Friday, 4 November 2011

Project 1 Review - Making Marks

Have you ever thought about drawing in this way before?
Yes, I've done these exercises before but as the course material suggested, I used this project as an opportunity to generate new ideas.  After reading Gwen Hedley's book 'Drawn to Stitch' on holiday, there were a few things I really wanted to try, like tea bags, insides of envelopes and using pins to make holes in paper.

Bleach dripped onto tea-bags, rubbed when wet to distress.  Reminds me of brown and white cattle.
Playing with envelopes. Have been quite excited when the postman comes in case I get a new pattern. Most are calm shades of blue and grey but I have now got a stash including black, red, green and purple! The windows also make useful frames for isolating areas of drawings.

Pins and needles made different sized holes.  I like the rim made when you pierce from underneath and how this takes up paint. 

Were you able to be inventive about the range of marks you made?
I think so.  I struggled at bit when limited to pencil but once I could use a broader range of materials, I found it much easier. 

Tea bag stuck over painted envelope and rubbed when wet to peel back and reveal surface below. 

Did you explore a wide range of media?
Yes, including pencils, acrylics, lots of different papers, wax, ink, pastels, bleach, oil pastels, fabric paint, PVA, Pearl Ex pigment, water colours, salt and tea.

Are you pleased with what you have done? Will it help you to approach drawing more confidently?
Yes, I'm pleased.  Though I have done the exercises in the past, I like what I have done now better.  I don't mind if things go wrong and I've learned that if something doesn't initially work, I can come back to it later and work into it or use it as a background for something later.  Some of my worst attempts ended up being my favourites.  Being very out of practise in drawing, it took me a while to get the confidence to pull out a sketchbook in public. Doing it on holiday where no-one knows me anyway and finding quieter museums where I could sketch in relative peace was a good start.

The background to this was originally supposed to be lichen.  It was rubbish but recycled to become the perfect background for printing on for my melon.  I was so pleased with how it turned out. 

Which exercise did you most enjoy? Why?
Stage 3, Exercise 2 - Making marks in relation to objects.  It took me a while to get started on these.  The items sat on the table for a few days before I got round to the mark making as I wasn't sure where to start.  I enjoyed having the thinking time though and every time I came in the room, I'd look at them, pick them up and I really got to understand the construction and texture from being able to touch.  I used Gwen Hedley's tip of using a magnifying glass and this was particularly useful with the butterfly wing.  The wing magnified looked very different and showed up holes and ridges I hadn't noticed and gave me ideas for different techniques.  I was pleased that although each butterfly drawing is different, each one expresses something of the texture. 

When I went looking round the garden for objects to draw, was so lucky to find this poor dead butterfly caught up in a web.

Which media did you most enjoy working with and why?
I loved using magazine pages to collage.  I like that it is already coloured and sometimes patterned in a way that is reminiscent of what you are drawing and how you can adjust the subtlety of the image by adding layers on top.  I liked the effects I could get by scoring, folding or crumpling it and the way torn edges and distressed parts take up more colour when you work onto it. As it was thin, it was good for layering and it's really cheap and accessible.

Torn edges and creases take up paint at different rate.

What other forms of mark-making could you try?
There's a few things I'd like to try soon including printing with painted clingfilm, blow painting, experimenting with the watercolours and the new inks I've bought on wet and dry papers.

How will these exercises enrich your textile work in the future?
I've been starting to imagine comparable threads and fabrics so I can see what a helpful process it is to make marks.  As working on paper is relatively quick, it's a good way to see what designs will work before spending many hours stitching. There's parts of my work that I particularly like and can see potential in for further design.  I think this project has got me into a good habit of looking at things deeply.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Workshop - String & String Bags with Sue Hiley Harris

After enjoying my visit to Sue's exhibition a few weeks ago, I decided to take part in this workshop at Bankfield Museum last weekend.  I thought it might help me later on in this course, with particular relevance to part four on textile structures.  It was also an opportunity to meet other people interested in textiles who appreciate there's bound to be a good reason you're drying out your tea bags or collecting bits of sheep fleece when out for a walk etc.  I always seem to come home from a workshop with some new tips and information about what's on.   

We began on Saturday by handling Sue's collection of Aboriginal string bags and looking at their construction, noticing the differences between looped (like the one that sparked the idea for the exhibition) and knotted.  We saw the differences between fixed and suspended knots and between simple looping, loop and twist, and figure of eight loops.  Sue said that the older bags in her collection from the 1970s were bought quite cheaply but there is now an increased appreciation of the skill and the bags are more sought after and expensive. 

All of the bags were subtly different, the form dictated by the fibre and purpose - whether for the Aborigines own use to carry particular items, or to sell on to tourists.  The bags are more rigid than the crocheted string bags that have once again become popular as environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic. Some were constructed from top to bottom and some from bottom up which sparked a discussion about weak points, where and how to join string and attach handles as it's not possible to work with long lengths on your needle.  The traditional bags were made from hand spun plant fibres and the Aborigines would just attach more length as needed, generally without the need for knots.  However, some bags did have knots and long threads were left hanging.  Most of us found this strange and a bit disturbing, particularly as they were on the outside of the bag.

Some of Sue's collection, note the bag on the right with hanging threads

At the talk the other week, Sue had explained that there are hundreds of different tribes and languages and a great deal of secrecy among the Aborigines so it is very difficult to get accurate information about their lifestyles and craft.  We do know that they tensioned the bag structures using their legs as a frame and as there were no chemical dyes available to them, the only colour seen on some of these bags is yellow ochre. No containers for holding dye were available either so it's likely they coloured the string using their hands covered in earth.      

