Building on my WCMT Fellowship in Medieval Tapestry

I have tried numerous times to update this blog, but it has proved impossible, how can I articulate all that has happened in this last year? It is of course my fault for not keeping on top of it, but to be honest there has been very little time when I have been off loom. I wonder if instead of trying to go over everything, I might just start with the last tapestry I’ve finished and hope that that will give a sense of what has been going on and the progress made.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry The Nook

I cut off The Nook (above) just before Christmas. Last time we spoke, I was coming to terms with the decision to turn my back on my old way of working and embrace the more formal ways of weaving more familiar to the medieval weaver, hoping that the expressiveness I have always been looking for will materialise in other ways.

However, I knew that before I moved back up to full sized tapestries like this, I would need to focus on samples and initially I focused on some experimental archaeology at the loom, trying to work out how the Halberstadt tapestries had been woven the way they were (below). I loved the results but as I tried to scale them up into a mural tapestry, pastiche took over and that is always something I have been petrified about.

One of the experiments I had long wanted to do was to see see how small I could go to work out if I could comfortably weave full figures within the width of my loom. Girl with Flowers (below) began as a quick sample to experiment with scale, I was reweaving an earlier cartoon at a smaller size, and that’s why the frock is so plain and the hair short. I found myself wanting to keep going with her and rummaged about in the photographic archive for the flowers and leaves. This was a turning point for me, as simple as it sounds, I was responding to the figure on the loom, making things up as I went, instead of having it all planned out and sampled before I started as I usually do. Remember, with tapestry you cannot undo something that has been woven over unless you take all of it out, it is not really a medium that endears itself to winging it, but that is exactly what I did. I realised that I had the skills now to do that, there was no problem I could not work out on the loom.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Girl with Flowers

I realised then it was time to move back to a full sized tapestry, I drew out a cartoon for The Nook, the figure based on one I had abandoned earlier. The cartoon only initially consisted of the first half and I began weaving not having a clue what colours I would be using or how I was going to turn a drawing outline into a tapestry, all those decisions would be made at the loom and in response to what was already growing beneath my fingertips. Some details are below.

Now I am not going to say there wasn’t a great deal of reweaving every now and then, but the difference was that I was not in a panic about it, I didn’t see it as a failure but as all part of the process, I knew in my bones that I would figure things out. I could not be happier with the result and the whole process felt far more engaging, it was about me and the loom, not just turning into tapestry a painting I had done earlier. In fact there was no original image for The Nook tapestry, it is not based on anything that pre-existed. I was able to draw upon, from my mental toolbox, all the techniques I had seen and could use them with ease and confidence, I had a mirad of possibilities at my fingers. It seems, dear reader, I now know what I am doing.

Chrissie Freeth Medieval Tapestry Hush in progress

The Nook is still relatively small for me and a new tapestry the full width of the loom is well on the way, but one which again I am developing on the fly (above). Apart from vague positioning of its elements and colour distribution, all likely to be tossed out of the window at any minute, I have no idea how it will look, and I love it. The happy accidents far out way the occasional re-weaving when things go a little bit pants.

The overall design of these tapestries, the cartoon, I won’t lie, remains a challenge, but I feel I am getting my vocabulary firmer. It helps too that the place they will come to life is on the loom, not the paper before me. I’ve brought up into my workroom am old drawing board that was decomposing in my cellar and it has proved invaluable. I have also learned to accept I can spend a month on these cartoons, then abandon it for another that materialises fully formed in an afternoon. I suppose it is all part of that process, of letting things marinate and letting them spurt out when they are done (feel free to remind me of this statement when I am bitching about designing cartoons on Facebook). One thing with The Nook that I find so interesting, is that I have always here spoken at length of the inspirations behind my tapestries, yet with this one I feel no need to explain it, I know what it draws on, I think I know what it means, but for once this is a tapestry I have made which can speak for itself, it needs no bolstering and blustering from me; that can only be progress too.

The strides I’ve made have been helped in no small way by not having to hit the ground running when I got back from Switzerland and Germany. Normally I have events peppered through the year and that has usually meant making more sellable smaller pieces, and pieces I knew would work, there was not the time for experimentation, there was not scope for things to go wrong. But some breathing space has really helped me to start to explore all I have seen and learnt. But that is not to say I have been completely cloistered. I did Art in the Pen in August (above) and as always it was fantastic, I love it so much, such wonderful visitors (including the lovely lady I bored to death talking tapestry when she ended up sitting next to me on the plane to Berlin!!!!) and of course it was lovely talking to fellow artists, and one in particular who really helped me break some barriers on the design front. I’m such an overthinker, it really helps for someone to see your body of work and just go, Have you thought about this, this and this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without her insight and her willingness to share it and I am more confident than ever of being able to draw on my medieval inspirations without my work being pastiche.

Ripon Cathedral

Unbeknownst to me at the time, someone from Ripon Cathedral (above) saw my work at Art in the Pen and a couple of months later I was invited to have an exhibition there in May next year. This is, as you can imagine, a wonderful opportunity for me, and to see my work in a cathedral such as Ripon is incredibly exciting, and wonderful to keep the tradition of the church supporting artists and artisans. The theme of the exhibition will be storytelling and it is going to be great to be able to showcase this new work and the influence the Fellowship has had.

