Fair Isle grass knitting

Fair Isle grass – a knitting resource to hand.

The light in the croft house dims sooner than at Mati’s house.  The croft’s windows dictate the change in the amount of light within.  Two – feet deep walls hold the place up. The deep walls narrow into the windows – each of which look out to every corner of the globe on this island which is only three miles long.  I look out south-facing to the light house and gauge the weather by the grass waving or whipping in the wind and by the waves crashing or ebbing on the sea.

home for a while – Fair Isle

The intention is to leave no rubbish after my 9 day stay here.  Everything has been bought at the one and only shop at great expense.  Everything has come a long way and been handled by much transport – even from Lerwick, either by the local plane or boat from Grutness. I hand picked all the vegetables and packed them in brown bags.  All of the peelings will be saved for the pigs at Mati’s, which are owned by four people and brushed by Saskia.  I’m learning about animal behaviour from those pigs.  They have grown from shy piglets arriving in a cage to grunting and squealing with anticipation at their one and only priority – food.  One even bites the other.

Even after 3 weeks, Fair Isle is now so deep in my soul that I already miss it and yet I am still here – how can that be?  I miss the island when I am deep in the moment of it.  It’s like I don’t want to lose it or I can’t lose it for to do so, would be to give up on a life less ordinary.

I’m here with Mati as a knitting intern, (maybe the oldest intern in the West at age 56) I’m learning a lot, not only about knitting but island life, the sea, the wind, the land, grass, animal behaviour, the sun rise and whether the plane will come. Where can ‘A Body’ see an unbroken horizon at every window without hesitation.  At every lift of the head, a huge deep basin of silver sea greets you.  Seeing the sea, hearing it, tasting it makes it seep into your soul.  The nights are so pitch dark that my heart quickens at the deepness of the darkness, when I open the door. Nothing can be seen when ther is no moon, except the light house light but even so, it adds to the eeriness of being able to cut darkness with a knife.

There is a book full of old images of Fair Isle islanders here.  I look at the women’s expressions and how they stand unquestionably, stoically face on.  They are all working hard with oxen, ploughs, knitting, or peats.  Maggie Stout of Shirva is the woman that interests me the most. I cannot stop looking at her looking at me.  I can almost feel the middle parting of her black hair with my finger – it is so pronounced.  This place I am living has a long history. You can find it easily. It is written across the stones in the grave yard. On a wet Sunday afternoon, I look for Maggie on the stones.  It’s beautiful.  The names are listed on the stones, where they lived and who they married. Women appear to bear their maiden names even though they are married.  History is tangible here, as across all of Shetland.  How many women moved a curtain aside to look out to sea and wonder about their men out there, wondering about their safety and return. The weather changes at a pinch. The stones bear many stories of death at sea.

In this place are larger than life ship wrecked items of great beauty –  two identical figurines and two mismatched simple chairs which add character and richness to this small croft house that I am staying for 9 nights. 

On the second day, Marie and I cut tussock grass, which is growing just below the chapel, with house scissors.  We bag it.   I want to knit it and make a lace curtain from its yarn. I’ve long since loved Shetland grass which grows at great length untouched, untrodden on and forms in dune-like shapes carved by the wind. We cut it without knowing its possibilities or strength.  I spend 3 days and evenings plaiting the grass into a long length and a ball of grass yarn. The grass is strewn across 3 floors and stuck to everything.  When knitting and unknitting, because I am dissatisfied with the results, the grass yarn bears the memory of the stitch.

I am using the resources of the island to create something to connect both with the island and with the age old practice of knitting in order to make site specific / site responsive work back in the Shetland landscape.  It will be about the women knitters and a skilled craft  that when placed within the landscape, will create a personally constructed context or narrative. My work is created around the theme of gendered women’s creative knitted work that is often undervalued and underpaid. I work within a place to learn the skills embedded within that area and I position my work back into the landscape to connect place, time, history, women’s craft and that pure moment in the present. If it works, for me, there is a distillation of experiences.

As I am working with the materials to hand – grass – and the thought of the women who lived in the croft houses here and how they knitted to subsidise the crofting income and how they dressed and looked in haps –  I will choose to knit a hap lace edge and find the right window to place the lace knitted grass. It will be a window that women will have looked out of many times, over many generations whilst working on a croft in Shetland.

Site-specific art (the genealogy of location)

Burrafirth, May 2018

Site-specific,  Site-oriented, site-determined,  site-conscious, site-responsive or site-related or just plain trespassing?

Bressay August 2019

I’m devouring a book in order to understand more of my own creative practice and where it sits within a contemporary art dialogue.

I describe my practice in a way that can be at best defined as an autoethnographic and at worst a romanticised prose on the process of what it felt like for me to either create the piece or to reach the moment of a site specific-piece’s conception in the form of a photograph or written blog.  I touch on both autoethnographic and romanticism.  But, I do know that I am utterly driven to make this work. Out of this comes research on writing ethnography.