After a look around the exhibition, we got set up ready to have a go at a looped technique first.  First we choose some string.  I had brought some ordinary parcel string but after looking at the bags decided to buy some hemp twine as it seemed to hold knots better.  We used G-clamps to attach warp posts to the table about 1.2m apart and tensioned a thick piece of string between them, making loops at each end that would allow the work to be removed and rotated at the end of each row.  Unfortuntely, although we were essentially working a blanket stitch, the first few rows are the trickiest and I cursed my left-handedness, struggling to reverse the diagrams from the handouts in my head.  Waiting for help at the end of each row as I couldn't fathom the corners got pretty frustrating.  My first attempt had very uneven tension and was pretty odd-looking with funny knots in random places.

Attempt 1.  It toook about 2 hours just to do this! 

As starting was the difficult bit, Sue suggested we practised this again on a new sample.  Attempt two was going better and I took it home with me to work on.  This time I tried a tighter tension to see what a denser fabric would look like.  Back at home I scannned, reversed and coloured the handouts and understood them immediately!  I worked a few more rows, feeling pretty pleased I finally twigged what I was supposed to be doing.  Then disaster!  I hadn't pulled a knot tight enough and when I trimmed it, it began to unravel.  Determined not to be defeated, I strung up attempt three and by the early hours of Sunday morning I had a more or less, bag shaped thing, even with knots (pullled very tightly!) lined up as intended.

Getting the hang of it now

Back at Bankfield after a too-short sleep, I had a go at hand spinning with raffia.  Sue showed us how the Aborigine's would do it but as it was a cold day, none of us had bare legs exposed and it didn't work too well.  Then another lady on the course who was a basket weaver showed us a technique she used with day lillies to get exactly the result we were after using just our fingers.  Two strands of raffia were dampened very slightly with a water spray to make them easier to work with (too much and it becomes sticky).  A knot was held in one hand.  In the other, the back strand was twisted tightly away, then moved over the front with the index finger pushing tight in the space between the two.  I found it quite enjoyable - something you could do without concentrating while you were watching T.V. I reckon it would take months to make enough for a bag though.

Hand spinning with raffia

Next we got set up ready to have a go at the knotted bag technique.  The netting needle is wound with string so there are not so many joins to make and a lot less string is used overall.  I was surprised how far my hemp was going, so apart from the time it takes to make these bags, material-wise, it's a very economical way to make really strong structures.  

I managed the knotting itself ok.  This is essentially the same technique as making fishing net but my tension was all over the place as I struggled to get the netting needle easily through the loops.  I think that the ruler I was using for a mesh stick was a bit too narrow.  My holes were pretty irregular and the knots moved more than they should.  Again when making a bag, starting off was the most difficult bit as the size of the loops needed to be different to create the base and curved shape.  Some loops had three knots and others four.  We used thread to mark the ends of the base to help us identify them but again I found the right-handed diagram on the new handout very diffucult to follow in reverse. 

Knotting, using a netting needle and ruler as a mesh stick for spacing

We were showed some different ways to finish our bags and we talked about which bags we thought had been finished most sympathetically to their shape.  Some bags had one simple drawstring thread through the top loops as a handle while others were one thicker piece of spun string or a number of strings and some had wrapped areas.  Finally those who had finished hung up their bags and we admired our creations before taking them home to show to a quite unimpressed family! 

Finished sample bag, just right for carrying my apple!

That night, I went on the internet to research left-handedness as something that should have been obvious had also occurred to me that day.  That is why I've been preferring to draw on sheets of paper rather than in a sketch book - the spirally bit gets in the way of my hand! The metal rings in my binder when I'm making notes annoy me too, however it doesn't feel quite right starting from the back of the book.  I looked up some products and decided to order a left handed book of stitches before I start the next project to see if it makes life easier.     

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Research Point - Visiting an Contemporary Textile Exhibition: Ancestor Bags, Sue Hiley Harris

I took myself off to Bankfield Museum in Halifax this afternoon to listen to Sue introduce her Ancestor Bags exhibition, on from today until 30 October 2011.  When I was researching what exhibitions were coming up, this was one I really wanted to see because I'd read that it was a representation her direct ancestors.  I've been researching my own family tree for the past few years and was fascinated to see how she symbolised her personal genealogy to textiles.    

Is there a theme?
The whole exhibition consists of abstract woven sculptures.  Each sculpture represents one of Sue's direct ancestors from four generations, from her parents through to great, great grandparents on each side, totalling 30 pieces.  All the ancestors were born in either the UK or Australia and codes are incorporated into each piece which give information about the individual.

Is it well displayed?
I thought the display was very impressive and well thought out.  Sculptures were hung from the ceiling by an invisible thread with the coded information just at eye level.  I enjoyed being able to walk through and view them from each side, appreciating the three dimensions.  All the pieces were in one spacious, high-ceilinged room so it didn't feel cramped or overcrowded and the walls were light, plain and not distracting.  There were comfortable low chairs and a table to sit, look and make notes without feeling you were in anyone's way.  The museum staff were very welcoming and said they like visitors to stop and sit or sketch.  During the talk, Sue mentioned that she had a science degree and was influenced by geometric shapes.  I felt that the heights and distances between the exhibits were most probably carefully measured to be pleasing to the eye.  

Is the lighting appropriate?
Yes.  Sheer white blinds on huge windows filtered natural light and there were overhead spots so although slightly dim there was no straining to see anything.  The light was not harsh, did not create any glare and cast lovely shadows on the walls.

