Sampling, Colour and Writing about Weaving

Can it really be May? It feels more like early June with a long spell of glorious weather. Everywhere you look spring is riotous in colour and growth and it seems a shame to be inside. But that’s where I am most of the time, sadly. The only compensation has been getting back to weaving after a long spell of forced inactivity (a broken arm). I’ve dedicated a whole warp to sampling with some rug wool yarns with the notion of weaving my first rug. In a day or two I reckon to start doing just that.

End of a 1/3 size sample for a rug using a pattern by Anni Albers

In my April blog I showed my first attempt at Clasped Weft technique. I’ve progressed a little with this, particularly dealing with getting the tension at the selvedge correct as one is effectively creating a turn around the selvedge at both ends simultaneously. I’ve also been playing a little with a sample bag of Nepalese rug and tapestry yarns from my February visit to the Handweavers Studio in London.

A sample of a cleft weft pattern using Nepalese rug wool

One upshot of studying three pictorial weavings by Anni Albers (check out my last three blogs) has been to examine and then replicate one of her weave patterns. In the catalogue from the wonderful Ruthin show earlier this year there’s a double page close up of a curtain woven for a Harvard dormitory. The piece is in two colours only, woven in plain weave. Its simplicity belies an intriguing sequence of weft picks.

Curtain for a dormitory at Harvard Graduate Centre 1950. Cotton and undyed linen 218 x 121 cm

Having worked the pattern out I then chose two weft colours, one being the colour of the warp itself. Then the fun began . . . What looked so straightforward was nothing of the kind! Working with two colours in an irregular sequence of picks produces all sorts of difficulties at the selvedge – just how do you organise the relationship between the two weft ends. It took me nearly half a metre of weaving before I developed a way of working so that the selvedges didn’t look a complete mess. `All the time I was grappling with this I kept thinking ‘how can I describe succinctly the method of doing this weave?’ Well, for the time being at least, I admit defeat.

A close up of the selvedge

When I next get a chance to look at another weaver’s work it is this  factor that I’ll be examining . . .For now I have enough home-made strategies to get by. Whether they are ‘correct’ or not I have no idea. The only description I’ve come across of the process of handling two different weft yarns is in Debbie Chandler’s confident book. Anyway, I like this pattern and before I scale-up my sample to 3 times its present warp width I want to try scaling up the pattern itself to double its present size.

My own reworking of Albers' pattern for a dormitory curtain

During April there has been a burgeoning preoccupation with colour and texture in my weaving and thoughts about what next. I found myself yesterday thinking I must learn to describe colours accurately. I’m hopeless at it. When I try to talk about a colour I reach for a pile of paint cards. I have to say I love the given names – I have the Farrow and Ball colour card here – Lulworth Blue, Savage Ground, Arsenic, Bible Black – brilliant. Perhaps there’s a poet somewhere who the company employ on a retainer to come up with these powerful and evocative names when a new colour appears. Maybe it’s Simon Armitage whose poem about the National Trust Range of Paints Colour  Card I set to music in my Travelling Songs.

The cover of Stephen Beal's book The Very Stuff

So yesterday I wrote to a friend (who has promised to teach me to sew one day) to ask if I might borrow two books I know she has in her wonderful library of reference books on textiles. The first is Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox. This was recommended to me by felt artist Jeanette Appleton who reckoned it had a huge impact on her work. It was one of those books I was not then ready to assimilate; but perhaps I’m ready now. The other is a book of poems called The Very Stuff: poems on color, thread and the habits of women by Stephen Beal. It’s a somewhat curious book in both style and content with each poem based or rather tagged to a DMC embroidery thread colour neatly shown on each page. But it was through this book I discovered its author’s engaging Periodic Table of Colour.

Stephen Beal's Periodic Table of Colour

Just before Easter the challenge of colour raised its head again during a visit to Texere, Bradford’s yarn emporium. I went to accompany the friend mentioned above who is currently engaged on developing an ambitious collection of work that I bravely tried to describe a few weeks ago, if only to help myself understand what she was doing. I imagined I was writing the preface to a serious exhibition catalogue – full of clever quotes, references and long words. Interesting experiment, and in the process of which I discovered a powerful poem by Jorie Graham called Over and Over Stitch. It had this unforgettable line.

 There are moments in our lives which, threaded, give us heaven—

I also found myself having to address in this imaginary preface the issue of colour in this artist’s developing body of work:

 Colour. What colour? The colour here is evolutionary, the colour comes out of the wall, the stitch, those natural and elemental sources that speak of a kind of weathering, colour made with the intervention of the chemistry of the mordant, the play of the substantive, adjective and fugitive.

Anyway, back to my Texere afternoon. I was still in Anni Albers mode, and spent time looking for yarns that had some resonance with those I had been studying in her work. Curiously enough it was the silk yarns that grabbed my attention. I came away with a mix of cones of Tussah and Bourette silk. It was fascinating looking through what was available. I had in my ignorance always thought of silk as something very delicate and thin. Not so, it can be very chunky and incredibly strong. As I write this I have reached out for my copy of The Yarn Book by Penny Walsh. This is a beautifully illustrated book that gives so much to the reader from well taken close up photographs. But nothing quite like a trip to Texere to handle the yarn itself.

