John Boyd Horsehair Fabrics and Lower Cockhill Farm

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Today I joined a group visit to two local venues of interest organised by the Friends of Holbourne Museum.   In the morning we converged on John Boyd Textiles in Castle Cary, one of only two horsehair textile manufacturers in the world.  Sadly, due to the specialist nature of the manufacturing process we were not permitted to take photographs inside the factory but the building itself was of interest, having formerly been a flax mill manufacturing linen fabrics and ropes.

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The horsehair is imported from China and Mongolia, where horses are still bred in sufficient numbers.  The tails are cropped and take two years to grow back.  The fabric width is dictated by the length of the horse hairs, white hair is shorter, about 20 inches and black and brown up to 25 inches.  The white hair is more expensive and is also processed in the factory by picking through it by hand to remove any coloured hairs which can take two days!  This pure white has become highly desireable for interior design use.  The hair can also be dyed and this is also done on the premises.

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We were shown the warping drum which will wind warps up to 50 metres.  The warp is normally cotton but silk and other fibres, even lurex, are used, depending on the design of the finished fabric.  There were two floors of about 10 looms, each closely monitored and tended to by one lady weaver.  This skilled work can take up to 15 years to learn and one of the weavers had been working for the company for thirty years.  Some of the looms were set up for dobby style patterns.  The looms are 150 years old and all the maintenance is done in house.  After weaving the fabric is pressed between hot plates in an old cider press.  This flattens out any undulations and gives a sheen to the fabric.

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The home page of the John Boyd website features a short but interesting film about the process.  We also had a chance to visit the town museum which had a small display on the factory where I was able to photograph the hair bundles.

The horsehair fabric itself is used predominantly for interior furnishings, seat covers being the most widely recognised use as the fabric is easy to wipe clean and very durable.  Examples can be found in historic buildings such as No. 1 Royal Crescent and the Holbourne Museum in Bath.  In recent years the fabric has become favoured by designers for use as a wallcovering.  I came away with a few small samples which I will treasure, in the knowledge that the fabrics cost from £150 per metre!

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If you look closely (click on the image for a larger view) you should be able to see that I have arranged all the samples with the horsehair running horizontally, as it is woven.  The top left sample uses black and scarlet cotton warp with dyed black horsehair weft.  Top right uses white horsehair dyed red with a red cotton warp.  Middle left uses a black warp and the horsehair is all natural browns and blacks.  Bottom right uses natural white horsehair with an ivory white cotton warp.  Bottom left  (my favorite) is white horsehair dyed turquoise with a turquoise cotton warp.  With this last one even though the white horsehair has been dyed you can still see the variation in colours of the original hairs in the overall weave.

After a very jolly lunch at Mother’s Tea Rooms in Castle Cary we trundled along the fringes of the Somerset Levels to the hamlet of Cockhill.  Here our group were shown around an ancient farmhouse and barn with beautiful traditional 15th Century cruck beams.  The special feature of the house is the Painted Room upstairs.  Little is known of why the room was decorated so splendidly but it is possible that this and the suite of rooms surrounding it were developed to accommodate a VIP visitor.  The paintings have been expertly restored.  The colours are vibrant and the designs are naive but appear to have a religious theme.  The room felt very special and I would have liked to have spent longer there, without the group to be able to experience the art and atmosphere more fully.

The day was dull and wet which meant that indoors it was quite dark as the rooms were not lit.  I did not take any photographs but I have found this Flickr feed which shows the rooms and the rest of the building perfectly.  The designs remind me of folk art wall paintings by Polina Raiko I saw recently featured on this blog.

Assignment 5 – Reflective commentary

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By the time I got to start on this assignment I understood completely how the rest of the course prepared me for the process of the final project and that the discipline of progressing through conceiving an idea, developing and then making is going to stand me in excellent stead for continuing my studies.  Until I was actually working on my theme book, sketching and making notes using a multitude of resources, I had not realised how much potential development work I could have from this little collection of bits and pieces.  I am really looking forward to the next project, now I understand how stimulating this way of working can be.  With my theme book I found that once there was a personal connection, a way of putting part of myself into the project, even if only a tiny part, this made a huge difference to how I felt about the work and how motivated I became.