Is there enough explanation of the exhibits?
Although each piece wasn't labelled, it was soon clear to me that the 'bags' were in four rows representing the four generations and the layout was like a hanging family tree.  Working drawings with notes for each sculpture were chronologically displayed in a portfolio and by flicking through you soon got the hang of the code.  There was a large family tree on the wall, and on paper handouts which also had a key on the back. Deciphering the codes was fun and interactive and other visitors seemed to be enjoying it too, kind of like a treasure hunt.  I would have liked more explanation of the aboriginal string bag that was the inspiration for the exhibition, and more on the technique, which was little more than 'woven'.  However, there was a catalogue to buy that does explain these in more detail.

Is it visually stimulating and interesting?
This is a tricky question.  I didn't find it immediately visually engaging.  Walking in, no one was saying 'Wow!', like at the Plains Indian exhibition, and child visitors just walked in and straight out.  Although I appreciated the skill in the construction of the sculptures and found the display attractive, it wasn't this but the concept that was fascinating.  It felt more like discovery than a visual experience.  I left wanting to know more detail about the lives of the people and the connections that the artist made from the project.  Just like adding people to my own family tree, the individuals home country, lifespan and number of children is only a small clue to their lives.

Choose three exhibits and look at these in more depth
The answers to the majority of these questions were the same for all the pieces in the exhibition:

When was the piece made and by whom?
All the pieces were created solely by Sue Hiley Harris.  It took about 6 months to plan, draw and construct each piece in detail ready for their first showing at the Museum of Modern Art in Wales from September 2009.  During the talk, she was keen to point out that it took all her adult life for the ideas to evolve.

What is it made of?
Having lived in Australia, Wales and Yorkshire, Sue says she always wanted these pieces to include wool.  The Aboriginal string bags that sparked the idea for the project are made from cabbage tree palm and bark.  However she eventually chose Chinese hand-tied ramie (plant fibre comparable to flax) as it has similar qualities but greater rigidity for hanging.  Ramie is used for the main warp and part of the weft.  The central part of the structure representing the ancestor's life has a woollen yarn weft.  To enhance the connections with family and home, Sue spun Welsh wool and fleece sent from her sisters in Australia. Natural dye is used to colour the wool yarn.  These are woad, weld, eucalyptus leaves, alum mordant, copper mordant, and local earth pigment such as Australian yellow ochre.

What are the approximate dimensions?
About 1m long, between 5cm - 12cm wide and 3cm deep.

Can you identify the techniques used?   
Detailed mathmatical working drawings on show demonstrate how painstakingly accurate the measurements needed to be to make the bags work as a collection.  Sue made the bags two at a time - husband and wives, as the children's details were generally identical (except where one had additional children with another spouse).  In the ehibition booklet it says 'strip templates were produced and marked where, during construction, intersections in the structure would occur'. Sue bought the ramie ready hand-twisted and tied and used this for the main warp, creating strips 2m long x 3cm wide on a floor loom.  A second warp was set up on what she calls 'a Heath Robinson' - a back strap loom using a stair bannister and the body to give tension.  She spun and dyed the wool fleece used for much of the weft herself.  Woad made the blue, woad overdyed with weld made green, eucalyptus leaves with alum mordant made orange and eucalyptus with copper mordant made the brown for the woven triangles.  Yellow ochre earth pigment was applied by hand. The intersections were created using a complex techique similar to one used by Incas where one warp passes through another.  Finally, the long strip was stitched into a loop.

Is the work representational or abstract?
Abstract.  Although the sculptures are described as bags, they are a descendant of the bag forms Sue began creating around the time her mother died.  Over the years this theme developed and her sculptures became increasingly abstract as she discovered the practical and aesthetic advantages of suspending the structures.  The original vessel shape however can still clearly be identified in line.

Where did the designer derive their inspiration?
When she settled in the UK, her mother had sent gifts of Aboriginal string bags from Australia on request as they reminded Sue of the bags in Queensland Museum where she worked as an artist during her student years. She liked them as they were all different and showed a huge variety of knotted and looped techniques, that interested her as a weaver. On a practical level, they were a light and convenient to post from the other side of the world. During a trip to Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 2003, Sue saw a bag that reminded her of a favourite from her own collection. The tag said 'Bag used for carrying bones of dead relatives' and this, along with her mother's death, triggered an idea for an upcoming exhibition in Victoria. She planned to express her Australian heritage in vessel forms similar in shape to the bag.  This current exhibition stems from her desire to develop the family history theme.  During her science degree, Sue studied genetics but this was an opportunity to learn more about her own ancestry. 

How would you describe it - decorative, expressive, functional or symbolic?
Symbolic.  Sue admits that she has never been interested in pattern or decoration.  It is structures, symbols and geometry that appeals to her.  Squares on the central panel represent decades. Some are split into triangles that symbolise the genes passed down from each parent. The weft yarn used in the construction of the triangle is either British or Australian, depending on the birthplace of the parent.  The size and position of the loops around the central panel indicate how many children the ancestor had and at what stage in their life.  The size, shade and position of the coloured triangles represent the longevity of the child, gender and birthplace, also those that are a direct ancestor of Sue.  The colours used are symbolic, such as the Australian yellow ochre dust that sinks in and represents the dry climate.   Although the sculptures in the exhibition are not functional themselves, the Aboriginal bags that inspired them were extremely so, with their numerous shapes and techniques, depending on the intended purpose.

