Goodbye, Dolly

I often receive requests for copies of features and articles I’ve published. Hard copies of individual magazines can be hard to find, and many publishers don’t make back issues readily available in digital formats. So, in the spirit of open access, I’ve decided to “reprint” some of these pieces here, where everyone can find them. This piece, originally published in Selvedge in March 2008, is one I’m asked about quite frequently. The work of Tabitha Kyoko Moses is always thoughtful, and thought provoking and she probably remains my favourite artist working with textiles in any medium. I think it is her very particular combination of precision, beauty, and discomfort that I like so much. I was very happy that Tabitha also enjoyed my piece when it was published, and I urge you to explore more of her work on her website.

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GOODBYE, DOLLY

annie3
(Annies Room, the shrine under the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town)

“We have naught for death but toys”
W.B. Yeats

Several hundred feet beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a doll sits in a cold, dark room. The tattered plaid she wears is showing signs of age. Her limbs are dirty and her hair is white with dust. Gathered around her are hundreds of companions. There are Barbies and Beanie-Babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses. What are they, this dusty jumble of toys piled five feet high? What brought them here together? In 1992, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited Edinburgh’s re-discovered city-beneath-the-city and reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with the tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate. Since then, numerous visitors to what is now known as Annie’s room in Mary King’s Close have done the same. What are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous doll-memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?

deadorsleeping
(“Praying for Dolly” c.1900-1910)

All cultures mark the boundary between life and death with imitative rituals. Dolls are familiar figures in funerals across time. The tombs of the ancient dead are filled with effigies whose assumed purpose ranges from the talismanic to the admonitory. Children use dolls to play at death, mimicking grief and burial. Dolls, indeed, look like death. It is not just that in them we find an appropriate figure for our mourning, but, in their cold imperturbability, they seem like corpses themselves. This doll-corpse association is explored in Andrew Kötting’s playful and serious project, The Wake of a DeaDad (2006). Intrigued by his reaction to his father’s corpse and memory, Kötting reinvented several imitative rituals, which included inviting responses to photographs of his dad in stages of life and death; laying himself out as mock-corpse and paternal offrendas in the Mexican Day-of-the-Dead; and creating an enormous inflatable DeaDad doll with which he lived and travelled for several months.

162-6264_IMG
(Andrew Kötting The Wake of a DeaDad (2006)

With a different sort of wit and tenderness, Tabitha Kyoko Moses also explores the humanity and deathliness of dolls. Over the past few years, Moses has amassed an eclectic assortment of doll-objects from charity shops and jumble sales “I wasn’t interested in a particular genre of doll,” she says, “or in creating a collection or a history. But suddenly I discovered I had a lot of them. It was almost as if they found me.” The dolls that “found” Moses are those that are most “lost”: blemished or dismembered, loved or tortured to the point of collapse. Inspired by a mummified girl she encountered during a residence at Bolton Museum, Moses initially began to re-fashion the dolls as consolatory gifts for this long-dead and lonely child. But, perhaps like the toys in Annie’s room—gathering dust and becoming, together, something more than themselves—her dolls began to take on a material life of their own. In a process of wrapping and nurturing she compares to “laying out a dead body” Moses swaddles her dolls in lagging, plastic, printed cotton lawn, stiff leather, string, and human hair. A doll whose jolly bonnet and rosy cheeks form a startling contrast to her eye’s bald sockets is fondly adorned with a manx-cat brooch, suggesting both completion and absence. Some of the dolls have the cosy air of children sleeping. Others appear to be slightly disgruntled, uselessly struggling against the fabric bundles in which they find themselves enclosed.

thedolls2004
thedolls2004alexandrawolkowicz(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, “The Dolls” (2004) dolls, fabric, plastic, thread, human hair, bits and bobs. Photography by Harriet Hall and Alexandra Wolkowicz).

