Creel

I’m going to skip the spinning process for the moment as those pieces are very much in their early stages, but jumping ahead, let me introduce you to The Creel.

Playing an important part in the weaving room, this is a stepped wooden frame, housing 240 bobbins where the warp threads are organised and tensioned before feeding onto a warping beam for the looms.

P1000170

When I first saw it, it held a number of bobbins of fine, dark green warping thread, some standing true, others slumping over, some feeding up through the hooks and orifices and dangling down in a spidery canopy suggesting the decline of a more orderly former life.

It reminded me of a neglected winter garden, withered and a little untidy. My gaze moved to the nearby window, down to the weeping willows outside, devoid of leaves, their beautiful, translucent forms revealed.P1000252

 

Perhaps I could bring the outside in a little, and ‘grow’ some forms on this frame.

The idea was born to felt bobbin-like forms, to extend each one up into a single thread and feed this up through the creel frame into a weeping canopy. I wanted to bring in the colours of the green oasis which surrounds the mill, hidden, now incongruously, between the arterial Armley and Kirkstall roads which carry busy commuters to and from Leeds centre, largely unaware of the calm of the river valley just a stone’s throw away.

First I felted a sample bobbin.

bobbin

Then I turned to my sketchbook.

P1000797

The prospect of felting 240 bobbins was blood-pressure raising, and I was relieved when Chris Sharp, the curator, not only obtained the necessary permissions for this intervention on the creel, but also suggested it would still be effective if I aimed for a partial fill of the pins.

Nonetheless it was quite an undertaking. Alongside the other pieces I was working on, I mentally allocated February to do the felting (first needlefelt to form and then wetfelt to firm), March to dye them and April to add hand stitch, texture and surface decoration.

A donation of fleece from my lovely friend, Elizabeth Stocker and her sheep, Woolly, Curly and Mouse, was most welcome.

I used this as the core wool and added a thin, more loosely felted tonal layer with three natural shades of Bergschaf from Adelaide Walker in Ilkley.

It was slow going, so I took an apprentice. After a long day at the office, Jon spent the evenings needlefelting the cores while I added the tonal fleece. It was a little costly in broken needles initially but his technique improved greatly. Just generally in life I am indebted to him for his patience, tolerance and good humour as I come up with one  mad-cap scheme after another…but this deserves a special mention…and I’m sure he’ll be delighted if I leave him the finished 130 bobbins in my will!

jon needlefelting

Gradually, the pile of bobbins grew.

 

Next time: Colour and texture, and being an individual in the crowd.

On my knees

To work on my first piece.

The first thing to do was to make some maquettes so as not to waste the tempting roll of underlay which Texfelt kindly donated…I’m not sure quite what they made of me…middle-aged woman artist enraptured by the aesthetic of their humble and normally unseen product…but they were very generous and threw in a tour of the factory for good measure!

The first maquette was a paper-and-sellotape affair; shortly followed by one made of felt scraps. There were several unpickings and modifications of this, until I was happy with the twisted forms.

d&f maquettes

Transferring these to squared paper came next and then scaling up to human dimensions onto dressmakers’ pattern paper.

d&f upscaling

I knew things would be tight, so wanted to pin all the pattern pieces out before starting to cut. This necessitated a complete move round of the studio in order to get a clear 5m run.

d&f pattern pieces

Cutting underlay proved quite a job and quickly blunted the titanium blades on the rotary cutter…perhaps fortuitously… I ended up with a badly cut, but not amputated finger!

d&f pattern cutting

I had, of course, made sure that my sewing machine would cope with sewing such thick fabric, but what my small sample hadn’t revealed was the physical difficulty of dealing with such a weight of fabric. I couldn’t let the needle and presser foot bear the brunt of this …but a day of sewing left my shoulders and arms in no doubt that it had been a tussle. I was so stressed at this point I forgot to take a photo! At the end of several days of struggle though, they were standing!

d&f standing

Recycled, felted underlay is designed to resist wear and provide padding, but does not have the strength of a weave nor the fibre length of virgin wool. Concern that the strain on the curved seams, once I stood the figures up, would, over time, tear the felt from under the stitches gave me some sleepless nights.

d&f taking a break

Aptly for underlay I got back on my knees, but not in prayer. Firstly to work out where to position the cones. My ‘alternative technology’ (red yarn) approach to 3-D design:

d&f grid

Then, hammer and heavy-duty hole punch in hand, I spent the morning contributing to the creative sound track of the studio with a percussive rhythm unusual for a textile artist!

