‘Vod’ an unoccupied, empty place.

I am a Contemporary artist who works with textiles and photography.  I am also a knitter – sometimes a pretty good one.  And, I suppose I’m a designer of contemporary lace knit.

Recently, I took my knitting, which is fine lace knit,  back to the place of original inspiration, which, for my current project is Shetland.  I take the lace back to a found derelict croft – a home where knitting certainly would have taken place and lace could have also once been knitted there. The project is called ‘Vod’ which is a Shetland word for Unoccupied / Empty place.

Shetland has many derelict crofts, sometimes quite plain and simple, sometimes with a yard and gate, some with modifications such as a lean-to toilet room but always, they are deeply moving. There’s something powerful in the traces that can be seen of what  once was, their remoteness and their outlook. They all have a soul.  It’s compelling to stand and look out of a derelict croft house window.

It is mostly in the window that I place my work. Sometimes across a door

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The more crofts that I found in Bressay and Burra and worked in, the more I looked out of the windows and wondered how many women had looked out of that same window, waiting for husbands to return or for kids to come home and that was when I began to really get interested in the social history of the places and the women who had once knitted there.  Below are some of the archive images of women knitting by crofts, which are from Shetland Museum.

My practice began to explore particular social and political narratives of place and values of material production embedded in place/s.  Once I found the crofts, I began to research how the women were paid for their knitting and came to learn about the truck and barter system.  I long to hear Shetland women tell stories of their ancestors’ home life and history and this is why I want to go to Unst – the most northerly isle in the British Isles – parallel to Norway and below Iceland on the map. It is the home of Shetland lace knitting.  I’ll spend time in the Unst Heritage Centre and cycle around the small Island, taking in the surroundings. 

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Almost two years ago, when I started my part time MA at NTU, I was firstly inspired by Shetland knitted lace and my research was initially about the textiles only – how the lace was knitted and the motifs in it.  Over the last two years and over five subsequent visits to Shetland,  I have become more interested in the women who made the fine Shetland lace and how and where they lived, often in remote and extreme conditions. Learning this, and finding these places, developed a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of lace knitting in Shetland. To express my respect for and love of Shetland lace and the homes once lived in and the knitters themselves, I respond to place and its associated narrative histories – in particular woman’s material and conceptual histories of creative practice.

There is a sublime energy in the derelict crofts coupled with the energy of a my contemporary take on lace knitting placed back into a abandoned building which creates a third energy – the site specific work itself.  I hope that my latest Site specific work has integrity, authenticity and soul.  The symbiotic relationship between my lace knit or lace engravings coupled with placing the work into derelict crofts,  is an act which produces contemporary art that speaks of place, time, culture, textiles, struggle, hardship and past lives.

I’m lucky enough to be returning to Shetland to finish ‘Vod’ and I hope to interview and record the oral histories of knitting and crofting from the women at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst. These women keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive. I want to respond to their stories by making a textile and photographic site-specific work around their stories and creative practice on Unst. I have not been able to reach Unst on my previous visits to Shetland due to Winter, ferry crossing availability or non-availability of space to cross the sea between the islands, availability of day light (5 in the Winter) and the closure of the Heritage Centre between October and the beginning of May.  I have not previously recorded oral histories and this is the only place where the lace stories originate.  Unst is 60 degrees North and I learned from my son today, who will be filming in the most Northern part of Norway in March, that there are only 90 degrees, then you are at the Arctic.

The reason that I can return to Shetland is that I have been awarded an R&D grant to research the stories of the knitters, their lives and to look at the knitting itself and to work in derelict crofts, this time, with the permission of the owners to hopefully arrange a pop up  installation in a derelict croft, around the Bank holiday weekend at the end of May. I will invite local artists, knitters and crofters for tea and cake and to look at the  work that has grown out of this body of this project  that has taken me a year and a half in the making

The Research and Development work in Shetland, is called ‘Vod’ – an unoccupied, empty place.

Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield  for supporting this R&D trip and for supporting the development of my creative practice.

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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.

The tacit knowledge in a piece of broken knitting.

The final week of the first year of my part-time MA at NTU is drawing near and what have I learned?

More than that, what have I felt?

On a technical level, I have learned measurable things: how to use Digital CAD knit to a level where can design lace knit – maybe that’s the only measurable thing. (and maybe linking – but badly)

But from the perspective of just soaking in the atmosphere and feeling my way, I’ve taken leaps and bounds from that first day in Sept 2016. 

I arrived at Uni only being able to hand knit now I can see a future in my knitting that is beyond what I thought possible or considered and that is to make knitted lace – it’s as simple as that but what goes into that making isn’t simple at all. I suppose that this year, I have been working from accidental results and prototypes built from flawed outcomes from the digital CAD and power knit, but that’s also not the result.  Flawed endings are not a result. There may be a broken piece of power knit in front of me but it has a heart and a soul and a back story and here lies the unmeasurable learning.broken lace samples

To look at a broken piece of knitting with vision and joy is or has been the task of my countless attempts at trying  to knit lace – perfection was never an aim (but only when it seemed so risk ridden). The birth of my broken power knit samples involved multiple journeys to Shetland, taking in the light and the landscape and language, looking at traditional hand-knitted fine Shetland shawls in the Shetland museums, spending hours figuring out how the lace patterns are made and translating that into digital CAD designs, graphing lace patterns out in knit language that I had to learn,  then digitally positioning them to make an altogether knitted piece that is aesthetically pleasing in a number of yarns (some of which have been brought to the machine by contacting sponsors – some from the yarn bin at Uni – none purchased) stretching, pulling, steaming the pieces to flatten dishcloth shapes with holes in – sometimes unwelcome holes which were caringly darned to save the piece. Some pieces involved designing a garment shape and positioning the tried and tested lace patterns within the boundaries of the ever moving edges or mirroring, chevroning and altering patterns.  Why, then, are there still holes and errors? If I love it and have developed it to a sort of visual simulated perfection – then why does it still have broken areas – ah, take-down, tension, bent needles, programming, yarn waxing, yarn breakage, doubling up, single thread, finding something suitable. And why, then, is it still a bit broken – never mind, I’ll embrace the broken bit by darning into it. What? Darning? Dutch darning, boro darning – regular sock darning – it’s all in there in this broken piece of knitting that we will call unique’

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So, I look at the unique piece of knitting with joy and vision.

and, the latest samples are also intriguing  –  The gauge is too wide, the fairisle is like lace – nnoooo, it’s just like the drawn line.  It has a pencil line quality – that’s what it is. it’s quite beautiful in its looseness. The fairisle is like a loose pencil drawing. It’s not knitting at all – and I can see how it will look in a garment.

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When I look over my shoulder, I am pulling a faint thread of invisible yarn from Jamieson & Smith in Lerwick, Shetland to here in Nottingham to attach it to a power knit machine that I never knew existed 10 months ago, and I can (at last)  see the journey that I have travelled.

 

 

 

 

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