The fabric wrappings are crucial to the new life that Moses lends her dolls. These textiles are both ornament and container: the dolls’ soft coffin and their decorative memorial. Moses binds a startled bride wearing full wedding regalia in dark linen.
The+Dolls+(detail+01)
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, “The Dolls” (2004) dolls, fabric, plastic, thread, human hair, bits and bobs. Photography by Ben Blackall)

In her black shroud she becomes a figure of arrested potential, conveying the ritual proximity of marriage and death. Moses further excavates the deathliness of her dolls with the use of x-ray photography.

thedollsxrays2007
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, The Dolls. X-Ray (2007))

. . . A light-box image of the bride reveals her to be pierced with several pins. She now resonates with murderous curiosity, internal anguish, guilt, and fascination. For who, in moments of dark childhood fantasy, has not killed their dolls?

killingdolls
(“Private Investigations lead to . . .” (1907))

In their lovely, yet deeply disturbing ordinariness, Moses’ dolls and textiles recall the partially-covered corpse in Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream:

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
(Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”. Harmonium (1922) )

Stevens’ corpse is an object of the everyday. In her cold immobility she reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet, like Moses’ cared-for dolls, she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the careless weight of her hands on the well-worn dresser; her fingers’ quick movement through the stitches of the modest cloth that now decorates her countenance. The dead woman cannot speak, and yet the meanings of her selfhood are silently carried to us in that fantail-embroidered sheet.
untitled2006BenBlackall
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, Untitled (2006). cotton fabric, sawdust, human humerus bone, various threads, hand embroidery. Photography Ben Blackall.)

In Untitled (2006) Moses uses stitch as a communicative medium between life and death. These dismembered limbs, with their immaculate embroidery, are textiles of breathtaking beauty. Yet out of the gorgeous doll-things protrude human bones. Doll and corpse become one in objects that are both compelling and repellent. Moses’ embroidered calico, fashioned with such skill and care, lends respect and tenderness to the bone, and the bone in turn enhances the meanings of the fabric with its own brand of the grotesque. In complete contrast to Cindy Sherman’s doll-art which, in the public glare of her camera, strives unsuccessfully to be poignant as well as disgusting, Moses’s dolls achieve this by expressing themselves intimately, stitching their audience up with whispers.

So, to return to where we began, perhaps Tabitha Moses’ dolls tell us something abut how to feel in Annie’s room. What’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a stark materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like Tabitha Moses’ dolls, Annie’s too are part of the kindly world of things.

anniesroom

©Kate Davies

Grateful thanks to Tabitha Kyoko Moses, and to Lisa Helsby of Mary Kings Close.
Originally published in Selvedge March 2008. Revised February 2014.

on the move


Sonia Delaunay, Driving Caps, Silk and Wool, 1924-28. Included in the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition, 2011.

I am taking a break from my collection today, and researching a feature which somehow keeps bringing me back to the work of Sonia Delaunay. I came across these amazing wool and silk ‘driving caps’ that she designed, and was so blown away by them that I just had to show you. In their interplay of colour and rhythm, they capture so much of what I love about Delaunay’s work. They are hats for use as much as ornament, garments intended, like most of Delaunay’s clothes, to be worn with ease by what she regarded as ‘modern’ women — women on the move. Like Delaunay’s famous ‘simultaneous’ coats and dresses, the bold, undulating and interlocking rectangles that create the structure of these these caps are the effect of dense, woollen embroidery rather than knitted stitches . . . still, as you can imagine, they have got me thinking. But today I am not supposed to be thinking about knitting. I am supposed to be thinking about 1920s Paris and New York, of the grid of the city, of wheels in motion, sleek architectural lines, bobbed hair, sportswear, dancers and swimmers, runners and cyclists, chevrons and stripes, blocks and spirals. I suppose it does all come back to the knitting, after all.


Delaunay and her matching decorated Citroen B12, 1925


Delaunay, cars and clothes, 1925


George Lepape, cover image for Vogue’s ‘Winter Touring’ issue, January 1925, depicting Sonia Delaunay driving outfit with matching vehicle.

For anyone interested in Delaunay, I highly recommend the catalogue and accompanying essays of the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition (2011).

A grand day


(combed tops and yarn in the sample room. Wool heaven.)