The way I now work, not least because my sett and materials are so much finer, takes longer and so I am having to work all hours to make enough work to do the space justice. It has been a difficult decision but the need to focus on larger pieces for Ripon also means I am unlikely to be out and about at events this year, but it will pay off I am sure. I’ve also been working on proposals for a commission which may or may not happen, and I can’t say too much, or in fact anything, but if it does come off I will of course let you know all about it. There is a price to pay for such a productive year. I’ve been having physio for months for a dodgy shoulder, and an injection into the joint the other week, but nothing seems to have worked, but at at least it seems it won’t get any worse. Well apart from today which is why I have banned myself from the loom and have been able to catch up on my chores and emails. Lastly I will confess that I have been using Instagram quite a bit, which may also explain why this blog has been abandoned a little. It has provided me with a way of articulating what is going on at the loom whilst I am at the loom, rather than having to wait until some part of my musculature has gone ping, forcing me to take an admin day and fire up the laptop. I will, however try to be more mindful of this blog going into the future. I accept this post has been a bit of a catch up and a few folk had commented on its lack of update, and again, I apologise and will try not to let it happen again.

Churchill Fellowship 5 – Halberstadt and Quedlinburg

I just got back the day before last, from the last leg of my travels as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow studying the techniques of medieval tapestries in France, Belgium, New York, Germany and Switzerland. Most Fellowships are conducted in a block, but for practical reasons I had to break mine up, but I feel it has served me well, for in the intervening time much development has taken place both academically and artistically, and I found myself undertaking this last trip with new eyes, vigor and questions. My days were very long as so keeping up to date with this blog and social media proved rather difficult so I hope you forgive me that these next few posts will be done retrospectively.

 

I feel it is not too much of an injustice to say that a visit to the German town of Halberstadt (above) would not feature on the bucket list of many tourists. It suffered hugely during the war and today it consists of a very nice and clean modern shopping precinct, a smattering of timber-framed buildings in the old town, plenty of renovated housing blocks and, alas, a fair few structures slowly rotting, a legacy from the town’s previous inclusion in the East German state, owner-less since unification. But what it also has, is a Cathedral, and what that has – bizarrely, amazingly, astoundingly – is its treasury, the paintings, the silverwork, the sculpture, the carpentry, the glass, textiles, more textiles and some more textiles that were collected and used by the cathedral over the centuries. And in that treasury are two twelfth century tapestries and one from the early thirteenth.

They are often mentioned, albeit in passing, as the oldest complete tapestries in the world, this fact alone, and their aesthetic appeal from the little I could find of them online meant that from the outset I wanted to include them on my travels, but it seemed hard to justify the detour for only one site and I dropped it off the plans before I applied.

But when in France the importance of the Nuremberg collection became apparent, and as I was somewhat perplexed how tapestries such as the Apocalypse of Angers and the Nine Heroes at the Cloisters, could seemingly come out of nowhere in the fourteenth century. The inclusion of Germany now seemed justified and I am grateful to the WCMT for their incessant patience and flexibility regarding my plans.

 

The new itinerary quickly formed, flying into Berlin, then trains to Halberstadt and nearby Quedlinberg, then down to Nuremburg, also as a base for Munich and Bamburg, and then more trains down to Basel and Bern in Switzerland and flying back home from there. I am a rather anxious user of public transport at the best of times, and just as I set off I discovered that as I was to fly into Berlin, a world war bomb was to be detonated near the train station, shutting down the rail network.

In the run up to these trips an astounding amount of practical and mental preparation takes place and as I was in fact ready for the plane going down, ending up on the wrong train, having to sleep in the open somewhere in the black forest for a few years and changes to the space time continuum, actually I was rather unphased by World War II in the end. And perhaps only in Germany can they shut down the most important train station and evacuate half a city and then have the trains running again flawlessly within half an hour. I arrived at Halberstadt in the evening, my hotel in the old town a bit of a trek from the station but a relay of locals walking me along the way whenever I looked lost. (Word to the wise, Germany, if you put street signs on the street, it means folk can find out where they are and where they are heading, other countries do it, it isn’t difficult, sweetie).

 

Anyway, tapestries. There were a pair of two early sixteenth tapestries in an anti-chamber depicting the life of Mary which no doubt I would have swooned over had I not already caught a glimpse in the room beyond of the tapestries I had come to see. It is difficult to get across the feeling on walking into these silent, dark galleries and, as your eyes adjust, the faces emerge from the wall, woven centuries ago. The largest two, the one depicting scenes from the life of Abraham, and the other depicting the Apostles, are long strips set at right angles. They and a third tapestry depicting Jacob since lost but with tantalising images of it extant, hung in the cathedral choir, where their hooks were still visible. They had in fact hung in the same place for centuries.

 

I was immediately struck by the harmony and balance created by a very limited palette in both tapestries, I counted less than ten colours (and I am sorry for the quality of images, it was all that could be done in the darkness without a flash for obvious reasons!). The figures of the Abraham tapestries had been woven with heavy eyes feeding into thin noses and bat like lips and doughnut shaped cheeks, I am no expert on medieval art of course, but I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before. I hate to use the word as if it is a concept that gives them their value, but in their abstract way they were incredibly modern. The two tapestries are clearly related but I was told that the apostle tapestries where there is a more traditional sense of realisim are seen as some as better or more advanced, but there is nothing ‘backward’ about the Abraham tapestries, the unusual faces, the disproportional bodies, the elongated oversized hands were clearly a stylistic choice, the contemporaneity of this with other work clearly shows the tapestry could have been rendered more realistically had they chosen to do so.

