Friday, 27 September 2013

Assignment 4 - Project 8, Stage 1: Making a Yarn Collection

For me this exercise was about reviewing my yarn collection rather than making one, as I probably have enough existing yarn and thread to open a shop.  My stash has been acquired over many years.  Some of it is leftover from craft projects, much has been donated or inherited, some of it I have recycled by cutting old clothes etc into strips.  To the amusement of my friends, some I have bought for no better reason than it's unusual or I've liked the colour or texture.  It's not a shameful, dusty abandoned collection though, I know exactly what I have and dip into it regularly.  Whereas some people see a project they want to do, then buy the materials, I look at what I've got to see how I can use it.

Large cones and balls of yarn stored by colour
Storing all this is quite a challenge, especially as a good deal of what I have is not labelled. Through experience, I can usually identify natural fibres by sight and touch. Man-made and fibre mixes are more tricky.  I've found, after trying various systems, that what works for me, is grouping my yarns by colour in see-though lidded plastic boxes, in the same way I store my fabrics. Smaller reels or skeins are grouped by type, with the occasional impostor! 
Clockwise from left: Pearl cotton & cotton crochet threads, miscellaneous variegated threads, strings of beads, rayon (viscose) machine embroidery threads, tapestry and space dyed wool, lace reels, more machine embroidery threads.

Stranded cotton and metallic polyester embroidery floss

Any small amounts left over I wind onto bits of card and keep them in a portable box for a good variety that I can take with me on workshops.

In a similar way to making fabric colour bags, sometimes I keep a variety of yarns grouped by theme for inspiration. 

For Project 9, 'Woven Structures', we need a good selection of yarns of different fibres and textures.  I've prepared the seascape-inspired collection below.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Assignment 4 - Analysing Colour, Texture and Proportion

This exercise asks us to choose three images we admire for colour and texture, then try to represent accurately all the colours we can see in small patches of paint or crayon.  From our yarn collection we match as accurately as possible the colours, and if possible try to find yarns that also interpret the texture and surface qualities.  The yarns are then wrapped in proportion on a card strip.

I began by cropping an image of a plasma ball that I took at the Catalyst Museum in Widnes when I was collecting design ideas in Assignment 3. (I now keep an inspiration album that I find is particularly useful when I go on workshops when time is limited and I need to make quick decisions on choosing an image to work from.)  I  used watercolour pencil crayons to recreate the colours I saw as I like how I can layer colour with them, then add water to blend to make new shades.  After writing about Kaffe Fassett in my last Research Point, I found myself often thinking back to how he mixes new shades by combining what he has available.       

A stack of bobbins that I photographed at Masson Mills Textile Museum in Derbyshire was the second image I chose.  When it came to considering yarns for the wrapping, I found it helpful to place the yarns on the image to check that they blended in. 

For the plasma ball, which had a lot of variation in tone, I found that despite my large stash, I couldn't match the colours precisely, or I could get the shade but the surface quality wasn't right. So again inspired by Kaffe Fassett, I tried combining yarns to create new shades and texture.   
For the final image I chose one of my close-up rust shots that I intend to develop and have added the winding to my theme book.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Assignment 4 - Research Point: Textile Artists

This final research point asks how we think the work of a textile artist differs from the designer, designer-maker or the craftsperson and whether there is any crossover.  We are also asked to describe the work of two internationally-known textile artists, consider whether we view textile art in the same way as other art forms and whether it has become acceptable as a medium for fine art.  

If I am forced to place these occupations into boxes, it's with reluctance, as I believe there are too many confusing crossovers.  However, here are the simplest dictionary style definitions I could come up with to describe the differences:

Craftsperson: A skilled person who makes or repairs bespoke, as opposed to mass-produced, items that may be decorative but tend to be functional.  The pattern or idea is usually provided by someone else. Textile crafts are extremely diverse and include quilting, spinning, dyeing, basketry, tailoring and methods of fabric production such as weaving, felting, hand-knotted carpets, needlepoint and knitting.

Designer-Maker: Self-explanatory and similar to a craftsperson but the template or idea is also their own.

Designer: Creates the pattern or idea for bespoke, or often mass-produced, textile items. Production is carried out elsewhere.  Well-known textile designers include homeware and fashion designer Orla Kiely, and Amy Butler, who specialises in prints for home-sewing.