I found I did take a lot of time to think about the initial development, once I had decided on an end “product”.  I think this helped to avoid too many big changes of course as I had pretty much made up my mind about how I wanted the piece to look.  I also restricted myself to a handful of fabrics and threads with a neutral colour scheme, apart from the odd accent of colour and I believe this went a long way to help make sure I wasn’t going to keep changing my mind and waste time and materials.

I used a fair proportion of recycled fabric that I re-purposed, using tea and onion skin dye and resist techniques to provide texture and colour.  I endeavour to tread lightly on our earth in my life in general and, even though it might mean I am restricting myself in the materials I have access to, I firmly believe that I will be able to source most things that I need in an environmentally aware way.  As long as I can be ingenious with the resources that I have I intend to keep this environmental focus uppermost during my studies, as I do in the rest of my life.  As my final piece incorporated my ideas of memories, ageing and time I believe I achieved an effective result using my “pre-loved” fabrics.  In the end the only item I purchased for the final project was the ivory voile fabric.  All the threads and the rest of the fabrics were already in my collection, either remnants from other projects, gifts and charity shop finds.

I could not have anticipated chosing to produce a curtain-style hanging final piece when I started out this project and that has been one of the joys of this particular exercise.  Once I started on the journey of design from initial idea to final product there was a real feeling of excitement in exploring all the avenues of possibility, like travelling to new countries and finding nuggets of treasure on my way to add to my collection.  I was also surprised at the feelings of attachment I found I had to the project once I had made the journey a personal one, looking at my family environment and my own development into an adult.  I feel more prepared to explore my skills in textile art, rather than textile purely as a craft, now I have got to this point of the course.

 

Project 10 A design project – Stage 4 Making your textile piece

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By the time I got to this stage of the project I was quite confident that I had a much better idea of what I wanted to produce.  The computer manipulated versions of my collaged image had plenty of texture and the general proportions of the image seemed to work well.

Final

I used this image, along with the original collage as my guide when placing the fabric and embroidering the final piece.  The piece is unfinished – I completed the “grandparents” and “me” layers, and the middle “doorway” layer is missing the right side of the door but I think there is enough here to get a good idea of the project.

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pleated resist-dyed cotton fabric, running stitch with machine sewing cotton thread

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kantha-style running stitches in machine cotton and couched embroidery silk

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resist-dyed dupion silk with couched lurex thread

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roughly tacked torn and folded voile

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couched embroidery silk produce the thicker lines

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I debated whether to cut the slits in the middle curtain

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trying to show the layers

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the sunlight from the window behind is a big part of how I wanted the final piece to look when on display – inspiration from the Lost in Lace exhibition, Birmingham Gas Hall

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Reflections

For the last part of this stage we are asked to consider:

  • Can you see a continuous thread of development from your original drawings and samples to the final designs?

I was initially uncertain as to how to develop the ideas from my theme book into a more coherent idea for a textile.  This became easier as I forged on once I had focused on my final idea.  From then it was easier to produce specific drawings and samples as I had a definite idea of an end product.  I think there is definitely a thread of development from my initial theme to my final design.  It would have been easy, though, to be pulled off track as I found a lot of resources for further development once I had started.  I think I found once I had a personal connection with the project that made it much more enjoyable and easier to progress.

  • Do you feel you made the right decisions at each stage of the design process?  If not, what changes would you make?

I don’t believe there is a huge line between right or wrong when you are designing for a piece for yourself.  Obviously, if I had been given a detailed brief from a client then I would have had to be careful to make sure I produced everything that was asked for.  As it stands if I were to be critical it might be that I could have produced some more drawings and experimented with more different fabrics.  Also, I think I made a mistake with my measurements and the final piece isn’t quite in proportion with the original design but I do not think it impairs the result enough to be a huge problem.  I did debate whether to cut into the middle “doorway” curtain and make the slits either side of the opening.  I also pondered whether to cut the whole inside of the doorway away altogether but I decided not to as I wanted to have that extra layer of fabric to view the first layer through.  Looking at my photographs of the piece in situ I think I could have made more of the wall area outside the doorway denser and less transparent so that the focus was concentrated on the area inside the doorway lit by the natural light.