This has been dusted with yellow ochre, therefore an Australian born ancestor

To what extent does the piece refer to tradition (technically or through images), another culture, a period of fashion:
The techniques are very traditional.  Hand spinning is a primitive art, natural dyes have been used to dye yarn for centuries, the looms are very basic and similar to those used in ancient civilizations and intersecting warps is a skill the Incas have used for thousands of years in hair braids.  It was interesting to read that, until this project unfolded, Sue was unaware that many of her own ancestors were 19th century weavers and woollen mill workers. Some lived and worked just a few miles from this museum.  The Aboriginal culture features mostly in the initial inspiration for the project, rather than the techniques, apart from using earth for colouring (they now use modern brightly coloured dyes that were first introduced by the pilgrims).  Sue says there are over 300 Aboriginal languages and a great deal of secrecy in the culture so it is difficult to prove many of the traditions actually existed.  However they were known to bury their dead relatives then later dig up the bones, so the tag on the bag may be correct.  It really could have been used for carrying them.  There is no reference to any period of fashion.

What qualities do you like or dislike about the piece?
I don't have any strong feelings about the pieces. It is the idea and the collection that I appreciate.  It was interesting to start to see some patterns giving clues about history by looking at the collection as a whole.  All the emigrations to Australia taking place in the nineteenth century for example.  You can also see subtle changes of shape over generations as the number of squares representing decades increase in line with life expectancy.  The bags all look similar but I like that the ancestor dictates the unique design of their own.  Once you understand the code, you can identify the bag from the person's story and vice versa so the pieces I was attracted to were those that suggested they had an interesting life story, whether it was a particularly long or short life, an emigration, children late in life or over many decades.  One of the bags I looked at represented Janet Bertha Uther, who did not have children until relatively late in life for her era.  Sue explained that Janet (her maternal grandmother) could not marry her pineapple farmer boyfriend until her disapproving parents had died, which was when Janet was 36.  Her husband's family apparently didn't think Janet was good enough for theiir son either!      

More information about Sue and her work can be found at

After my visit, I booked to go on the workshop 'String and String Bags with Sue Hiley Harris'. Read how I got on here.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Research Point on Craft (cont'd) - Consider Why Craft-Produced Textiles Maintain a Place in our Society

I've been mulling a lot over the last few days about the task 'Consider why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society' and making notes as the thoughts come to me.  I wanted to have my own ideas clear before doing the suggested reading and internet research so I wouldn't be influenced by looking for the 'right answer'.  I reckoned that the reasons are similar for textiles as for any other craft.

I thought about why I paid an expert to restore my stained glass windows rather than replace them with plain glass double glazing.  The previous owner had done this round the back and after all it's far cheaper, more efficient at keeping out the draughts, easier to clean and lets in more light. However I love the way the morning light shines through the coloured glass and reflects on the walls and floor.  I could have had the original pattern reproduced in double glazing and the colours matched, but I found the colours were limited and without the subtlety of the original Edwardian glass.  There were none of the different textures that make my lovely rippled watery reflections.  The original charcoal coloured lead with it's lumps at the joins would be replaced by uniform, stark, black lines.  I know and like the irregularities and little defects like the bubbles in the glass, just as I have a fondness for my own little scars as they tell a story.  I felt like I would have compromised the integrity of my home by not taking care of what was originally there.  Also, having studied a City and Guilds in Stained Glass, I had an appreciation of the skill (and pain!) involved.  The thought of replacing something someone had spent hours making after years gaining skills seems almost cruel.

A few weeks ago I laughed at a lady on T.V. who said she had a condition where she fell in love with objects.  I still think she's crazy but now I'm thinking there must be a bit of that in me too!  I am sentimental about those windows that have been there for over 100 years and have outlived and seen the antics of the families that have come and gone.  I'm not a big collector, but what is it that makes me scour charity shops or Ebay for hours looking for well-made things I like of no particular theme or era?  Why do I covet those Dale Chihuly art glass pieces and agree they are worth the tens of thousands of pounds they cost?  Generally the objects I like are not useful things, they were not made especially for me and I'm not interested whether they'll increase in value.  Yes, it is partly because I want to look at and touch beautiful things but I think it's more that I like to own something unique and that the pieces catch my eye because they evoke some sort of good memory in me, or represent the type of person I am.   Why then if I was rich, would I not pay that sort of money for a piece made by a machine?  It's the romance of knowing all these objects have a story behind them or the person who made them.  In the case of Chihuly, having a little part of someone who is living an incredible life.  Although I'll almost certainly never meet him, there is a relationship there. 

I wondered how much the artist wants that too.  Surely you wonder who wants your work and why.  I understand when Richard Wheater says he is disappointed when he receives a commission by e-mail and the client never visits or talks to him.  He doesn't get know what makes that person tick, or demonstrate how creative the medium can be - the vast range of colours and effects that can be achieved to really personalise the piece.  The contact and human element of the collaboration must be important for the artist too.   

I thought more about integrity and why it matters to preserve skills when machines can produce objects of increasingly high quality.  My Dad and I have been tracing our family tree for the last few years and we do sometimes question the point of finding out about the lives of long dead people!  It's not just because we uncover interesting stories, it's about finding about who we are, just as these crafts can be part of our heritage.  However, I know my feelings are not universal.  One of my friends doesn't give a monkeys about how her furnishings were made so long as her room looks nice.  Mark Sykes who I spoke to at Lotherton Hall the other week said he'd been asked to teach traditional beadwork to Native American students and a good proportion simply weren't interested in their heritage.  Reading about Chihuly's collection of Navajo blankets, he explains that the Indians would trade their exquisite handwoven blankets as they thought the bright colours and designs of the machine made Pendleton blankets more attractive.  On a practical level, they were warmer and one of their blankets bought several Pendletons.