Every living day, I reside in a headspace of creative connection and now, the only thing I want to do is get back to a book in order to theoretically understand more about how to locate my creative practice (site-specific art / site-oriented art).   It’s a way of life, of thinking and feeling.

Hamnavoe – December 2017

Instead of just ‘doing’ the work, I’m decoding it in order to situate it within a contemporary art context, therefore, to give it and me meaning within the title of Site-specific art.

On any given day, I would answer the question, “What is my creative practice about?”  in a different way.  That is because I respond to and in the moment. My answer often depends on where I am within it.  If I’m knitting, learning new technology to create that knit, listening to women tell their oral history of Shetland knit culture, laser cutting – actually digitally cutting them, walking the landscape, hand block printing, hand knitting lace, looking at the details of the details, using and learning InDesign or Illustrator, practice based research,  journeying to an isolated place to reach that true deep point of my yearning that opens up stories that I either find or make and HERE lies the crux of it, it’s an interdisciplinary creative practice, the core of which is unchanging. The core of my work is what I am now theoretically locating within the context of Contemporary Visual Art.

On a base line physical making process, I feel an absolute connection to place, do not do any harm to the location, take nothing, damage nothing, in order to create something. I’ve created relationships between self and an inanimate derelict buildings so deeply embedded within my creative thought process, that I return again and again, as if to a friend. I begin to really know that place and it lets me in – opens up to me, as if a person.  But now I critically ask, is being in this place to create art, a place whereby I am self-serving in order to unrightfully claim the authority to make up the stories by framing an image in a place that belongs to someone else, to address one of the issues that drives me (women’s domestic craft) under the banner of artist? Well? Am I?

Over the years, have I earned entry to that place?

Today, I am able to say that my work is primarily about the intersection between cultural location (of a found place that I have connected to through revisiting, learning of the people who lived there, which has a cultural, historical, visible meaning and that I have, over time, fallen in love with it) and the materiality of my creative practice (sometimes knit, laser cut, print) which addresses the politics of women’s domestic craft of knitting. (skilled, undervalued, underpaid, gendered work to support an income)

The intersection is the very sharp piercing moment that I ‘feel’ viscerally connected, at an unscheduled moment, where my creative materiality becomes part of the site and to remove the work would be to destroy it – In one term – Site-specific Art – a distillation of time, place and experience.

Mostly, I record that moment, sometimes, I just feel it.

True, the moment of coming to that point is visceral (for me) and could be justified by a lengthy dialogue on how it felt and how I had made the work to get to that point and how I had built up a relationship with an inanimate derelict building, but to what real meaning does this end? Resonance?

I am understanding how do we give value to work – and questioning what is the currency of this value?

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections and belonging. 

The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015.  The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone.  The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children.  It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.

march 2017

Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of the build. 

For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace design.  This wallpaper has been a couple of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design.   Material process and practice led research has always been the core of the development of my art practice.  I have long questioned – is it craft or art and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic craft of knitting and narratives of those women.  

The world is speedily changing and what can we say through art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and feel.

Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house.  As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit.   I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was.   It felt like meeting an old friend.  Returning to make work here is not a safe option.  It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’.   I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person.  I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.

On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper, paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own personal journey to this point.  

I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process.   A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see.  My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.

After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.

leave no trace

Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal.  What is this work – is it Art? Textile art? Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories?  I’m trying to understand it in a way in which textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific art in order to tell a story.

textile, knitting or art?

Knitting, Art or just textiles?

Under a week after handing over this commissioned piece of knitting, I have had time to reflect.  I have a window of time to reconsider what I have made and why and what happened during the making and designing process and the outcome of what seems to some, to just be a knitted pullover.

The idea for this hand-knitted piece actually came from my thinking son because I was questioning the time involved in knitting and designing one off pieces. He suggested for me to consider intricately knitting something that I loved and to log every hour and minute spent making it.  This type of time is not commercial time but entirely creative, without speed, without a target.  So, to make a knitted piece in this way, with this idea behind it was the initiation that made it a project or a work of art; not just knitting and certainly not textiles.

A constant driving question of any maker is what is the value of time spent. I question time and the value of an hour of my time because, at 55 years old I may be running out of hours and what do I want to do with my one precious hour? is my hour of more value than, say, a 23 year old who, statistically, has more hours left to live than me.  If we knew how many hours left, what would we do with those hours? Knit?  

So, the act of writing, logging and recognising time spent whilst making became an underlying, fundamental principal of this knitted piece. I did not lie about time, did not hide time spent in the making process, did not adjust hours to fit ‘within time’ or an acceptable amount of time judged by others to take to knit this item and I did not exaggerate either.  I was wholly honest.

During the process there was no brief, or contract or even a binding conversation with the person who may or may not buy it, I made a Fair Isle pullover with a woman in mind.  A woman who I know respects hand-made items, understands art and creativity and supports makers.  And, I know that time is precious to her.  Of course, in the end, it is wearable. Win, win.

There was no design brief or discussion or demands or expectations.

Carte blanche. 

