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.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Planning, Preparation and Getting Things Done

I'm getting very excited about this course and wish I could bottle my current enthusiasm for the depths of winter when I've got a cold and not in the mood.  Instead I have bottled some berries, or rather, put them into jars.  I can't bear for any of the garden produce to go to waste so I took my girls fruit picking and we had a lovely time choosing berries to go with the blackcurrants from the garden.  I'm hoping spreading the Jumbleberry Jam on a piece of thick Warburtons will evoke memories of long, warm, joyful summer days and ward off the apathy.            

So in between looking after the kids I've been managing to tick some things off my to do list and doing some reading, including looking through all the course material.  Not much from the reading list was available from Calderdale libraries so I ordered a couple that I was particularly interested in from Amazon. I'm afraid to mention what they are because I haven't got my head around referencing and copyright rules yet (but there's a couple about sketchbooks and one about setting up a blog!).  I also bought a book about colour theory from a discount book store that was so cheap I don't mind cutting bits out or making notes on the pages. In the same shop I found some coloured papers and sketchbooks, an A3 one to do assignments on plus a non-standard one at 270 x 195mm.  This size just feels right to me. 

Have also been checking out some other blogs that I liked the look of and to get some ideas about format and presentation. Have struggled a little with getting photos in the right place and the right size so far and I almost deleted what I'd written when I tried to edit the first page but I'm sure I'll get the hang of it with practise and a little help from that book.

I've done some background reading on Van Gogh.  I found it particularly interesting how his style of painting and use of colour altered depending on his state of mind, such as the intense wave-like swirls he used when in periods of turmoil and his fascination with yellow.  Whether it was the glow of gaslight, reflected light, a starry sky or a sunflower, it seemed to represent the warmth and welcome he craved as a result of the constant rejections he faced in so many areas of his life.  I found it ironic that he wasn't mentioned in a book I have about great artists - still being rejected in the 21st century, despite his paintings being up there with the most expensive of all time!  Other colours he favoured were blues and violets which gave intensity to his yellows and he sometimes used varnish to highlight areas and make them glow.  He often used paint thickly and was so prolific he spent all his money on paint, nearly losing his teeth as there was no money left to eat.  I wondered whether this might happen to me if I carry on buying yarn? I had to go out and inspect my sunflowers then.  You can spend a very long time admiring a sunflower..................           
Sunflowers are amazing from the back and side too but everyone seems to paint them from the front.  Maybe because you just have to stare into their faces?
À la Van Gogh, I place the flower against the contrasting purple background of the parasol.  The yellow does indeed seem more intense.

This Cape Daisy flower was so perfectly formed.
These swirling clematis seed heads remind me of little furry creatures like handbag dogs or gremlins.  You imagine there's some eyes under there and you just have to stroke them.

I love the contrast of the clear cornflower blue of this anemone with the deep purple and the lime green leaves.  The blue is picked out again by the tiny forget-me-nots. 

I've been to visit my mum and dad in Liverpool with the girls for a couple of days this week and after reading what I'll be needing for printing, I shamelessly delved into Dad's shed with my list to rummage for useful things.  He cut some wood down for me so I have some hardboard squares ready for making relief blocks with string. I made a printing pad and have a couple of printing surfaces ready.  Very pleased.  While I was there I almost finished the cardigan, just one side to sew up now.

My tutor has been in touch today with some advice and a deadline for mid-November for the first assignment which seems very reasonable.  I've decided that I'll work 4 days a week while the kids are at school and plan to work for 4 hours each of those days to allow me to get at least some housework done.  Anything on top of this is a bonus.  I find I'm thinking about what I'll be doing all the time.  Even watching my youngest at the playground, I'm wondering what I could weave in there!

I've got an interesting few days planned.  Off to Texere Yarns in Bradford tomorrow, one of my favourite places, to chat to some work experience students to find out what they get up to.  On Thursday, a visit to Lotherton Hall in Leeds to look at a Native American exhibition and on Saturday back to Texere for a couple of workshops, one making braids and one weaving with sticks.  Both of these techniques should come in useful later in the course.  I'm extremely excited because they are having a yarn sale at Texere and actually giving some away.  Not wool or silk or anything, obviously, but I'm absolutely certain I can find something that will come in! Better clear out the car boot in preparation.