. . .to meet a yoke hero

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I have been excited about this for weeks – and can’t quite believe that tomorrow I am going to Göteborg to meet with Kerstin Olsson. For those of you who don’t know, Olsson was one of the group of talented and accomplished women who designed for Bohus Stickning, and the Wild Apple (above) is perhaps her most familiar and admired yoke design – indeed, it is a design that to many, including myself, seems iconic of the Bohus aesthetic itself. The Wild Apple is the only piece of knitting that, from a photograph only, moved me to tears when I first encountered it a few years ago. I still find the design breathtaking and really inimitably beautiful and who would have thought that, seven years after seeing a picture of this incredible yoke, I would be going to Sweden to meet its designer in person! I will be spending several days there, and will also be traveling up the coast to visit the Bohuslans museum. Ye gods!

Thankyou all so much for your wonderful comments and messages in response to my last post. I have been really moved by many of your memories, and am so grateful those who have shared ideas, suggestions, and information. There is so much food for thought in what you say, and for those who have written to me, if I haven’t yet responded by email, I shall do so shortly when I return from Sweden.

I have been particularly interested to read your remarks about fit and sizing, and I certainly spent a long time musing on such matters myself before and during work on these designs. Though many may feel that a yoke is never for them, I have aimed to ensure that several different kinds of yoke, involving several different sorts of shaping, are represented in the collection. In the book you’ll find deep yokes, shallow yokes, colourful yokes, single colour yokes, boat necked yokes, scoop necked yokes, yokes shaped with short rows, yokes involving colourwork, cables or beads. . . . would you like a teaser?

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. . . that’s Mel pouring me a cup of tea at the lovely Courtyard Cafe in Fintry where we held today’s photoshoot for a couple of the designs.

See you soon!

Interview with Jen Arnall-Culliford

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(Jen Arnall-Culliford in her Puffin Apple hat design)

As part of our Cross-Country collaboration, Jen and I thought it would be interesting to interview each other about our different approaches to producing our different designs. (You can read Jen’s interview with me over on her blog today.) Jen is a sharp, focused and highly professional tech editor. In this capacity, she has worked with me on many projects, including Colours of Shetland. But she’s also an accomplished designer, though for some bizarre reason she doesn’t really think of herself as such. This is something that I think needs to change, because Jen designs beautiful, well-thought out patterns, and has, I think, a genuine feel for the structure and behaviour of textured stitches. She has a real knack of bringing a classic design to life with a well-thought out, well-placed motif, such as that which you can see on her Puffin Apple hat above, or the Bruton Hoody (below) that she designed for Cross-Country Knitting. Jen, you are a talented designer, and must keep on designing! (Anyway, you can’t stop now as there are already plans afoot for Cross-Country Knitting Volume Two! ho ho.)

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(Bruton Hoody)

I should also mention that, as well as being available via Ravelry as an ebook, Cross Country Knitting, Volume One is now also available as a beautifully-produced 20 page booklet, which you can order in print from Magcloud.

So here’s Jen’s interview.

Where did you start, Jen, when planning this design?
When we hatched the Cross-Country Knitting plan, I had pretty much hung up my designer hat, and decided to concentrate on editing. I am constantly faced with the temptation of casting on the projects that I edit, and I’m lucky enough to edit many of my favourite designers, so I was generally feeling as if I didn’t have much to add to the vast number of stunning patterns that are already out there. And then something like this came along, and tempted me out of “retirement”. The opportunity of publishing an eBook with you was too much to resist, you temptress! There are also situations where I want an item, and I just can’t find the right pattern out there. I design for pragmatic reasons, rather than because I have a constant supply of inspiration just welling up within me. In many ways, I see myself as a reluctant designer, with enormously encouraging friends within the industry.
Anyway, when I do decide to design, different designs take me in different ways! This time I knew that I wanted to design something for Jim. I knew that it couldn’t be too fussy, but I wanted some knitting interest as well.
Inspiration came from a number of places…
* Jim wears lots of zipped cardigans and hoodies.
* I had a vague memory of a T-shirt he once loved that had a trio of stripes down the left side.
* Maria Erlbacher’s Twisted-Stitch Knitting is one of my favourite stitch pattern collections.
* Editing Nick Atkinson patterns for The Knitter had shown me some clever ways of knitting strips within a piece without having to break off yarns.
*Over a period of days, these different strands came together in my head to create a hoody with interesting construction and a twisted stitch panel on one side.