Artist: Creates works that may be functional, but are more concerned with aesthetics than utility.  Textile artists incorporate fibres somehow.

However, there are no essential qualifications to give yourself any of these titles.  A few weeks ago, I went to the contemporary visual art fair, Art in the Pen and as I picked up business cards, I noticed how exhibitors described themselves.  I considered two exhibitors there. Both were using wet felting techniques to create items to hang on your wall, yet one, Angela Barrow, described herself as a 'Feltmaker', the other Valerie Wartelle, a 'Fibre Artist'.  I liked both their work yet I felt that there was a difference here, above the obvious difference in inspiration and style.  Not necessarily down to any level of skill, but according to the descriptions above, I would say Angela is a Designer Maker, whereas Valerie's work I felt was art. Partly I thought, I was influenced by how Valerie's work is viewed - framed and behind glass.  (Often textile art is left unframed so that the textural qualities can be appreciated.)  Valerie's work also is very painterly and though it's described as contemporary, it has traditional fine art qualities and subjects, portraying realistic, highly atmospheric landscapes. Her sewing machine needle has been used like a paintbrush.  I found it aesthetically beautiful though it was really the level of expression I felt that made the difference.

Artfelt by Valerie Wartelle's 'Earthlungs #4' 79cm x 34cm
(Used with permission of the artist)
Of the four different titles above I found 'Designer' easiest to categorise whilst struggling with the boundaries of the other three.  I came up with a theory about the route into textiles making a difference and assumed Valerie had a fine art background.  When I asked her though, I was wrong - her background is in textile design. So you can definitely move through one category into another or be in more than one at a time which explains why, in the exhibition catalogue, very few of the statements say what the exhibitor is, rather it describes what techniques they use and what their inspiration is.

By now I was questioning whether titles really matter.  I've read cover to cover Kaffe Fassett's autobiography 'Dreaming in Colour' recently, as he is one of the textile artists I've chosen whose work inspires me.  I've concluded, it is impossible to categorise someone like him, who simultaneously paints still life, illustrates, knits, does needlepoint and mosaic whilst designing fashion knits and quilting fabrics and I was relieved to read this refreshing quote:

"The distinction some purists draw between art and craft doesn't exist for me.  So many artists today seem to be able to use textile making in their work that the barriers are softened.  I always try to make my textiles as beautiful as I can manage imbuing them with all the efforts of a work of art.  It's up to others to describe, if they have to, what it ends up being". (Fassett 2012:113)

(I particularly like the use of the word softened, which seems so appropriate for textiles.)

Cover photo for 'Dreaming in Colour'
Image courtesy of Kaffe Fassett Studio
There are many examples throughout Kaffe's story, illustrating the 'barriers' - the struggle for acceptance of textile art.  Until relatively recently, big shows of crafts the average person could do were still rare. 'Don't dabble in the crafts if you want to be a serious painter.' (Fassett, 2012: 113) was a piece of advice he ignored at the time.  He describes the 'Abstract Design in American Quilts' in Whitney New York 1971 as a key event when the art world began to take notice of textiles.  He always felt it was only a matter of time.

In his one man show in 1988 his exhibition at the V & A was the 2nd most successful in history, doubling the usual number of visitors, yet there was still negativity. 'Why is the great V & A stooping to have an exhibition of knitting patterns?' (Fassett, 2012:158) one newspaper asked. When a Rowan rep suggested he try patchwork in 1987, Kaffe himself said, 'isn't patchwork just cutting up old clothes and sewing them back together?  (Fassett 2012:190). It's interesting to read that he found the prejudices towards textiles seemed to be greatest in the US, the home of the art quilt. While other countries clamoured for the exhibition on its world tour after the V & A, he was still struggling to get serious museum exhibitions there. Even in the '90s when he queried a curator, the telling answer came, 'We talk about you in museums in the US, but we feel you are too popular. But don't give up on us'! (Fassett 2012:195) 

So it seems acceptance of textile art may vary by location. In Scandinavia, (Fassett, 2012:159) Kaffe suggests, it is perceived quite differently.  Most people can sew, knit and embroider to a high standard.  Although the techniques are simple and something everyone can do and can therefore relate to, they appreciate the worth in the excitement of the colour and texture combinations, harmony of placements and proportions.  He describes in Stockholm how sympathetic curators, painted walls and gathered complimentary antiques from the archives while the public formed long queues to get in and how touching the tactile exhibits was quite normal. 