  • Were you able to interpret your ideas well within the techniques and materials you chose to work with?

I was concerned, initially, that I might try to incorporate too many techniques and materials in my final piece, in an effort to show all that I had learned during the course.  I managed to get around this early on by limiting myself to only a few fabrics and a neutral (on the whole) colour palette.  This worked well – knowing I had only one drawer from my thread collection to work with and a handful of fabrics meant I was careful to make the most of these, especially since I was some recycled fabrics and it would have been difficult to obtain more.  My intention was to use the separate layers of curtain as a way to interpret time, ageing, transition and movement from one state to another.  I love the way the transparency of the fabric works so well with the natural daylight behind it.

  • How successful is your final design in terms of being inventive within the medium and coherent as a whole?

I surprised myself, fixing on a curtain as a final piece.  Having done a lot of dressmaking  in the past it would have been very easy to stick with a garment or even a hat as a final piece.  I am very glad I pushed out of my comfort zone and got closer to my idea of textile art than I thought I would be able to.  I have not used novel materials or techniques but the way I have used them is a bit more unusual.   I definitely like the look of the result.  I believe it works as a hanging piece of textile and it has come together pretty much as I had hoped.  I would have finished it by hanging the curtains separately on either copper pipe or inch dowels, ideally in a window so that the light provides that extra dimension.   My photographs of the final piece probably could have been better.  I took them into the light of the east-facing window in the afternoon, supported by some filament lamps, when I might have got better shots in the morning.

We are also asked to look back at the notes we made on how we felt at the beginning of the course and reflect on the journey.

On re-reading my notes after having an initial look at the course materials and after the first assignment I notice that I was concerned that my lack of skills as an artist would be a big hurdle to overcome.  The other main worry was that I would find time management an issue.  Over the course I have begun to find ways to interpret my ideas with mark making but this often takes the form of a collage, simple diagram or manipulation of photographs and other images using computer software.  I would like to get some help with learning to draw and paint but finances do not permit at the moment.  I definitely need to do more sketchbook work and I am slowly overcoming my fears of putting pencil to paper but I feel this will be a particularly long journey for me.  When it comes to time management I have definitely found this difficult.  This has not been helped by my work commitments and I am trying to change that but again, that will take time.  I have got used to observing that I have periods where motivation to do even the smallest coursework task is severely lacking.  There are a combination of reasons for this but since we have re-arranged our dining room which has the benefit of light from 3 sides, and the weather has been much improved, I have not had to struggle quite so hard.

I have enjoyed the course immensely and am really looking forward to my next module.

Part 4 – Research Point – Textile Artists

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We are asked to consider how the work of the textile artist differs from that of the designer, the designer-maker or the craftsperson and if there is any crossover in terms of approach or the way in which each uses ideas or textile processes.

A textile artist may be working in their chosen medium for a variety of reasons and with different backgrounds of art education and experience.  They may have developed their particular way of working having a begun their career in fashion, fine art or having trained and worked as a textile craftsperson.  I do think that there are many points of crossover with describing someone as a “textile artist” rather than a craftsperson or designer-maker and unfortunately actively giving a label to this type of creativity is sometimes an unnecessary barrier to the wider appreciation of a body of work.  Also, many classically trained fine artists, such as Tracey Emin who describes herself as a “visual artist” use textile as part of a variety of media to convey their thoughts, desires and messages.  (Tracey Emin on her exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea at Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate in 2012.)  Emin famously crafted a tent, exhibited in 1995, appliqued with the names of all the people she had ever slept with, lovers, family and friends.  This piece belonging to art collector Charles Saatchi was famously destroyed in the Momart London warehouse fire of 2004.  The artist could equally have produced a work such as this in paint, paper, or stone but she chose to convey her feelings about this very personal, intimate part of her life in fabric, the material that we use to clothe ourselves, to make our homes more comfortable, to sleep under and wrap our newborn babies in.

