Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
I am working in one of the lighter areas of East Riddlesden Hall but if it is overcast outside it does get quite grim – one day I couldn’t even tell one ball of yarn from the other! Even so, I finally got going on the red skirt and was weaving like a demon, feeling pretty damn smug if truth be told. And then the sun came out – and I could see what I was doing. Gracie’s bottom was full of blotches and streaks. It was clear where one bobbin ended and another began. To some extent it is inevitable with the yarns all being hand-dyed – I just wish I had seen it earlier! Slowly on Wednesday I began to accept all that work was going to have to come out.
It took a goodly while to cut it all out, being careful not to cut through the warps. But it was the right thing to do. if I am not a perfectionist, I have no right to sit in front of a loom. It took a few days to begin re-weaving it, this time hatching the different bobbins and fortunately the blotches have gone. The red dress is such a huge area of the tapestry it simply had to be right. One wants some variation, that’s the reason for dyeing it the way I do but there is a balance to be struck. And although hatching is a slower process it is actually making the weaving more enjoyable and interesting.
She is really taking shape, she is becoming the tapestry I saw in my head, and that, to be honest, kinda blows my mind. It will be a bit weird weaving her face and having her watch me working on her over the next few months but we are very nearly at that point.
We’ve had some really lovely visitors this week and I am getting much more used to being an ‘exhibit’. I’m used to working on my own, and so it has been a real c-change for me, having to have conversations throughout the day. I am also managing without putting my rope up and cutting off the area, in fact I only needed it once, when I had to concentrate cutting out Gracie’s bottom. I am also beginning to accept that however many ‘please don’t touch signs’ I put on her, folk just can’t help themselves having a fondle!
I do love her muchly and I am really proud of her. Anyway, I have started a board on Pinterest if anyone is interested.
Do you remember I mentioned in the mornings the more feathery inhabitants of East Riddlesden queue up outside the door to the tearooms for their breakfast? Well I finally got a pic – to me it looks like a scene from a Hitchcock movie – but also kinda cute! Right, I have a lasagne to pop in the oven. Mind you I have been having a bit of a hankering of late for a bit of duck with a nice rich port or cherry sauce…
So we got the loom moved in. And then it all started to go wrong.
I left a few days before I was planning to start, to get the dyeing of the first batch of yarns done. The sun even shone, especially or me and the drying of my hanks. But then I started dyeing one of the colours I intended to use for the face, hands and legs. I did about 12 batches and none of them came out the same – I ended up with yellows and browns, and only the occasional ginger I was actually after. My supplier sent more dye in case it was at fault but still I could not get a consistent colour. I thought about abandoning it, but I loved the colour too much when it worked so I am going to have to see if I can mix the different shades into another colour blend, or just dye shed-loads and pull out the ones that work. I won’t reach her hands for a few weeks yet, so I have some time to make up my mind.
My friend Kate turned up on Saturday morning (with cake) and off we went to East Riddlesden to warp the loom. She was at the top of a ladder and I was at the bottom and it was so much easier to keep the tension even with the two of us. Frustratingly I ran out of warp a couple of feet before the end. Why, why, why? I had done the calculations, it should have been right.When I got home I fired off an email asking for some emergency warp to be delivered at the hall, but still it wouldn’t come until mid-week. Very, very annoying. Kate was only planning to help on the Saturday but came along on the Sunday as well to help put the cartoon up and finish what we could before the new warp arrived. The cartoon was easier than I thought it would be – Kate could fit around the back of the loom whereas I, ahem, could not!
It was lovely talking to the visitors, but it was hard for them to see the cartoon behind the warps, so it was difficult to explain the design. I thought it odd but presumed it was because it was a line drawing. The next job was to put on the leashes, a nice sit down job, especially after all the bending and reaching the day before. But it was a bit difficult, the leashes were quite hard to pull through the warps. But Kate was great chatting to the visitors, especially the kids. Except she kept telling them there were 1200 warps on the loom – I didn’t want to contradict her in front of visitors so waited for a lull to let her know there were in fact 600, not 1200. Except she was adamant there were 1200. She had counted them. I started to recalculate everything in my head and that is when I realised – we had not only warped one loom, we had warped two – we had put twice as many warps in each inch than we needed to. A stoopid mistake, too much fun and chatting! It took a good few hours to see the funny side. And at least now I knew why I had run out of warp!
