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.

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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.

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.

thinking time

lerwick

Well, I had a fantastic time in Shetland. As I was on my own, I stayed in Lerwick. I really enjoyed meeting up with Shetland friends old and new, and pottering about toon.

commercialst

shutters

lodberrie

stoneandwater

But I was there to work — I have a couple of writing commissions in the pipeline, one of which involves producing a short history of Fair Isle knitting for a new (and very exciting) book about Shetland textiles. So I examined a lot of Fair Isle pieces, and I thought a lot about them.

fairislefromfairisle

I saw some truly incredible textiles . . .

checkerboard

. . . so many of which defied any idea of the ‘traditional’ in Fair Isle knitting.

silkandwool

(This striking allover features 4 shades of Shetland wool and 3 shades of artificial silk)

motifs
(Fair Isle motifs, but not Fair Isle knitting)

plaid
(Fair Isle or . . .Tartan?)

So much to think about.

me

Rowan and me

feltedtweed

Some time in 2005, I was walking through the Edinburgh branch of John Lewis when my eye was caught by the display of Rowan yarns and samples. The gorgeous colours of the yarns and the beautiful styling and photography of the pattern books and magazines really grabbed my attention. On the spot, I decided to start knitting again, and picked up several balls of Big Wool in, if I remember rightly, the ‘tomato’ shade. The first thing I turned out was a gigantic tomato-coloured moss-stitch wrap on 10mm needles, and since then I have not looked back. What I’m saying is that it was Rowan’s yarns, designs, and photography — their distinctive and immediately recognisable aesthetic — that inspired me to take up my needles. I am sure that many knitters (and designers) have a similar tale to tell.

mineral

I have been writing features for the Rowan Magazine since 2009, and each one has been a pleasure to produce. Marie Wallin always provides suggestive and inspiring editorial briefs; the generous word length allows one to properly get one’s teeth into a topic; and it is genuinely thrilling to see one’s words and photographs laid out in such a well-produced and seriously beautiful magazine. Research for the fine lace feature I wrote for Magazine 50 (A/W, 2011) took me to Shetland — the first of many trips, and, for me, the beginning of another journey.

cinnamon

Although I have worked with Rowan for almost four years, I have never met Marie or the rest of the team. Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to do so, and popped down to Yorkshire to visit Rowan’s Holmfirth HQ.

damask

I had a lovely day. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see behind the scenes, to gain an insight into the complexities of the design and production process from start to finish, and to catch a glimpse (and squoosh) of what knitters will be treated to in future seasons. It was also lovely to put faces to design-room names, and to have the opportunity to chat about future projects in person.

watery

As these photographs will suggest, it was one of those incredibly busy sorts of days when there wasn’t an opportunity to make use of my camera — but these tasty balls of Felted Tweed may give you some indication of various things-in-process. All I’ll say right now is watch this space!

pine

Thankyou, Marie, David, Kate and the rest of the Rowan team for a wonderful introduction to the mill!

busy-ness

It has been an up-and-down sort of couple of weeks here. On the down side, I have not been feeling my best; there have been many more bad days than usual, and, most frustratingly, I’ve had to cancel several occasions to which I was really looking forward. I suppose some sort of energy-fallout was inevitable after the eventful and fun-packed few days of Shetland Wool Week, but still, there is nothing that dampens ones spirits more than weighing up activities in terms of their toll on ones reserves. On the up side — and it is a massive up — I appear to have almost made a book. Entering ‘Kate Davies Designs’ in the empty box that asked for ‘Publisher Name’ on several forms has made me foolishly excited, and I am really enjoying this stage of the process, which is involving some contextual writing, and the singular pleasure of seeing my patterns, photographs, and essays all laid out on the page. Some great people have been integral to this project, and every day I find myself more happy to have the opportunity to work with them, more and more amazed that this is what I actually DO. So, despite the fact that I have found myself cursing the stroke more than usual of late, really, its all good.