How did you go about choosing yarn for the design? How much did you swatch?

Ever since I used Excelana 4ply for my Snawheid, I have wanted to use Excelana (from Susan Crawford and John Arbon Textiles) for a garment. It was SO pleasurable to knit with. I’ve had some in my stash for ages, and cracked open a ball for swatching. I tried both the DK and the 4ply weights in good-sized swatches (this is unusual for me – I’m usually a lax-swatcher who will get away with a micro-swatch whenever possible – naughty Jen!). The yarn is perfect for texture work. It’s a lovely balance of great stitch definition, springy woolliness and softness. The Persian Grey shade was also spot on for Jim’s clothes palette, but not too dark to hide the cable panel. The hoody would also be gorgeous in the Cornflower Blue shade, or Ruby Red perhaps!

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(Jen’s Snawheid, knit in Excelana)

Is knitting your design an essential part of the process for you?

Again, it very much depends on the design. Some designs evolve during the knitting (Puffin Apple with its many rips and reknits stands out here!), and others are so well-formed in my head that I can start with writing the pattern straight away. I’m lucky enough to work very closely with Kim Hobley, who does a lot of sample knitting for me. She often helps me to create a design in a reasonable timescale that would otherwise have been impossible. For Bruton, I was working on a smaller-scale version (which is currently in hibernation). I needed to knit the technique so that I could explain the construction clearly in the written instructions, but in this case Kim knitted the full-size sample. We see each other regularly, so she can let me know quickly if anything isn’t going to plan, and I can check on progress too. As a technical editor I’m very used to imagining through the steps of a project and ensuring that the instructions are clear, without actually knitting it myself. I’m also happy to make calculations from the swatch and write up the whole thing from that point.
In the end I have chosen the DK weight for Bruton, as I knew I would be more likely to knit a man’s hoody in DK rather than 4ply, and the swatch has a satisfying weight and drape to it.

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(Jen’s swatches for the Bruton Hoody)

What are your aims when you write up the pattern?

I go with the same principle I used when I wrote up my Chemistry PhD thesis! Someone should be able to easily follow my instructions and get the exact same results. They shouldn’t be left wondering whether I did it one way or another. I aim for as consistent a pattern writing style as possible, with a balance between including lots of detail, but not over-complicating things. You can’t account for everyone’s pattern preferences, but I aim for a set of instructions where the information is presented as logically as possible. You and I have fairly similar pattern writing styles, so we were able to make a few minor changes on each side and ended up with something which works for both of us. I lost the cast off/bind off battle (it wasn’t really a battle!), but in return I was able to capitalise your abbreviations. Compromise being an essential part of teamwork.
(Kate says: ho ho, next time everything will be lowercase)

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(Jen’s thesis!)

Were there any challenges that were specific to designing a man’s garment?

Getting the balance of designing something that Jim would wear, but that knitters would not be bored to tears by was tricky! I’m happy with the finished garment, and Jim has been wearing it non-stop for the last 12 months, so I’m guessing he is happy with the outcome as well. I’ve been holding myself back from stealing it for my wardrobe too!

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(Jim is happy in his hoody)

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(Jen is happy in Jim’s hoody)

Thankyou, Jen!

Cross-Country Knitting is here!

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I am very excited to announce the publication of Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One!

Cross-Country knitting is a collaborative venture between myself and my lovely designer-comrade, Jen Arnall-Culliford. Jen and I live at opposite ends of the UK: she’s down there, in Somerset, and I’m up here, in Scotland. Yet the internet has enabled us to work with one another, and, as well as forming a friendship, has forged a bond between us about many knitterly things. Jen and I often talk about our design ideas, and about our general approach to design. Interestingly, both our design ideas, and our approaches to them, are really very different: in many respects, we have distinct styles, but they are styles that work very well together. Given this, it occurred to us that it might be fun to test our collaborative acumen with a joint design challenge: what would two very different designers come up with when working to the same general brief? The first challenge we set ourselves was to create a man’s garment that was functional, wearable, and would appeal to contemporary masculine tastes. It was an especially enjoyable challenge for me as, though I’ve knitted many sweaters for Tom, I had never actually produced a man’s design before. Well, this pair of garments – totally different, but distinctly complementary – is what we came up with!

