Yesterday I pulled up the flax plants that I showed growing at the allotment in my last post. They will now dry and then be retted and processed. Last week I finally got round to processing the small amount of flax that I had grown last year in a couple of pots at home. Because they were grown in less than ideal circumstances the fibres turned out to be pretty poor quality. However, I managed to get a handful of processed fibre, which was then spun.
Despite this being a very small amount of fibre and a great deal of work to get it to that stage, it was a very satisfying thing to do. The right hand spool shown below is the spun fibre. The small ball and the left spool are spun from the ‘tow’, which is the rougher fibre separated out during the combing, or ‘hackling’, as part of the processing.
These were added to a series of cordage samples I have made using a variety of different materials from my allotment plot. This series includes lots of different plant material (leaf, bark, stem and bast) as well as plastics, cloth and paper: things either growing on the plot or found in the sheds.
These form part of my submission for the third module of my MA in Creative Practice. I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting to know the properties of each material that I’ve worked with. To a certain extent I’m starting from scratch with each new fibre, but there is also a cumulative effect of the experience of working the materials. I’ve also been surprised by some that I had low expectations of and which turned out to be much more pleasing to work with than I’d expected.
I don’t have any plans yet for what I might do next with the different cordages, that may come later. For now, the process of working with each material and getting to know its possibilities and limitations have been very rewarding. Furthermore, tied up within each bundle of ‘string’ is the experience of the place they were made: the birdsong that surrounded the making, the smell of each fibre as it passes through the fingers and the slow accumulation of local knowledge about the plot of land where they are from.
Things are growing a-pace at the allotment, although it has been so very dry and warm that some plants are struggling. I sowed some flax back in early May (a bit later than intended but the spring was so cold). It has been good to see it grow and now bloom with its dainty blue flowers that only last less than a day each.
This is a very small patch of flax, which I know won’t result in much of a quantity of linen, once it has been retted, processed and spun. But it is an important part of my experiments in using gathered fibres for my MA project. Last year I grew an even smaller amount in large pots at home. I didn’t manage to process it over the autumn, so I left it dried until we had warm conditions. It has now been retted and is drying again in the green house before I can do the breaking, skutching etc. ready to hopefully spin some thread.
I have been gathering all sorts of plant fibres from my plot and using them to make cordage, including nettle fibres shown drying below. I’m really enjoying experimenting with these different materials and working at the plot when I can. You can see some of the cordage results on my instagram account here.
I spent most of last week on a workshop in Devon at the studio of Susie Gillespie. I do quite a lot of teaching now and I feel it is really important to be on the other side of that sometimes too. The workshop was all about growing, processing and spinning flax into yarn and then weaving with it. It was a really stimulating workshop in a lovely location and I felt very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to be there.
There is a lovely vocabulary that goes with this activity: retting, rippling, combing, breaking, scutching…
It is quite an involved business to get this small hand full of fibres ready to spin. I quickly developed a huge respect for peoples of the past whose only way to have cloth was through this series of processes.
I’ve not done any spinning before, although I do have my Granny’s spinning wheel in the cellar. I’m hoping to use it now I’ve had an introduction. The linen yarn I spun was very hairy and more like rough string than beautiful linen thread, but it is a start and I am looking forward to improving my spinning skills.
It was also good to see a little of the surrounding landscape with walks along part of the River Dart and a windy bit of the coast at Man Sands.
We did some natural dyeing, ending up with a lovely colour palette of linen threads to play with and incorporate into our weaving. I was asked to lead a stitching session on one of the days: we used the dyed threads and a host of items we collected on our walks.
I will be teaching with Susie in April and August this year and I’m really looking forward to returning to this lovely pocket of Devon.
When I was in Italy a few weeks ago we explored the nearby lanes and land, collecting plant material and objects that we could make use of in the studio through various printing, mark making and construction techniques. Most of what we used then went to the tip when we’d finished with it. There was a lot of rubbish on the lanes, so I feel that we did quite a good litter-picking job, making use of things before they went in the bin.
There was charred wooden debris amongst the olive trees, presumably as a result of tree pruning, the brash being burnt on site. I used a piece to draw with on my first walk around the fields. There was also the smell of bonfires in the air all week as neighbouring farms and small holdings cleared the land ready for the growing season ahead.
There were a few objects that I picked up in the olive grove around the Masseria and these came home with me to the studio. I have since been playing with them and forming new structures and surfaces in response. These will form part of Findings, which I will be showing later in the year. There were various nut shells: walnut, almond and acorn cups. The acorns from the majestic Macedonian Oak, which we saw in various places are huge in comparison to the ones I’m used to here in the UK.
I’ve been making small vessel structures from paper yarn and once the surface of these is rubbed with mud they take on a really interesting quality. These structures are made with a looping stitch, sewing with a needle but building up a three-dimensional form. I used the same looping stitch but with a pliable linen thread on the burnt olive wood, encasing and wrapping the forms, getting to know each line, crack or subtle change in the surface as I work my way round and round the wood. And as I handle the wood the aroma of smoke takes me back to the place that they were found.