In her article, Textile Art or Textile Craft? published on Bodkinz, a website dedicated to a community of fibre and textile artists in New Zealand, Shirley Dixon provides a detailed investigation on the definition of textile art and textile craft.  She proposes that a work must possess certain properties in order to be textile art, including positive aesthetic properties, a subject, originality and creativity, and communicate complex meanings: ideas, emotions or points of view.  She expands on these properties to show how there is also a contextual element; just because a quilt is displayed on the wall of a gallery does not necessarily mean it is a work of art.  Similarly, textile crafts can be shown to have properties that differ from textile art so, although requiring a particular skill to execute, this skill has a basis in tradition, as opposed to the originality and often subversive or critical quality of textile art.  Textile crafts can be practical or useful and can be an antidote to mass-production, as well as exhibiting originality and creativity but textile arts carry a message, communicating the human condition to the wider audience.

There is also the element of value put on textile art or craft, with a basis in how crafts have been regarded through history.  I was lucky to visit on the last day of the recent exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Petal Power, featuring graphic work by women designers of the Silver Studio of Design.  This was a prominent London studio that produced dress and furnishing fabric, wallpaper and homeware designs for Liberty, Sanderson, Selfridges and others at all levels of the market.  The exhibition highlighted how women designers were treated differently to their male counterparts, working from home rather than at the studio itself and paid less than the male designers.  Of course, this was the convention at this time.  Winifred Mold, although employed by the studio from 1912 to 1935 only visited the premises and commented “I never saw the room where the men worked”.

The Sixty Two Group, established over 50 years ago, was formed to give textile artists, particularly embroiderers, a voice in a predominantly male-dominated and traditionally fine art world.  Alice Kettle, an honorary member of the Sixty Two Group is a textile artist who uses machine-stitched threads on a backing fabric to draw as others might use a pencil on paper or paint on canvas to produce figurative images.  Alice studied fine art and then textiles as a postgraduate student at Goldsmith’s College.  Some of her pieces are very big, such as the colourful banners and sail produced for the Margate Hosts the Boat project in 2012.  These flags incorporated artwork from local schools and community projects and were flown on Margate Harbour Arm to help celebrate the arrival of the Margate Sail, again a collaborative project between Alice and residents and school children of Margate, produced as a gift for the vessel the Collective Spirit.  This was a boat made using modern yacht building techniques but formed out of wooden artifacts donated by local people, each with a story to tell.

In this video of the 2010-11 exhibition The Narrative Line from the National Craft Gallery of Ireland Alice Kettle explains how her exposure to the craft of sewing as she grew up was a large part of her choosing stitch as her medium of working.  It is interesting how she also comments on how her work crosses between art and craft and that she is comfortable in the world of craft.  Kettle also talks about how she researches and develops ideas, sometimes from books she has read or a story but that quite often, through sketching, sampling and the responses to that, the process itself is a journey to an unexpected outcome.  Kettle likens her work to illustrative story-telling using thread.  In one particular large wallhung “tapestry” of this exhibition Kettle has used ephemera, including items from around her studio, and stitched these on to the fabric of the piece that depicts Alice Kyteler (another Alice Kettle) so that the finished work is very highly textured in certain areas.  The artist also uses the empathy that she feels with her namesake to fuel the story-telling.  It must be hard not to become deeply involved in a subject when you have done a lot of research but even more so when there are strong links, as in the name and the possibility of a family link.

Sue Hotchkis describes herself as “an artist with a passion for texture, surface and space” and she uses photography to help her with inspiration.  She uses multiple textile techniques and layering to depict her environment in colourful abstract cloth artworks, which can range in size from large mural-style wall hung canvases like blue check shirt to her entries in the Button Project at Macclesfield Silk Museum  She seeks to show that there is beauty in ageing and decay that is occuring constantly and hand dyed or painted fabric is overprinted and then embellished with machine or hand embroidery.  As the artwork itself will change over time the artist often enhances this characteristic by distressing with a heat gun or soldering iron and is not concerned that the piece be preserved but will use whatever techniques necessary and take as long as necessary to achieve the required result.  Once is a really detailed piece (40 x 108 cm) that when you look closely, incorporates an incredible amount of intricate hand stitchery and you see layers as the top surface is cut away to look like rusted through metal.  The colours are bright and the artist has used layers of many threads of different colours to build the overall effect.

The concept of textile art as an art form in it’s own right is an idea I have discussed with some of my creative friends and I usually come back to the conclusion, for myself, that there are so many ways for an artist to express himself that I find it hard to justify designating a work by medium.  I prefer to appreciate that artists will strive to put forward their ideas, emotions, messages in any way that feels appropriate to them at the time, whether that be in music, sculpture, tapestry weaving or dance.