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Jen designed the Bruton Hoody . . .

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. . . and I designed the Machrihanish Vest.

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I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you all about Machrihanish, (which knitted up in lovely Jamieson & Smith Shetland Heritage is of course, the garment whose steeks I was finishing off the other week), but for now I just wanted to announce the launch of Cross-Country Knitting, and the release of the e-book of Volume One!

In Cross-Country Knitting, Volume One, you will find patterns for both the Bruton Hoody and the Machrihanish Vest, plus a feature article by Jim Arnall-Culliford (aka, the inimitable Veuf Tricot) on the perils of giving and receiving hand-knits, as well as a cut-out-and-keep Cross-Country Knitting gift tag to attach to your finished knits. The e-book is now available via Ravelry, and the print booklet will very shortly be available via MagCloud.

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While I am ironing and packing up Tea Towels this morning, I thought you might be interested to read more about how they were created. I interviewed the amazing Felicity Ford about the process she goes through when producing illustrations of my designs.

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1. I know you have many artistic skillz in all kinds of fields, but had you ever drawn knitting before?

I often make rough sketches in my notebooks for potential garment ideas, but the first time I properly “drew” knitting was when working on the schematics for my own pattern, Layter. I drew a line drawing, scanned it, then started messing about with it on the computer. It wasn’t long before I realised the effect I was after would be much better achieved with an old fashioned set of pencils and paper. So Layter was the first proper drawing I did of knitting… though I can show you some earlier drawings if you’d like to see!

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(Above: sketching garment construction; below: pleasing hand-drawn diagrams illustrate the construction of Felicity Ford’s Layter and Blayter designs)


2. Does drawing knitted fabric present particular challenges for the artist?

Knitted fabric is 3D and highly structured; it’s not really flat at all when you start to examine it… there is what you see at the front, but also the whole architecture of that fabric, and the way it is comprised of different combinations of loops. Montse Stanley’s classic knitting book has some of the most beautiful drawings of knitted fabric that I can think of, but these are mostly very specific close-ups of different techniques. The challenge when drawing a knitted garment rather than a specific set of stitches, is knowing how much detail to go into. Representing every individual stitch is impractical and unnecessary, but I think specifics like the overall impression of a sleeve cuff or the way a cable travels should really be clear. A schematic has to be instructive, and so I am always thinking about the knitter who will refer to the drawing, and trying to make sure that everything I would want to see in that is there for them. Another challenge is to convey something of the presence and materiality of the end garment. In your designs, the materials are so important – you always explain the yarn you have used and the way it behaves when you release a new Kate Davies Design – and I think that this aspect is as essential to show as the shaping and patterning. I try to convey a little bit of that texture when I make the drawings, too, and this is achieved through varying degrees of pencil shading, which stands in for the halo that a nice woollen spun yarn produces, or the shadows created by a nice big chunky cable…

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(sketching a cable)


3. Can you describe your process when producing these illustrations?

I start by studying the set of photos you send across, and working out which parts of the garment I do not understand. How exactly is the neck shaped? What precisely is the slant in to the waist, how short or tall is the garment, how are the cables working? I usually make a big stack of sketches to work out these details before I am happy that I understand the shape properly, and that I have a strategy for dealing with all the details. I practice the difficult parts – colourwork; lace patterning; cables; – to make sure I have a way of representing them which I, as a knitter, would find useful to see. Then I confidently draw the schematic, trying as much as possible to only use a single, assertive line of black ink, with pencil to emphasise details.

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Progress on Firth o’ Forth illustration


4. Did the process of producing the illustration teach you anything about the design and construction of the garments? Did you look at my designs with fresh eyes?