Navajo Indian preferring the warmth of a machine-made blanket
© Dale Chihuly, used with permission of the artist

Researching Richard Wheater's work after the workshop visit, I found the philosophies behind his 'Them and Us' installation in 2009 particularly interesting.  He exhibited the story of his travels around the UK with a mobile furnace.  He made glass birds appropriate to the location (pigeons in London, sparrows in Sheffield etc) and 'blew life' into them, launching them into the air and photographing the moment he set them free.  Of course they crashed to earth and the remains were also exhibited.  I imagined horrified people diving with safety blankets trying to rescue the beautiful things.  These acts were a comment on the decline in glass and other manufacturing industries in the UK.  I suppose, like the birds, most were damaged but some survived better than others and many people would have spent their time desperately trying to salvage what they could from the industries.  Richard was also making points about having too many possessions in our throwaway culture, not appreciating craft skills and the importance of living and creating, not just the end product.                      

Surely it is also right to support people who have a talent and have made sacrifices to get to their level of expertise.  The course manual says, 'People working in the crafts rarely earn large amounts of money....'  Richard as an example is clearly very skilled and knowledgeable, well educated and successful with a string of awards for his talents yet still he has to take on work he doesn't particularly want, he says 'to keep the wolves from the door'.

If money or need is not what drives us to make things, what is?  For the last few years I've made my own preserves.  I like to think mine tastes better but in truth I could buy jam just as good and cheaper.  But no.  I have to grow or pick the fruit, then spend hours preparing and bottling it.  But why and how come I can give these offerings to my friends as presents and not a jar of Hartleys which is essentially the same thing?  I would not be impressed with a pair of socks from a chain store as a gift, even if they were pretty snuggly, but would be delighted if you sent me a hand knitted pair (anyone?).  I like to think this isn't snobbery, rather the importance of the human element and being able to personalise each part of the process.  I know my friend Vanessa likes her jam only just set and the particular proportions of berries.  Jill prefers just a few chillies in her chutney.  My father-in-law likes his marmalade quite bitter and my Dad likes a particular jar with a rim and little bubbles in the glass.  Hartleys may have their tasting panels but they don't know us personally.  Every stage of the process I can tweak and control from the variety of fruit I grow to the way it's packaged. 

Every year my girls give their teachers bramble jam at Christmas made from berries they pick from the hedgerows on the walk home from school.  They're always ripe at the start of the Autumn term so it's become an important ritual for our family.  The girls like to choose the jars and draw and write messages on the labels.  They choose fabric to cut and cover the top (they prefer blue gingham like their uniform), then they choose ribbon or string to tie and attach beads to the end.  Although the teachers are always delighted, I agree with Richard when he says the making is just as important as the end product.  

Making has it's frustrations but overall is therapeutic for me.  I remember a day in July when I was about to take the kids to school and I couldn't find my keys (house and car).  After half an hour of searching I rang my husband and it turned out he'd gone out with them as well as his own by mistake.  It was the first week of his new job, an hour's drive away, so he couldn't come home.  I found a key for the front door which we seldom used so I could at least get out but when I shut the door, the handle fell off in my hand!  So I was outside, unable to secure the house, the kids were already late for school which is a 2 mile up-hill walk away.  I was due at a friend's for lunch and a funeral of another friend's young husband in the afternoon, to which I had to carry 2 large cakes. 

You can imagine the kind of day.  Anyway, it was my fortnightly knitting group that night and I couldn't wait to get there.  I knew that everything would be so much better when I got there, and it was. I didn't need to tell anyone about the day (although I could have and everyone would have been sympathetic).  It was a combination of the company and the making itself that restored me - the rhythmic clicking of the needles, handling something soft and comforting....  I don't always know what the end product will be, the process itself and learning from it is as important.  At the moment I've been knitting 'a thing' with some variegated yarn just to see what the effect of the different stitches has on the colours.  People always seem disappointed when you can't say what you are making!             

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Research Point on Craft - Visiting a Craftsperson: Richard William Wheater

In recent years, I've come to love coloured glass and studied City & Guilds stained glass so I arranged to visit Neon Workshops where artist Richard Wheater is based. He is back in his hometown of Wakefield after studying at Edinburgh College of Art, New York and Sunderland universities. Saddened by the rapid decline of the commercial industry, he set up his studio to manufacture neon (or to use it's proper name - cold cathode lighting) for creative industries and to offer workshops where he could pass on his enthusiasm for neon.  The workshop also houses a small gallery and space can also be hired cheaply by students and artists wanting to practise their neon skills.  It is the only workshop of it's type in Europe.

Part of Gallery Installation at Neon Workshops by Tim Etchells

Richard begins by explaining that the first commercial neon sign went up outside a barbers shop in Paris 99 years ago and that West Yorkshire has a rich heritage in the craft.  Until relatively recently, there were five major manufacturers in the county but then the industry suffered a rapid decline.  The demise was due to the introduction of L.E.D.s and popularity of moving plasma adverts.  Somewhat seedy associations ('red light district' etc) and misconceptions about safety and cost did not help.  By 2003 all the major neon companies in the county had closed down and last year the iconic Sanyo sign, the last neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, was decommissioned.  There is still a niche market however and the Leeds area still has the highest concentration of neon manufacturers in the UK.

Summarising the process as 'exciting electrons in a tube' and a combination of science and art, he begins a demonstration by cutting a soda glass cane to size. The cane is heated, blown and twisted into shape, electrodes are attached then the gas is added using the wonderfully named 'electron blaster'.  I can't remember what the 'live busbars' were for but they sounded very exciting too!

Richard expertly fusing electrodes onto tube
Regulating the amount of gas added using the electron blaster.

Although only three gases are inserted: neon (red), argon (blue) and helium, which acts as a cleaner, an amazing range of colours can be achieved with Richard's expert knowledge of colour theory.  Colour can be altered by adjusting the ratio of gas, using tubes lined with differently coloured phosphur powder and using coloured and hand blown canes.  The diameter of the cane affect the brightness, as can impurities.  These are tested for and an 'ageing process' can be used where the impurities attach themselves to the electrodes to maximise the brightness.