My feeling is that the fine art establishment is going to need to be more flexible in how it promotes and critiques textile art if they want to enjoy the continued support of collectors who will always vote with their feet and if the fashion of the moment in art buying circles is for textile pieces then that is where the money will flow.  Also there is a blurring of distinction between media in education these days, with students producing amazing work in many different forms while they are finding their artistic voice at college and university.  This will help to make textile art as acceptable a form of art as oil painting and water colours but it will be a slow process.

Bibliography:

Tracey Emin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHj7mp6JLKA

Alice Kettle – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZ3gH-DasNA and http://www.alicekettle.com/

Shirley Dixon – http://www.bodkinz.co.nz/textile-art-or-textile-craft

Sue Hotchkis – http://www.textileartist.org/sue-hotchkis-interview-free-motion-machine-embroidery-and-print/ and http://www.suehotchkis.com/

Project 10 A design project – Stage 3 Developing your design – sampling and a prototype

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I have been using tea, coffee and onion skins to dye some sample fabrics.  I am planning to keep to mostly neutral shades for the final piece and to use fabric manipulation, embroidery and some resist dyeing techniques to give form and texture.  Base fabrics were a cream polyester voile, ivory dress net, recycled cream curtain lining and ivory dupion silk.  I wanted to knock back the bright colour of the original fabrics and introduce some texture with the stain.  I left some samples overnight in the dye bath.  I got some good results using the heat of our Aga stove, rather than a chemical mordant, to set the colour by putting the damp fabric scrunched up in a steel roasting pan (covered with a Pyrex plate to stop it touching the radiant sides of the oven) and leaving it in the roasting oven (approximately 180 – 200 degrees) for an hour.  I left some samples sitting on lid of the hot plates overnight, a gentler heat.  Samples were then washed by machine (approximately 30 degrees) with a little detergent and ironed dry.  I will be interested to see how long lived the dye is, especially as my final piece will be designed to stay in the light of a window or door but I like the idea of how the piece will age naturally.

sketchbook coffee

instant coffee – this worked well, the tone is slightly greyer than the tea

sketchbook onion

mostly brown onion skins but with a few bits of red – the result on the silk was a lot brighter than I had expected

sketchbook tea

tea – Co-Op 99 bags made up good and strong

I have also used some tie-dye techniques to give the fabric more texture.

unravelling shibori folds

lines of running stitch, random size and distance apart, pulled up tight before placing in the dye bath

fabric gathered

an interesting bark like effect of where the dye has concentraced in the folds.

shibori tie die

my version of a shibori resist using glass seed beeds dyed using onion skins.

fabric shibori

little circles of white with yellow centres, something to do with the bead touching the surface

I have hand stitched some further samples using the dyed fabrics to get an idea of layers and different stitches.  I definitely prefer hand embroidery for this project.

sketchbook stitch sample

layers of dyed silk on voile, stitched with cotton and silk threads

sketchbook applique

Here I have left the thread ends on the surface which make a feathery effect.  Base fabric is the tea stained voile, the left leaf shape is tea dyed silk and the bush on the right is onion skin dyed silk.  I have used mainly standard machine sewing thread with some heavier orange machine thread.

Next I tried using Paint.net software effects and adjustments to alter the collaged image I made of the doorway. Collage versions using Paintdotnet

In many of the monochrome versions I like the way the stitching is highlighted, exactly the right effect for this project.

I made some preliminary sketches of how I wanted the layers to look; more of a plan than a design, then it was time to make a 3d model of the project.  As this piece is designed to hang in a window I have come up with a box frame (cardboard shoe box) to act as the window embrasure and to support the hanging rods (kebab sticks). I have used plastic film (plastic wallet) for the first front layer and transparent paper to represent the other two layers behind.  I used cut out, monochromes copies of one of the computer manipulated images give an impression of the final design and the scale is approximately 1:5.

across

rods

top

showing frame

model 1

The paper is a bit more opaque than I believe the fabric will be so I think you may be able to perceive the figures in the background a little better in the final piece.