Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

intro

On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

viewing

The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

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Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

Made things

turfhouses

Since returning from Iceland, and absorbing myself in the novels of Halldór Laxness, I have found myself constantly musing on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Icelandic people. In contemporary terms, geothermal energy might lead us to regard Iceland as relatively resource-rich, but until recently it has been in many other respects, incredibly resource-poor. Growing seasons are short and few crops thrive in cool summers. In many parts of Iceland, the weather can be pretty wild; the landscape does unpredictable things — such as divide and erupt — and there are few trees, which meant that wood could rarely be used for either building material or fuel. I love vernacular architecture – to me it is the ultimate expression of the human sense of place, saying so much about the relationship between human bodies and the landscapes that surround them. Iceland’s vernacular architecture is particularly distinctive and expressive.

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These are Icelandic turf houses, of which we saw a handful of extant examples, and several careful reconstructions at the museums of Árbæjarsafn and Skógar, both of which I highly recommend. They have some similarities with the Hebridean black houses with which I’m familiar, but differ from their Scottish counterparts in that turf not only forms the roof, but is also used as a building material for the walls, being packed into the cavities left by dry stone work to further insulate the building. Having been inside a couple on a very wild day, I can confirm that turf houses are incredibly cosy and impervious to the elements – which would of course be just what their inhabitants required. But they are also relatively high-maintenance constructions, as the turf cladding requires care and renewal every couple of decades or so. This may account for their relative rarity, as may the poor regard in which they are apparently held by some Icelanders. Again, I was reminded of the Hebrides, where black houses might be thought of as shameful, peasant dwellings, and were condemned by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “improvers” as signs of island backwardness and barbarity, rather than what they actually are: that is, an ingenious human adaptation to the requirements of life in a specific landscape. In Eighteenth-Century Iceland, the traditional stone-and-turf construction was modernised with wooden gable ends and these burstabær – which were still constructed and maintained up until the 1940s and 50s – are the most commonly seen examples extant today.

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Like their counterparts in the Hebrides, Icelandic turf houses really speak both to and of the landscapes from which they emerge, and indeed into which they meld. I very much enjoyed exploring them.

Here is another distinctively Icelandic made thing which I can’t stop thinking about.

Askur
(image reproduced from here)

This beautiful object is an Askur – an Icelandic food bowl.

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(Askur in the Skógar museum)

The barrel-like section was designed to hold soup or porridge, while the lid flipped out and might be used as a plate. This ingenious dual-purpose construction made the askur ideal for consuming food on one’s knees, rather than a table, as would have been common in many Icelandic homes. These are objects with a purpose, built for a specific use, in a specific environment, but they are also incredibly beautiful, personally-prized decorative objects. Askur might be hand-carved with intricate designs, and decorated with their owner’s initials.

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They are mostly carved from driftwood and the fact that their designers transformed a found object into a made one makes them even more beautiful to me. These are practical, ordinary items built for the practical, ordinary business of feeding oneself. But they are also unique ornaments, carved from a rare and precious resource. I’d take an Askur over a Faberge Egg any day.

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Both of our guides at Árbæjarsafn and Skógar spoke of the fact that Askur are still regarded by many Icelanders as objects of shame: the signature of a culture lacking the kind of developed industry which might have produced porcelain crockery. But to my mind the Askur should be regarded with great reverence and pride: an ingenious every-day object, a signature of a nation’s resourcefulness and creativity, as well as a testament to the skill of its individual maker.

Yesterday I read these typically thoughtful words on one of my favourite blogs:

“Craft work can be seen as preserving time. Hand made items preserve time in the same way that fruit is preserved as jam, not as the unchanged strawberry or plum fresh plucked, but as something cooked and processed to preserve the taste of summer. Hand made items embody both the hours of making (time) and memories and feelings of people (the times) within the construction of the object . . .a true cultural artefact.”

This is one of the many reasons I love making and reflecting on making, and why I found the Icelandic Askur an impressive and important and deeply moving cultural artefact. I’ll leave you with some other Icelandic made things I also found moving and inspiring: beautifully carved, and just as beautifully knitted, embroidered, crocheted, and woven driftwood chairs and cushions from Skógar.

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If anyone has recommendations for further reading about Icelandic vernacular architecture, or traditions of driftwood-carving and askur-making I would be very grateful!

