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.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Summer Workshops 2018

We have enjoyed the most fabulous Spring weather in Somerset this past week, with sunshine in abundance to make up for lots of dark dreary months.  I've been loving driving around the Somerset Levels lanes and today I spent some magical moments surrounded by a cloud of green willows trees set against a fabulous blue sky.

An abundance of flowers have burst into life too and I'm ever on a mission to find those who have put down roots of their own accord.  Sitting amongst cowslips and bluebells last week on Brean Down was a sight to behold and it set my mind racing ahead to my own more controlled floral displays this year.

Knowing how mixed British summers can be, I do like to have at least a few weather independent plans.  And so this year I've decided to run a series of Summer Workshops at Spring Farm and I'm really excited that other flora friendly tutors are able to help make last long after the summer has faded.  First up on Saturday 9th June 2018 is my own project offering of Silk Summer Flora, where attendees will learn how to free stitch silk organza flowers and set onto a quilted silk panel.

Then next up on Saturday 7th July 2018, skilled Herefordshire beader Sally Boehme will be teaching the coveted skill of Shibori Beading.  Sally's work is very often nature inspired and attendees at this workshop will learn how to make a stunning beaded piece on silk for a pendant, brooch or simply to be adored in it's own right.

I am also delighted to welcome Kim Winter from Flextiles for the first time to Spring Farm.  I fell in love with Kim's natural dying and felting work a few years ago and I've loved following her creative adventures ever since.  Kim's Felt Corsage workshop on Sunday 29th July is perfect for anyone who fancies channelling their 'inner Frida Kahlo' or simply adding a flash of fun to an outfit!

And lastly for this summer, on Sunday 12th August Sally Boehme will return and to teach the skill of making beautiful Bling Buttons.  Forget dull modern plastic buttons and think zingy and eye catching that will add style in spades.

I send wishes to all for making creative and fun plans for the summer ahead - there are so many fabulous creative things to do during the long daylight hours and it's just a small matter of choosing!

Friday, 13 April 2018

The Somerset Levels - Theme for 2018

Each spring I set a theme for producing my own stitch work and like spring itself, it has been a little later arriving this year.   I can easily make my choice overly complicated, however, this year my theme is clear and simple - the Somerset Levels.  Even ten years in to life into living and now working in this evocative and ancient landscape, I am mindful that I still have much to learn.  I have recently started a series of new levels walks where each week I pop on my walking boots and set off hoping that my sense of direction will not fail me!  I took this image on my first walk recently on Small Moor near Walton.  I see willow trees most days of my life and they will forever enthral me.

A coastal plain and wetland area running south from the Mendips to the Blackdown Hills, despite what the name infers there are many parts of the Somerset Levels that are not at all flat!   This is Burrowbridge Mump close to home and a subject I have photographed from pretty much all angles.  I call it 'mini Glastonbury' and indeed from the top on a clear day you can see Glastonbury Tor clearly in the distance.

The Levels is renown for its rich biodiversity and Shapwick Nature reserve and the surrounding area is a draw for nature lovers throughout the seasons.  I took this image of Shapwick Moor Rhyne on a beautiful spring day last year and with the weather set fair in the coming week, I am very much looking forward to a return visit.

One of the levels oldest produce is willow.  I have coveted willow products from childhood and was thrilled when I started teaching at the Willows & Wetlands Centre at Stoke St Gregory some four years ago.  With the horrors of plastic now being widely recognised, it is brilliant to see willow products making a huge comeback and to hear about the new orders being received.  I also love that willow is a creative tool in itself and that following a happy 'accident' burning willow many years ago, Coates willow is made into artist charcoal which is exported around the world.

My studio base at Spring Farm, Moorlinch came about a two years ago and I am now well and truly settled there with other creative people.  The name Moorlinch is believed to be derived from the Saxon myrge hlinc meaning pleasant hill and I can vouch that the five minute walk up the hill to St Mary's Church to take in this glorious view is extremely pleasant.  Often watery, and this year snow covered, this is an amazing vantage point to take in the seasons on the Levels.

And so the process of starting new stitch work for the year begins.  The signs of spring warm my heart like no other and is a perfect time for me to bring in the new.  I will be working more with wool fibres this year so these 2018 levels lambs seemed a fitting way to end this post - side baa side!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Quick Stitch - Basket Pin Cushion

Luxurious Liberty meets Watery Willow - a heartfelt combination for Easter gift pin cushions that I rustled up this weekend.  Make this quick stitch in less than hour for a great sense of achievement and ongoing pleasure for the recipient.