Meanwhile, back at table level, a small army of aluminium mesh cones were in production. I had thought I would sew these into the underlay, working from the back, but a friend rescued me from what would have been a sisyphian ordeal and suggested I use silicone sealant. Very much learning as I go, here’s my first venture into the world of Slow TV – filming myself without getting silicone all over the camera, then hours grappling with simple editing software. There is so much I do not understand in this world!

Sticky, but successful! In a lightbulb moment I also realized that this would also be a way of strengthening the seams by impregnating the underlay spreading the tension and reducing the risk of tearing.

Now to add needlefelt and stitch. Temperatures soared for the time of year, so I took my spiked underlay blanket and worked in the sunshine on the terrace at the studio

d&f stitching 1

Almost done now. But looking back to my original design, I wanted the group to be brought together by a tenuous spiral of fleece, passing around and between the drums. Blood red… for danger.

A visceral dyeing session ensued.

d&F dyeing

Finally – a little hint of the finished piece. A full photo shoot is for another day!

 

Re-imagining

The Doffer and the Fancy … who exactly are they?

For that, we need to go back to my first love – the magnificent carding engine._DSC8272

The carding engine is made up of sets of rollers, all covered in metal toothed carding cloth. Its purpose is to disentangle the woollen fleece and align all the fibres, ready for spinning.

You feed fleece in at one end and you get lovely soft slivers of wool at the other.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have a more modest but also much-loved equivalent at home where I prepare fibres for feltmaking, either carding fleece or creating colour blends.

DSC_0212

I only have two drums on my carder – one to draw the fibres in, which then feeds them onto the main drum.

I was curious to know why the big carding engine had so many cylinders arrayed around the main drum like a rainbow.  So I did some research and discovered that…

carding machine research

…not only do they have different functions, but they also all have names!

The main drum is called the Swift.  The deliciously-named Licker-in draws the fibres in and feeds them onto the Swift.  A series of Workers and Strippers then keep the fibres on the Swift, catch any loose fibres and feed them back into the system. Finally, the Fancy raises the fibres a little from the Swift ready for the Doffer to catch them and feed them out from the machine.

For me, the power and resonance of the names immediately imbued the rollers with character and personality.  I wanted to stand them up and see them as individuals, but also as a group, close and conspiratorial in their actions.

D&F sketch

I was struck by the tensions of their work which brought them together as a team but also the tearing apart which was at the heart of what they did.  The irresistible force of the rollers to drag in and shred anything (and, sadly, anybody – these were dangerous times for the workforce, adults and children alike) which intentionally or unintentionally fell prey to the teeth of the Licker-in.

My initial plan was to wet-felt spiked cylinders – human sized vessels.  I worked out the logistics, but it didn’t quite do what I wanted. Too soft. No bite.

Then I came across Texfelt – a Bradford company who make thick needle-felted carpet underlay using recycled woollen textiles.  It is beautiful stuff – not too processed so you can still see some of the original fibres – but better than that, it made a connection from the present to the history of the Mill.  West Yorkshire mills, including Armley, were famous for the production of shoddy – a cloth made with a mixture of recycled wool fibres, mixed with a little new wool for strength.  I liked the look of the Textfelt underlay, I liked that it was felted, I liked that I could stitch and needlefelt into it and I liked that it was locally produced and resonated with the recycling of the shoddy tradition.