Milano

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This is my first project of 2014. I don’t mind admitting that it was an entirely selfish knit, just for me. A few months ago, I noticed that Jean was knitting Carol Sunday’s Milano. Ye gods, what a gorgeous thing it was! Those stripes killed me! I had to copy Jean and knit those stripes! So I treated myself to the kit, with the intention of enjoying it over the holidays. The most relaxing kind of knitting I can think of is striped stockinette, worked in the round. And my all-time favourite garment construction – the shape I can whip up while barely thinking about it – is a seamless yoke. So that’s what I decided to do. (Carol’s original dropped-shoulder design for the kit is completely gorgeous, but because I am short and narrow of shoulder, its a shape that doesn’t really work on me.)

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I really cannot say enough good things about Carol’s yarn, or her wonderful colours. The kit combines three different base yarns, all of which are majority-merino and which all knit to the same gauge. The shades have a delicious muted quality, and have an incredible tonal consonancy: by which I mean that that they all seem to speak to one another, without particular shades becoming overly dominant in the palette. But they are all totally distinct, rather than graded shades – so while they all work together, there’s still lots of contrast between them. The way Carol has put them together in sequence (from cool shades light-dark to warm shades dark-light) is genius, and really made me think about different ways of organising hues. I love the end result.

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I decided to knit my jumper tunic length – and its turned out to be an eminently wearable garment that is very nearly a dress! Because I know some of you will be interested in my design decisions: I knit the body with an inch of positive ease and added gentle waist and bust shaping. The sleeves are knit following exactly the same stripe sequence as the body (6 +2 rounds), but are worked at a slightly tighter gauge, which has reduced the length. These matching stripes allowed me to join the yoke with the correct shade, and the same round, for each of the three pieces, but to account for extra length through the body. After joining the yoke, I went down a needle size so that the fabric was tighter and closer fitting, and then later reduced the depth of the stripes to 5+2, largely because I became obsessed with ending the neck with the lagoon shade, which is probably my favourite in Carol’s lovely palette.

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Honestly, I can think of nothing I’d rather knit than a circular yoke. There’s just something so satisfying about joining in the sleeves, whizzing around, and shaping the top. Ah me. But I know from speaking to my knitting friends that stockinette stripes would emphatically not be their choice for a relaxing, selfish project. These preferences rather interest me: if you were knitting something relaxing just for you what would it be? Socks? A shawl? Would you have to to wear it, or would the making of it be enough?

I have to say that I am particularly happy to be wearing this tunic. I completely loved knitting it, and as I rarely get to wear the things I make these days, this project really has been doubly satisfying. I imagine I’m going to be knocking about in my Milano quite a lot in weeks to come.

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I can heartily recommend Carol’s kit, which, as well as completely being beautiful and delicious, is also amazing value. I have enough yarn remaining to knit another tunic of similar dimensions. And a hat too. I may well make the latter.

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And though I didn’t knit from it, from having a good ol’ read (which I often do with written patterns) I’d also recommend Carol’s design, which, like all her patterns is clear, thorough, and very well-written. In short, I heart Sunday Knits!

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My Milano is ravelled here.

sweeks!

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Well, I did it — I made me some SWANTS – or should I say – SWEEKS (ie, sweater-breeks).

I started with a large second-hand jumper (wool, of course), which I found for a few pounds on eBay. (Watch and wait is my motto)

swants

The jumper had been worn, but was in reasonable condition, and would have easily fit someone with a 48 in chest – there was an awful lot of fabric for me to deal with.

swantsing
(I apologise for the quality of these photographs, which Tom took with my phone last night. But I thought you’d like to see the whole process)

The sleeves worked really well as legs, so that was a good start. I began swantsing by cutting out the neck and shoulders, following the instructions in Stephen’s tutorial. And then, using mattress stitch I seamed the crotch front and back.

And then . . .

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. . . I still had a whole lot of jumper. Seriously, I could have almost fashioned myself a SWONSIE!

I decided at that point to do things a little differently from the way that Stephen recommends.

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(I know, Bruce, it IS an odd sight, even in this house)

I pulled the swants up so that the legs sat at calf, rather than ankle-length, cut off the ribbed waist band of the jumper to use later, and then cut away the remaining fabric that was sitting around my waist and torso (as shown above). I then made and seamed two darts at either side to deal with the excess.

Then it was time for Borgen. Although, having watched many such programmes, I harbour the weird delusion that Danish is a language I speak fluently, I still find that Borgen requires a concentration incompatible with swantsing, so I took a wee break.