Yesterday I had a grand day out. Martin and Janet Curtis kindly invited me to the opening of the new showroom at Haworth Scouring, the world’s largest commission scouring company, and an important hub of the British wool industry. The opening showcased many different elements of the industry — from processing right through to retail and distribution — and I was there to demonstrate hand-knitting and design. My sister, Helen, lives nearby, and it was great to bring her along as a spare pair of knitterly hands. Here she is working on a BMC, with some of the beautiful throws from the Real Shetland Company and my Rams and Yowes blanket behind her.

She couldn’t resist trying out one of the Real Shetland throws.

And here she is having a gander at Knit Real Shetland. (Note the obligatory Manu cardigan!)


The showroom had been fitted with a luxurious Shetland carpet, and there were other superb examples of British wool carpeting on display.


. . . as well as woven textiles . . .


(These samples are from Abraham Moon, another great Yorkshire company)

. . .knitting yarns . . .


(Jamieson & Smith’s amazing Shetland Heritage yarn, of which more another time).

. . . finished garments . . .

. . . and other innovative British wool products, such as these Shetland duvets, and a fabulous Vi-Spring Shetland mattress, of which I completely failed to take a photograph.

But my favourite thing, out of the many wonderful woolly things on display in the new showroom, was a piece by artist Angela Wright.

Angela’s wool installations take coned yarn (supplied by Martin Curtis), which is reworked and rewound into gigantic woolly hanks. These huge hanks, when arranged, suspended, and carefully laid down by Angela, have a profoundly transformative effect on the spaces in which they appear. I only had my macro lens with me yesterday, so was unable to take a picture capturing the full effect of Angela’s piece on the showroom space, but you get a good sense of her work from this earlier piece in Bradford Cathedral.


(“189 Miles” Wool Installation ver. 2, Bradford Cathedral, 2010. Photograph ©David Carr-Smith / Angela Wright)

I think it is quite rare to find textile art that manages to combine the spectacular with the contemplative, but Angela’s work is both. These installations are grand and public in scale, but there’s a quiet intimacy about them too, which arises from the woolly materials Angela is using, and (very clearly, I think) her own distinctive personal ‘feel’ for space and substance. Sited in Bradford, the historic home of the British wool industry, the installation seems celebratory and commemorative, both veil and shroud, a portal connecting past to future. There is a tremendous weight to Angela’s pieces — the wool threads hang, drape, and flow with a heaviness that is deeply emotional. Angela told me how some folk were moved to tears upon encountering the piece in Bradford Cathedral — I can well believe it.


(Wool Modern exhibition, Sydney, Australia, Apr/ May 2012, ©Angela Wright)

I recommend you go and have a look at these photographs which document the process of Angela’s wool installations from Yorkshire sheep to finished piece. Pretty amazing.

Here is Angela, discussing her installation with Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who came to open the showroom yesterday and who, like her brother in law, is firmly committed to the Campaign for Wool.

. . .Martin Curtis presented her with a very special woolly gift. . .

. . . a beautiful hand-knitted lace stole, created as part of the Shetland fine lace project.

It was a day in which, from start to finish, the best of British wool was celebrated. Helen and I felt honoured to have been a part of it and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Thankyou, Janet, and Martin, for a truly grand day!

colour

These end-of-February days are rather grey and dreich. Here is some colour to brighten them . . .

Green



Red



Blue



The yarn is my new favourite stuff to knit with. (So soft! So richly saturated! You’ll hear more about it soon!)
The swatch is one of several I’ve been making for the “Steek Sandwich” workshop I shall be leading at This is Knit in April. (That’s steek, not steak)
The daffodil bulbs are on my window sill
The bowl is from Emma Bridgewater’s new Walk in the Park range. (My favourite Bridgewater design since ‘Blue Hen.’)
The hand-coloured prints are the work of the quite brilliant Suzanne Norris. I love Suzanne’s designs – precise, evocative – and I also love the thoughtful way she writes about process. These are from her Amateur Naturalist’s Specimen Collection and you can read about the process of creating them in three parts, beginning here.

Madeiran inspiration

One of the many things I admire about Portuguese culture is the way that pattern and design are part of everyday life.

There are beautiful tiles everywhere. Most interiors are tiled, and almost every public space is enriched by a particular experience of the decorative.



Even Brutalism approaches the ornamental.