YES! For me the most exciting thing is that any decent drawing should contain a good search… a search gives a drawing its energy, and there is always a lot of discovery in the process. Where exactly is the edge of the thing? What exactly is happening with that lace texture? What I most enjoyed about drawing your designs was uncovering the level of precision and care which you take with the details of each one. I loved uncovering the care and precision with which you attached the hood to the body in “Get off my cloud”, for instance, and the mischievous pixie-esque hood with its naughty little peak. I also enjoyed the signature i-cord which you use in so many designs, and whenever I was carefully trying to render this, I remembered reading that you liked to make very solid outlines in your drawings when you were a child, and – indeed – some of my drawings return to that idea because the best way to show off the bold, tidy edges is with thick outlines… I’m thinking of “Blaithin” in particular with its tidy, precise i-cord outlines.

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Get off my Cloud

I had noticed your attention to detail before, but it became particularly apparent when I lined up all the designs together and started really examining each one. I love your photos very much – you often present your designs in a very rich context with links to landscape and place and materiality – but isolating the garments away from this rich context, stripping them back to construction, shape and texture, and rendering them in a reduced, monochrome palette definitely made me look at them all with fresh eyes. I was especially struck by the range of different neck shapings you have used throughout your oeuvre, and the different approaches to doing the ribbing at the edges of garments. It really became apparent that the shape of a neck or the way the edges are done can change the whole feeling of a garment.

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Deco

5. The primary purpose of schematic illustrations is to be . . . illustrative! That is, their function is to help knitters gain an accurate sense of a garment’s sizing, dimensions and construction.

Yes – it’s essential that the illustrations are functional and serve a useful purpose! I am fascinated by instruction diagrams and actually collect the wiring diagrams that come on the back of plugs, because I am so fascinated to see how different illustrators convey the same instructive information! Plug wiring diagrams assure you that you’re not going to blow up the fuse box as well as showing which wires should go where… With knitting I think there is a similar need to reassure the knitter that things are going right, or what to look out for in case things are going wrong!

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6. Are certain kinds of garments trickier to reproduce in this regard?

I think about what might confuse me in making a garment and try to reassure the knitter about the facts of that garment. My common errors in reading a pattern are that I don’t do enough rows of this or that; or that I accidentally skip a bit; or that I start decreasing too early or too late. I therefore try to show clearly in the schematic the proportions of each stage, and also things like whether you do the neck band or the button band first on a cardigan, so that the knitter has a kind of compass to help them navigate potential pitfalls. I also want my drawings to look like the knitting the knitter will be knitting, so they are a little bit more organic and softer in line than plug diagrams! The hardest things by far to deal with when working on these schematics are the cables. The easiest mistake I think to make when knitting cables is to end up with the stitches travelling over when they should be travelling under or vice versa, and I spend a long time studying the photos and making diagrams for myself to refer to so that the cables are nicely mapped for the knitter. I find this tricky and time-consuming, as it is very detailed and finicky and involves staring at photos of your sweaters for long periods of time! That said, it is always very pleasing to finally understand how the cable works and when I was working on “Port O’ Leith”, I found that thinking about the winding, sculptural cables there really made me want to knit them!

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Port o’ Leith cables


7. Which was your favourite garment to illustrate and why?

I can’t just say one! Manu and Deco were really pleasurable to draw. I have knitted Deco and love the rhythm of the slip-stitched ziggurat that defines that design. It was a pure pleasure to think about how to reproduce that in the drawing, and I loved the challenge of getting those horizontal lines properly proportioned, and revisiting the clever, neat shape of it with my pencils and pens. Manu I have not yet knitted, but the soft yarn it is made from, the lovely puffy quality of the pleated neckline, and the rounded pockets were all details which I really enjoyed studying and emphasising in my drawing. I had always appreciated the simple elegance and wearability of Manu, but drawing it made me really appreciate the sophisticated choices you made with the yarn, the shape of the pockets, the perfectly proportioned and flattering puffy neckline, and the length (which took me a while to properly understand!)
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8. And which proved the most vexing or tricky?

Firth o’ Forth with that lovely all-over lace texture was quite tricksome, as I really couldn’t work out how the sleeves worked, and was uncertain about how much detail to go into with the oyster pattern in my schematic. I made a lot of drawings for that one, to try and exactly show the construction, and to figure out how best to render the texture, but in the end it was also one of my mot favourite schematics, because it had been difficult to do, and because I enjoyed discovering the nature of the lace and the drape and handle of that lovely yarn you used. I felt triumphant when it was finished!

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Firth o’Forth illustration.