But at least things couldn’t get any worse, could they. As we left the house we talked to the house steward a man who has spent years researching the house and its habitants. And that is when he told me Grace Murgatroyd, the inspiration for the tapestry design wasn’t actually a member of the East Riddlesden family and a mistake was made long ago connecting her to them. He also told me that the inscription didn’t refer to any particular women but to the Psalm as a whole, an underground code refering to its message to get ready for war. As Kate drove me home, my face thick as thunder, I don’t think she stopped laughing.
On Monday I had grown up things to do and so wasn’t at the Hall. The tapestry has been a large part of my life for so long it was very strange leaving her at the hall and having nothing to do with her for a day. On Tuesday Kate came in again, this time to unwarp half the loom and reattached the leashes. On Wednesday I wove the header and on Thursday I actually got to weave. The house has been shut during the week and I’ve had it pretty much to myself and have slowly been settling in. I’ve been kicking off the boots, and started listening to Radio 4 for the first time in a good few months. It has also been great getting to know the staff there – they are all incredibly friendly. I get home pretty tired but have writing and editing jobs to do. I have given myself a week off from the Hanging Tree but tomorrow I have to start working on it in the evenings.
When I am weaving at home I am generally watching rubbish on the laptop, tweeting and facebooking and dealing with emails, so it has been good discipline for me to just get in front of the loom and get on with the weaving and keep focused. Everything else, my other responsibilities and jobs, are not intruding and I would definitely like to keep this going in the future.
The house has been full of visitors again this weekend. There seems to be a lot of interest and many folk saying they will come back to watch it grow. A few younger visitors even had a go, and at the end of the day that’s what it is all about.
The week ahead should see some solid weaving. But now I know man plans and god laughs. Oh, did I mention I am loving every minute of it?
So as it turns out, that whole “let’s design a tapestry” thing was much harder than I thought it would be. It has taken over six weeks full-time; I jumped into a deep end without knowing it, but I am just starting to climb out and dry myself off, all the better for it, having learned a great deal and having grown a bit as a weaver.
I took for my inspiration (eventually!) an inscription scratched into the fireplace of the dining room. It is dated 1648, the year before Charles I lost his head during the Civil War and it reads “They Maides Coihn – INA –“. I really hope INA is a seventeenth century equivalent of LOL, but suspect it is not. The rest of the inscription, according to the guide book, relates to Psalm 144, which refers to women as quoin or cornerstones.
I looked at the original psalm in its entirety. It was very fitting for 1648, celebrating the strength to face war; it was popular in the medieval period for the same reasons. But the quote for the bit on the fireplace was not what I expected and of course dependant on how one translates it, basically refers to the hope that sons would grow strong like plants and that daughters would be as pillars to adorn a palace.
My own interest in the Civil War was rooted in the diaries, letters and biographies I had previously read of women during the period. I was interested in the fact that for a few years the world they knew was turned on its head, into hearth and home came war and death and hardship. Some even had to face armies to protect their property, others had to fight through the battlefields of bureaucracy to protect what was theirs. Rather than women growing to adorn a palace, their role was something entirely different; to protect rather than adorn, to support and keep together.
I could not help but wonder why the house owner made this reference to the strength of women, who were the ladies of East Riddlesden during the war? I did some digging into the Murgatroyds – the family who built the house. James was a staggeringly wealthy wool merchant – a man who twice refused a knighthood. He built each of his sons a house and although East Riddlesden was for John, the families of both James and John moved in when plague struck Halifax. The Murgatroyds were staunch Royalists. So much so, in Yorkshire, an area of firmly Parliamentary persuasion, they stuck a carving of the king and queen on top of the house in full view along with the caption “Vive le roy” basically a great big moonie. These people, whoever they were, were folk who didn’t back down, and I liked that.
James also had a daughter, Grace, and it was her son Edmund Starkie who eventually took ownership of the property. Getting hold of parish records at this tumultuous time is frustratingly difficult, but it became clear she married Nicholas Starkie, a Captain in his own right and the son of a Colonel, only it was the Parliamentary army which they served. Nicholas was killed in 1643 in an explosion at the siege at Houghton Tower. Here was one of the many families to be divided by war and I find it hard to imagine that the legal wrangling that took place to prevent Edmund’s claim on Riddlesden was perhaps not at least a little formed through the Parliamentary leanings of his family. Who knows. It has been suggested by a descendant of the Murgatroyds that Grace returned to East Riddlesden and her Royalist father and siblings, but according to the Visitation of England and Wales it looks like she had died the year before her husband in 1642.
