A Letter from Stroud Textile Festival
I’m writing this on a four hour train (and bus) journey back from a conference at the Stroud Textile Festival. I’ve had a fascinating day and made pages of notes to share with you.
You know how intrigued I’ve been about this Slow Movement. It was at Sue Lawty’s weekend workshop back in September that I first stumbled across it. I wrote about it in my blog for September 9 and populated a couple of paragraphs with links to the main players and established sources of information.
Meanwhile you found yourself involved in making a new work for Taking Time an exhibition commissioned by Craftspace to tour the UK during the next two year. I remember following your experience of being a ‘scribe of small stones’, helping tapestry artist Sue Lawty create her large-scale piece Calculus.
When you got back from the opening of Taking Time in Birmingham you kindly lent me the catalogue, which I found intriguing and challenging by turn. I realised that our own piece Fifteen Images really came alongside the Slow aesthetic. It is collaborative, it is an artefact that contained a narrative of its making both as a personal journey and as a making process. It is also contemplative, extendible and could be realised and encountered in many different ways, both personal and public.
As I studied the catalogue I became very interested in the summative themes and questions the curator Helen Carnac stated in her introduction. I set myself the (difficult) task of responding to these in an edition of my blog. It turned out to be a valuable exercise, and its doing helped me in the construction of a theoretic framework for our paper Music and Textiles Interact for the journal Craft Research.
When we discovered that the Stroud Textile Festival was to host a 2-day conference on Slow Textiles it seemed a good idea to sign up to this. It was an opportunity to hear the leading players in the textile corner of this movement strut their stuff. I hoped there would be opportunities for debate and dialogue.
Sadly, I had to go on my own, and decided I’d just do the conference proper on Saturday 8 May rather than stay on for the practical day, which included a day workshop on Extended Life Textiles: inspired by Japanese Embroidery Traditions. This was, of course, Sashiko that we’d discovered back in December at that brilliant, inspiring exhibition at York. The essence of Sashiko embodies much of the Slow Textile philosophy. It is maintaining the use of garments through recycling and addition. As clothes wear out new patches and stitching are added. The result, mainly because of the beautiful simplicity of the satin stitch, is like nothing I had experienced before, and, as the exhibition so cleverly demonstrated, has been a powerful influence on contemporary Japanese textiles.
I travelled by train, setting off before 6.0am and managed to arrive at the campus of Stroud College with a few minutes to spare. I was met by the Festival Director Lizzie Walton and discovered I was the only male delegate on a list of 50 or so women. I did express my surprise, more incredulity, and was assured by Lizzie that the Festival itself did present work by male artists. She underlined this by handing me a leaflet advertising three open studio events by prominent male textile artists. Sadly, without a car, I couldn’t do any of these, and looking again at the programme reckoned I couldn’t dip out of any of the talks. If you had been with me of course, and we’d had the two days there I would have found the opportunity irresistible. Nick Ozanne is a name that has been floating around in some of the weekend supplements. Clearly it’s cool to be young, male and to weave . . . as the recent TV series on craft demonstrated. His company is called Leto and Ariadne. Interesting name? Here’s the reason – from his blog.
I thought the company website really excellent. It includes a blow by blow text and image account of how he makes a scarf. . . and on a four shaft loom very similar to yours.
The textile artist Matthew Harris we both know about, so let me move on to the other weaver Tim Parry Williams. His work is more oriented towards investigating yarn properties and structures than commercial making. He holds an academic post as senior lecturer in textiles and is research active, The really interesting part of his practice is his association with Japanese textiles, in particular his experience of working alongside the Japanese master weaver, Junichi Arai.
Right, having got the ‘only man in the room’ bit off my chest, I was sitting on my own having a much needed cup of coffee (nothing on the train early in the morning). I was surprised to be joined by Mary le Trobe-Bateman who we’d met earlier in the week at Dartington when she had opened Jilly’s exhibition Sense of Place. I think she’d looked down the delegate list and seen my name and Lizzie kindly directed her to where I was sitting. So that was a friendly start to things! I have since explored Mary’s celebrated career as curator and consultant in the applied arts and see she had a seminal role to play in setting up Contemporary Applied Arts in Percy Street, London.
