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.

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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.

from Shetland to Sheffield Institute of Arts

Dear Gentle Reader,

In your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of cut paper or printed ink.   

This place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.

I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return.  The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.

Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.

The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m glad to have met you.

Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.

Unst – R&D trip – part one

 

18 May, Saxa Vord, Unst, Shetland.  Day one. 

 

 

 

At 4:20am, I’m woken by an American guy banging cupboard doors in the communal kitchen which is opposite to my room, at the hostel. No chance of returning to sleep.  A great ball of bright sun sitting on the window sill which is faces East, illuminates the room as if it’s mid-day.   The Simmer Dim is almost fully upon Shetland. The time of year when there is hardly any darkness – only daylight and half-light.

My mind goes over previous conversations / words / unspoken words –  Will this R&D trip work? Work for me? The funders? As a project development? For my Creative practice development?  I’m putting pressure on myself to deliver when R&D should be calm.

What does it mean to make this trip work?   Is it for me or for the funders that I am thinking of?  I’m aware that it is both.

It’s a learning curve and I’m on the edge of my comfort zone – a place I frequently put myself because I feel really connected to life and living.  I once heard – ‘ Life begins at the End of our Comfort Zone’ and I agree with that notion. Keep learning, keep trying, keep taking risks because it brings challenges and surprises –  if you do nothing, nothing happens.

So, I get up at 5am which equates to 4 ½ hours sleep but Norwick Beach is calling, I can hear the sea almost a mile away.

 

 

Vod

Vod (Vod, an adjective meaning an unoccupied, empty place) derelict Croft houses lie littered across the landscape as misshapen pebbles and boulders across a beach. The old, falling-down places have interested me since my first visit to Shetland over two years ago – they have become the focal point of my research in Shetland lace knitting, women’s craft, authenticity, heritage and of my site-specific work whereby I place my own designed textiles and paper laser cuts into the old croft houses.  (The original site of inspiration)

 

The houses interest me because I can feel the life that has once been lived there.  It’s written across the walls, or by something left behind, or a paint colour still present on a door. On more than one occasion, I’ve stood in an old doorway, without a door or looked out of a window without glass and looked towards the sea, knowing that countless generations of women that have lived in these places all over the North islands will have done the same thing – they would have looked seaward but they could have been waiting for their men to come back from deep sea fishing – sometimes waiting until all hope of their return disappeared.

 

 

I have been in many derelict croft houses in many different weather situations over the past two years toing and froing.  So much so,  that I am able to sense the being of a place that once was a home – now abandoned and falling down but, the more I learn, the less I seem to know, though, my intuition is good.

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Oral Histories:

I thought we would meet instantly, on the first day – myself with the kind, honest woman who is going to tell me stories of her female ancestors who lived on the Island of Unst – most famous for its long and renowned lace knitting and fine yarn spinning history.

But, we will meet tomorrow.

Time moves at a different pace here on Unst.  Today is for learning the local area and for visiting the Heritage Centre to build relationships in the hope that I might be able to record oral histories of the knitters still living here.

 

I have never before been able to reach this most northerly tiny island just 12 miles long.  But, I do know about the authenticity of lace knitting here and the croft houses that were lived in by knitters who subsidised the family income and I do know about the truck and barter system, of old knitted spenser vests and their patterns, of kishies used for carrying peats for the fire and many more details.  I know enough of the life here to feel comfortable in any situation with any person from building up an understanding from previous visits in Winter, spring, late Autumn but never in May and by being respectful of this place and its heritage, I hope to build stronger relationships.

I have been funded by a Making Ways, R&D Grant to travel to this most northerly Island of the British Isles – Unst Shetland, to continue to experiment placing new work in to derelict croft houses in different light conditions to create photographic site-specific work which is different to the work that I had created on previous visits, and to interview the women who keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst.

This trip is about not being afraid and really embracing who I am, what my work is about and what I can achieve to develop my practice further.

 

On the way to Norwick beach, I go over and over what I want to do and the conversations that I have already had, whilst trying to learn how to use a fairly sophisticated borrowed Dictaphone from the university.

This time is a precious gift and I’ll not waste it.

My thoughts turn to the vod croft houses which are in different stages of dereliction.  Some scare me – if they have their roofs on, they’re dark, dank places that are rotting, if they have had no roof for many many years, the shells of the places are very beautiful and some have treasures – like a fire place, or wood in the windows or even a stove. Initially, I just liked everyone of them but now, I’m more discerning. I fall in love with a few instantly and that love grows on return trips. Then, I start finding out who lived in the tiny house – either by researching censuses or contacting heritage trusts and if I am lucky, someone will get back to me to say that they had been born in that tiny croft house, as with the one in Bressay.

 

A prize vod croft house for me will face the sea, without a roof, with a porch, or stone wall surrounding the place but best are with traces of a past – either paint or door or even a nail in a wall.  These are the things that draw me in.  Then I sit with the place, take in the view, feel the fabric of the building – look at the stones used to build the place and wonder how they were carried to a place high on a hill without a track or a road to the door.