I’ve not been talking here much about what’s been involved in designing this new collection or in developing the book (I suppose part of me has been concerned – not unreasonably – that something was going to occur to scupper the process) but I think you’ll all soon find that I won’t be able to shut up about it. In the meantime, here are five images which give you a wee taster of each of the books five sections, each of which contains an exploratory essay, photographic lookbook, and a pair of Shetland-inspired designs.

MORE SOON!

In other news, having found myself in the singularly odd position of not currently working on one of my own patterns, I have signed up for Woolly Wormhead’s Mystery Hat Knitalong. Woolly’s designs are so innovative and stylish, and her patterns so well written that I know I will enjoy the process, and end up with something amazing to stick on my heid! The only issue is that, having successfully applied a rigorous ‘work-only’ policy to my stash for the past couple of years, I find myself without any suitable yarn. It might be time to treat myself to a tasty new skein . . .

surfacing

Whoa. I didn’t mean to just disappear on you there! Don’t worry — I’ve not, like the indomitable Betty Mouat, been cast adrift on the North Sea with half a bottle of milk and a biscuit — but I have just been really, really, really busy — working on my book, and a few other projects, as well as spending more time in Shetland photographing my new designs. I’m actually enjoying being so, um, occupied (it is genuinely lovely to feel able to work at a reasonable pace again) but it does mean that I have got stupidly behind with many other things — so if you have been waiting to hear from me, my apologies!!

Anyway, here are today’s announcements:

As the pic at the top of the post suggests, an edited version of my Betty Mouat feature article appears in this months edition of 60 North Magazine. Even if you’ve already read the article, or have no interest in the trials of Betty M, I would encourage you to pop right over to 60 North and download your (free) copy immediately.


There’s a great feature about the new Shetland Textile Museum, its unparalleled resources, and the expertise of the amazing women behind it, and I really enjoyed reading Jordan Ogg’s lively guide to spending the day in Lerwick (which includes some great tips about the best local charity shops for knitwear). There’s also a a piece about the restoration of Unst’s beautiful Belmont House (an idyllic knitting retreat if ever there was one) and a fascinating interview with Ann Cleeves (whose Shetland Quartet has recently been adapted for the BBC and whose adaptation will feature . . . some of my stuff!!)


(Peerie Flooers hat, coming soon to a TV screen near you)

Also, I just released a pattern.

These wee fingerless gloves have been in the pipeline since Spring, and I’ve written up the design for my friends at Studio Donegal. If you visit their lovely shop in Kilcar, you can actually buy a pair of these gloves hand-made by local knitters in beautiful Donegal tweed . . . but if you fancy making your own, you can now find the pattern here or here)

And while we are on the subject of patterns . . .

Did you see that Cloudy Apples has been released?

Cloudy Apples is a collection of accessories that my lovely friend, Jen Arnall-Culliford has created with the equally lovely Kyoko Nakayoshi. The patterns are being released in stages, and first up are these terrifically elegant socks, designed by Jen.


(Dunkerton Sweet socks, designed by Jen Arnall-Culliford. Photograph ©Jesse Wild)

Each design in the collection has been named after an apple — and just like apples, these accessories are sweet, seasonal, and very tasty.

ALSO — Tom’s news is that he’s just accepted a great new job at Glasgow University. He starts in-post next March, and will commute for the time being . . . but in the long term this may herald a Westward move for the Davies / Barr homestead. . . exciting!

AND FINALLY, for those who have missed Bruce, here he is, sitting nicely in the exact location of the discovery of the St Ninian’s Isle treasure 58 years ago. . .

. . . negotiating a stile in customarily elegant fashion . . .

. . . and being intrepid on the cliffs of St Ninian’s Isle.

What a grand walk we had that day.