As for describing Kaffe Fassett's work, it covers so many areas that here I've concentrated just on needlepoint and knitting.

Kaffe Fassett

Materials: Mainly wool with cotton, silk and mohair to provide a texture change.

Scale: Big and bold. Large scale patterns and large needlepoint panels.

Suzani Wrap
Image courtesy of Kaffe Fassett Studio
Techniques: The stitches are all very simple: tent or bargello stitches for needlepoint and stocking stitch for knitting with a rib or occasionally garter or crocheted edging.  Colour is incorporated using Fair Isle and intarsia techniques. Circular needles are used to hold a large number of stitches and often items are knitted cuff to cuff depending on the design, which occurs directly on the needles or canvas. In his knitting books, often only two or three colours are used in a single row but the colours change so frequently, it appears more complex. The stitches are simple but it is the sympathetic placement and layering of pattern and colour and the blend of yarns that is key.  Fine yarns are combined together for infinite variations in tone and texture. He has sometimes described his work as painting with wool. If a colour doesn't exist in yarn, he mixes it himself.

Lidiya Felted Tweed for Rowan Knitting Magazine 48
Image Courtesy of Kaffe Fassett Studios

Colour: Unapologetic. From rich, intense reds, hot pink, blues, oranges, greens and yellows to lavenders, rust tones and everything in between. 'When in doubt, add twenty more colours.' (Fassett 1985:8) Colour Influences have included paintings by Odilon Redon, Piere Bonnard , Edouard Vuillard and Severin Roesen and places as diverse as New York rubbish piles, Scottish landscapes, the markets of Portobello Road, Gaudi's Barcelona, Hyde Park flower beds and lines of laundry in India. Kaffe pulled out of art school when they began to study colour theory seriously in a scientific way. He believes (Fassett 2012: 49), colour is instinctive and is learned by constant observation and playful exploration.  

4 Large Flower Cushions at Ehrman Tapestry
Image Courtesy of Kaffe Fassett Studios

Imagery: Foliage and flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Cabbages, auriculars, pansies and big blousy blooms like roses and peonies come to mind.  Natural forms like shells feature and ceramics are a big influence as well as geometrics.  Circles, stripes, chevrons, lattice, Islamic arches and stars are often seen in layered patterns.  I was surprised and delighted to find out that he can still be inspired now by strong visual memories of experiences many years earlier.

Shells Carpet at Ehrman Tapestry
Image Courtesy of Kaffe Fassett Studios

Sue Reno is the other textile artist whose work I chose to describe.  I'd made a shortlist and the images of Sue's work drew me in, just like Kaffe Fassett's, by its vibrant colour, particularly the combination of reds and greens next to the cyanotype print indigo.  Having recently done some basic sun print experiments, I was interested to see more of its possibilities on fabric.  Finally, as Sue is one of the best known Art Quilters in the world I was interested to consider when a quilt becomes an art quilt.  I imagined that a quilt artist would face additional challenges in altering perceptions of a quilt as something other than a functional object, particularly in the US with its strong domestic roots.

My sun print experiments

I watched this YouTube interview with Sue a couple of times and found out that Sue from a young age was making clothing and traditional quilts.  It was interesting to hear how she made the move from a hobbyist crafter who needed an avenue for expression away from her day job as a carer, to a dedicated professional art quilter.  When asked how, she simply said that she 'declared it'. The move was all about re-invention and a change in mind set, exploring her core processes further and deeper.  Art was now her priority - a job, not play and she learned to be assertive and disciplined, taking her studio time and schedules seriously. She explains how the timing of her decision coincided with the start of the Internet explosion and social networking and how she took advantage of this by learning the technology to promote her work and connect to her audience.