A scene from the Abraham tapestry

There was a modesty of technique in these tapestries that I was to find across Germany. Solid blocks of weaving prevailed, blended bobbins only used as highlights. The use of slits and dovetails created a crispness to the tapestries that was striking. Alternate passes of colour created a quiet pattern to hair and other details in the Abraham tapestry abandoned in the Apostles in favour of solid colour. Despite the simplicity, something I had been foreshadowing in my own work of late, there was an abundance of interest. There was also the double telling of narrative in the Abraham tapestry, on the face of it the story of Abraham, Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy announced, a supper given to the angelic messengers, Isaac’s carrying of wood for the pyre of his intended sacrifice, his eventual saving, and yet also the story of the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the Passion. It’s intended audience was clearly an educated one.

The Apostles tapestry

The apostle’s tapestry features Jesus returned as the Judge of the World, flanked by angels and the apostles. In the second half the figures are crowded, architectural features representing the heavenly Jerusalem omitted. It seems during the production of this tapestry the Cathedral for which it was intended was razed to the ground. The dimensions of the new choir of the replacement church meant the size of the tapestries had to change, For the Apostles it was a change of design, for the Abraham one, the snip.

 

The third tapestry, also woven in the Harz region was a fragment of a portrait orientated piece, Charlemagne portrayed surrounded by four other figures, a traditional layout usually reserved for religious figures. It was interesting for having been woven on a vertical warp, and the ability this provided to use contoured wefts to render the faces and other features was used to the full. Only a few decades after the Abraham tapestries, it yet again reinforced to me the uniqueness of their weavers and cartoonists, if the two were indeed separate. Alas little is known about the workshops that produced these tapestries, but clearly they had been produced by highly skilled weavers in a long established medium. How the Apocalypse of Angers came about was immediately much more clearer to me, I am not drawing lines of course, what I mean is the skills that produced it were clearly in place centuries before. There was less of a gap in my mind between those pieces that might be considered archaeological and those that are at the pinnacle of the form.

Detail from the Charlemagne tapestry

The Halberstadt tapestries deserve to be celebrated as much as the Apocalypse of Angers, or the Unicorn tapestries of Paris or the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in New York, but I suspect their location off the tourist map means they have been denied that. A comprehensive forthcoming publication on the Halberstadt textiles will no doubt help spread the word regarding this amazing collection, and not just the tapestries. I’m saving up already.

Inside the choir with the hooks for the tapestries still visible

Nearby is Quedlinburg, which fared much better in the face of allied bombing during the war than Halberstadt. The medieval town survived to such an extent it is now regarded as a World Heritage Site, but Pah! Who doesn’t live in one of those? In the treasury of the church that dominates from a rock outcrop is the earliest known European carpet, made in the 12th century, like the Halberstadt tapestries. The five fragments aren’t woven, but knotted on a warp, and so although not strictly within the remit of my project, it gave a chance to compare the tapestries with a contemporaneous and similar medium. It was also interesting to see in the crypt of the church the twelfth century wall paintings that covered the ceiling and how similar they were to the carpet. I am fascinated by the relationship, or the hints, that other mural mediums can give us regarding tapestries when they no longer survive, so I did a little dance. I also did a little dance when I found the most darling little enamel mug in one of the shops, but perhaps I ought not confess that being as I was there to work, I only nipped in for a second, honestly.

 

After Quedlinburg another day with the tapestries at Halberstadt followed and a highly informative meeting with their curator. It was very hard to leave the tapestries and their weavers. But Nuremberg and Munich were next, so in the early sunlight of the following morning I headed back the train station, my little wheeled suitcase bobbing off the cobbles. Halberstadt and Quedlinburg had been an excellent start to the trip and again I could hardly believe  how lucky I was to get to see these things and the meet the people I did. So, as they say, the story is to be continued……But I will also just add, to all my friends who told me not to worry about my lack of German, that everyone would speak English, to go kick yourself in the chins, because that was a complete lie, and if it wasn’t for the Google Translate app I wouldn’t have eaten for five days.

Part of the Quedlinburg carpet
Detail of Quedlinburg carpet

 

 

A Stratigraphy of Ideas

Long overdue, I know. Truth is I’ve had my head down enjoying an incredibly creative and productive few weeks.

I know I am exceedingly privileged to be doing what I am doing, but I also feel a big responsibility to make the most of it and to be accountable. For this reason everything I do has to have a set purpose, an end goal. I find it hard to let myself experiment, play or just try things out, even though I know this is an integral part of any artist’s practice.

This has made me drive myself into the ground more than once including a couple of weeks into September, when I came to a complete stop physically and mentally. Rescue was on the way in the form of an unexpected holiday in Whitby with my aunt and uncle. I cannot begin to say how fabulous a time I had, we stayed in a beautiful cottage a stone’s throw from the beach.

