The Makers

One of the best things about being in a show like WOW, is meeting the other makers involved, and getting to know them as well as their work. Here are some of my favourite pieces from the Rheged Show, from some of my favourite makers.

Rachael Matthews’ Relics has featured in several things I’ve written, but it was amazing to see the piece again with its new addition of a protective stone wall. Relics is hand-knit in wool from Herdwick sheep, and seems – like those particular creatures – to especially make sense in the specific landscape and climate of the Lake District.

Until my recent trip, I’d never been alone in Cumbria for long enough to appreciate the rich and various greynesses of the place. I am talking about greynesses of light and stone and water and lake and rain and fog and lichen which are found both in the landscape and in the fleeces of its infamous ovine inhabitants.

Rachael’s Relics is shot through with those special greynesses, soaked somehow in long silences of time and land and rain, and imbued with a strange and protective sense of home. Although the piece is uneasy with its skull and crossbones, its unappetising, half-bitten, turned-to-stone sandwich and its frozen hourglass, it is also darkly comical with sheila-na-gigs, leg-charms and rough rocks thrown into the wall which guards it. To my eyes, Relics is at once a handknitted picnic by a wall in the Lake District, and a mysterious, private ceremony. Rachael – more than anyone I have ever met – has a feeling for Herdwick yarn and for what can be done with it, and this piece is wise and comical and dark and complicated, like the eyes of the Herdwick sheep – of whom I’ve gathered some tragic and gorgeous stories on my travels…

…but the Heft will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. Suffice to say, Herdwick sheep have a particularly ingrained sense of place, an instinct for where they were born, and a singularity of purpose when it comes to going home. Relics reminds me of this, in Rachael’s homeland.

Another maker whose work I was delighted and amazed by in the WOW show, is Amy Twigger-Holroyd. Her knitted BMW engine and stitch-hacking projects are inspiring examples of knitting as an investigative process. I love that the BMW engine parts – knitted by 10 year olds – come with notes by each knitter re: their experiences of knitting them.

I also enjoyed very much hearing how the engineers at BMW took a real interest in the knitting project, and how Amy correspondingly learned how engines work through the process of creating one in yarn. I am excited by examples like this in which the technical and mathematical dimensions of knitting are emphasised. I also love cross-disciplinary projects which erode traditional boundaries around different kinds of making such as car-engineering and constructing objects with knitting.

I found Amy Twigger Holroyd’s stitch-hacking projects similarly inspiring. Stitch-hacking is ‘the laddering and reconfiguration of stitches in an existing knitted garment,’ which basically means unravelling individual columns of stitches and reworking them to create new designs in knitted fabric. It’s an amazing way of reclaiming and adding handmade qualities to bought knitwear, and I loved the subtlety and the meta-data qualities of Amy’s hacked sweater, featuring a blown-up version of the inner label on the back, as a charted, hacked design. My photos don’t do it justice and the colours are slightly off, but I hope you get the idea…

…in that bottom photo you can hopefully see the line of stitches that Amy cut, and then unravelled upwards from, regrafting it at the end in a very vivid pink/peach yarn. I love the idea of reinventing the configuration of a sweater so that its secret, inner label becomes its signature design, on the back.

Another piece I loved seeing at WOW was Susan Crawford’s desk-load of design-work. For this piece, Susan GLUED TOGETHER the piles of notes, swatches, drawings, photos etc. which gathered around her workspace in the creation of her incredible book A Stitch In Time, Vol. 2. As a hoarder of all ephemera – especially ephemera relating to knitting designs – I was awed by the commitment to artmaking shown in this brave and non-erasable act of transformation. Susan described feeling liberated by sticking the piles of ideas together, and shifting them away from her desk and out into the gallery. I love the evidence of labour in the piece, and also the slightly impenetrable nature of the information. One cannot physically unpack or go through the notes; rather they act together as a giant brick of ideas which nobody but Susan truly understands the order of. Papery, messy, tea-cup-scattered and scribbled on, I think the piece will speak to knitwear designers everywhere of the enormity of designing a book, and of the way that designing things generates STUFF. In some ways, I think Susan’s piece is as much about dealing with the STUFF one accrues in life, as about the intensive labour involved in the making/designing process.

Dr Annie Shaw said a similar thing about her amazing sea of small ganseys, hanging from the ceiling with their tags like an army of sweaters; she said that the ganseys were partly a way of dealing with all the gubbins one accrues or finds, with things salvaged at the beach or found on the street which seem too precious to leave, but which are sometimes difficult to house. Each gansey has a tag, explaining the process through which it was made, and the salvaged detritus incorporated into the design.

Many of the ganseys incorporate salvaged items found on the beach, like chip forks, bits of string, or sea-worn sections of fabric. I love how Annie’s incorporation of things-washed-up-on-the-shore provides a kind of updating or subversion of the popular, romantic, and totally inaccurate myths surrounding the Aran Sweaters worn by fishermen. Popular mythology states that stitch-patterns in Fishermen’s Aran sweaters were historically used to identify the bodies of drowned fishermen. But instead of telling such tall tales of family-trees, of men-lost-at-sea etc., Annie Shaw’s ganseys speak in a much subtler voice of loss and hope; of things found in moments of solitude at the water’s edge; of the poetry of found things; of the processes by which seemingly worthless things are made special and beautiful; and of a thrifty approach to making and commemorating that which is ordinary.

Another thrifty project which makes me think of time and contemplation, is Celia Pym’s ongoing work with darning. I love the investment of time and the commitment to repair which inhabit this beautiful, darned, child’s sweater.

I also find that unsettling, mythic, restless lilac to be somehow evocative of the moth which I associate with the destruction of knitwear. Dark and strange, the darned area is somehow reminiscent of a scar or a stain, and yet it is also triumphant, making the sweater wearable again and transforming it into a meditation on time and on value. It’s so beautiful that I darned 3 pairs of socks as soon as I got home, still thinking about the act of repairing, made so simultaneously healed and bruise-like in this gorgeous piece.

Finally, a piece which I love very much in the show – probably because of my associations with it – is this wonderful felted bowl, made by Pam Hall, using the fleece from her own flock of Herdwick sheep. It is a simple shape, with just 2 colours in it; seemingly the grass of the pastures where the sheep graze, and the complex, beautiful greynesses – of which I have already spoken – of those sheep themselves. When I look at this bowl it contains something very close to the heart of the WOW exhibition… something to do with celebrating everyday materials; something to do with the provenance of wool; something to do with place; and something to do with sustenance. The bowl is full of effort, of animals, of land, and of the work of our hands and it is impossible to separate – in my mind – from thoughts of Pam’s farm and of her labours there, to produce it.

If that isn’t Wonder-Full, what is?

There is so much amazing work at the exhibition which I have not had time to write about that you really should just go and see it for yourself!

3 Responses to The Makers

  1. spillyjane says:

    I don’t even think that I am capable of telling you how much I enjoyed this! The detritus of the design process strikes a particularly strong note…

  2. colleen says:

    Perfect (beautifully written) reading for a winter’s evening.

    The ganseys put me in mind of Nelson’s undershirt for some reason. The association between wool and the sea, perhaps, or the absence of bodies. Viewable here: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/388750.html ( I look in to see whether it is on display whenever I am in Greenwich, but have not seen it for a good while now).

  3. Pingback: Pam Hall on Working with Wool | Wovember

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