My question about who the inscription referred to, if anyone, remained unanswered. Was it another woman of the household, James’s wife perhaps, or John’s very young daughters? Or someone else? Did they do something to deserve the honour? Alas if they did, it is unrecorded except for those strange words scratched into the stone. But I had found what I needed, real people I was interested in, real strife, real stories and I found something I could connect with and which I wanted to explore, namely the role of women/daughters within families, the strength they provide as supports, cornerstones, lynchpins, and also something of the pressures and suffocation and claustraphobia that this role can bring.
The finished tapestry will be an abstract figure, holding up something unseen beyond the edge of the tapestry and also being weighed down by it. The background will be blended blacks, browns and red, her dress will be reds and rusts, her face hands and legs a leathery ginger and the areas of her plaited hair will be in different shades of blended browns, all hand-dyed, of course! There are going to be wide spaces of weaving and so lots of opportunities for texture. I had initially planned to outline each shape in black but have decided instead to define each area with soumak and to use it to break up the areas of her hair, and to create some sort of pattern on the dress. The cartoon which will sit at the back of the warps and will be my guide is currently 6ft 5 by 5ft in size; the edges of the tapestry will be up against the figure, there is some extra on the cartoon to aid with positioning and attaching it to the loom. Hopefully she will be quite bold and striking, something I can sink into.
All this sounds quite simple and straight forward and I have brushed over entirely the other two cartoons that came before this one, and all the wrong turns and dead ends I took! So what have I learned?
The tapestry had to be inspired by East Riddlesden. In that sense there was a brief, like a commission. But it was a goodly while through the process that I fully realised the importance of finding something within that brief that I could relate to personally. Even if there was no residency I would still weave her. Other ideas and sketches were superficial and naive. I may think I am a romantic, but I’m not at heart. It is quite black in there!
I wanted the residency to be a chance for folk to see tapestry weaving and have a go at it themselves. But as friends pointed out during an evening of Darning and Gin (no, really) I wasn’t there as a demonstrator, I was there to produce a work, something that would explore my response to my surroundings, that it wasn’t a few months ‘out’, that my residency should actually help propel me where I want to go. I had assumed I was heading somewhere more figurative, that I wanted to tell stories through my weaving, and whilst the latter aim may be fulfilled, perhaps this process will take my practise forward but just not in a way I thought it would, rather somewhere more exciting and individual to me.
I also learned the importance of listening to the advice of friends you respect, even if it is not what you want to hear. It is a very, very precious gift having folk who feel they can be honest with you. Trust your gut when it tells you something is not right.
I also learned that I can’t draw. Or paint. But I’ll do it anyway. Same with singing (apols to neighbours).
I had a major loss of faith in myself half way through but I knew the clock was ticking and that I still had to get on with it nonetheless, and it was this persistence (albeit fuelled by panic) that got me through. I am reminded by something Agatha Christie once said – “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well”
I also learned that you need to keep everything in one place, in a book, not computer files, Pinterest boards, and samples in baskets. Once they were in a consolidated location, something tangible, I could flick through and see the whole picture and the whole journey, not just snippets here and there. It is a place to play and record and explore. And I owe a great deal to the friend who did a late night mercy dash during one of my “oh god oh god oh god” moments with her project books.
I also realised I think with words. I tell stories in words, explore things with words. But I can’t, I have to turn things into images. I also needed to put aside the epic-ness of things, and hone down what interests me to a single thought, a single image. A poem instead of a novel. This may seem obvious, but I can be a bit thick for a bright bird. Of course it doesn’t mean my starting point can’t be the written word and research and records.
I ended up doing the sample blends sat on the sofa with a small frame on my lap rather than at one of the big beasties, it seemed a more intimate thing to do, less hurried and threatening, I could take my time over it and not get cross if I spent more time thinking than weaving or that I was wasting warp. When sitting at the loom it can be ‘all business’ and I had to step away from that and just explore. I guess I learned I couldn’t rush things!
So there we are. Personally I feel I have already learned so much from this process and I am not even through the door yet. The lovely folk at East Riddlesden seemed to like her and hopefully she will be a way for visitors to engage with tapestry weaving and with East Riddlesden Hall itself and its history. Now most of the prep work is finished I can really start to look forward to it and hopefully get some work done on the Hanging Tree which has alas been abandoned whilst I had to focus on this. So that is where I have been and I am sorry as always for not posting more regularly. I will be posting weekly if not daily during the residency itself – brace yourselves!