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We explored some amazing places including the ruins of a castle in a wood; coming across massive buttresses and walls in amongst the trees is something I will not forget, more like something a 1930s South American explorer would come across and very different to the clean landscaped castle ruins in towns and parks one is used to.

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I used to work at a Cistercian abbey, Bordesley, so I had always been aware of Rievaulx but had never visited before and the ruins were utterly spectacular aided by some fantastic late summer sunshine. Someone should paint it, no really, they should.

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As a break, as a change, as a laugh, as access to the sea and fresh air and exercise, it was a marvellous and much-needed reset. But it has lingered with me since and not least because of one day we decided to escape some coastal fog and headed for the town of Pickering.

I have a particular interest in medieval wall paintings, not that I had ever seen any beyond the pages of a book. I am very curious by the relationship of medieval tapestry to their contemporary art forms. For example the relationship between illuminated manuscripts and the Apocalypse of Angers and the Halberstadt tapestries are well known and I always assumed frescos and wall paintings too must hold some relevance considering their shared mural use. Being so interested in medieval tapestries – which have so rarely survived – I am forced to try to draw inference to what the tapestries may have looked like through other forms.

So I was very excited to see on the Pickering high street a small sign pointing to a church and its wall paintings. But nothing could have prepared me for pushing open the church door and being looked down upon by a gigantic St Christopher across the nave.

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All the walls were coated in figures depicting the lives of the Saints, the Passion and Resurrection, the descent to Hell. I was mesmerised. It was not just their liveliness and vibrancy, it was a communication, a link with the ancestors they were based on, the hand that drew them and the centuries of church goers who looked upon them until they were covered up during the Reformation. It was a reminder too of how much has been lost.

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My interest in the relationship between medieval tapestries and other art forms is not just academic, I have spent time wanting to explore this artistically too, but I could never figure out how to do it, I could only ever envisage a pastiche, something quite pointless to weave, and so it had drifted to the background. Before Whitby my plans were to make a start on a landscape as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

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But when I got home seeing those wall paintings made me all the more determined to respect my intuition. There was something there I wanted and needed to explore. The only way I was going to get it out of my system was to give in.

I let myself weave whatever I wanted, and with no end-game in sight, and without talking myself out of it. I followed my whims, experimented, played. The result has been the formation of a stratigraphy of ideas on the loom, half-finished, half thought-out samples and trials. I was right, initial samples based on the wall paintings were silly pastiches, but as the weeks evolved so did my ideas and so did my realisation of what I was trying to achieve as a weaver, a more honing down of my focus as an artist and an acknowledgement of how I can push the techniques I have been developing this year even further. I feel I know myself better. The result is a new design for a tapestry, far more complicated and colourful than anything I have attempted before, but potentially rather fab.

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I love the tapestries I’ve been weaving this year, and that I’ve found something unique to me as a weaver, but I have been conscious that there were limitations with how far I could go with it and the extent to which it would give me scope to explore what I want to narratively. I’m super pleased to have broken through that barrier. The cartoon is drawn, the colours selected the samples woven and recorded. All that is left is to get warped up and to get on with it. I need to finish it before I start my Fellowship so I suspect I am going to have to keep my head down for a while to get it done. I’m not trying to be a tease about the nature of the new tapestry by showing the samples, I just thought it best to talk more about it and the ideas behind it once it has properly got going.

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I ‘ve also made some changes to how I work, whether I will stick to them or not I don’t know. The most significant is that I have started to ban myself from the workroom at the weekend. Whilst I am not yet spending the time running through flower-filled fields and basking in the sunshine, it has given me the space to try things I wouldn’t have allowed myself before, exploring off-loom weaving techniques, blowing the dust off my sewing machine and mucking about with free-form embroidery and more drawing and sketching.

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In amongst all this I am happy to report the 1in4 exhibition (above) discussed in my last post was fantastic. The quality of work was phenomenal and I was really proud to be amongst them. I have just learned that several of my tapestries have been selected for an exhibition at the Platform Gallery next year – more on that later. I also had a great day with the Bradford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers talking about tapestry, I was made to feel very welcome and really enjoyed myself. And I was thrilled to take part in Crafted by Hand in Masham (below), always a wonderfully organised event and a great opportunity to get young folks weaving. Much work has also been done getting plans together for my travels in the Spring.

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I am looking forward to visiting the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate this week and very glad to see a weaver has been included amongst the gallery exhibitors, the very innovative tapestry artist Cos Ahmet. I can’t wait to see his work in the flesh. Of course I’ll tell you all about it. Until then, ta ta for now xx

Saying it with weft – a new tapestry finished

Putting weft in and out of warp, there’s only so much you can do without distorting the nature of the cloth. Whilst I’ve always tried to circumnavigate this rigidity by using textured weaves like soumak to create curves and flow, I’ve always felt I was somehow cheating the nature of the medium. But there are some weavers who seem able to just drip the weft from their fingertips and create incredibly expressive weavings; I’m thinking here of Finnish weaver Aino Kajaniemi, the twentieth century German weaver Johanna Schutz-Wolff and a weaver who I only know through a couple of small images of their tapestries, Rojane Lamego.