He says that the perception that neon glass is unsafe and costly is exaggerated.  Although most neon workshops have black floors and no natural light as it helps to see the flames, he prefers daylight and his workshop is full of windows.  Glass is a poor conductor so you can hold it close to the flame and it will still be cold.  He says it is rare to get burnt and you're more likely to get cut by handling the end of a cane without care.  Although the cost of creating the item is undoubtedly high as it would take a craftsman with years of skill and experience hours to create, once made it is extremely long lasting and energy efficient.  Only around 20mA of current is typically needed making running costs negligible.  Other advantages are that the tubes never get hot and all parts are 100% recyclable.

Although it doesn't look easy, you really appreciate the skill involved by having a go.  Once the glass is heated to the correct temperature, the timing is crucial.  You only have about three seconds to shape it and you must blow at just the right time or the glass will crack as it cools.  Richard has adapted his furniture to suit the way he works, such as the V-shapes cut into the tables and castors on the chairs that enable him to get the flames to the glass at just the right angle.  All the furniture has castors to make the workspace as flexible as possible.

Me having a go.

When I phoned Richard a few weeks ago and mentioned that I was studying textiles, he advised me to look up Dale Chihuly.  For that I will be eternally grateful.  I was completely blown away by the fantastic glass forms and vibrant colours, particularly the amazing sea forms series.  

Cadmium Yellow Seaform Set with Red Lip Wraps 1990
© Dale Chihuly, used with permission of the artist

Chihuly graduated with an Interior Design degree and while he was studying weaving, experimented with weaving glass strands into his work. From here he went on to try glass blowing and he is now one of the biggest names in the glass world. Following my visit to the Warriors of the Plains exhibition last month, I was also interested to see that Chihuly has been influenced by Native American textiles.  The trade blankets and Navajo weaving that he loved and collected inspired his work.  He was able to represent the folds of blankets in his glass forms and translate traditional Native American designs into his work, drawing with glass threads.

Peach Cylinder with Indian Blanket Drawing 1995
© Dale Chihuly, used with permission of the artist
More about Richard's and his work can be found on and

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bargains and Braids

Mum heard there were bargains to be had and joined me on the trip to Texere.  When we arrived at 9.30am, they were queueing outside the door and down the street!  The Weaving with Sticks workshop was due to start 10am so I was hoping to get in and have a good rummage before it started.  When they opened the doors a few minutes later it was hard to see anything for bodies but I did manage to pick up a few cones of the free yarn before it all went.  Exactly what it is I'm not sure as there's no labels but possibly good for weaving.  There was a lot of balls/skeins for £1 so I bagged 10 of them including what I think is some pure wool for dyeing. 

10am came and went and there were apologies as Texere couldn't get hold of the tutor who hadn't arrived but I was quite happy as I could go for another look around the sale as it got quieter.  There was also some people who had come to a beginners knitting group so Mum and I helped out with their cast-ons.  I also got to speak to one of the work experience students at Texere (I had popped in and met the other one the day before).  Both were really positive.  They showed me the list that the Texere team give them of things they'd like doing such as working out how to set up and use an old knitting machine, using the looms or coming up with simple patters for some of their own yarn.  They said they thought it would be an ideal opportunity for me to interact with another textile student as I am studying at home and the flexibility to work the hours I'd like would fit in well with the family.  Also there's so many materials at hand to use.  I'm hoping to be able to do some experience there next year from summer onwards when they have a vacancy. 

Than came the news that the workshop was cancelled as the tutor's car had broken down.  I was only slightly disappointed as I got to go round the sale yet again.  Two large bin bags later and I had spent the amount refunded from the workshop!  It's an interesting collection including quite a lot of funny coloured mohair. There's always Ebay! I bought a back issue of a magazine with some free needles attached for 20p and sat down to have a play with my new stash before the afternoon workshop.  I made a cover for my mobile phone that was so ugly I'm not showing it to anyone and learnt that chenille does not stretch and if you're combining it with another yarn, cotton is good as it doesn't stretch either.

'Simple Braids' was the afternoon workshop with Ruth Gilbert.  She told us a bit about the Braid Society and explained it is generally an inexpensive craft needing minimal equipment.  Often it's just yarn needed along with something to give tension such as a chair back or table clamp. Ruth suggested if we enjoyed braiding, we try to get hold of a copy of the Ashley Book of Knots. First published in 1944, with it's 7000 illustrations, it's still current and could keep your fingers occupied for life. Next it was pretty much, 'There's some yarn and instructions, have a go.'  Things went a bit quiet as we got started. Look at the concentration on the students faces on these photos!

One of the Texere work experience students was fasting so had to concentrate extra hard!

Table clamps are really useful to create tension for braiding

Ruth demonstrates finger knitting

I tried plaiting with different number of strands, finger knitting flat and tubular, using a lucet and simple braids including 'Idiot's Delight', made just with the fingers using two strands and one loop.  Another supposedly simple braid turned out quite differently from the illustration.  Ruth was really interested and wanted to work out how I'd done it as it was a construction she said she had never seen before.  Unfortunately by then my mind was befuddled and I couldn't recreate what I'd 'invented'!

Making the first loops to start finger knitting

Idiot's Delight. No. 2896 in Ashley Books of Knots!

