Sunday, May 08, 2011

Spinning and Weaving in the Modern World

Recently, I've been re-evaluating my practice, not just what I do, but also, how I do it.  I came into spinning and weaving towards the end of the "hippy" era and I've worked really hard over the last 40+ years to raise the perception of those two crafts as genuine "Master Crafts".  So many people expect them to have a roughness about them, expecting them to have a "homespun" feel, not perfect.

When I was learning my craft, weaving in particular, I also learnt the history of weaving which included the Medieval Guild System.  All weavers started out as an apprentice to a Master Weaver, then served up to 25 years as a Journeyman, working all over the country, and Europe, with other Master Weavers, before finally becoming a Master Weaver themselves when they presented their masterpiece to their appropriate guild.  I feel I've served my apprenticeship, gaining my GCE 'O' and 'A' Levels way back in the early 70's and since then I've attended numerous coures with other well established weaver all over the UK.  I now feel I'm a Master Weaver in my own right having gained two awards from the Bradford Textile Society!

Similarly, I first experienced spinning while at school so as to understand yarn construction for my weaving.  I've served under numerous spinning tutors such as Sue Hiley-Harris and Jenny Parry over the last 35 years and, again, feel I understand sufficient technicalities of spinning to be able to construct most types of yarn.  Yes, I can spin beautiful smoothly spun and plied yarns, but choose to spin brightly coloured textured yarn, Art Yarn to most new spinners, but fancy yarn to me!  Oh, and I understand exactly how they are spun, using the irregularities in preparation, spinning and plying to produce texture where and when I want it.

So why is it that my hand weaving is perceived to be machine woven?  Why can't beautifully hand woven fabrics be accepted in the Craft world along side the likes of broken crockery re-assembled in the most odd way which represent the best of modern craft!  I don't want my fabrics to be rough and ready proudly showing the mistakes to authenticate that it's hand woven, I've worked to hard and long to be a Master Weaver to let my standards slip just to show it's hand made.

Nor do I want to wear a mob cap and shawl to show that I'm a spinner!  Yes, the mob cap and shawl has it's place to bring history alive, but I spin in a modern world and want to attract the next generation to spinning.  After all, knitters don't sit in a shawl at their Knit and Natter Groups, they sit in cafes and tea shops, on buses and at stations, knitting gorgeous yarns, often hand spun and hand dyed, into fabulous garments.

Even though I'm just back from ISEND (International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural Dyes) and intend to dye all my yarns, fibres or fabrics with natural dyes, I'm not a "hippy", alternative living person, wearing recycled sludge coloured clothes.  My colours are bright and clear and full of life and I fully embrace sustainability, but again I live in a modern world!  Fashion and interiors can also embrace sustainability without looking grubby and dull, embracing the Slow Cloth Movement.  Most of the participants who exhibited at ISEND, including the traders, all had contemporary fabrics to show, the fabulous fabrics from The Weavers Studio are a case in point.

So what am I trying to say here in all this ramble?   I may be nearer 60 than 50, but I'm a modern woman and, therefore, a modern weaver and spinner.  I dream of a world where we all wear beautifully designed hand spun, hand dyed and hand woven fabrics that will last a lifetime and be cherished as modern heirlooms.  Sadly, that's not going to happen, but, we should all be promoting sustainability, which includes spinning, weaving and natural dyeing, and we should all embrace the Slow Cloth Movement.  So think twice when you pop into one of those "fast fashion" shops.  Think, how long will this garment last?  Who spun, dyed and wove it?  Were they paid a proper wage?  Did the company practice sustainability during production?

I'd love to hear your comments?


Debbie said...


I so know where you are coming from - I'm a Mediaeval dyer producing the best standard of dyed cloth that I can, if it's not evenly dyed then it's second grade as far as I'm concerned - if I've done a good job, then people either think I've bought it in or only want to buy the patchy stuff!!!!

I would love to know how we can raise people's expectations to what they actually should be - why should we accept all the shoddy workmanship of dyes that are "dark colours that must not be worn on light coloured sofas" or indigo that always rubs off on your hands or knitting needles. It's bad workmen not bad tools, if these items were dyed properly and rinsed properly then there shouldn't be the problems and all the disclaimers that have to go with any item! My disclaimer works the other way - if you have rub off or any colour run then I will exchange immediately - but do people value that - NO!

Can we start a new educational method, do you think - get into the primary schools and educate the 5 year olds?!

peahen said...

Wow - some thought-provoking questions.

During many years as a craftsperson I heard the claim that lumps and bumps are the beauty of a handmade item but I've never agreed with it - I think a customer may be taken in by that initially but I don't believe it sticks once they've lived with the item for a while and seen neater items.

I think something that's handmade has an inherent value because of the time and skill put in. If someone takes your work to be machine made, then they're simply wrong, and maybe that's a compliment. A similar item that has unevenness may more readily identified as handmade, but but it's been made by a less skilful maker and I know which item I would value more highly.

There was a little bit of a clash on the Monty Don Mastercrafts weaving programme, when one of the contestants couldn't see eye to eye with the instructor over this matter, but I think she had to concede in the end that time spent on remedial work was well-spent.

I've admired some of the reconstructed ceramics that you mention but more as a fascinating concept rather than the beauty or practicality of the actual object. ie as art, not craft.