After Felix has completed an illustration, I often find myself seeing my designs totally anew, or thinking about them differently. I love her drawings, and am so happy to have been able to join with her the collaborative enterprise of our jolly tea towel! Felix currently finds herself at something of a crossroads, as her job at Reading University is coming to an end. Happily, she has a number of new exciting woolly, artistic, and sonic projects in the pipeline, and you can read / hear more about these here.


Kate Davies Designs Tea Towels are now available!

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We made a Tea Towel!

The time has come to reveal something I’ve been extremely excited about for some time. The Kate Davies Designs tea towel!

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My pal Felix (AKA KnitSonik artiste extraordinaire, Felicity Ford) has been hand-drawing schematic illustrations for me for a while. Now, I may be able to design a sweater, but I really am totally rubbish at drawing them in any context. There is a reason why I have never shown you one of my preliminary sketches for my designs . . . and this is because they are so bad that Tom and Mel have, on, occasion, howled with laughter upon observing them. Happily, after producing a design, I am perfectly capable of drafting up a schematic on my Mac in Illustrator or Photoshop, but I do find there is something incredibly pleasing about a hand-drawn illustration of a hand-knitted item. And Felix’s drawings are particularly pleasing. She is good at drawing knitting, I think, because she is a knitter.

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Quite apart from their excellence and use as schematic illustrations in my patterns, I just loved Felix’s drawings, and there was just something so jolly about having all of my sweaters gathered together in illustrated form. It occurred to me how amazing such a gathering would look printed up on that most humble but necessary of textiles . . . the kitchen tea towel! When I suggested this to Felix, she jumped at the idea and got to work drawing more sweaters. After some help from Nic with the towel’s design and layout, we had a screen made up, and some nice folk in London printed and stitched them up for us! I have been very excited about their arrival, and now they are finally here I am even more excited, because they really are lovely.

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The tea towels are made from a good quality 100% Fair Trade cotton. They feature 11 of Felix’s illustrations of my sweater designs – perhaps one you knitted is there?

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So, if you fancy a nice new tea towel, you can find them in my shop here.

my tam – at Gawthorpe!

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While I was away in Lancashire I popped over to Gawthorpe to see preparations for the new season’s exhibitions. Excitingly for me, my Richard the Roundhead Tam is included, – the first time my work has ever been displayed in a museum or gallery context. I can tell you that the thought of the tam being exhibited (and examined) weighed on my mind somewhat while I was knitting it, and because of this I was very pernickety with my finishing. I was heartened to read that Emma Varnam also felt similarly when producing her glorious Soliders Quilt Cushion!

Alongsisde the new knit and crochet designs, there is much more for visitors to Gawthorpe Textile Collections to enjoy as well:

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Rachel and her team are hard at work preparing the displays, including the beautiful beaded dress which you can see to the left.

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The collection includes many wonderful books of lace swatches, including this example, which Rachel Kay Shuttleworth has annotated in characteristically direct fashion.

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This amazing hexagon quilt is a recent acquisition, and joins the display for the first time this season.

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Here is Jennie Pitceathly, director of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, who I persuaded to snap a few photographs of me wearing my Richard the Roundhead tam, for you to see.

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Me and the tam, hanging about outside Gawthorpe’s very imposing front door. . .

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Then I said goodbye to the tam, which has now joined its fellows in one of the display cases.

I have received quite a few enquiries about the Richard the Roundhead design, and I wanted to be sure you all know about the background of this project. With support from Arts Council England, Gawthorpe commissioned me to produce the pattern, I was paid for this commission, and in return waived all rights in the design. I do not directly sell this design, nor do I profit from it. Its purpose, like the other patterns produced by Debbie Bliss, Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie and Jane Ellison, is solely to raise funds for Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. If you purchase this pattern, therefore, you are directly supporting one of the most significant textile collections in the UK, enabling Jennie and Rachel and their team to continue the work that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began, inspiring future generations about textiles and textile history. If you are a shop with a wholesale enquiry about the Richard the Roundhead pattern, you should contact Gawthorpe Textile Collections directly.

Gawthorpe Hall and its Textile Collection re-opens to the public on March 29th Please do pop along if you can!

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

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(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?

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(“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.

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(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.

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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.
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(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.

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(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?

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(“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.
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(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.

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