There was also no discussion of money due to the fact that this was not my driving force for the knitted project.  Notice, that this knitting has been called many things – a project, a hand-knitted piece, a piece of art but never just knitting or textiles. 

This whole project was a thought process – thinking about design, experimentation, research in practice, 2 years in an MA to research knitted lace, colours, heritage, Shetland-inspired memories, traditional patterns, blending colours, making mistakes and undoing mistakes, patterns I’ve previously knitted and why I wanted to weave those things into each stitch.   How can you sell that?  In a story? To a believer?  It’s an investment of time and detail.

In brief, the underlying principle was to create a work of art which encompassed understanding and mastery of the craft of knitting, which I have done for over 40 years now. To the untrained eye, this knitted piece is ‘textiles’ or ‘just knitting’ but,  to the thinking mind it is not.

So, I started. And unstarted. Designed and redesigned and felt my way through many, many, many hours of knitting.  Each hour was logged and sometimes what I was thinking, what I was feeling and my understanding of developing certain areas of the piece.  The work went everywhere with me and I knitted every day over 4 months. Yes, 4 months – sometimes at night watching things on iplayer. It went to café’s, babysitting, to Sheffield Institute of arts and on train journeys and to different cities but always I stayed true to the principle of logging the hours and to making every loop perfect.  I began to want to hold the work and get back to it.  It became a piece of wellbeing.

I became fascinated by thinking about how one colour sat next to another and where the pattern had come from and what memories the knitting drew on. I undid anything that I was not totally, absolutely happy with and the happiness came in the detail which fed back to the process of thinking.  The whole process took on a journey of its own.

The result is like a tightly woven carpet.

I am partly embarrassed about the hours I spent on this knitted piece and partly in awe of how much time I spent dedicated to something that a knitter would do in under half the time.  But, that knitting, from a pattern would be ‘just knitting’.  This piece came from scratch – from an idea and a bundle of over 50 colours of Shetland yarn.

On bank holiday Monday – the jewel-coloured surprise was ceremoniously and fittingly handed over

Creative practice, process and place.

Studio Space – SIA

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been developing my creative practice whilst being privileged to have access to the facilities at Sheffield Institute of Arts (SIA) – I am one of the Artists in Residence on the 2019, AA2A programme.  Until this morning, I was here, working with resources, talking with students, pushing my own creative practice boundaries and experimenting with my work.  Then, last week, I presented my creative practice and process to the Extended Foundation students and on Tuesday, I’ll present to the MA, Design Students, on the Level 1, here at the Old Head Post Office (SIA), which gives me the opportunity to give back, in some small way.

This place, this old Head Post Office, is quite magical. You can feel it in the fabric of the tiled walls, the mosaic floors and sash windows. Being here makes me feel free.

But, I learn every time I’m within its walls – by learning new techniques, asking questions, seeing what the Students are creating, learning through osmosis and by reflecting and being patient until finally, my practice has turned a corner.  This is maybe how the universe works. Time, experimenting, patience, reflection and energy = creativity  

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been laser cutting and laser engraving – something I wasn’t allowed to do myself at NTU because all cutting went through the one technician. At Sheffield Hallam, students and staff alike learn to use the laser cutting machines themselves, of which there are 6 here at SIA and more at Sheaf. 

When I get the chance to spend time with a new technique, the more I learn about process and in turn, the more I take chances and become adventurous and experimental with new ideas and outputs. At SIA, I’ve learned to laser cut. I still don’t know how to do everything and not I’m without mistakes which I build on, but I can cut and engrave what I visualise quite well. It takes time.  I’m on two hours a day, two days a week.

When I first started at SIA, I wondered how my work, which is inspired by the Heritage Shetland knitted lace industry, its tradition and the knitters themselves, could actually fit within the urban setting of a city in Yorkshire. Four months after starting at SIA I’ve developed a piece of work that is both portable and in keeping with place.  I’ve learnt through time.

This place of Sheffield is so far removed from that place of Shetland.

To me, there initially seemed to be no possible link for my creative practice and its links with knitting and Shetland because the work seemed to have been dragged out of context by the two places being geographically hundreds of miles apart.   But this morning, loaded with printing ink, roller, John Lewis bread board, rags and my hand-made, 15x17cm, rubber printing block that I made using my CAD lace knit designs, I have hand printed my tessellating Bird’s Eye pattern across the stairwell wall by the MA Studio.

The result is a happy one.  Hand printing on the wall made my heart race because I realised what I can do with this idea.  The printing block is portable, it’s accessible, it’s easy to set up and it works.

I can print on any flat wall, any place, any time.  This morning’s printing was a stepping stone to see how well I could make the tessellating pattern match, if it would work on a wall, does it need to be perfect, I love the imperfect walls of Shetland – so it can be patchy, how would I go round corners, what would it look like in a large block of space,  how long would it take and if it could be possible to take the printing block to Shetland to print across the walls of a derelict croft house that I have fallen in love with and have revisited over a number of times since 2015.

And, the answer is yes.

New art, new project. I’m heading for Shetland in May / June and know exactly the wall I will be printing on.