A Lucet

Next I tried kumihimo braiding using an octagon cut from cardboard with notches snipped into the centre of each side and a hole in the middle. I found it quite funny looking on the Internet later seeing kits for sale.  They were up to £10 just for a cardboard octagon and a set of instructions without even any yarn. Well, save some money, here's how it's done: Seven strands of yarn were cut to the same length, poked through the central hole and knotted together just underneath.  They were each threaded through a notch so one was left free.  Yarn was passed over two other threads into the gap and this was repeated, always in the same direction.  Eventually the braid emerges and begins to grow.  I used my thumb and forefinger of the opposite hand to keep an even tension underneath.  After the workshop, I took it home with me and it took about two hours that evening just to create a braid about 60cm long.  I'm not sure I have the inclination to try out more thread combinations and concluded that this would be an ideal activity for a very long plane journey.

Kumihimo - working clockwise, the blue yarn has been passed over the brown and dark blue and into the gap.

Braid beginning to emerge underneath

Sample braids

Smooth yarns of similar weight certainly worked best for the braids I tried as they are so time-consuming it seems a waste not to show off the the construction.  Definition was lost with anything hairy.   Back at home I rummaged in the drawers to find a Scoubidou kit one of the girls had been given and helped them all make a tag for their identical suitcases. That kept them quiet for a bit and they were very proud of their creations.  We're off to Jersey now for a week.  I've contacted the Harbour Galley in St. Aubin and someone has kindly offered to meet me to show me round.  I'll take pencils and a sketchbook too and hopefully will get an opportunity to stop and draw.

We know whose suitcase is whose! 

Research Point - Visiting an Ethnographical Exhibition: Warriors of the Plains

Lotherton Hall in Leeds is the first stop for this touring British Museum exhibition that runs here from 18th June till 25th September 2011.  It complements the Native Americans of the Plains exhibition on display at the hall until the end of the year.  On display are costumes and accessories, mainly from the period in the late 19th century when the Native American Indians were in their heyday (today many Indians live on reservations, but live and dress much like any other Americans).   I visited on 4th and 5th August.

Is there a theme?
The theme is the warrior culture of the one of the seven groups of Native Americans from this particular vast region bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Mississippi to the east.  It stretches from the plains of Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  The Plains people were largely nomadic buffalo hunters, so for practicality their art needed to be portable.  They wore their beautiful things - adorned themselves and their homes.  The designs on their bags, shirts, war bonnets, teepees etc were often symbolic of their spirituality and the landscape around them.

Map drawn by Mark Sykes, exhibition co-curator

Is it well displayed?
The items were well spaced and helpfully themed in glass cases such as 'Childhood' and 'Womens Arts'.  I found it a little frustrating only being able to see one side of each item due to the wall behind the glass cases.  Not all of the labels were next to the items and it was not always easy to identify what the label referred to.  Some labels helpfully had a small picture of the item on.

Is the lighting appropriate?
The exhibition space was part of an historic stately home rather than a purpose built gallery so I expected the light levels to be low.  However, it was incredibly dim in the rooms and I heard many visitors commenting they found it difficult to see.  Even after my eyes adjusted, I found myself peering and headbutting the display cases trying to get a better look at the exhibits and it was difficult to see the colours accurately.

Is there enough explanation of the exhibits?
There was a brief sentence or two about each exhibit in plain English, enough for a general visitor to see and read about all the exhibits in a couple of hours without being overloaded with information. There was some general background information in each section but not really any detail or visitor guides if you wanted to find out any more.  However, I chose to visit on the day when the co-curator and local expert Mark Sykes was giving a talk about the exhibition.  I found this incredibly interesting and the chance to have my questions answered and listen to other people's was invaluable. It was also possible to see some items up close, touch and photograph them.

Seeing items up close helped to identify techniques

Is it visually stimulating and interesting?    
It's impossible not to be impressed when you walk in and see a huge feathered war bonnet, the iconic image of Native American Indians.  Children loved trying on the reproduction costumes.  It was a very colourful display with the bold symbolic designs primarily of red, blue, turquoise, yellow and green.  I sat observing and drawing for a few hours and both children and adults passing through seemed equally enthralled.  How much was down to the visual display and how much to the intriguing subject matter, I'm not sure.  I certainly found it stimulating, but much more meaningful after hearing the talk and particularly the surprising links with the north of England.  Maybe that's my learning style to listen and touch as well as look.  I really felt that afterwards I understood what I was looking at.

Choose three exhibits and look at each in more depth
1.) Honour Shirt - Painted deer hide with human hair locks and glass bead panels.  Once owned by Oglala warrior 'Grey Bear' Sioux (Lakota) 1876-1890

This shirt became more interesting to me the more I found out and I was struck that despite having intricate beadwork, it is a very masculine piece of clothing.  Initially it might look just decorative but it is also greatly symbolic and extremely functional.

Only the most esteemed warriors could wear an honour shirt that would be adorned with symbols representing their success in battle.  This one for example has long black triangle shapes that are very likely arrow heads.  The human hair on these shirts is often thought to be taken from the scalps of enemies.  However it's more usually locks of hair from the warrior's own family or tribe, representing the people they protect. The colours and motifs would help the warriors to recognise their allies and enemies like any other soldier's uniform.  The yellow paint at the bottom of this shirt is likely to represent the earth with the blue/green colour above being the sky.  Painting hide also had a very practical application by keeping flies at bay.

The Native Americans were hugely respectful of nature and their environment and every last part of the animals they hunted would be used in some way.  Hide was ideal in that it could be cut without fraying, was very hard wearing and offered good protection from the elements. Shirts and leggings were long to protect limbs from scratches.  Hide could also be smoked to make it more waterproof and wiping hands on shirts after eating meat would add to the protection.  Sinew would be chewed, twisted and used as thread to stitch and attach beads on this shirt.  It could be separated into strands of the desired thickness.  Even the thinnest strand of sinew would still be extremely hard to break.  It was durable, did not rot like cotton (enzyme in spit was the only thing that could soften) and it took up permanent dye easily.  No needle was required as a brad awl would make holes in the hide and the un-chewed end of the sinew would be pushed through fabric or bead.

