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.

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.

Who Owns words once they are spoken

Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.

I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included.  Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development.   The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.

In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls.  It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me –  very focused.  Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me.  I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.

My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place.   Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place.  I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.

I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:

  • Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create fine lace and of their ancestors. 
  • Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst, research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have started to do)
  • Make site specific work using photography as a platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
  • to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner) to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.

I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.

This was an ambitious aim in 10 days.  I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst.  36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.

I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff,  but Unst is a different land.

The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone.   I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt.  I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting,  I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.  

The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay.  Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs.  This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.

In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’.   This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further. 

After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts.  This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways  R&D grant in 2018. 

Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s still so much to learn and research and find out and make.  I’m always just at the beginning of something new but there is so much more.

These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.

Bird’s Eye. Pop up, Site-specific, Interventionist Art.

Bird’s Eye.

Interventionist, Pop-up, Site-specific Renegade Art, or, Art placed to raise a smile, make a connection or engage?

Today, I did something either quite interesting, or quite stupid. I’m edging on the side of the former.

On the 14th floor, lightly taped to a window, in meeting room, in the Architecture department, in The Arts Tower, I left a Paper Laser cut of my knitting.  It’s an intervention between paper, view, light and viewer.

After creating digital laser cuts, to place in derelict croft house windows across Shetland, I find that I am now looking around at making site-specific work within the City that I live.  And questioning why, and what for and what does this really mean to me and to anyone else? Is it legal? Is it damage or intrusion? Is it pop-up fun? Is it harmless? What is the purpose? Should I or should I not?

On New Year’s Day, I purposely looked, from the car park, at the Arts Tower – having never been inside it, never used the Paternoster lift, never seen the view of our City from its heights and I considered that it seemed the perfect location to place my laser cut work in one of its windows. In a Site-specific, pop up intervention. For the work to stand as a chance to have a moment of exchange with a passer-by. To engage, in some way. I never want to, or will I damage or deface any location.  I want to interact with people in a positive, maybe a thought-provoking way.  My work requires the viewer to interact, if only briefly. 

To look up, look through it, look at it, take it down, tear it down, contact me, ignore me.  I don’t mind but in placing this laser cut in a window, in a room, in a building that I have never been in before – I wanted to touch some ONE in a small way, to intervene with a view unlooked at, through blinds half down and half up, to maybe touch someone, connect with someone – a positive intervention. This moment of connection is a gift, from me to you.

At first, we caught the Paternoster lift.  A completely new and exhilarating experience.  I, and my friend, were a little scared so we waited.  We waited to see how fast the lift moved, how many seconds we’d have to get in and then out whilst it was moving. We were a little scared to do something that scared us. So, we waited a little longer then went for it.

Riding up in the lift car was a short but completely mindful time.  I had packed my scarf away, held my bag tight and concentrated before stepping into the moving lift and it felt good to overcome being scared.  It was decided on ascending, that we’d get out on floor 15 because if we delayed getting out, there were still 2 more floors before we’d have to launch ourselves out. But at floor 13, we were too apprehensive of the exit so jumped out at floor 14.  I looked to my right and there it was –  A perfectly placed meeting room with a wall of windows, opening up to a wide vista and view across the city.

So many meeting rooms across the city are just used without consideration of where they are.  How many people looked out of those windows 14 floors up, amazed at the height from the floor the the view point, amazed to be in the sky overlooking the busy city? I don’t know. The blinds were up and down.  The location instinctively felt right as it had done in the past when placing site specific work. I unrolled my laser cut whereupon it was gently held open so as it would not roll into a tangled mess, and I taped it lightly at the corners, to the window pane to create an intervention between the outside and in, a breaking up of the view so that it now had to be looked at by peeping through knitted paper.  It’s a trial, it’s not bespoke but could be. If the room had laser cuts on the windows, and when the sun shone through, there would be knitted lace shadows across the table.  It’s a start.

This piece is not entirely finished.  When someone engages with it to look at the city landscape through it, this will be the moment of completion.

It’s harmless pop-up art that sits in one of the most iconic buildings in Sheffield, to open up an interaction between viewer, location, and art work, to intervene between view and seeing, to stop someone just for a moment and for them to wonder what it is and why it is there.

A moment of exchange.

We interact with our architecture.

We break the unseeing eye.

The work is called ‘Bird’s Eye’ for two reasons – the laser cut is developed from a simulation of my Lace knitting which is inspired by Shetland and the many lace designs created by generations of lace knitters going back to the 1800’s, who knitted to subsidise their family income.