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Thank you to Making Ways, Sheffield for supporting this Research and Development Trip.

 

Shetland croft house

 

The 8:55am link bus leaves Scalloway in the half light.  It waits at the first stop in case there are any passengers from the Lerwick link.  There is only one body on that bus and he doesn’t leave it. 

The link bus travels through Trondra towards Hamnavoe. I have an aim but first, I must see if there is snow on Meal Beach.  The 300metre path to the beach leaves high from the road and descends gradually. It is peppered in polystyrene type, small, snow balls. Hard, small hail stones over a thin salt like snow. Meal Beach lies below – a perfect crescent of sand and, as if in a wish, it is covered in snow.  How often do you get to walk on sand covered in snow with the roaring sea backing off in waves of perfect blue? Until arriving in Hamnavoe, the sun has not been seen for over a week.

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I only have an hour and a quarter before the bus will arrive from its round trip journey down to Houss, so I take in the sea view then leave, returning up the small path to the corner of the road, high on the hill, by the old tiny church, over looking the beach to a small croft house that lost its roof in the winter of 1993.  There’s very little left but it’s a fine place.  When I  encounter this building, all structure falls away and I actually meet the being of the place. If all components are right, a deep feeling of connection greets me immediately – something way beyond intellect or reason or history or architecture. What comes to greet me is purely intuitive. I look and really see the place, every detail and if I am lucky, for a few seconds or even minutes, time stands still and I am able to capture something by fluke or will. 

I place something in the croft, always in a window – either a lace knitted curtain or an engraving on aged paper or a laser cut of my lace patterns.  I’ve tried to figure out why I need to do this. It’s an urge that needs to been seen through by travelling 8 hours on two trains to get from Yorkshire to catch a 14 hour ferry from Aberdeen that can make me sick then a journey from Lerwick to a tiny Booth built into the sea in Scalloway.  And all the recent constant bad weather and a storm and power cut then an evacuation back to Lerwick for a night,  to return to Scalloway to catch a tiny link bus, miles and hours from the place I come from  in Yorkshire to a place that until today, I didn’t know existed.  There’s something special seen through a croft’s broken window that has probably not been looked out of for over 20 years. The grass surrounding the place has grown in to over knee high tufts, wind-swept into Icelandic-like grass mounds where my feet leave traces – What is it this urge to find a far off place and leave art?

 

I place the work, stand still, wait and if I am really lucky, all of my learning and thinking and knitting and talking and creative spirit comes together in that one moment and I am able to capture something of a world, partly created by me but joining with location, time, season, light, home, architecture, time lost, history and this present moment.   It’s freezing, it’s sleeting, my hand is red raw from being gloveless but that moment arrives.   It’s rich in colour – a celebration of something past and something living.  Each place has its own colour palette. 

Hamnavoe croft site specific13

In that instant, how I relate to this place is a real poetic encounter. And sometimes, it goes further than that, getting a sense of the wholeness of time comes into focus. And I become totally aware.  So much energy and effort in making the knitted lace-work that all of those energies become concentrated in the croft at that moment and symbolise all the different aspects of women knitting, crofting, working, home – call it nostalgia or rose tinted glasses or history itself but this is the core of this arm of my creative work.

I’m knitting stories. At this moment of the coming together of all the components, the lace that I have made that was initially inspired by Shetland lace patterns has merely becomes the bi product of an art practice. An emotional, poetic, living encounter. A long travelled road to arrive here. 

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Leaving, Arriving, Returning

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Arriving can be overwhelming.

Even if it is not my homeland.

On the deck of the ferry, the ever present wind carries something extra; a raw, beautiful, self-awakening brought on by the boat arriving into Lerwick. It hits you at the point of seeing the Southern tip of Shetland.

Hold tightly onto the white painted, thin railing or the sight is too overwhelming.

And then, after a short time, there is the light house to your right, sitting proudly on the tip of Bressay and all is well enough.  At this point, without even coming in to dock, I’m already aware of the power of these small Islands.

Every day, I try to live in the moment, but, at this time of arriving, I usually feel a hint of sadness because I know I’ll leave.

Time moves forwards.

It’s an overpowering mixed blessing.   Before that, there is the long train journey skirting the East coast of England to Aberdeen. Then the overnight ferry – all in all – 24 hours From Sheffield To Lerwick.

You never know who you will meet on the ferry, in the shared bunk cabin room, on the deck watching Aberdeen being left behind or watching Shetland come into view, or at breakfast time or at checking in. There’s a life on the ferries that is quite extraordinarily simple.  People leaving, arriving, returning and I will once again do the same in a few weeks.

I know the journey so well, it’s almost as if I can hear it, feel it.  I know where the sun rises and sets on a flat-lined horizon behind a slow-moving boat.

Sometimes, someone meets me. More recently, someone sees me off for the return journey. Happy Sad Happy.