Sue also gives good advice in the interview about considering the various locations to exhibit your work.  Like Kaffe Fassett who found his most welcoming reception in Scandinavia, Sue also found that her work was accepted and 'fit' better in some places than others

When asked about how her art form is perceived, Sue talks about the need to educate in where fibre art has gone.  She says she has been lucky, in that when she joined a group of artists working in different disciplines, none of them ever questioned her use of fibre.  To them, it was just another medium like painting or sculpture.  She says there is still the tendency for women in particular, to undervalue their work and discount their labour and talent. To price her work fairly, she keeps detailed records of her time and materials. One piece can take several hundred hours to design, cut and stitch. Despite being one of the most successful art quilters in the world, Sue still has an unrelated day job to make ends meet.  (I wondered now whether Kaffe Fassett would have enjoyed the same success had he been born female.  He says himself that he was a source of interest, even a 'freak' (Fassett 2012:143), partly because he was man who knits. For me though, alongside his talents, it is his optimistic engaging personality and the encouragement he gives in his teaching that is the draw, regardless of gender.)

I contacted Sue to ask her how she felt about the acceptability of textile art as a fine art medium and was delighted when she took the time to send me this reply:

'I submit work in a variety of venues, ranging from traditional quilt shows to fine craft venues to mixed media /all media exhibits at universities and mid-level museums.  I find that my emphasis on good design, original content, and excellent craftsmanship is increasingly welcomed and rewarded.  I think some of the bias against textiles and fiber arts as "women's work" is finally eroding, and it is an exciting time to be a fiber artist.'

Sue Reno

Materials: Indian silks, wools, cotton prints and recycled fabrics saved from decades of home dressmaking. Seldom buys fabrics - paints existing stash as necessary. Does buy PFD (prepared for dye) fabric from speciality suppliers like Whaleys (as mentioned in previous Research Point: Textile Diversity).  

Scale: Prefers to make large scale, one-off, high end, labour intensive quilts for gallery exhibiting.  

Techniques: Starts with the idea and colour scheme generated by photographs and collected subject material displayed on studio design wall. Uses Photoshop and digital printing directly onto fabric using freezer paper and archival ink. Also uses image transfer sun printing techniques on fabric (cyanotype and heliographic).

Components are prepared: 'Flip-and-stitch' technique is used to make foundation strips (similar to how I made background for my Roman Urn panel in Assignment 3 - Applied Fabric Techniques).  Elements are combined by machine to create a surface cloth.  Works quickly and intuitively using simple tools: a large table and a machine somewhere between a domestic and industrial model. Prefers the intimacy of a domestic machine but her model has a longer flat-bed allowing more room to manoeuvre the bulk of the quilt. 

Cloth is layered with batting before depth, texture and movement is added with hand or machine stitch.  Hand beading or fabric paint is sometimes applied if required.

Ginger Cyanotype on Silk, Indian Silks and Machine Stitching
Image used with permission of Sue Reno, all rights reserved

Colour: Shades of indigo blue often feature, typically with bright apple green, reds or yellows.  Also purples, greys and sometimes other pastels and muted shades.

Fox and Hackberry Cyanotypes on cotton, monoprints on silk, artist painted fabric, commercial fabric, vintage crochet and stitching. Image used with permission of Sue Reno, all rights reserved
Imagery: Architectural structures, flora and fauna (particularly skulls).  Sue likes to hike, has an extensive organic garden and interprets her outdoor experiences - the leaves or glimpses of small mammals - into textiles.

Silk Mill #3 Screen prints on cotton, digital images on silk, artist painted and commercial silk, cotton and wool fabrics, machine stitching.  Image used with permission of Sue Reno, all rights reserved.
Completing this research point and noticing the similarities between how these two artists work has made me understand some of the reasons why I was drawn to choose them, beyond a mutual love of extravagant colour.  Their drive is not money or fame, but comes from a need to express themselves in a tactile, colourful medium. Both create work with a strong graphic appeal that draws you in to appreciate the incredible detail.  Learning about their way of working has also been inspiring.  As someone easily seduced and overwhelmed by new ideas, tools, materials and techniques, I admire how they also become excited, yet not distracted. Both use extremely simple techniques and set limits.  Vast arrays of colours can be created by using what they have available - fabric is painted or yarns combined. Once they have an idea, they work with intense focus, instinctively and directly placing shape and colour and their inspiration is by way of constantly, almost obsessively observing and banking the world around them.

Reading List:
Fassett, Kaffe (2012) Dreaming in colour: an autobiography. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang
Fassett, Kaffe (1985) Glorious knitting. London: Century Publishing
Hunt, Zoe & Fassett, Kaffe (1989) Family Album: knitting for children and adults. London: Guild Publishing