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The need to find a more expressive way to weave myself became increasingly apparent after embarking on the life drawing classes made freely available by Bradford College of Art. Turns out I wasn’t entirely rubbish at drawing. I learned I had scope to explore, that I needn’t jump on the first quarter-decent image I produced despite myself and subsequently devote the rest of my weaving life to it. I became much more liberated in the design stages, certainly less petrified. I’ve begun to draw for its own sake and not just to make something to weave. I also.learned when it came to drawing I leaned towards quick, loose, abstract images (and large-scale, gasp), and I wanted to find a way to translate that looseness in my weaving.

Initial samples focused on eccentric wefts, loose weaves, plain weaves, painted warps and textured surfaces, but I found I was still ducking away from what tapestry was. I was still hiding behind texture and gimmicks. I wanted to get back to basics; simple weft faced weaving. Writing this post I realise perhaps this is a result of my recent research into earlier tapestries.

Embrace insomnia is what is what I say, because the answer appeared in the wee hours one morning, in-between ‘did I close the freezer door properly’ and ‘when is the council tax due’. I had the answer all along, I had already woven the way I was seeking in the studies I had made for other tapestries. I reworked one of my sketches into a proper design, made the cartoon and worked some samples including the more complicated areas such as the face (below).

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I aimed to weave something where the figure and the background were intrinsic to one another, interwoven in design as well as structure, hoping this would make it more expressive than my previous tapestries.

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I also found myself finally being able to express something trapped for some time. A sonnet someone once shared with me came to mind as I was designing this (No Longer Mourn for Me), and I realised the figure was sinking into the blackness, but read differently, she was also emerging from it, and that was basically what I’ve been trying to say and failing miserably, as the graveyard of abandoned tapestries attests.

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I finished her today and I’m very pleased with the results. It took about three weeks to weave, but stupidly weaving 15+ hours a day, so probably more like five. She is 116cm x 82 cm, so smaller than what I normally go for, but she was a bit of a punt and I didn’t want to waste too much wool and warp in case she didn’t pan out. It was far more complicated than my previous tapestries but also far more addictive. I also found myself freely interpreting the original drawing at the loom which was a far more interesting way to work than being a slave to the cartoon.

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She’ll have to stay on the loom for a little while as there’s loads of left over warp to use up. But this piece, and others along similar lines, will be ready to show in May. I am very happy to say I’ve been selected as one of the exhibitors in the Open Houses Gallery at the Saltaire Arts Trail. I’ve never really had the chance to show my tapestries at this event before and I am really looking forward to the opportunity. I feel embarrassed to think of myself as an artist, but I do feel this piece is something I can be proud of and is unique to me and my voice. The Arts Trail takes place 28-30 May and the work of the artists will be on show in houses of the World Heritage Site and I’ll let you know where I’ll be as soon as I do.

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I am also thrilled to have been selected for Art in the Pen this year. This will take place in Skipton 13-14 August. I’ve also been selected for Crafted by Hand 5-6 November in Masham. I’ll update the events page on my website very soon, likewise workshops. It has been hard to plan for the year with my Fellowship travels in the offing, but as one of the places I want to visit won’t be open until the summer, it looks like I’ll be heading off later in the year. Obviously I want to go right now, now, now, but it does seem this will be more practical and give me a greater chance to prepare. It is Easter now and I am going to try to take a couple of days off. Whatever you have planned, I hope you enjoy it x

Sonnet 71: No Longer mourn for me (Shakespeare)

No longer mourn or me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it; for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,

When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,

But let your love even with my life decay,

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

And mock you with me after I am gone.

Tapestries at the V&A

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Detail from The Otter and Swan Hunt

I’m really proud to be one of the trustees of the Heritage Crafts Association and yesterday I had to go to London for a committee meeting. I soon realised I’d have half an hour free to nip into the V&A, somewhere I’d never been before. It was quite hard keeping focused as I strode through the galleries, shielding my eyes from potential distraction, but my time was short and my goal was on level three, the gallery of tapestries.

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The largest part of the exhibition were the early fifteenth century Flemish made Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, named as such because each of the four tapestries depict different forms of hunting. I’d read about them in detail so thought I knew what to expect, but as I stepped through the high glass doors and into the darkened climate controlled room I must confess I welled up quite a bit. Fortunately although the museum was busy, the gallery was deserted and I had it to myself.

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Detail from The Bear Hunt

The first thing that grabs you about the tapestries is inevitably their size and their detail. I had baulked once when someone compared tapestry to the cinema entertainment of the day, but now I kinda get it. These aren’t passive pretty pictures up on a wall to be walked past, they were vast, something to sit before and stare at and engage with and drink in one inch at a time.

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Detail from The Beer Hunt

The other thing I didn’t properly anticipate were their colours and vibrancy, this was especially so with a tapestry called The Three Fates. Again it was familiar to me from the text books but I had rather shamefully flicked over it as I never liked the composition of the disembodied figures against the milliefleur background.

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The Three Fates, 1510-1520

But in the flesh it became apparent that no photograph could ever do it justice; it was mesmerizing, and the vibrancy of it was jewel-like, the dresses lifted off the surface and shone like sapphire, pearl and garnet. I could not take my eyes of it and it was the one I spent most time with. That the creation of such a thing be possible with thread astounds me.

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Detail from The Three Fates

Quite rightly the room was kept dark to protect the tapestries and barriers stopped folk from getting too close. But it was quite frustrating for me as a weaver not to be able to get close enough to work out the sett, to mentally unpick what was before me, and to look at and understand how the shapes had been formed, how the shading was achieved, what decisions the weavers made.

