Hand in hand

I love to watch hands at work and I know my own hands best, so they often crop up in my work. I practised the hand positions I needed – the piecers’ hands cupped and supporting of the delicate fibres they were tasked to mend and the harpists hands, thumbs bent, braced against the strings, sinuous and contorted. These differences were turned on their head in my perception of the nature of the work they did – piecing was hard, pressured, monotonous and dangerous…and harp playing evoked gentility, ethereal melody and the touch of angels.

I wanted to create a delicate cobweb felt effect which would contrast with the metal frame and suggest fleeting movement and a lack of permanence, visible, but translucent against the light from the window. I looked at various wools to use but settled on Wensleydale, mostly for its curl but also for the Yorkshire connection.

hands wensleydale

Initially I thought of working around a 2-D resist but the position of the hands meant that this would have been difficult to achieve in such a delicate felt. So…back to the aluminium mesh I had used for the Doffer and the Fancy.

hands mesh2

And I needed a model, willing to be wrapped, at least partially, in aluminium mesh. Piecing was very largely women’s work, but I needed to upscale a little so the hands were to scale on the frame. So a male model would be better. Jon stepped up to the challenge!

hands jon

First to create the basic form:

Then to free the model:

And finally to reshape:

Cobweb felting around the mesh hands was a delicate business, needing little fibre and a lot of soap in the process. There was something very intimate, though, in this felting process – the gentle caressing of the fibres around the form, massaging the soft and delicate skin over the taught framework of metal – bone, muscle, tendon and ligaments – the holding of these fragile hands.

hands caress

I had initially intended the mesh to be a temporary mould. Then I would slit the felt along the inner arm, the wrist, flay the hands and then refelt to mend the raw edges. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Justification for not cutting came quickly to mind – leaving the frame in would mean I had fewer problems to overcome in fixing the hands in place, and would mean I didn’t have to stiffen them, and the aluminium form would catch reflected light through the fragile skin. If I’m honest though, these were just fortunate side-effects – I had just become too attached to the hands to be that brutal.

I’ll be attaching the hands to the frame nearer to installation so watch this space for photos of the finished piece.

For now though, here’s a lovely film, courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum, showing the spinning mule and the headstock in glorious action. Watch carefully and you’ll see some piecing too!

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