For serious applied artists membership (by selection panel) is probably a must. I’m sure you will be showing there before too long. CAA enjoys serious Arts Council support as a revenue client and provides authoritative support for makers. When I explored the gallery website I discovered the work of a striking print artist I had not come across. Anna Raymond has some vigorous work that has echoes of Eduardo Paolozzi (and recently announced Embroiderers’ Guild Scholar Fiona Wilson). I liked it, and could imagine having her work on my studio wall.
Helen Carnac, without whom the Slow Movement in craft would be but a pale shadow of what it now is, chaired the conference and gave a clear, short and distinct introduction. I was intrigued to know that she has now left academe to spend more time as a maker, curator and craft activist. I liked her view of Slow in Textiles as an ‘open process’, where time is an important notion to think through. She was keen to promote the power of words to surround thinking Slow: engage, involve, participate, reveal, experience and experiences. You already know that in my own craft as a composer so much starts with words, from which descriptions grow, and understanding and knowledge follow. I was forcefully reminded of this yesterday when I spent time archiving my working notes for the music for Sense of Place. There must be a dozen A3 sheets of ‘words’, descriptions, diagrams and drawings before a musical note appears.
There were four speakers, each given about 40 minutes, with generous breaks between, but not, sadly, much time for formal questions. Helen was being a good chair and making sure the speakers didn’t over-run. For some, like me, proper breaks meant essential networking (and that means identifying those who asked questions and using the not-knowing anyone at a conference ice-breaker ‘thank you so much for that valuable question . . .’ Collectively, the choice of speakers was, apart from the lack of a male presence, inspired. Each of the four kept faith with the Slow aesthetic by explaining how their personal stories interacted with finding and developing a Slow stance on their practice. They all spoke to the PowerPoint. Despite a plethora of extra screens in the conference room slides were sometimes too cluttered and too small to read . . . and there was often too much to read of course. You’d think designers would have got this one right, but I suppose there is this business of ‘speaking to the slide’ as an aide memoire. Philippa Brock’s presentation was sensibly restrained in this respect, and she had brought some samples of her work for us to touch and see.
Emma Neuberg tackled the questions ‘Why Slow? Why Now?’. She handled the brunt of the initial stuff many of the delegates needed to know. Necessary history, definitions, why particularly women (though she didn’t explain why men seemed to be excluded), how the sheer pressure of the 16 collections a year fashion industry is forcing designers to frame slow within fast, the influence of Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion & Textiles book. Lots of valuable soundbites: blind behaviours, prosperity without growth, Fast does not foster trust, Slow as a cultural movement. She bravely introduced the idea of making practice more vigorous through research. She introduced us to some of the heavy duty philosophical and theoretical stuff, for example Maurice Lipton on Greed ‘something damaged, something lost’. The idea of Sew or See – through the hand we begin to see, even a reference to Christopher Larsch’s The Culture of Narcissim in the use of the term the performing self.
With the theory behind her she went on to talk about the Slow Textile Group. Her resume of this group I found very illuminating and convincing. I was staggered, quite frankly, by the wealth of connections. Again, lots of key words: practical, symbolic, sustainable, immaterial, personal. Here was a group who had explored the rich ramifications of slowness and were engaging Slow through material itself . . . and getting what she described as a wealth of yields. I liked her reference to the way improvising musicians share performance as a metaphor for how the Textile Group encourage a mode of participation. This preoccupation with ‘making it yours – don’t show anyone your work until the IP is sorted’ was quite rightly over turned. And yes, you can have both fine art AND functionality.
She introduced us to this engaging word molify: to erode the imagination; to limit confidence. This is what she deemed had happened to the consumer who once made her own clothes. Fashion had been molified.