In the 1800s chemical dyes and beads from Europe were available to the American Indians at trading posts and offered a whole new palette for decoration.  (They traded hides such as beaver which were popular for making top hats.)  As beads were much quicker to apply than the previously used dyed porcupine quills, they became the preferred decoration.  The beads on this shirt would have come from Italy, France or Prague and the colours on it were those popular at the time - red symbolising life or blood, blue for sky, yellow for earth and green for grass.  The colours are more subtle than the vibrant ones used in modern pow wow costumes and souvenirs, e.g. mustard yellows and rusty red rather than scarlet.

2.) Pipe Bag with Pipe Case - Cheyenne 1800s

I chose to study this chocolate brown hide pipe bag as these bags really embody the Native American culture.  This one seemed a good example of its type, with its abstract glass bead decoration being typical of the Plains Indians and I liked the movement of the slats. Unlike the Woodland Indians who had foliage to inspire their comparatively elaborate designs, Plains people often had a landscape of just baked earth and sky and so their motifs are what they could see, such as stars, or as the triangles on this bag show, mountains and tee-pees.  Design could also be inspired by dreams.

There is also a clear reference to the buffalo in the distinctive hoof shape decoration outlined with a yellow bead 'frill' attached to the top of the bag and at the end of the long ties.  The relief of the beads leave a hide background with the same hoof shape.  Plains Indians had a spiritual relationship with animals who they believed were their mythical ancestors.  Clothing and sacred items were adorned with charms and symbols of animals whose characteristics they wanted - the buffalo being a provider of food and protection and strength in battle.

Moccasins also showing typical designs,
such as the hoof-shaped flap and geometric stars and mountains
The glass seed beads look to be applied using 'lazy stitch', where rows of 7-10 beads are attached next to each other to form longer rows.  This was a relatively fast way to cover large surfaces quickly.

Sioux Style Lazy Stitch Beadwork
Lazy Stitch Technique
Reproduced with permission from where the full tutorial can be found.

The pipe bag is approximately 1m long with a case for a pipe and bag to carry kinnikinnick - a mixture of tobacco, dried herbs and bark.  The piece is functional and very symbolic as only an authority such as a chief would have the honour of owning a pipe.  Tobacco, smoke and the pipe itself were believed to be sacred as they could establish connections with the spirits and give protection in battle.  As there were over 500 languages used by tribes, smoking, along with sign language, was also a universal method of communication and often used to seal a pact.  A man using a pipe was a mediator with other men and with spirits.   I wondered whether the importance they saw upon man keeping in balance with nature had any connection to the balance of these geometric designs?

3.) Small Bag, Northern Plains c.1890

The reason this little bag appealed to me is that is was the one item in the exhibition that I could imagine owning and using myself today.  It doesn't look like a 120 year old bag! The colours on the quillwork - turquoise, orangey red and corn yellow are fresh and brighter than on many of the beadwork items from that era. I also had to include something that had porcupine quills as I was intrigued by the technique of applying them.  They had to be chewed for some time to soften them before they could be flattened, dyed and attached with sinew.  It was apparently a common cause of death for Indian women to choke on porcupine quills!

Approximately 20cm tall x 15cm wide, the hide bag is a taupe colour with a gusset and hide strip tied in a bow on the front.  I couldn't see a handle or a flap to close over and there was no information about what this bag might be used for.  Plains tribes were originally pushed from Northern Woodland areas.  Woodland Indians made beaded bags to celebrate the birth of a baby so perhaps this is a possibility.  The hide strip didn't appear to close any part of the bag so maybe was used to attach it to clothing?  I can imagine it around the waist.

The border was again decorated with European glass seed beads in those typical colours, mustard yellow, black, deep red and dark turquoise using rows of lazy stitch.  The central panel has quillwork as described above and I was interested to hear that red dye was popular with the Plains Indians as the colour symbolised blood and life and the dye was readily available from trading posts.  It was cheap because it was made in great quantities being the colour of British army uniforms from the late 17th to early 20th century. (I have seen some of these uniforms in the Bankfield Museum collection.)  Before 1870 the British army used a madder red and by the time this bag was made c.1890 this had changed to scarlet, one of the colours on the panel.  Another interesting local link was the steel made in Sheffield that replaced the obsidian flint originally used in tomahawks.  Particularly during the time of the Buffalo Bill show, Native American souvenirs such as beaded whimsy boxes were very fashionable in Europe but few of the buyers realised many of the materials had originated there.

Certainly, the shirt, pipe bag and this bag would all be made by a woman.  Warriors were mainly (but not always) men, while the women would hone their skills making clothes and accessories and they could become celebrated artists.  However, it was considered bad luck for a woman to handle a war bonnet.  The exception was when her husband had been killed in battle and she would wear it as an 'honour bonnet'.  Each feather was added by the warrior owner while he told a story about how he proved his honour and courage in battle.

The circle design is intriguing.  The information panel says the meaning has been lost over time.  It certainly appears to be symbolic and the information suggests a sun dance, bow and arrow or a Thunderbird.  The sun dance was a four day ceremonial dance around an object.  Dancers believed that by harming themselves and staring at the sun, they would become stronger and spirits would give them protection.  I'm more inclined to think it's a Thunderbird.  This supernatural creature was commonly depicted in quillwork on ritual objects from the Northern Plains.  The stylised hourglass shape looks similar to other images I've seen, though I'm not sure why this one hasn't got much of a head!  Winged, powerful and feared, the Thunderbird could control rain and shoot lightning from its eyes when angered.  Ceremonies and rituals could divert the storms towards their enemies.