Wandering around Funchal – Madeira’s ‘capital’ – is a peculiarly graphic experience. By simply walking one is taking a sort of masterclass in pattern.

The narrative of one’s footsteps, of one’s movement through the street, is told out in tiles.

These distinctive mosaic pavements are everywhere in Funchal, from the town’s alleys . . .

. . . to its squares.

The patterned pavements seem to invite the pedestrian to the act of leisurely promenading, strolling, window-shopping.

The aesthetic is all pervasive – here is the entrance to a supermarket . . .

. . .and here is the exterior of a parking garage.

These pavement mosaics are made up of alternating pieces of basalt and limestone. Over the years, Funchal’s designers have clearly enjoyed playing with the high-contrast potential of these materials.

For someone pattern-obsessed like me, the streets of Funchal are exciting and inspiring spaces. For example, I love the way that these right angles . .

become diagonals

The particular design repeat used on this mosaic also appears in one of my Latvian weaving books, and another book I have about Estonian mitten patterns. Such cross-cultural aesthetic connections really intrigue me, and are one of the reasons that I am so looking forward to Rosa Pomar’s forthcoming book. Just pottering about the streets of Funchal made me reflect on the fundamental nature of the repeat and on how the same basic principles tend to govern the surface decoration of very different media (textiles, pavements etc). The OXO, for example is a ubiquitous feature of Spanish and Portuguese tiling, Baltic weaving, as well as Fair-Isle knitting patterns. I particularly liked this playful example.

Anyway, as you might imagine, the streets of Funchal have inspired me to produce a design of my own. I began work on it while we were in Madeira and finished knitting it last night. Here is a wee taster.

No, it is not a hat, but something altogether different. More photographs and a pattern this weekend!

I want to bob my hair . . .


Stanley Cursiter The Fair Isle Jumper (1923) Edinburgh City Art Centre

. . . just to wear this hat. I have 1920s accessories on the brain at the moment – we watched Anthony Asquith’s brilliant A Cottage on Dartmoor a few days ago, in which, between manicures, Norah Baring was sporting some fantastic hats in similar style. (Quite apart from its fashionable headgear, the film – a melodramatic paean to the power of silent cinema – is highly recommended).

acquisitive

To my mind, historians have to be acquisitive – history is basically curiosity – a getting-hold-of the answers to the questions one has about the past. In my case, these acquisitive tendencies can take a very literal form — I get my teeth into an idea, and if that idea can be relatively cheaply fleshed out with maps, prints, antique knitting paraphernalia or, as of a few weeks ago, early twentieth-century postcards, then I snap up all the examples that I can. From the sheer volume of mass-produced objects that they adorned, it seems that by the turn of the 1900s the Newhaven fishwives had achieved a quite extraordinary ubiquity as icons of Bonnie Scotland. What is written on the back of these cards is often as interesting as the images on the front:

There is so much here that intrigues me. I intend to write about it.

Meanwhile, I find myself in the unnusual position of having finished a pattern before photographing the sample. This weather does not really lend itself to the kind of styling I had in mind. But my fishy design is coming very soon – take a wild guess at what I’ve called it:

leafy

More graffiti, of a kind. If you are often out walking around the North side of Edinburgh as I am, then you may well have spotted the mysterious leaf-folk who have recently appeared near Belford bridge. One turned up a few weeks ago, and there are now five human figures plus a leafy dog. Their maker is apparently anonymous . . . but, then again, perhaps they have no maker: I rather like the nonchalant way that they seem to have just formed themselves out of the urban Autumn landscape. One often sees lone hats or gloves on this path, looking rather damp and folorn, and it is as if these lost objects have found themselves new leafy-bodies.

scuppered

Unfortunately, any plans I might have had for the weekend have been scuppered by fatigue. Yesterday was so bad that I couldn’t get up from the sofa, was approaching the incoherent mumbling stage, and had vertigo and nausea to add to the mix. Nice. Today seems a little better – at least my brain is actually working – but I know that I’m not going anywhere except to move from one seated position to another. Great! I suppose that for some days now, I have been waiting for the inevitable – I had managed a record ten good days, in which I had accomplished a reasonable amount – and then BANG! My brain kindly reminds me that things are still nowhere approaching normal. At moments of fatigue-induced frustration, it is good to remind oneself of pleasing things.