(The next day I wrote to Emma to ask if she would share her slides and she kindly will in the near future. Until then she has offered a number of other on-line resources including one of her three blogs, which illustrate her work with recycled plastic. Here’s a blog I like:
Philippa Brock gave a very different presentation that focused on her rather unique practice in woven textiles that crosses the boundaries of craft and industry through support from a 0.6 academic post at St Martin’s. She is a persuasive and accomplished speaker and her slides were illustrations rather than prompts. She’s been involved with The Emotional Wardrobe project. This builds on the characteristics of fashion and clothing, and imagines a world where fashion converges with ICT. It’s also about a new genre of clothing, ‘whose bestowed benefits are intangible and difficult to quantify .. but are closer to the emotive characteristics of fashion and clothing’.
She’s been working recently on The Fabric of Life: Nobel Textiles project. This has been described as a journey into the interface between science and design. Many of Philippa’s illustrations were taken from this project.
I found this particularly interesting because it does offer an example of how a new theoretical framework may be built between divergent forms. I’m struggling with such things in bringing together Textiles and Music, here it is between Science and Design. Both require a technical appreciation of form and structure to test and manipulate function and reveal new meaning. Both domains play a role in redefining our relationships with each other and the world around us. Both evoke new meaning, enriching culture.
Philippa’s PhD subject was textile finishing, and this is still a preoccupation in her studio work she calls ‘On Loom Finishing’, which is what it says it is: you design the finishing into the weave. This, of course, has a most positive environmental impact in the production phase.
Her presentation began with the CC41 label. This demonstrated during WWII that a textile product was regulated by the Board of Trade. This was a springboard for proposing how in the future textile product may yet again have to be regulated, but for reasons of sustainability.
She showed several examples of her self-folding, self-assembly ‘pleating on the loom’. I loved the beautiful paper fabrics she’d devised from playing with feeding origami plans into a Jacquard loom. She reckoned she was ‘obsessed with 3D weaving’. Imagery and embellishment were further fixations, as was devore and the deconstructiong of fabrics. Her particular grail might be summed up as: minimal finishing; doubled sided; long life; long use. She wants to create clothing that needs little interaction.
Towards the end of her talk she introduced me to a new term: the prosumer – someone who produces what he/her consumes (perhaps such a romantic notion), and gave the most memorable soundbite of the day (which generated some lively discussion): What do you love most in your wardrobe? Bet it isn’t something you made!’ Hmmn . . .
It was suddenly lunchtime and after a very acceptable quiche and salad I walked through the adjacent park to Stroud Museum to see some of the festival exhibitions. Vision into Colour brought together tapestry, textile installation and paintings with work by Sara Brennan and Jo Barker (some of the work we’d seen at the Follow a Thread show at Ruthin), Henny Burnett’s light boxes (not my thing), Kate Blee (a name new to me and someone to investigate I felt), and the painter Noela Bewry – abstract work having a resonance with textiles.
I thought the presentation of this show a little disappointing quite frankly, but then seeing some of it at Ruthin so beautifully arranged and lit no doubt prompted this reaction.
On the foyer steps of the museum there was an impressive installation by Norma Starzakowna. Translucent digital print with opaque, embossed, screen-prionted heat reactive media and applied patinations and glazes . . . phew! They were meant to ‘explore and reflect a diverse range of cultural issues’. Certainly these textiles have a complex, rather distressed appearance that is not textile-like, but the way these pieces were hung in rather a narrow space tended to disable much of the power of the surface affect experienced when really close to the textile.
And in the courtyard there were three of Caroline Sharp’s ‘twiggy vessels’ . I would have happily taken home these home if I’d had a van. One of them would sit beautifully in your garden, a bit like a large bouncy hopper . . .
Lunch over it was back to conference room and Upcycling and Digital Craft from Clara Vuletich. Like you she’s had a previous career – her’s in radio journalism in Australia, and spoke really well about her personal history and how it had contributed to her involvement with the Slow Movement. But before getting underway with this she did give a very clearly laid out summary of the evolution of the Slow.
Because her second career in textiles is relatively recent it was appropriate for her to show her evolution as an artist and designer starting from her undergraduate portfolio. I really enjoyed seeing how her work had begun from domestic still life images and progressed, and then diverged. She conveyed so well her many discoveries along the way. These included a passion for Charleston House and the revelatory photographer Francesca Woodman.
