouragement and not a great deal of honest criticism. It took a decision to leave the HNC course at the beginning of the second year before one of the course lecturers had the honesty and kindness to tell me with some clarity what was ‘really’ wrong with my work! That said, what I continue to experience in viewing the work  of those I was privileged to study alongside is an intent and purpose to grasp the nettle of developing a style and modus operandi. One of the outcomes for me of this whole adventure has been to gradually develop the technical, aesthetic, contextual and critical tools to read a piece of work. I like the way in art education that these things are brought together. I say with some shame that this rarely happens in music education, except in the area of electroacoustic music (which some call sonic art).

from a promotional business card by Mark Cullen


Last Thursday I began my visit to the Bradford Show with a collection of three rugs. Approximately 80 cm x 130 cm, these three-end block weave pieces took as their theme three of the precursors of spring: the Hazel, the Willow, the Snowdrop. These double-faced constructions followed Jason Collingwood’s practice (he reckons he’s woven thousands of such rugs and it was attending one of Collingwood’s courses that provided the seed for this particular final project work). I have had no previous experience of this technique so I enjoyed going to  The Technique of Rug Weaving (Page 308 onwards) by Peter Collingwood (Jason’s father) and learning how it was done. I should say if I hadn’t had access to the book I’d have been in trouble. The maker had provided some fascinating sketches to demonstrate the process of design (which I’d love to show but can’t), but the technical notes were limited.

from the Techniques of Rug Weaving by Peter Collingwood


What intrigued me about these three pieces was the plying of linen tows into the pure wool rug yarns chosen for this project (from Buckfast Spinning Mill). This was done thanks to a helpful mother-in-law’s tuition on her spinning wheel. The results were wonderful shimmering effects and colour mixes.

The design of these rugs owes a lot to the maker’s interest and enjoyment of the American abstract-expressionist artists like Sean Scully and Mark Rothko. There was also a touch of the block design favoured by the Bauhaus weavers, but in matters of colour and blend, the maker’s own signature was very evident.

Alongside the physical textile work the maker had provided illustrations of painting with acrylics and inks of the very rich natural world where the rugs were woven, a remote valley on the edge of Dartmoor. This area, which I visited last autumn, had been the inspiration and source for the maker’s work across all the projects of the course. It would have been good to see some of this earlier project work, as other students had thoughtfully provided in accompanying portfolios. As I have a large collection of top quality carpet wools kindly donated by a carpet designer in Dewsbury (and own a suitable loom) I’m really looking forward to trying out this three-edge block weave approach. 

My next choice of a collection to study was of work by a maker who had also drawn heavily on inspiration from the natural world, this time from North Wales. A collection of cushions was particularly prominent. If there was one technical theme dominating the weave designs here it was Rosepath threading. I’d heard of this, but never tried it. It’s all there in Anne Dixon’s Handweaver’s Pattern Book. For a no nonsense introduction I’d certainly recommend this link to a Weavezine tutorial.

From a promotional card by Anneli Thomas


My favourite piece from this maker was a kind of sampler made in five sections, each with an evocative title: forest colours, stubble field, ripening tomatoes, the fading garden. This is one piece I would love to own. It has a simplicity and an uncontrived nature that I know I would find very comforting and endearing in a rather old-fashioned way. Sadly no price or nfs tag! I’m also restricted by Bradford College from showing here an example of this beautiful piece.

This maker had some beautiful work displayed in A3 sketchbook volumes of Design Development. Using black paper and white ink the colour palette was shown at its best. There was also a number of fine water-colour and ink pictures that, like the sampler, had a ‘passing of the year’ quality. Sadly, I’m not allowed to illustrate any of these pictures.

It was refreshing to move away from the natural world into work inspired by photography and the abstract constructions of Mondrian. This interests me because my forthcoming opera Unknown Colour features this Dutch painter as one of the characters. The collection was supported by a challenging interpretation board, from which I take the following quote from Kafka.

Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial.

For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade.

One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens.

One has to grope for it by feeling . . .

This maker, who recently acquired a computer-controlled loom, has produced some experimental work with Shibori, collage using mono-filament ,and in the centre of her collection three pieces of double weave in silk (predominantly in ecru with some coloured using deka silk paint). But exploring this maker’s Design Development diary it was the influence of Alice Schlein’s Network Drafting that seems to have really engaged the attention and prompted experimentation.

Untitled silk and linen taken from a promotional image by Marina van Vessem



It’s probably because my own music composition is so integrated with serious programming in Lisp that I have no inclination whatsoever to use computer control or drafting in weave. I quite enjoyed the ‘manual’ dobby loom experience, but not enough to consider going further with a dobby controller loom.

Image taken from a promotional card - Jane Huws (Hand crafted bags and accessories)



My final selection for serious attention was from a maker whose collection was probably the most focused and yet wide-ranging in its outcomes. It was based on an interest in what I believe is called Estate Tweeds. Certainly the contextual research that accompanied the project seemed most thorough and comprehensive, but I found myself more interested in the documentation and ‘experiments’ than with the finished collection, albeit beautifully executed. Here is an image of a sketch I made of a sample that I feel exemplifies the range of experimentation this work explored. This sample used small weft sections of brown rafia.

A lot of questioning and experimentation had gone into developing this collection. Herringbone seemed a dominant weave, and one particular threading (which I’m not allowed to show) was favoured. This maker I felt had really got the accompanying ‘evidence’ right. You felt it hadn’t been manicured or assembled in any way, just a clear on-going diary and illustration of work.

I only had a morning, and looking at these four weavers was as much as I could fit in. There was a stunning silk scarf I would have loved to have investigated (but not allowed to show here), and a robust collection by the only professional weaver on the course. The work of three knitters really gave me much joy. A collection themed on Robin Hood’s Bay I just loved, and as a presentation it was, for me, probably the most convincing of any in the show. This had some elements of Sashiko – perhaps we went to the same exhibition in York last autumn – but the collection and its presentation was inspired. There was even a poem! Two other knitters took childhood and memories as themes and produced such confident and (I can think of no other word) exquisite work I could hardly believe it was knitted. 

Childhood Memories - from a promotional card by Bridget Harris


I should say something about the BA Contemporary Surface Textiles work – sorry, but I ran out of time, and there was, regrettably, no weave this year. I did see two artists on the BA Fine Art programme whose work that engaged me. One, showing in the textile area, was an impressive collection of print on textile (mainly wool) called Machine of Inspiration. This large and diverse collection focused on the Art Deco style of the 20s and 30s using technology and diversity as inspiration to explore a ‘modern’ form of Art Deco.

Ceramics by Kathryn Bronson


The other artist was a ceramicist whose rugged sculptural forms brought together photography and paint to represent aspects of perceptions of the artist’s ‘complex responses to ‘my landscape’.

Back at home my daughter Meg and I finished her first scarf. She’s pleased and I am too. So pleased, that I’m immediately making another (and more finely crafted) one. I never thought the colours and the patterns would work, but such is the confidence of my over-confident teenager, I’ve been proved wrong yet again. I really ought to leave all this stuff to the real artists and just be satisfied with making music.

Scarf by Megan-Ruth


Coda: one significant and rather heart-warming result of the HNC show was discovering that all but two of the graduates of this course have come together as a Web Collective called KnitandTwill. It’s a simple and direct website giving a platform for each of the makers and artists presented. The group will be at the New Designers Show at the London Business Centre from 1 – 4 July. Definitely worth a look. 


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