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Detail from The Deer Hunt

As I left I did give a bid of a nod to the weavers but as I write this and look over the photographs I realise it is so easy to overlook that all the thread used was handspun – presumably on a spindle if not a great-wheel, and the time that would have taken is monumental and the skill it would have taken to get the thread so universally fine and even, is unimaginable.

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Detail from The Falconry Tapestry

Because my time was so limited, my visit could only ever be a reccie  and I will certainly be back armed with bags of time and a sketchbook. I left the gallery quite literally overwhelmed. I could have done with a sit down and a coffee, but instead it was back into the underground and then into a meeting. There was little time to digest what I had experienced, and that is a process that is still on going. But for now I can say that the seriousness, the life, the vibrancy, the sumptuousness, the comedy, which I saw yesterday was what tapestry could and should be. I think seeing these tapestries has made me grow up a bit as a weaver and they will always be the foundation I’ll go back to as I move forward. It’s not about imitating them of course, but about remembering what there is to live up to.

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Detail from Pastoral tapestry

Also in the museum were the Raphael cartoons for a series of tapestries; they are of course stunning paintings, but the tapestries that came from them could only ever be an imitation of them. They mark, as Dirk Holger has said in a comment on an earlier post, the decline of tapestry as an autonomous art form.

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Raphael cartoon

The tapestries on the third floor could only ever have been tapestries. Tapestry is so much more than an imitation of painting, something that has cursed it for centuries. Here in he UK there will be few of us who haven’t seen a tapestry in a stately home or castle, but many will have been post-Renaissance designs and the natural dyes faded into homogeneous blues and tans. My pics taken with an iPad in a darkened room cannot do them justice and I urge anyone who can, to visit them and see what tapestry really can be.

Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!
Detail from Pastoral tapestry, but kinda think you can make up your own caption!

I managed to scoot across town and make my meeting in good time. It was held at Cockpits Arts in Holburn. I was familiar with the organisation through some writing I had done, and have met, albeit virtually, one of the artists based there. It was a warren of shared studios and it had a great atmosphere, such an amazing facility and I am really envious we don’t have something similar near me. The issue of studio space is particularly pertinent at the mo – my new loom arrived on Thursday, and next week I hope to be able to tell you all about it. I’ll be refitting what was once my bedroom into a studio, so I shall love you and leave you, I’ve got to start emptying out the wardrobe x

Week 18: Off the loom!

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It seemed fitting that as my friends Kate and Paula had been so supportive throughout this whole process that they were with me as I cut Gracie from the loom.

It all happened very quickly and it was me doing the snipping so I never really saw it – which was probably for the best as I was totally over-emotional about the whole thing anyway.

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Miraculously she stayed in one piece as we laid her down on some sheets. It was a shock how nimble she was – but there again I suppose she is a piece of cloth. Not only was it fitting Kate and Paula be there, they are also expert sewers – I’m not stupid! As they began plaiting the warps and sewing the turn back in place I knotted a few areas of weft at junction points.

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I had assumed the way I had done the vertical soumak would mean I wouldn’t have to sew up the slits but the pedantic side of me came out and I have started sewing them up and this is ongoing, taking up much more time than I thought. A meeting in London on Saturday and the Tour de France bringing Yorkshire to a halt on Sunday meant I went in on Thursday and Friday when the hall was closed but it looked like I’ll have to go in next week as well – the staff must be wondering if they will ever see the back of me! tapestry bobbins

In the mean time Shelly at Toast of Leeds has put on her blog some of the images she took (above and below) – I am in awe at how she has managed to take the common place things I no longer notice and turned them into pictures of such beauty. I’m feeling very lucky to have had this opportunity – do go over and have a look at the rest of them.

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Week 17: ….. and calm…..

Time for a confession. You know when I said in my last post that I wasn’t worried about that ripple in the tapestry? That was a complete lie – I’ve been wetting myself.

Was it a natural ripple that would disappear once it was hung? How would I know until I had cut it off the loom? And then it would be too late to fix it. What had I done wrong? My selvedges were straight, weren’t they? My warps were straight. Was it my sett or my beating? What hadn’t I noticed? What if the blocking didn’t work? Had I wasted four months of my life? Was I in fact a completely rubbish weaver and totally out of my depth? What had I done? What, what, what? And therein began many a sleepless night, especially last night. I decided to get to East Riddlesden early this morning and loosen the warps while we were closed so if there was still a problem I could smash my way through one of the rose windows and leap to a noble death in private.

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I untied some lacing to the sides of the loom and huzzah, all remained well – the blocking had worked. I then slackened the warps and although there was a slight ripple it was clear this was a completely natural product of her still being on the loom and would drop out once she was hung. Within seconds all that worry was gone. But I wanted to hang around for the day just to keep an eye on her and so when the lady who looks after the day-to-day conservation said she could do with a hand cleaning the carved woodwork of some of the four-posters I was happy to volunteer my services.

100_6040 I can finally start relaxing a little and be proud of what I have done. I planned to go in next weekend to cut her off, but managed to remain ignorant of the impact of the Tour de Flipping France – the roads will be closed, there will be no public transport, the hall will be shut. So it looks like I may go in later in the week, even though we will be closed and cut her off then. From the picture below you’ll have to take my word for it that the edges are straight – I could’t get the angle of my crappy camera right.

