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