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Shetland can be a place of extremes although I have only scratched the surface.  The more I go, the less I know.  The more I see, the more I want to see. The more I wait, the more comes to me.

Shetland has embedded itself deep within me and added another story to my life.

Shetland offers surprising things to learn about, if you’re new to it all.

I ask many questions whilst looking out of the windows as the little pink car drives us from one place to another.  The Plantiecrubs draw me every time, second only to derelict croft houses and the beautiful spoken words of the Islanders.

 

Shetland offers an endless line of uniqueness –  the knitted lace and the knitted yokes and the music and the sea and beaches and seals and otters and sea urchins and fire and vikings and the seagulls that stamp at the edge of the tide and all the things that open your heart and mind to a realness that is rare these days.

PLACE 

I find places that become my favourite places to return to. Places to think and feel and work with. Places – To knit about.  Places to register the movement of time.

Sometimes, I feel at home in these places, sometimes a little scared because of the sheer isolation of it all. Sometimes, I purposely isolate myself. But always, I feel something special.  I notice most every detail.

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I begin to wonder, who lived here, who made these homes and crofts. And who painted these walls that have been left to dissolve into thin air after the months of harsh Winter weather.  There are lives written across the walls and in the dust.

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Sometimes I return to I honour a place by placing something in it. I mentally note the changes since the last time.

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In December, I don’t quite know what I will do in Shetland but my time will be taken up by walking, writing, knitting, thinking, being, taking photographs, feeling – really feeling, and reflecting,

I’ll start from a point of knowing something of a place but it really not being anything much.

I’ll ask questions, hitch a lift, go to the library, listen to folks.  Not much to write home about really. But I know I’m looking forward to living in a place that sits in the sea – A place where I will feel a strength and vulnerability and find things I never knew existed.

A Shetland Self shaped by place and others.

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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.

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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.

Comeliness – the workmanship of risk

jamieson & smith and lurex lace

‘Comeliness’ – the workmanship of risk….

… ‘If I must ascribe a meaning to the word Craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it simply means workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus in which the quality of the result is not predetermined but depends on the judgement, dexterity of care which the maker exercises as he works.  The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making, so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The workmanship of Risk’

With the workmanship of Risk, we may contrast the’ Workmanship of Certainty’, always to be found in quantity production and found in its pure state in full automation.

‘The Nature of Art and Workmanship’ – David Pye

 

In short, when I was five, David Pye was writing the text above about workmanship and it still stands true nearly 50 years later. Reading his words in relation to ‘craft’ gives me a deeper understanding of what I am doing with a needle and thread, an eye for detail, a mind to experiment and a power knit machine that, although can turn out ‘workmanship of certainty’, the route to that can be long and more fulfilling with its errors, mistakes and risks.  Every turn I take with the lace knitting is ‘workmanship of risk’ – craft  – though the journey starts with a thought and a hope, travels through time in design and out at the other end from a power Knit machine. Every step is gradual, considered and handled carefully even through the power process, it is considered.

 

For some time, my knit has drawn upon my love of Shetland, the islands, its landscape and language. My knit is not just stitches and a pattern and here lies the art / craft.  Or, as David Pye later writes, ‘Comeliness’ which implies the ability to give an aesthetic expression, or to add to it.

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I’m knitting vests, or so I am led to believe. But I keep straying. Comeliness is not a word linked to vests but is a word associated with women. The life of these vests stem from Shetland to Nottingham through conversations that opened up discussions of it being ‘visually polite’ on to questioning mending the errors thrown out by the power machine which found my patterns too difficult to master due to conditions.

The vests are comeliness – not in shape but in aesthetic.  Within them is a life and a story. Each one will be ‘crafted’  Each one will have a name.

 

I am learning technical conditions and terminology and can do nothing but learn to speak in ‘take down’, ‘tension’, ‘ transfer’ ‘technical file’ and ‘half-gauge’. Coming from a long life of drawing with a line of yarn in hand-knitting, initially, I was out of my depth with Power Knit machines and Computer Aided Design (CAD) – splashing around in an unknown sea of errors.  Now, I tread water like when I thought I could swim as a child but could not.  I tread water alongside the technician at Uni who is aware of my errors, guides my ways, shows me steps at such great speed that I am left back at the shore only to tentatively swim out again and have a go.  Repetition is the key.

 

The start is pleasing. Each time I look back at my previous work – even if only a month ago, it looks naïve.  

 

If, as David Pye suggests,  workmanship is judged by a criteria of ‘Soundness’ and ‘Comeliness’ –

Soundness being – the ability to transmit and resist forces as the designer intended, there must be no hidden flaws or weakness. 

And Comeliness being the ability to give that aesthetic expression which the designer intended, or add to it

 – then I’ll embrace Comeliness every time.

 

Thanks to Jamieson & Smith for sponsoring me with the Shetland Supreme lace weight – the darned knit in image one.

http://www.shetlandwoolbrokers.co.uk/Shetland-Supreme-Lace-Weight