Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Somerset Art Weeks 2018

This is my third year of taking part in Somerset Arts Weeks, an annual creative event which is held each autumn.  Creativity in Somerset seems to grow year on year and in 2018 there are 300 artists taking part in Open Studios.  I'm sure that most of them like me were getting sorted right up to the last minute and pondering where to hang those well known yellow signs.

Deciding how to out a new space always seems to take me an age and I very much appreciated support this year from fellow stitcher Julie Edwards.  So here I am a few minutes before opening on a super sunny Saturday morning.  It will be interesting to see what changes my tweaking will bring into effect over my two weeks of opening!

I like to experiment each year with different textiles and 2018 for me has very much been about eco and sustainable textiles.  I have particularly loved working with eco dyed and printed fabrics by Kim Winter of Flextiles and I am delighted to be collaborating with Kim to combine her amazing alchemy and my textile skills.

My fingers have also recently been enjoying working with wool produced by John Arbon Mill in North Devon and I and my students have used for all manner of creative makes.  This stunning selection of organic merino and silk blends in Harvest Hues, Bazaar, Plantation and Atlantis Lite have caught the eye of studio visitors from the off and I suspect that I will have very much less of these balls by the end of September

Another Devon product I have long worked with is Twool.  A 100% wool product made from Whiteface Dartmoor sheep, I have been using their plaited and twisted rope for bowl making this summer and it has proved a very popular make in workshops.  

I will be demonstrating with all of these products throughout Somerset Art Weeks and visitors so far have immediately related to how tactile and pleasurable they are to work with.  To that end I am offering up Kit Bags to take away and enjoy an experience of trying out back home.

I am also currently displaying a selection of my own new free stitch work on wool.  This has been a totally new experiment for me this summer to see how I can dry felt wool fibres and add free stitch to reflect some of the many Somerset views I have photographed this summer.

Please do call by to see me during Somerset Arts Weeks and talented fellow Spring Farm artists - glass blower Paul Larner and painter Anne Farmer - I am open every day from 10am to 5pm.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Quick Stitch - Stab Bound Notebook

For all that I love technology, holding and using small notebooks will always give me immense pleasure. So with my increasing desire for all things natural, I have been dabbling this year with making simple hand bound note books with natural dyed and eco printed textiles.

Now my own eco dying and printing skills are very much work in progress, so to kick start my book binding adventures I have been working with beautiful fabric pieces created by the talented Kim Winter of Flextiles - her scrap bags are a perfect size for book covers.

I'm a great believer in using quality tools to making working enjoyable and less prone to accidents.  There are many bookbinding tools on offer, however, I picked out a this small collection from London Book Arts - they are beautiful to work with and I am sure will last me for years.

The starting point of my books is something a little less glamourous, however, very functional.  I have worked with picture framing grey board for many years and it is still the medium of choice for many for making rigid book covers. I cut 2 cover pieces to the required size with a heavy duty scalpel and scored 1" in from the left edge on both sides of the board - this enables a sharp fold to be made and the book to easily open.  I then marked a further line 1/2" in from the left edge and marked 4 equally placed holes - to work out the spacing take the cover depth and divide by 5.  My sharp awl tool made light work of making holes through the greyboard.

Then I used fabric temporary spray to attach a think layer of cotton wadding to the outside of the cover - so that the cover lifts towards you.  The wadding gives a softer finished to the cover and I trimmed it back so that it overlapped the grey board by about 1/8" - this gave a slightly padded edge when the fabric was folded over.

Then to choose a beautiful piece of fabric for the cover - for this example I chose a piece of Kim's rust marked silk.  I cut the fabric 3/4" larger all round than the grey board piece.  Again I used a little fabric temporary spray on the wadding to help keep the silk in place.

As many will know, my favoured textile glue is Beacon Fabritac, for minimal staining, drying quickly and not being overly pungent.  To start the folding, I glued over all the corners first, letting the glue dry for a few minutes.