There was also an intensely personal angle: the women in her life and the feeling of growing up disconnected; the obsession with things that were inaccessible. Her final year project focused on the personal objects and garments of three very different women. It was fascinating, indeed a little voyeuristic, to see where all this was leading, and then the way it led to embracing the Slow Movement aesthetic and learning a theory about sustainability. She summed this up: design for long and enduring relationships with objects; value matters, and time for reflection (manifesting itself into some striking hand-printed bespoke wall-paper).
I found many of the images of her later work (like her laminated PVC objects) very striking, very memorable. She had clearly become adept at giving things a new life. And if all that wasn’t enough, like Emma Neuberg, she was an enthusiast and activist for collaborative work – as her involvement with Bricolarge Collective demonstrates.
But go to her excellent website to get the whole story. Perhaps being a former radio journalist has given her that investigative edge: to seek things out and be good at presenting the answers.
Before the final presentation there was a collective pause for a summary informally titled ‘What can we get out of today? Helen Carnac gathered some intriguing statements such as ‘to be activists we must broaden this field, the portfolio and the tool box’. ‘What are we going to be as designers? – ‘There needs to be more than making new stuff with new material and colours’. ‘We need to take the emphasis away from materials’. At the cutting edge of industry Philippa reckoned we should ‘ ask questions in the fast lane and subvert the flow through the factory floor’, and ‘why can’t there be better fast fashion?’.
Clara reminded us that we should not be afraid to explore the theory (of design generally) in order to improve our making. Certainly one of the outcomes for me of attending this conference will be a visit to my university library this weekend to explore several books on design mentioned that I’d never heard of.
The keynote talk by Rebecca Earley was kept until last, and rightly so. Like Clara’s talk this proved to be a very personal journey through a life that had transformed itself from a fast and furious (frenzied?) fashion designer (collaborations with the likes of Alexander McQueen – and she still has her own label) to a steadiness and slowness that embraced marriage, gardening, children, one of the loveliest garden studios I’ve ever seen, and absolutely too much to share in this report. She’s one of the academic world’s most persuasive researchers and clearly so able to integrate her practice and her developing passion for the Slow Movement with nurturing new designers and makers. She gave many insights about TED (Textiles Environment Design), which demonstrates yet again that art school education in the UK continues to be innovative, and from which other disciplines (like mine) could learn so much. As a researcher in an interdisciplinary group (in computer music) I warm to her notion of ‘bringing practice from other disciplines to textiles’.
I loved her answer to What is Slow? ‘It’s a big collective breath’, she said. But she’s equally good at asking and setting up questions, and I would imagine is an inspirational teacher and mentor (as some of the images on her website testify). To rework composer Alexander Goehr’s celebrated statement, she is very conscious of the history of her own art and she continually asks questions about her own work.
Her talk was titled Top 100: Up Close and Personal, 1999-2009. It was very well illustrated with images and only a few passages of text for us to decipher. The heat-pressed image on the polyester shirt is where so much of her practice has focused, and is something she returns to again and again. It’s all beautifully illustrated at this website.
There’s just so much to see at this site. The textiles and the people and the process surrounding many of her research projects. My favourite has to be the AHRC funded Ever and Again project, particularly the section on the use (with limited success) of sonic tools.
Towards the end of her talk she developed in counterpoint descriptions of important steps taken in her personal life and seeing new possibilities and vistas that her work as a designer and activist had opened up. She is clearly committed to developing a well fashioned eco-style in the UK and ‘breaking down the rules of design’. I was particularly taken with her mantra about ‘learning to embrace complexity’. That strikes several well tempered chords with my own practice.
She ended her talk with a Slow Design manifesto from one of her students Bridget Harvey. It’s the acronym STEER – Stop, Think, Explore, Enjoy, Rethink. STEER your work towards slow design.
Her final words: take joy in what you make; celebrate small steps; share; think open source; take action, and with others.
I’ll sign up to that.