A decision was made.

texfelt

But what of the teeth?  I wanted to introduce a new texture. One hope I have for this exhibition is that it will give me the opportunity to widen the scope of the materials I use.  After some experimentation I settled on aluminium mesh – a crisp colour and texture, a good contrast with the underlay and relatively easy to manipulate.

d&F1

So….materials sorted… time to get making.

Next time: cutting corsets on the floor, struggling with scale and getting sticky with silicone!

A different way of seeing

I wonder whether artists, left to their own devices, create the sort of exhibitions that they themselves enjoy visiting the most.

When I’ve really enjoyed an exhibition, it tends to be that I have lost myself in it. I’m not a great reader of wall texts, I don’t always seek to understand, at least not as soon as I go in. I’d rather walk round first on my own and immerse myself, taking my pace from the work…not stopping at every piece. I’ll read the texts later, if I feel I need some information.

blog 10

The immersion can take as many forms as there are exhibitions, maybe provoking a dizzying colour rush, or a set of gentle realisations, or a feeling of comfort or unease or the discovery of something which makes me make a connection and see the world in a different way. I think that’s maybe the key for me…initially an experience for the senses or emotions and later a shift in perspective.

Whenever I go to Leeds Industrial Museum, that is how I feel. The machines, the buildings and the site fascinate and entrance me. The forms of the machines are stunning,

blog 1

their intricacies draw me in,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the stone, the brick, the ironwork, the plaster are a palimpsest of usage over time.

 

I’ve spent the greatest part of my life now in West Yorkshire, the birth place of both Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and have been infected with a deep love of sculpture. You can move around it, and by doing so, see the work anew, as the light and shadows and perspective change. Run your eyes over the contours and textures and feel them in your imagination. Look through them into their hidden depths and out to the space beyond.

blog12

For me the machines at the Museum are sculptures.

I gaze at them, walk round them, look through them.

Lose myself in them.

blog 9.jpg

Leeds Industrial Museum oozes history at every turn and that’s what most visitors come for and enjoy there.

But an understanding of the past is not all it has to offer.

What I want my exhibition to do is explore another way of seeing this amazing place.

Next post: Time to get to work on the first piece…and to meet the Doffer and the Fancy!

First love: the Carding Engine

In 2017 I fell in love – tall, dark, powerfully built, with hidden depths and not without a hint of danger. Two years on, my passion for the massive carding engine at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills remains undiminished.

carding engine

There are other wonderful machines at the museum, about which I’ll write more in due course. But the more I look at the carding engine, the more I see, and the more I appreciate the arching frame, the whorls of axles and drums, the menacing toothed carding cloth, the whispy hints of wool and the base stability of iron.

There is scope here to fill a life time of imagination,  sketchbooks and creativity.

carding engine

I came to Armley in 2017  with other members of The International Feltmakers Association, to do research for a joint exhibition, which took place in 2018.

“Wool Stories: The Felted Mill”  was a great experience all round and, as it was drawing to its close, I felt bereft.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There was so much more to explore.

So…

… I had a few conversations,

wrote a few emails,

had help from some very wonderful people

and survived a load of sleepless nights …

… but the germ of an idea was born, nurtured and developed.

_dsc8244

So now I find myself a couple of months into preparing for my own, solo exhibition at Leeds Industrial Museum.

“The Doffer and the Fancy: Reimagining the Machine” will open on 29th June. I’m planning sculptural pieces, sited around the museum, alongside the machines which inspired them, plus sketchbooks, hangings and displays explaining my processes which will be housed in the exhibition gallery.

I’ve got so much to do before then,

and so much more to learn.

I have to confess I am both very excited and absolutely terrified!

danger sharp spikes

This blog is part of the adventure. How do you get from being textile artist who sells work at shows…to creating and organizing an exhibition for the public? How do you start? How do you put an exhibition together? What new skills do you need? How do you channel and harness imagination and skills to celebrate an amazing museum and reimagine what you see for other people to experience?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Much more on this in the weeks to come, so if you’re curious about the project, or harbour a secret passion for big machines, or love textile processes or just want to keep an eye on what I’m up to, please follow, join the conversation, share, and enjoy the ride!