There is much more to tell you. I’ll be back very soon xx

60 North

Just dropping in quickly to say that the new issue of 60 North is out! What? You’ve never heard of 60 North? The name refers, of course, to Shetland’s line of latitude, and is a really well-produced magazine put out by my friends at Promote Shetland. Features in the magazine explore many different aspects of Shetland’s landscape, archeology, wildlife, and culture – including (of particular interest to me) – a piece on Shetland Wool Week, and a great article exploring the fine local tradition of Sunday Tea. Also, you may remember that last Summer I published a feature exploring the history of Shetland Lace with Rowan. I know that those of you who are not in the UK sometimes find it difficult to get hold of the Rowan Magazine, so we have now re-published this piece in 60 North, where everyone can see it. Yes, that’s right: 60 North is available online and it is completely free! Stick the kettle on and and download yourself a copy!


(Image © Mirrie Dancers Project / Roxanne Permar)

Knit Real Shetland


Hurrah! Hard copies of Knit Real Shetland are now available to buy from Jamieson & Smith – with free UK shipping! A digital version, for those who prefer it, will also soon be available.

It was a real honour to be asked to write the introduction to this book, celebrating 65 years of Jamieson & Smith. As well as super designs from names that are no doubt familiar to you, Knit Real Shetland also includes gorgeous patterns from designers you may not have heard of but should know: Mary Kay, Hazel Tindall, Lesley Smith, Joyce Ward and Sandra Manson – lovely women all, and talented Shetland knitters.

The official book launch was last Friday evening at the Shetland Museum . I was having so much fun that I managed not to take a single picture of the assembled throng which included 8 of the book’s 15 designers (Gudrun, Mary-Jane, Masami, Mary, Joyce, Hazel, Sandra, and Lesley). So, in the absence of launch photos, I instead present to you Sarah Laurenson, who took on the project, and curated Knit Real Shetland. Sarah’s energy and spirit are behind so many of the good things happening at Jamieson and Smith.

Thanks and congratulations to Sarah!

ETA: free postage within the UK only.

on the disposal of books

Not the best few days I’ve ever had.

I began dealing with the boxes slowly. But two of my neighbours, seeing me struggling with books up and down the tenement stair, kindly decided to help me. In just a couple of hours, we had transferred the contents of the boxes into my living room.

It was hideous and overwhelming.

While I was studying for my masters degree in the mid ’90s, I worked in a University bookshop. The returns policy on mass-market paperbacks was simple: you had to rip the covers off, and throw them in the bin. I remember regarding this task as both depressing and sacrilegious. Books were just commodities?! NO! Acquisitive as well as appalled, I developed a habit of rescuing these books at stock-take time. Having ripped the covers off to render them worthless, I then bought wrapping paper, and re-covered them to render them of readable value again. I found several of these personally wrapped books among my boxes: George Eliot, Dos Passos, John Stuart Mill.

I have always loved reading, and regard the book-as-object as something to be cared for and treasured. And since I was a teenager, I’ve also enjoyed having books, and spent many happy hours seeking them out at library sales, bookfairs, second-hand shops.

I kept on reading and acquiring my way through three degrees. By the time I was appointed to my first lecturing post, my office at work had become a necessary storage space for all my many tomes.

I am still reading and acquiring — ironically, at the very moment the delivery company arrived with my 49 boxes, I was in the process of ordering a couple of books on ABE – but I no longer have the luxury of an external space in which to store my acquisitions.
And they are just that – acquisitions, possessions.

I treated myself to a compact OED when I finished writing my PhD. As an object, with its wee magnifying glass and drawer – it is incredibly pleasing but when was the last time I actually used it? I absolutely love the digital OED, which does not pose storage issues. . .

I hold no truck with authors like Graham Swift, who like to gripe about the effects of digitisation. As far as I’m concerned, e-books hold the potential to put the power of the word back in the hands of writers, encouraging an artisanal independence. And you don’t have to worry about where you are going to put the bloody things.

In their simple status as objects I no longer have use for, I have no problem getting rid of my 49 boxes of book-possessions – but, unfortunately, they are also objects invested with a personality – mine.