My choice of (mainly) silk yarns from Texere. There's a cone of jute and green linen there too.

Colour has been such a preoccupation for me as a composer during the last twenty-five years. I’ve tackled it as a subject and a source of inspiration in several major pieces. In the 20 and 21C there has been an increasing fascination in what composers call timbre, the ‘colour’ and quality of sonic texture. We talk about orchestral colour, and some composers like Olivier Messiaen have identified particular scales and chords with a colour palette, most notable in his opera Saint Francois d’Assis. For me timbre has until very recently been less important than pitch and rhythm, and what I’ve come to call the sound event rather than the sound object. Despite this I have been, like the poet Goethe, fascinated by the affect of colour. It was through this fascination that I first investigated the journey of artist Bridget Riley from chiaroscuro into the colour stripe. Then I discovered Josef Albers and his book The Interaction of Colour. But it was handling colour myself as a fledgling weaver intent to be able to design what I might weave that I had to engage with colour in a very different way.

Basically, I’m afraid of colour, just as in music composition I rarely start from a timbre or a texture. I don’t hear my music at first played by a particular instrumental timbre: it is something so much more abstract. Right now I’m dealing with a series of pieces focused on the exploration of the deep oceans. Some of the writing about such exploration is rich in descriptions of colour. But for me I’ve become intent on taking descent and ascent as my preoccupations, and in doing so investigated interpolation. I’ve taken two chords and / or scales, one high in pitch, the other low in pitch and looked at interpolating them across the pitch continuum. It’s rather like mixing two distinct colours, and the results have been inspiring. Just yesterday in York I saw a post Easter altar cloth that showed a striking interpolation from yellow to mauve. I jotted the sequence down in my notebook and coloured in later.

Interpolation of colour - from an altar cloth in a York city church

I’m currently completing an orchestral study called Migrations based on orchestration by register rather than the usual ‘colourful’ family groupings of woodwind, brass and strings.

My other gathering preoccupation during April has been a little development in my creative writing. I am currently a commuter for the first time in many years. I have a 37 minute train journey to my studio early every morning. On the day I began this new routine I decided to write a short piece in that time available, basing the writing on an image from the small library of photographs I carry on my mobile phone. I usually manage about 300-400 words and the results of a fortnight or so of such early morning creativity are interesting, though rather varied in content and success. Yesterday I put most of my first attempts in the bin, but there were two little essays that I’ve kept to place on this blog. In thinking of doing so I’ve also opened a folder to keep what I realize is the beginnings of a collection of fictional writing about textiles, weaving and embroidery in particular. I already have a considerable collection focused on music.

So here to end are two examples of my 37 minutes on the train. The first is autobiographical – a recollection of my first exposure to the art of  weaving as a seven year old at a famous choir school. The second relates a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a telling of the story of Philomela. This reference came about from hearing a song thrush singing its heart out from the top of a poplar tree, and then writing about the bird and its song on my 37 minute train ride. The thrush is known as Turdus Philomelos, hence the link to this Athenian princess. Although the story of Philomela is a very savage indeed tragic tale, it has, in the form of an extraordinary play by Joanna Laurens called The Three Birds, intrigued me for many years, certainly before I thought about learning to weave. I’ve always considered it would make a perfect chamber opera, but the author’s agent put so many restrictions in front of me I had to abandon any plans. The play is now out of print, so I’m minded to try again.

You can download these stories with their images as Word files  (Paroles Tissées) and (Turdus Philomelos).

At the end of next week I’m off to Stroud International Textile Festival for the weekend: to do the Studio Trail (May 7) and to attend Laura Thomas’ Symposium Off The Loom (May 8). Do go to the Studio Trail link to see Alexander Caminada’s stunning photographs of the artists and makers taking part. SIT is a festival that consistently produces the most beautiful images and interpretation in its publications and programmes. The Studio Trail booklet is no exception. Look out for an extra ‘Stroud featured blog’ this month if time permits.

PS: I had an advance date for my diary e-mailed to me last week: the opening of tapestry artist Jilly Edwards retrospective show at Ruthin Craft Centre. If you’ve read this blog in the past you’ll know my association with Jilly in providing music for her Sense of Place show at Dartington’s High Cross House. The Ruthin show opens on June 17 and I’m sure will be a must see. I’m currently busy preparing a CD recording of the Sense of Place concert score for solo guitar, a project that has been seriously delayed because of a broken arm back in December, just days from the planned recording session!


One Response to “Sampling, Colour and Writing about Weaving”

  1. Alice Fox Says:

    I’ve just found this quote which you might like and seems relevant to your thoughts on colour:
    “Drawing is of the spirit; color is of the senses” Henri Matisse.

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