Things that are pleasing
Writing. I wrote an article. I enjoyed the writing. The article explores precisely why there has been so much erroneous gubbins written about aran sweaters, gansey patterns and the like, and will be published in The Knitter. I’ll let you know when. I also did an interview with a far-flung magazine. What is “owl sweater” in Chinese?

Walking. On my good days, I walk with Bruce, in my unbalanced, lopsided fashion, for two or three miles. Let me tell you, there is nothing like a period of immobility to make you really appreciate how nice it is to just be outdoors. It doesn’t matter how rubbish the weather, or how wonky my left side, I always enjoy it, and find each small expansion of my horizons tremendously exciting. I am also enjoying the incidental sociability that comes from having a dog along. One gets to meet some interesting local characters when one is outside everyday.

Reading
Leisurely research about the Newhaven fishwives continues. Here are some pictured around 1900 at Waverley station, in transit to the villages of Fife to sell their fishy-wares. They appear to be waiting on what is now platform 11. The one closest to the camera is knitting a stocking, and they are wearing their ordinary workaday garb – woollen cape or shawl, heavy petticoats, arms always bare to the elbows – none of that elaborate gala get-up.

Knitting.
I am making good progress on my current design which I shall resist from calling fish-heid

Music
I was completely blown away by Magnus Lindberg’s Graffiti, which we heard the RSNO and chorus perform at the Usher Hall on Friday. Lindberg chose the Latin of the street rather than the forum for his text, bringing the graffiti of Pompei — in all its witty, banal, racy ordinariness — to sonic life, complete with slang and spelling errors. The orchestral score had something of Stravinsky, something of Britten in it, the only downside of which was the odd jarring moment when I felt that, in reaching for the ancient Lindberg had got hold of the incidental music of A History of the World in 100 Objects instead… but it seems churlish to even mention this when the combined effects of orchestra and chorus were so arresting and profound. Out of the babble of the street rose individual shouts and whispers, as the folk of Pompei spoke of their lost objects, favourite restaurants, personal enmities, chance encounters. Individually, these commonplace – even facile – scrawlings suggest how ordinary and familiar ancient daily life might be – but sung in such a setting, the words became a vocal act of defiance against time and the silence of the grave. The piece proceeds as discrete moments, showcasing contrasts of colour and mood, and listening to it, one inevitably thinks of the excavatory work of archeology and the way in which it, unlike some other historical disciplines, enables access to the everyday lives of the people of the past. It also struck me as a very humble piece of music — making no apologies for the fact that the full story was unavailable, grand narratives impossible, and that the only tale that the past could ever tell would be partial and fragmentary. This might make Grafitti sound like a work of post-modern relativism – far from it – probably the most striking thing about it was way that Lindberg’s music seemed governed by a deep, and deeply consolatory humanism. It was a treat to hear it.

Things that are not pleasing.
*Two privileged young people have decided to get married. Really, who gives a shit?
*In the same week as Cameron’s enterprise advisor celebrated the positive economic effects of the ‘so-called recession’, Local Authorities like Oldham find their resources so diminished by the Government’s swingeing measures that they have been obliged to cut their mental health services by 80%. Yes, that’s 80%. Perhaps those with million-pound mortgages can congratulate themselves on never having it so good, but I wonder how the vulnerable, now-unsupported, folk of Oldham feel.
* Sometimes I feel that Stéphane Denève’s interesting ten out of ten series is woefully underappreciated by its Edinburgh audience. Tom and I are somewhat unusual Usher Hall regulars – I would say that most of the other people in that category are of post-retirement age. On Friday, Graffiti was scheduled for the second half of the evening, and was preceded by a rather old-fashioned and run-of-the-mill performance of Mozart’s twentieth piano concerto by Imogen Cooper. At the interval, I saw several familiar elderly faces necking their drinks, and buggering off before their ears were assailed by the new-fangled twenty-first century nonsense. The hall is usually pretty full, and it was notable how many empty seats there were during the RSNO and chorus’s sterling performance of Graffiti. It really was their loss, because it was, as I said, superb.

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