The objects speak of fifteen years of teaching.

And of thoughts toward a doctorate.

I spent most of Thursday being profoundly irritated by the fact that, after sorting through thousands of books, I still couldn’t find the paperback copy of Sartor Resartus that I bought on Bury market when I was 16. But, in the end, what does that particular object really mean? I have another copy (of course), my original thoughts about it, and a reinvigorated interest in Carlyle. But it is sometimes very hard to shake off the meanings one invests in objects. As long as these particular objects weren’t here, I didn’t have to think too much about what they represented. Dealing with their presence – as well as their sheer volume – has been quite difficult – much more emotionally difficult, than, say, getting rid of my shoes. Quite apart from the fact that properly cataloguing and selling them would be a gargantuan task that I have absolutely no enthusiasm for, I fear that if the books had stayed around, they would have started to seriously mess with my mind. So, after putting aside all the poetry, the old Marxists, the books written by me or by my friends, I have got rid of the rest. I felt quite peculiar, but lighter, as if sloughing off a dead skin. I am not going to tell you where they went. But if anyone ever comes across a book with my name or notes in it, I don’t want to know.

smocks galore!

So, here is my surprise — the Warriston pattern is now published, and when you buy it you will also receive a copy of a new digital magazine, produced and edited by me.

Since 2007, Textisle is the name I’d been using for a large academic project. It is too good a name to go to waste, and Textisles pretty much perfectly describes the content of this new venture – in which, in the context of my new designs, I explore textiles and their history around Britain. I’ve produced it pretty much in the same way that I do my features for Rowan or The Knitter – here you will find ‘scholarly’ or ‘educational’ material, written to appeal to a general audience. The content of Textisles is designed to be read on a computer screen or ipad, but the Warriston pattern is formatted at a higher resolution for printing purposes.

In the first issue you can read ‘Smocks are from Mars’ (in which I look at the gender identities of ‘smocks’ and ‘frocks’) and ‘Cover Up’ (in which I explore the the history of the iconic English ‘smock-frock’). There is also an interview with lovely Claire Smith (who was inspired to experiment with historic embroidery techniques after working with 19th century smocks at the Museum of English Rural Life) as well as a resources page (in which you can find out where to go and see 19th century smocks, or find out more about them). Of course, you don’t have to read any of this if you aren’t interested – if so, just skip straight on to the Warriston pattern and get knitting!

Anyway, I am hoping that knitters will enjoy the content as well as the Warriston pattern in the first issue of TextIsles. It has been produced in the context of the employment issues I described in my last post, and putting it together has really rather cheered me up.

You can now find Warriston, together with issue 1 of Textisles here or here!

today’s news

The new issue of The Knitter is out, and I have a short piece in it publicising the Shetland Fine Lace Project – an inspiring collaboration between the Shetland Amenity Trust, four fabulous knitters, and the lovely folk at Jamieson & Smith, (whose 1ply laceweight is the closest thing to Victorian handspun that there is). Pick up the magazine to read more about the project! And then pop over to the Shetland Museum and Archives where its impressive results are available to buy at a price that properly reflects the labour and skills of the women involved. I had the pleasure of meeting two of these women–Mary Kay and Hazel Laurenson–when visiting Shetland a few weeks ago. They really are incredible knitters: generous with their skills and knowledge, and passionate about their craft. It was a real privilege to have a cup of tea with Mary, and for Hazel to show me the beautiful Unst lace from the 1880s that she is painstakingly recreating.

Also, do you remember Fugue?

Well, the pattern is now available to buy in kit form from Lilith of Old Maiden Aunt Yarns. The kits come in three tasty colourways and contain the pattern, together with enough yarn to make a cosy set of tam & mitts. Lilith’s yarn is beautifully dyed (of course) and the base is a soft and sheepy corriedale. (I used the same yarn to make the Deco cardigan – pattern now forthcoming – watch this space!)

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