Then I glued down the sides, folding in the corners so that they created a diagonal join.

I also used a few small stitches to pull the corners tightly in.

For the inside cover, I cut 2 pieces of fine cream wool flannel made by Somerset's much revered Fox Brothers in Wellington.  I initially to a little larger than the cover and pressed a piece Bondaweb to the reverse.  I then trimmed back each piece to 1/8" smaller in length and width than the cover and pressed lightly to the cover inners.

Then came the pleasure of filling my book with beautiful khadi paper made from recycled cotton rag.  I cut a dozen or so sheets to the size of the cover - around 1/8" less than the width and the height.  I then used the awl tool to push through the holes on the covers through all the fabric layers and used these holes to mark the corresponding holes for the paper pile.   Bull dog clips came in very handy for keeping everything together for this step.

Finding the right thread to bind books proved surprisingly challenging.  Waxed thread is what is recommended for book binding, however, I found that some threads had way too much wax on them and dragged on the fabric and wadding.  These reels from London Book Arts are my favourite so far.

The length of thread to cut for 4 hole binding is 4 times the height of the book.  Starting at the first hole in and leaving a tail of at least 2", pass the needle in around half way through the pages and out the front hole.

Tuck the tail inside the leaves and put the needle into the back corresponding hole and out through the front - any wadding that comes through with the thread can be pushed back in after the stitching is complete.

I then turned the book around so that I was stitching from left to right and brought the needle into the back of the next hole and through the front, then repeating the looping over.  Then the needle was passed into the next hole on the front.

Having made 3 loops over the top of the book, I then looped the thread around the side and continued stitching across in and out to add in where long stitches were missing.

When I reached the other end I made one final loop around the side and brought the needles for the last time part way through the last hole to where the tail from the start of the stitching lying.  Finally I made a tight double knot to tie off and secure both ends.

This process of stitching sounds much harder than it actually is.  The most important thing is to pull the stitches tight as you work, trying to avoid passing the needles through threads that have already been stitched.  Where this happens it will likely prevent pulling the stitches tight and it's best to unthread the needle and pull the thread back and stitch again.

The result for a little time and minimal cost is a custom made notebook that any owner will love to use.  The possibilities for fabric and decorative stitch are many and the start of my book binding adventures have certainly wetted my appetite - I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Summer on the Somerset Levels

One of the things I quickly learnt about taking photographs outside, is that strong sunlight and photographs are not happy companions!  And so during the recent scorching summer weeks on the Somerset Levels I have been sorting through photos taken so far this year.  Some of my images resulted from planned walks in the early summer sunshine, as was the case when I did the Avalon Marshes - Godney Gander an easy 3 mile walk around the 'island' of Godney just a few miles north of Glastonbury.

The old droves made for flat and walking and my much loved stumpy willows reflected beautifully in the River Sheppy.  I loved too how the sheep as ever stopped to look at me looking at them and this particular face is one that I came to study in much detail.

By contrast they day I finally climbed the steep steps to Brean Down was totally impromptu.  Officially the edge of the Somerset Levels, the beachs of Berrow, Brean and Burnham on Sea form the second longest stretch of beach in Europe.  This coast line was subjected to a devastating Tsunami in medieval times and this led to the creation of sand dunes which pretty much line the whole stretch.

I was thrilled to find some new stumpy trees on the top of Brean Down which looked stunning against a beautiful blue sky.  It was clear that the gentle breeze on the day I visited was far from the normal climate that the many windswept privet, hawthorn and elder trees on Brean Down endure.

Their tree trunks show their true resilience to the elements and I wondered at how many years it had taken this nifty collection had taken to form.

Some of my best photo finds are totally impromptu and sometimes very close to home. Running errands one Sunday morning, I spotted the most incredible haze of blue out of the corner of my eye.  When I stopped to take a closer look I felt sure that I would have noticed such an amazing display in earlier years.