This morning I pinned the old waistband, to the new waist of my sweeks. The waist fabric sat rather on the bias, so I stretched the waistband out a bit, and stitched the seam using a really strong back stitch so that the sweeks would hopefully stay put.

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BINGO.

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Not bad, I reckon, for a first attempt.

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I’m well aware that this is a ridiculous photograph, but I have to say it is the best picture I’ve seen of myself in ages, and it makes me really happy — because I am actually jumping! (As my left foot is still slightly ‘dropped’ following my stroke, it is very difficult for me to jump – and indeed it has taken over three years for me to be able to do so).

Now, I know swants (or sweeks) seem to arouse strong negative feelings among some knitters. I’m really not sure whether this is about the general look of the garment or about the fact that they repurpose old jumpers. If the former, I honestly don’t care if you think I look like an arse. I may well think that what you wear makes you look like an arse as well, but I would definitely applaud your individual style, and totally defend your right to wear whatever you fancied. And if the latter, I have to say that to me, salvaging a worn jumper, and giving it a new life, is a laudable crafty enterprise no different from repurposing old shirts in a quilt, or indeed what innovative Shetlander Wendy Inkster does with her world-famous Burra Bears. I have been wanting to make a pair of swants because I very much admire Stephen’s vim and brio . . . but also because I find myself mildly obsessed with these, but refuse to shell out £90.

See you later, I’m off down Milngavie in my sweeks . . .

a day at Gawthorpe

Some days I wake up and I feel massively, incredibly lucky to have somehow landed here, in this curious new life, as a designer of hand-knits. Last Thursday was one of those days. Because I had been invited — along with Debbie Bliss , Jane Ellison, Claire Montgomerie, and Emma Varnam — to visit Gawthorpe Textiles Collection.

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Gawthorpe Hall. Left to right Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie, Jennie Pitceathly and Debbie Bliss.

Originally built for Lancashire’s prominent Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s, with a Victorian redesign by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, Gawthorpe Hall itself is extremely impressive. But the building wasn’t what we had come to see.

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Gawthorpe is home to an important textile collection, ammassed by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Born in 1886, and heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth used her means and her position to gather textiles from all over the world, and to disseminate information about the traditions and skills that were involved in their production. By the age of 26, she had gathered over 1000 items, and began organising, cataloguing, and sharing her collection with interested visitors. Today the collection that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began over a century ago now comprises more than 30,000 amazing textiles, showcasing a diverse array of needle crafts from elaborately embroidered Chinese Emperor’s robes, to Mechlin Laces; from Bolivian chullos to Indian shawls; from embroidered maps to soldier’s quilts.

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We designers had been invited to take part in an exciting project. We’d been commissioned by Gawthorpe (with funding from the Arts Council) to produce an accessory inspired by an item (or items) from Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s collection. We began the day with a tour of the part of the collection that’s on public display.

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I particularly liked the display of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s desk and work boxes, complete with blotting paper, original haberdashery and notions, and projects in various states of completion. You could imagine her having just left the room, to take a break from her lace work.

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One of the most appealing things about this collection is the way that the hand and mind of its creator is so apparent in it. Reading Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s annotations and catalogue cards give a great sense of the extent of her vast knowledge about textiles and textile history . . .

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. . . as well as a flavour of her personality through her idiosyncratic – and strongly held – views.

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Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was also an incredibly skilled needlewoman herself, and the collection includes many examples of her work. I was particularly taken with this beautiful crewel work bedspread that she embroidered for herself.

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Begun in 1905, work on this bedspread and its accompanying accessories took Rachel thirteen years. She completed the project with a palm-tree flourish on Armistice day 1918.

After tea and cake (cake!) we adjourned to the library where Rachel Terry, the collection’s curator, had gathered an incredible range of objects for us to examine and be inspired by.

There were beautiful and intriguing knitted items . . .

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. . . and work involving other media and skills.

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One of the real highlights of the day for me was getting to examine some eighteenth-century pockets – of which the collection has several examples. You know I dearly love a pocket.

Here, Debbie and I . . .

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. . are checking out these beauties . . .

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. . .which date from the early eighteenth century and whose neat chain-stitch is still beautifully fresh and bright.

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Here, Rachel is showing us a tiny pocket . . .

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. . . which had been fashioned for an infant.

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And I was gobsmacked by the detail of the beautiful corded quilting on this pocket . . .

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. . . which had clearly been cut from an earlier garment. The fabric was certainly too glorious to waste!