This is a Shetland Bird’s Eye lace pattern and secondly, I called it Bird’s eye because, for no other reason than that – It’s a Bird’s Eye view


a making process

At 5am, before sunrise, I wake immediately thinking about my making process – what it is and why. I thought it was the middle of the night because it was still not light at all but when I looked at the time, it made it acceptable to get up and develop the thoughts I was thinking.  ‘What is my work’ is the main point that I keep coming back to when I’m reflecting on my making.  I research craft, mending, repair, reflection, authenticity and tradition. What is my work about, if it’s about anything at all?

And, this is how I come to be in the avenues of the Hanging Water allotments at 6:30 am with the heavy scent of a late flowering honeysuckle in the air whilst picking fat ripe blackberries – sun rising to my left.   The ground is very damp, wet in fact. The late summer sun is rising with a hint of Autumn snapping at its heels.  Quickly, I threw on any clothes just to get out in the sun rise. I  noticed that it was the first time I reached for a jumper before leaving the house.  The mustard fair isle cardigan was the first choice – a perfect choice to greet the sun.

image

All the world is here in this moment in the allotments. Whilst picking the ripe berries, I think about what people have said about my work.  The first thing that someone said about my work was stridently expressed in a tutorial at NTU. ‘You’re at Textile Artist, I’ve already told you’.  So, I assumed that mantle – an impressionable 53 year old taking every word as the truth.  But I’m not only a textile artist and this I have learned along the way through reflecting on process, result and reason.

The rising sun catches my face, plump berries from a cultured, thornless bush fill the bowl. Nature’s sounds fill the air – the brook at the bottom of the avenue, pigeons calling, a bee. You can almost hear the fruit creaking with weight.

 

My process is to see, think, feel, have an idea, run with it, see what happens along the way, make modifications, see the outcome, accept the outcome and either embellish it or just let it be – as it is and the outcome feeds another idea and it develops. I’m constantly learning – rarely is anything repeated, which makes it more of an art practice.

I’ve realised that there is a narrative that runs through all of my work. There’s a story.  Even the innocent blackberries that I am picking, weave a story or a moment into my work and process. It could be colour or texture or taste, even. Can’t work just be about the journey of making textile and memory? How can this small avenue of long wet grass that runs between old allotments, with the sun rising to my left be a starting point – but it is.  All the world is here, if you just look.

 

process

 

 

Tracey Doxey is studying at NTU on the MA Fashion, Textiles Knit course.

She will be carrying out an Artist Residency at The Booth in Scalloway during December 2017

Embodiment

To craft something that has taken a journey of almost one year incorporating everything from the ill-tempered, sleeping cat that lies by my side as I write this piece to the deeply difficult-to-learn (for me)  digital CAD knit design, to make a lace knitted piece that I never knew could exist an academic year ago, is a good place to be.

Is it craft?

If, as written by Louise Valentine in the paper ‘Craft as a form of Mindful Inquiry’ is the case, then, I feel entirely relieved.

‘On reflection of the intellectual and social meanings of craft practice, craft is often misunderstood as skilful making. The notion of craft as a concern for innovation, individual vision and future cultural concerns: a fusion of art, science, engineering and technology, is uncommon’

The relief is born from realising my knitted pieces are craft in the sense of a fusion, a journey of enquiry and perpetual activity, not as skilful making.   Because, the result would be denied as skill by many.   The knitted pieces look to ‘hold skill’ but don’t look quite skilful because they are messy and ill fitting.  It is uncommon to consider the fusion of knitting and technology as craft but the outcome can be.

DSCN3964

How to make messy – attractive?

The lace trousers are the embodiment of my practice to date. Each loop and knot and lace hole contains all that I have seen and felt in Shetland over the last two years – they are possibly my most intellectual activity to date but not the most attractive or practical. To make these trousers, unbeknown to me at the beginning, I navigated through the naivety of an idea (to make a tube of lace into sculptural trousers)  through basic technical mastery of a software package (CAD), to develop an art practice that shows not tells.   My thinking process was knocked and shaped by software and ideas whereby I gained an awareness and understanding of practical things to take forward such as drape, tension, size, linking, mirroring stitch patterns, and finishes. My initial aim was not trousers but to learn the software and to power knit machine lace. The trousers grew out of trial and error.

But really, the joy that has come far outweighs the practical learning.  My joy in holding something that I have made which has drawn on stitch patterns developed from what I saw in the lace cabinets in The Shetland Museum and the Bod of Gremista.  This joy far outweighs the acquired technical knowledge to get to this point.

The technical knowledge I can take away, the embodiment is within.

Hours of looking, seeing, sensing have gone into this small, slightly unattractive piece of wrongly shaped knitting, which now is the start of my second year as a part time student at NTU for a discourse for craft and mindful inquiry.   The lace trousers are currently my ‘capacity to synthesize and integrate information’

Exploration in knit design is, for me,  a dance with an unfolding imagination.  To dance needs time and space.

I will be undertaking an Artist Residency at The Booth in Scalloway – December 2017, surely, I will be dancing with time and imagination.