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This has been my first week at home for a while. Fortunately I had a lot to do with my weaving editor hat on, for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I was also able to catch up on the housework (not that you’d notice that now). But it has been hard to settle down to work on the next project. I am waiting to hear about an opportunity but it won’t be for a few weeks yet; until then I don’t know if I’ll be weaving at home or elsewhere. If I am to weave it at home I can’t really start until I have revamped what was my bedroom into a proper weaving studio. I suppose I need a break and need to stop beating myself up about it. Now I know Gracie is ok I am sure I’ll be able to settle and will make use of some quality easel time.

I am trying to find a way to tell you about the next project, but it is hard and personal, but I will do so eventually. I showed my initial drawings to friends who I know will be honest and whose opinions I trust and respect and am much encouraged by their reaction. One of them suggested weaving it as a triptych and I am seriously considering it.

Right I’m starving so had better go see to my tea – besides, I don’t want to keep carping on x

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Weeks 15 & 16? : End Game

To be honest I have lost track of what week it is; the closer I got to the end the harder I worked and I just kept my head down and wove like a demon. On Wednesday I planned to finished her but instead was lured out by artist Kate Bowles to a two hour picnic in the glorious sunshine under the rose covered ruins of the Starkie wing. After that going home early seemed the only decent thing to do. I had a snooze on the sofa for an hour; thinking of standing for MP.

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So it was Thursday when I finished her, but not before deciding to take out one of the hair petals and so had to reweave it using the colour of the background and a needle. I was quite shocked when she was done, I knew it was coming but was still a quite sad, like I wasn’t expecting it. I guess there is a natural anticlimax – this project has been the main focus of my life for six months and now it was effectively over. I went in on Saturday to weave the header and then a volunteer and I loosened the tension on the loom ready to let her settle before I cut her off in a week or so. There was some slight buckling through the centre although I’m not too worried about it, the tapestry is quite close to the bottom beam so I suspect it is just a natural fold caused by the different tension between the top and bottom of the loom and it should just drop out once it is hung – it is a piece of cloth after all. But I was a good girl and blocked it, just in case. I’ll see what it looks like next Sunday and release the tension on the loom then. If need be I might have a bit of a re-weave of the top left corner, but I shouldn’t think it will be necessary (takes a deep breath and reminds herself perfectionism is a good thing).

Yesterday morning Shelly Mantovani from Toast of Leeds came to take some photographs. I usually hate having my picture taken but I really love her work and was happy to put myself in her hands.She made me feel very relaxed and although it will be a while yet before I see the results, I am very much looking forward to it. In the meantime here is a pic by Kate just after our picnic (yes, I am stroking Gracie’s cheek, she is my baby).

Chrissie Freeth TapestryStill no news on the fundraising, but one of the volunteers made a really touching point yesterday; East Riddlesden was empty when it was handed over to the National Trust in the 1930s and it has since been filled with furniture and pictures from other properties. Apart from a grain store, Gracie is the only thing that really does belong to the hall. So fingers crossed, you never know.

I have brought a few things home, bobbins, yarns, swift and winders and so it is starting to seem an emptier space already. But I am not sad, it is certainly not good-bye, there is still a lot to do getting her off the loom and once she is off it. But it is certainly the end game. This is my first Sunday to myself for a very long while, and I will absolutely see to the laundry and housework and under no circumstance whatsoever start moping or even consider doing any dyeing experiments for the next tapestry. I do hope my ducks aren’t missing me. 😦

So far she has taken 85 days weaving (approx 600 hours, not including the six weeks prep work), and 3kg of wool and an incalculable number of jacket potatoes from the tearooms. For some reason I thought I had woven the second half much quicker than the first, but it was about equal. Can’t wait to see her upright. Here’s the video in full. Ta ta for now x

Week 14: Getting High

East Riddlesden

I’ve reached the top selvedge and getting the bobbin through the ever tightening warps has been like dragging a reluctant elephant through a fence. The split rings were also jamming so I had to constantly re-thread them. It didn’t help that I was standing and reaching to the fell; it has been pretty unpleasant weaving experience for a while now.

The gardens here are spectacular and I took a walk one day and started lusting after some tower scaffolding in a van outside the hall; I assumed it belonged to the man fixing the boiler, but it was being used by the groundsman to cut hedges. The hall’s conservator made some calls and it turned out it would be ok for me to borrow it as long as the wood was wrapped in plastic to protect the house from any nasties in the wood. I am now at a comfortable height for weaving and although the plastic makes it look like I am incontinent, I am a very happy weaver. I don’t think it is going to be too long before it is finished.

Tapestry Weaving

I’ve mentioned in other posts about my next project; I’ve started talking about it in more detail to those who have asked, response has been positive and it is slowly becoming more real. But I am conscious that though the next project has come relatively easily and I am finding my voice as a weaver, I still have a lot to learn about exploring my ideas visually and translating them into tapestry.