I’m working on a series of sculptural pieces that are woven in linen, each made specifically to relate to a piece of found metal. I then manipulate the cloth so that it responds directly to the metal: encasing it, wrapping it, slotting through it etc. The metal is then allowed to stain the weave where it is in contact with the rust, with the aid of seawater.
The first uses a metal pipe that I collected on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. The object is linked to the place in my mind because that is where I found it. It is therefore completely ‘of the place’ to me, even if the object has no other significant link to there: I have no idea what its history is prior to me picking it up.
The next piece takes a metal hoop as as starting point. The strip of tapestry weave sits gathered and looped within the hoop, extending either side.
The third piece is shown here just off the loom with its warp ends still waiting to be finished, but looking rather beautiful in their wild arrangement. There is a hole in the cloth, ready for its designated metal to slot into.
Each stage of the process is slow and to be savoured: the weaving by hand, beating each weft down to cover the warp; stitching each warp thread back into the weave; the staining of the cloth by the rusty metal as it dries.
I was thrilled to be invited to be part of Meticulous Stitchers at Unit Twelve Gallery, Stafford, alongside artists whose work I really admire. The two pieces I have made for the exhibition are part of my Rust Diaries series and have involved hours and hours (and more) of stitching.
The exhibition opens on 4th June and runs through until 29th August. I will be teaching a couple of day workshops at the gallery in July and there is a ‘stitchers soiree’ on 27th June, a mid-exhibition event (open to all) instead of a private view. You can find more details here and on the Unit Twelve website.
At Easter I collected some mud from a tributary of the Severn Estuary, whilst down in Somerset. The tubs of this lovely mud have been sitting patiently in my studio, waiting for me to open them up and play with their wonderful smooth contents. I’ve been weaving away at a long strip for quite some time and this came off the loom last week. Although it was woven on a table loom, once off the loom I manipulated it so that most of it became densely packed, covering the warp in a tapestry weave structure.
This morning the strip was coated in the silky estuarine mud. Freshly muddied and still wet it has taken on a ceramic quality. It will dry slowly now and its surface quality will change as it does so. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to the surface as it changes.
I don’t drink a lot of beer but I seem to find a lot of beer bottle tops when I’m out and about. On a recent walk along the nearby canal I came home with a little stash in my pocket. I love the way they get squashed by cars and their crinkled edges go in different directions. They are all at slightly different stages of going rusty. After completing 25 Beer Bottle Tops I decided to make a scaled up version and am now part way through its making.
This time there are 49 Beer Bottle Tops. The number isn’t significant, but these fit nicely into the dimensions that I decided to work on, four times larger than the first piece. They are arranged in a grid, again, not for any specific reason, but I find the arrangement pleasing. I often arrange things I find in lines like this in the studio. It is a way of sorting, of getting to know the objects, cataloguing them almost: they are like collected specimens laid out for inspection. Once trapped and stitched around and then allowed to stain their surroundings their regimented lines will contrast with the random stitching and the marks that they make.
The stitching is now in progress. This is slow and repetitive. This kind of stitching marks out the passage of time. Each stitch is similar to the one before but unique in its detail.
Back in December I showed the beginnings of some tapestry weave on a frame. This slowly grew over the last month or so and I ended up with two separate pieces done on the same warp. The main piece was relatively successful and I managed to keep things fairly even. The second ended up being badly pulled in at the side and I learnt a lot during the making of it, persevering when things went awry, but then giving up on it eventually. I was using the same linen for the warp and weft and I realise that this was probably not robust enough a warp. By the time I got well up the frame it was probably stretching and distorting. I have so much to learn. Most of my weave has been on a small scale so far, and working that way I can get away with a lot. My challenge is to be able to work on a larger scale and still be happy with the results.
I ended up with a beautifully white construction with slits that break up the surface. The intention was always to mark the surface with ink, but I did enjoy it in its pure state for a while first.
The walnut ink was applied with a roller. I knew there would be some unevenness and I like that unpredictability. The ink catches the surface of the weave, revealing the pattern of lines where the weft rolls onto the surface and then leaves it again.
I am well and truly in a weave phase at the moment. My studio wall has a growing number of samples pinned up and I’m enjoying exploring a variety of (mostly) linen yarns and the surfaces and structures that they produce when held under tension on a warp. I am constantly delighted by the simplicity of plain weave and the simplicity of the technology that produces it. I’ve been working on my table loom, but even then I have tended to beat things hard so that the warp is covered, producing a surface almost like tapestry weave.
This warp is now off the loom and the samples separated. I did enjoy them as a strip though, and it was tempting not to separate them. The linen formed these lovely curved bridges between the weave.
Most of the samples will be dyed, dipped or stained in some way. I have also been weaving on a frame and this piece is growing a little each time I get to the studio.
This, too, won’t stay white all over. I have plans for it to meet some walnut ink. but more on that another time.