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Can you think of anything better than hanging out in a library with great company, getting to examine beautiful historic textiles, and being able to learn about those textiles from their curators? Well, I certainly can’t. It was an amazing day. Now Debbie, Jane, Claire, Emma and I have to go away and have a think about the design we intend to create. The idea is that we all produce patterns for our designs, which will be available as part of a kit from Gawthorpe this coming Spring. I will keep you updated as to my progress with the project as time goes on. I also imagine it may be hard to keep me away from Gawthorpe . . . I definitely intend to be back.

I was deeply impressed by the collections at Gawthorpe, which really are superb, and are a definite must-see if you have a chance to visit this lovely part of Pennine Lancashire. It was also fantastic to spend time with my comrade-designers, all of whom were tremendous fun and none of whom I’d met before. But more than this, I was blown away by the dedication, knowledge and generosity of Jennie Pitceathly, Rachel Terry and their small team at Gawthorpe. “I have a vision,” wrote Rachel Kay Shuttleworth in 1912, “of a place of meeting where neighbours will come for many reasons to seek stimulating thought by meeting other active minds, to find refreshment and inspiration and a joy in beauty”. This truly is what Jennie and Rachel are creating at Gawthorpe, and I feel honoured to be involved.

Gawthorpe Hall – including the Rachel Kay Shuttleworth Textile Collection – is open to the public 12 noon-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday until 3 November 2013. The hall will re-open in the Spring of 2014, when our patterns and kits inspired by the collection will go on sale!


For more information and updates see the Gawthorpe Textiles website. You can also follow them on twitter: @RBKS_textiles


All images in this post are reproduced courtesy of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are not to be reproduced without permission.

still making

yarn

Worry not . . .I’m not going anywhere.

I produced yesterday’s post because:
1) this is my space and its useful for me to have a record of such decisions
2) this is your space too, and I like to be honest with you
3) some of you may have been expecting to run into me at various events, and it is only fair to inform you of my absence

Really, I am OK — I am just someone whose health can be annoyingly variable and who, because of this, has limited resources. I have to use those resources in the best way possible, and pondering the imponderable question of whether or not I may let someone down because I may be unwell at a certain point three or four or six months down the line is simply not a good use of these resources. I have to cut myself some slack, and yesterday’s decision is simply the best way for me to do this. I know that all of you living with chronic conditions, or who have experienced the interminable frustrations of recovery from strokes and other brain injuries know exactly where I’m coming from (a big shout out here to Jen and Dancing Beastie with whom I feel tremendous solidarity).

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The thing is, that however rubbish I am feeling, I cannot stop making stuff. I might have felt totally crappy last week (you know things are bad when getting dressed marks the day’s first insurmountable hurdle) but I still turned out a sweater and this pair of socks. The experience of grafting the sock’s last stitch, or of putting the sweater in to block, probably represents accomplishment at its most basic, but I can tell you that such experiences have saved me from some very black places when I’ve been at my worst.

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So I want all of you, my virtual friends, to know that though you might not find me at a show or in a class, you will generally always find me here. Still making.

36 hours in wool world

I appear to have spent the past thirty-six hours in the place Tom refers to as Wool World. This is not actually a world full of wool (just imagine!) but is rather a particularly intense state of being, characterised by a vacant stare, furious knitting, and the inability to talk about anything but knitting. Conversations between ordinary humans and those who have entered wool world tend to go like this:

Tom: What would you like to eat for dinner?
Me: ye gods, the stitch definition on this yarn is incredible.
Tom: How about fish?
Me: Have you seen these colours? Just look at these colours. These colours are a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

While rendering one incapable of ordinary human interaction, or other necessary activities (such as washing oneself, or eating), being in Wool World does have its benefits. Individuals who have entered Wool World may have a weird and somewhat frazzled appearance; they may seem strangely distracted, and vague to the point of vacuity, but they can also be productive.

In my case, thirty-six hours in Wool World has resulted in the completed something mentioned in my previous post. The something is now blocking, and I like it immensely. The Shetland Heritage yarn is seriously wonderful to work with, and I love the results so much that I want to start knitting with it again right away. I am frankly itching to show the finished object to you, but as I have designed and made it specifically for the folk who are attending my workshop, they should really be the first to see it. But there’s not long to wait: the completed pattern will be uploaded to Ravelry on the afternoon of Monday October 8th – one week today!

Now, wasn’t there something else I was supposed to be doing? . . .

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