I remembered that I had these small willow baskets I had stashed away- it was just a small matter of finding where I have safely stored them!  They were 12cm at the widest point and 6cm deep.

Next up was choosing some fabulous fabric - something reasonably lightweight that gathered well.  I spotted some charming Liberty cottons in the Spinning Weal in Clevedon this week and I knew in a flash that these would make a perfect combination with willow.

To work out the pattern circle, I measured the diameter of the basket and doubled to get the diameter of the pattern circle - so for my 12cm basket the pattern cirle was 24cm in diameter.  I then traced around a plate of this size onto a slightly larger fabric piece.

Then I used a pop sock and stuffed it tight with wadding.  The cut off end from tights would work equally well - either new or washed of course!  I used a natural wool filling as it was firm, resistant to moisture and allergy free, although cotton wadding cut into small pieces would have worked equally well.  I tested for size as I was filling and when sufficiently filled, tied it off.

After cutting off the excess sock, I hand stitched a draw string 5mm from the raw edge on the fabric with a strong thread.  Leaving the needle in place I then started to gather around the stuffed sock.

Finally I pull the drawstring tight and secured the gathers with a few stitches.

Now just to pop my creation into the basket and add a little embellishment.  Liberty fabric and willow are so beautiful in their own right, less embellishment was definitely more.

Making these simple hand stitched gifts started me thinking about all manner of other interesting receptacles that could be used and a few more creations are likely to appear over the Easter weekend.  Including one for my own workspace.  With my workshop fully functional, it is so lovely to spend a little time making a few decorative things for it this Easter.

I send wishes to all for a restful and recharging this Easter holiday - such a fabulous time of year with the promise of increased daylight and hopefully sunshine in abundance.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Quick Stitch - Felted Flora

Although the Spring Solstice is only two days away, Spring still feels a very long way off in Somerset.  And so in the slowness and waiting this month, I have dreamt of all the colour and flora that will eventually arrive.  And in doing so, I have come back to a project that has transpired to capture the imagination of other stitchers in Somerset too.  These 'felted flora' are striking, tactile and easy to make in wool fibres.

On this snowy Somerset Sunday, I thought that I would share the joy they have given and pass on the instructions on how to make.  The first task is a most pleasurable one, sourcing some beautiful fibre tops.  One of my favourite sources for fibres is John Arbon Textiles in South Molton Devon, just a touch over the Somerset border.  He stocks a fabulous range of dyed and blended fibre tops which are perfect for this project.  Alternatively, find a friend who spins and they will most likely have some tops oddments to share.

The next product to source is water soluble fleece and the make I use is Vlieseline Solufleece.  I find myself increasing working with this product over water soluble film, at it is possible to use without a hoop - a huge plus for me.  To start you need to cut yourself two pieces of fleece the size of a flower petal and draw a shape on one piece - a Frixion pen is good.  Trap some fibres between this and the other fleece piece and then machine stitch all the way along the line you have drawn.  Then cut back the excess fleece and fibre close to the stitch line.

Repeat this process making around 5 petals of various shapes - I went for seed head shapes in slightly different sizes.  Next to drop the feeds on your machine and do some free stitching - it really can be anything that is relatively open.  You may find it easier to wait to trim back the fleece around the shape so that you have more to hold while you are stitching.  I like to use a rayon thread for this project as it has a lovely sheen against the fibres.

Then to bring back up the feeds and choose a few decorative stitches to stitch lines down the length of the petal shape.  Again pick a stitch that is relatively open so that the trapped fibres can still be seen when finished. Then take a beading wire around .5mm in gauge and starting at the bottom of the petal and leaving a tail of a good 3", stitch all the way round with an narrow open zigzag.  Leave a tail of wire as well at the end and zigzag stitch around several times so the wire is mostly covered and securely attached.

When all the petals are stitched and wired, twist the excess wire together and swish the petal around in a bowl of warm water to removed the water soluble fabric.  This the most exciting bit as you will see what the colours you have chosen will look like.  Leave the petals to dry somewhere warm like a sunny window ledge, or a warm radiator in for many of us in England just now.

When the petals are completely dry, bring them together to make the final flower shape and twist the wires from each petal together to hold.  To finish off, make some little felt balls for the centre or decorate with beads or pom poms.

I have so enjoyed that this stitch project has given much pleasure during the long winter months in Somerset this year.  The colour possibilities of combing fibres and thread are endless and this is my latest creation inspired by the colours around my Somerset studio.  Please do share photos of any of your own creations, I would be delighted to see.