Luckily the landowners had also stopped to photograph and explained that Linum Usitatissimum, more commonly known as Linseed or Flax, had been planted for the first time in their fields to aide crop rotation.  Their flowers are very short lived and I was very lucky to spot on the day that I did.  Oh to be a more proficient spinner and try my hand at a fibre for textiles that dates back tens of thousands of years.

And then there those special occasions who photographs seem to find me.  I had never seen a Jersey Tiger Moth until one recently flew into my studio and landed itself quietly on an old stone wall.  It stayed put for a few days, before I remembered that moths like chewing on textiles and I helped it on its way to a new home.

I have been particularly keen to keep my studio moth free as despite almost unprecedented sunshine and heat in Somerset this summer, my textile of choice throughout the whole year so far has been wool.  My latest purchase of merino fibres in delicious colours of nature perhaps makes the draw of using wool understandable.

Throughout the summer I have been 'dry embellishing' wool backgrounds for new picture work and stitching onto these with an array of wool, silk and cotton threads.  My labours of love will continue up to Somerset Open Studios 2018, when my latest nature inspired creations will be exhibited in my studio.

Thankfully the heat over the past week has subsided and I am now out and about with my camera again.  I was so excited to recently capture my first ever damselfly and with the striking name of 'Female Banded Demoiselle', it may yet come to feature in my creative stitch work this year!

Sunday, 1 July 2018

New Lanark Mill - Lanarkshire

Travelling northbound for a summer break in Lanarkshire, the saying about 'knowing where you're coming from to know where you're going' came to mind.  While unchartered territory for me, I wondered at a vague sense of 'going home' and the lives of great great great grandparents some 200 years previously.  As spinners and weavers of cotton, wool and silk, my holiday home in the Waterhouses at the converted New Lanark Mill felt very fitting.

My ancestors Hector and Elizabeth English moved to Lanarkshire from Atrim in the early 1800s.  They bypassed Glasgow where they likely disembarked their incoming ship and headed slightly south to set up home Lanarkshire.  They would almost certainly have been familiar with this kind of Jacquard loom as housed in Hamilton Low Parks Museum and they may have had something similar in their Lanarkshire home.

Looking at the weavers cottage where they lived gave a great sense of how integrated work and living would have been - two adults, numerous children and various home spinning and weaving equipment!

However, the wheels of industrial revolution was well under way by the early 1800s and would ultimately shape Hector and Elizabeth's lives.  Lanark was chosen as the site for cotton spinning mill in the late 18th century by Glasgow banker David Dale and spinning machine inventor Richard Arkwright.  The ever flowing river Clyde made for the perfect location for the spinning machinery which would completely transform the lives of home spinners.

The torrent of rapidly flowing water upstream at Lanark through a narrow gorge was the key to what was to become the largest cotton spinning mill in Britain.

A single giant wheel harnessed this immense water force and drove the new cotton spinning machines.

The increase in production that the machines brought was staggering and the make up of the initial workforce now makes for shocking reading.  Of the 1000 or so people initially working in the mill, around two thirds were children of which 450 were yet to reach their teens.  All the same, David Dale treated the children, many of which who were orphans, very well compared to his contemporaries and the fact that so few died were testament to this.

David Dale's son-in-law Robert Owen continued his philanthropic approach, introducing a bold and innovative experiment for economic and social reform in how he structured New Lanark Mill.  Mill workers benefitted in unprecedented ways through quality living accommodation, fairly priced food, fair wages and education for all children.  He went on to be a key player in social reform, the set up of trade union and the Co-operative organisation.

New Lanark Mill continued spinning cotton for another 100 years until its sudden closure in 1968. It came close to demolishment in the mid 70s, however, thankfully the set up of a conservation trust and various government legislation and funded schemes enabled the mill buildings to be restored over the following 20 years.  The mill is now a World Heritage Site with exhibition space and a neighbouring hotel.  Better still, spinning machinery is in operation again creating New Lanark Wool which is woven and sold as the worlds first organic tartan.