I have dabbled at sketching but painting is something I have not done since I was a kid playing around in art class in middle school. I think this is why I jumped on photographic images like that of my great-grandmother; as I can’t paint or draw, I’d have to focus on pre-existing images. But I’ve begun to realise that for me tapestries should be based on original images designed specifically for them – the days of weavers simply reproducing someone else’s design are long past. But of course I can’t paint, I am not an artist, I’ve had no training. I knew this would be something I would just have to get over so when my friend Karen was getting rid of an easel I jumped on the chance of giving it a new home. I thought if I had an uncluttered space to work on then I would be more likely to go upstairs into the workroom and just play. I got the easel set up and headed to Homebase for a bit of MDF to make a drawing board.

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So there I stood, in front of the easel, a piece of the wallpaper lining I usually use to sketch on, clipped to the board. But what to paint? I remember as a child my mum telling me that there was someone in my grandmother’s family she was never allowed to ask about. It didn’t take much digging into the census to come across my great-great grandmother Delia, a schizophrenic who was put into a lunatic asylum in the 1920s and died there a few years later. She had six previous admissions and according to her records her mother and sister were also insane. I also discovered that her daughter, Delia Jo (above, in white), was transferred to the same asylum from a workhouse after becoming “un-co-operative”. She was admitted in 1925 and died there in the 1960s. Their story inspired me to become involved in helping to make sure such needless loss of freedom within the mental health system no longer continues, but I have always felt there is something more about them I wanted to explore. Included in their records is a photograph taken at admission and I had Delia snr’s on my worktop and I pinned it to my drawing board. I knew I didn’t want to reproduce the photograph, it was just part of the process, I wanted to get at something of the turmoil of her mental illness.

When tapestry-artist Janet Clarke visited last week and we chatted and discussed my fear of my inexperience, shee suggested I ditched the paintbrush and tried mark mak using something else to free myself up. I poured out some paint and reached for a sponge to hand and just went for it and this is the result. I don’t doubt that I am painting like a school girl and I am going to make clichéd mistakes, but as a first attempt at painting I am pretty chuffed. It will always be a means to an end for me, but I fully intend to keep going with it and am no longer as afraid. I am also encouraged to keep exploring more the life and experiences of Delia and Delia Jo and find out as much about them as I can. They were not to be spoken of, were meant to be forgotten and Delia Jo would have been were it not for a comment in a letter. I like the idea of going agaist their imposed invisibility, of making them permenant and visible and unmissible.

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Anyway, more ducks. The twelve teeny weeney babies are now four – there is an evil heron hanging around that has been picking them off. These are my  ducks and I will I will have my revenge.

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Weeks 11 & 12: Bunking off!

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I had a very good week at the loom, good progress has been made – actually that’s a complete lie; I disliked the colour of some of the petals of the new plait, they were too similar so out they came. I’m really glad I did it, I think it had been nagging at me for a while, so it is progress of sorts. I got to the point where I really couldn’t go on without platforms. The chaps who are making them have just got their saw fixed and I was hopeful they might get done soon so it seemed a good point to have a few days off.

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Over the last few months I’ve been developing a lot of ideas for future projects and things I wanted to try out, but didn’t have the time or energy to do it once I got home of an evening, so it was a good chance to get organised and to experiment. One goal was to try to weave a small tapestry, something that could be put in a frame. I was told recently I was unlikely to get accepted for a tapestry exhibition due to the size of my work. I did try, honestly I did, I even sourced and painted some frames. But it just wasn’t me. I think tapestries should be large, monumental even, I do struggle to see the point of some smaller works (there are notable exceptions to that, of course!). Besides, do I really want to change my work just to fit in to current ideas of what tapestry should be? Nah, not really. I am not a weaver of small things and am happy to stay that way. I did hear recently that a group is forming for folk who do weave larger tapestries and I am mighty glad to hear it.

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I also spent quite a bit of time fattening up ideas for a series of potential workshops next year. More details to follow but they will focus on traditional textile techniques; tapestry, weaving, rag rugs, patchwork, crochet and blackwork. Oh oh oh that reminds me, did I mention this fantastic gismo I came across – I found it on a Pinterest board and was so overwhelmed with excitement I forgot to note where I saw it. One of the most irritating things for me about patchwork is cutting out the flipping templates, well this is a Fiskars squeeze punch for card making but it makes templates in seconds – and no sloppy edges either, all consistent size. Revelatory!

100_5483When I wasn’t putting hexagons into every piece of paper I could lay my hands on, I also cracked open my sketchbook and started work on some ideas for my next few projects. A lot of drawings had something of Maides Coign about them, in that they were quite abstract and blocky, and made use of more soumak. Perhaps that is my thing for now, which is fair enough and I am happy to go with it while I still feel it is worth exploring.

While I was away I did miss East Riddlesden desperately and I was very glad to get back there this morning. Alas the platforms still haven’t been made so I was getting ready to be on my feet all day. I did have a visit from a colleague who I respect greatly and that made the morning pass very quickly. But then by lunchtime the skies greyed over and the heavens opened and gone was my light and I was effectively weaving in the dark. I went for a slap up lunch in the tea rooms hoping it would brighten up but it never did and I ended up coming home early; I knew if I carried on I would just end up making mistakes. The forecast is bad tomorrow too, so wish me luck. Oh the joys of working in a National Trust house! The light above the loom is an eighteenth century lantern, and quite frankly, rubbish.

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