I was very lucky at the time of my visit that the Great Tapestry of Scotland was on display at New Lanark Mill.  Completed in 2013 and consisting of 160 panels depicting the story of Scotland, I learnt more history about Scotland in a few hours than I have in a lifetime.  The panels required 300 miles of woollen yarn, 200 yards of linen, 1000 stitchers, and100,000 hours of stitching time!

Picking out just one favourite panel from 160 feels impossible, however, there is no doubt that panel 105 - The Paisley Pattern - stitching in Glasgow caught my eye.  While this was only a temporary display of the tapestry, it was good news to hear that it will have it's own permanent display in Tweedbank in around 18 months time.

What is impossible to depict pictorially about my visit to New Lanark Mill and the surrounding area is the warmth and friendless of the people.  The desire to engage and help was unfaltering from the first day to the last and added to the pleasure of visiting in spades.  The success of any holiday for me is invariably marked by thoughts of when it might be possible to return.  Finding this thistle of my last look around, I hoped that a return to the Scottish Borders would indeed come to pass.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Somerset Willow & Wool

I have long savoured Somerset willow and wool cloth and I feel very excited to be working with both of these fabulous woven products this summer.  The sight of my studio work tables adorned with willow in all shapes and sizes certainly feels like the beginning of an adventure with great heart.

Steeped in the history of Somerset, it is a delight to me that willow is still commercially grown on the Somerset Levels.  I love to stroll down to the willow beds at the Coates English Willow Visitor Centre at Stoke St Gregory and they make for an impressive sight particularly in the summer months.

As indeed does the harvested willow drying out in the sunshine - just one aspect of the labour intensive process that has been worked and honed in Stoke St Gregory for nearly 200 years.  Salix Triandra Black Maul is the non-living willow most commonly used for weaving as it stays flexible for up to six weeks when first cut.

Coates English Willow has a terrific story to tell about their history of growing and working with willow.  While machinery has lightened the load of the process, some aspects like sorting the cut willow are still done completely by hand.  I highly recommend booking one their informative and engaging tours at their Visitor Centre, where you have the opportunity to see all the stages first hand. 

In addition to being a resilient and eco friendly product, willow is also extremely versatile and a skillful weaver can turn their hand to all manner of creations.

I love to pop into the visitor centre shop on my workshop Saturdays at the centre and follow their ever evolving range of willow products.  I always find a new product to feast my eyes on - and very often take away too!

I have made many decorative textile additions for my willow purchases and then a few years ago I came across a Somerset cloth woven with a similar heart - beautiful wool flannel by Fox Brothers at Tonedale Wellington. Fox Brothers have been weaving woollen cloth for over 250 years and they employed over 5000 people at it's peak.  How fabulous that they continue to weave exquisite woollen cloth with British wool in Somerset.

Working with this historical Somerset textile in my fingers is pure pleasure and an experience hard to match.  I was delighted to organise a group visit to Fox's Somerset factory last year and to learn more about the processes.  Like many kinds of weaving, the skills required are considerable and those who work them do so with diligence and passion.

Visiting their  Merchant Fox shop in The Counting House in Tonedale is like taking a walk back in time.  They hold one of the largest collections of textile archives in Europe and it is amazing to see samples of historical textiles in full blazon colour.

Watching and chatting to their experienced tailor who also works in the Counting House is also a real treat and one off experience in a world of mass clothes production.  

And so this summer I am working with Somerset Levels stitcher Annie, to see how we can combine these two woven Somerset products that have notched up 450 years of history between them.  A willow item used for centuries seemed like a perfect starting point and for our first project we created a French style liner in cream check Fox flannel for this pretty Coates willow basket.

We also spent pleasurable time creating this contemporary willow woven heart notice board, which feels rather symbolic of our heartfelt work and adventures ahead this summer.  How fabulous to have work with a sense of passion and we look forward to all that lies ahead and sharing stories along the way.