There's a huge difference in principle (and sometimes in financial value) between how something is valued by customers and how it's assessed by your peers / masters. An item that has taken hours of time and skill may be praised highly but not sell. The opposite is true too (which is where your fashion stores come in). I suppose the question is what matters to you most - the opinion of those 'in the know' or the cash of the rest.

As a stained glass artist / craftsman I had to earn a living and so my work had to appeal to the customers. As a matter of pride, the quality of the work had to be good. (And there is no better day than when a fellow craftsperson buys your work).

The work I consider my best by far was a collection of work I did after I'd closed the shop - I put in the time and money for materials (and paid for exhibition space) without hoping to sell any of it - so the result is purely from my head without collaboration with customers and without commercial thoughts in mind. I still have most of that work, and if no-one else likes it, that doesn't matter - I know it's my best work, design and quality wise.

I guess if you're aiming to earn your living, then your aim is to satisfy both of those sides but if the income isn't important, then I'd suggest that your own satisfaction should be the only important thing with high regard from peers an important part of that.

Thanks for making me think about these things - I'd love to hear what others think too.


Willington Weaver said...

Thanks for your comment, Peahen.

I think I'm drawing everyone's attention to two things:
1) Traditional crafts can and should be given a contemporary twist, whether in the work produced or in the way it's demonstrated, to appeal to new comers to the craft. Re-enacters do a wonderful job, but the mob cap brigade do our crafts no favours!
2) Craftsmanship has to be worked at! Too many people feel that substandard work, particularly spinning, is "art", but don't understand how it's produced and wouldn't be able to replicate it. I've nothing against "textured" yarns ( in fact I love them and that's what I love spinning the most) or weaving, texture is my speciality. But there are few short cuts to quality work!

Inthesky said...

I have found the article and comments very thought provoking. I am a novice spinner and hope to get started weaving soon. However finding a teacher is challenging. There is a shortage of people passing on these crafts at affordable prices at venues that are accessible to me. I am largely self taught and learn from 'Youtube' videos. It is tricky to identify technical mistakes and then rectify them if there is no tutor to guide you. I do attend WSD Guild but the programme is pretty action packed, so to attend with your own agenda for learning is not plausible. I pretty much work in isolation and try to learn from experience. This has got to hamper the whole skill progression. My attitude has to be if I enjoy what I am doing and the end result is functional then I am doing ok. I am in awe of genuinely skilled crafts people but have to be realistic and accept my limits, this does sound a little defeatist but I am trying to be a realist. I do not intend to ever wear a Mob cap!

Willington Weaver said...

Hi Debbie

It's not easy getting into schools these days. I used to be in schools demonstrating on a regular basis, but for the last 15+ years it's been really difficult. And that's my local primary school who have known me for 30 years!

It is education, though, you are right. But how to do it and at what level, I really don't know. I've brought my children up to value what they do and to value the skills of other craftsmen, but until the "quality" trend becomes mainstream, we are on to a loser. I briefly had hope about 5 years ago, I want to a trend seminar and "quality" was one of the trends, but that sort of trend takes time.

Willington Weaver said...

Hi Inthesky

I do understand your dilema and I'm not decrying your efforts to learn a new skill in difficult times. Rather I'm very happy that you are taking the time and effort to learn to weave. I'd be happy to come to your guild to teach a beginner weavers troubleshooting workshop, to help with all those little problems, and / or to teach simple design.

What I do object to, and this is not you or Debbie, are the people who dress up to attract visitors, but who show bad workmanship and poor design! Oh and don't even get the historical content right!

Off my soap box and off to weave swatches.

jane d said...

I recall the ire of the Arts Officer organising a heritage day when I was very happy to organise a woad demo, but refused to dress up as I want people to understand that woad dyeing, if not exactly mainstream, is still alive and kicking.

It is fairly easy to spin, dye and weave. It is a completely different matter to do any of these crafts well. When I buy something that has been made using hand crafting skills, I expect to pay a lot for it and to be able to appreciate the skill that has created it, not enjoy the 'lumps and bumps.' That said, one way to identify hand woven carpets is that if they are wide enough to require two weavers, the pattern is often not symmetrical, or even identical - that does lend a certain charm, but it comes from individuality, not lack of skill.

If you are doing any craft because you enjoy it, then it is fair enough to make what pleases you - if you are selling to the public and/or teaching, it is simply not good enough to produce items that have not been properly designed and made.

Diane Marsland said...

Alison, this article is very close to my heart at the moment. I studied Designing for printed textiles and wall paper within independent studios and also at the mills making the products. I would consider I also learnt my trade like the journeymen who mastered their craft of weaving.
I sometimes think that now I have to dumb down a little in my technique and style as the current trends on surface pattern these days seem to embrace a style which is very simple and dare I say amateurish.
I think your article is very interesting and you have raised a point which myself and a colleague have been discussing recently.

Willington Weaver said...

Hello Jane and Diane

I know you are both professional textile designers of one sort or another and I'm glad you feel like I do, that textiles should be well designed and well made. I thought long and hard before uploading this post, but glad I did, it seems I'm not alone!

Dorothy said...

Just back for a re-read - I enjoyed this blog post, I like things to think about! One of my thoughts was that although people used to call me a "hippy" I never dressed shabby. The hand-crafted, and natural-dyed is at it's best when care is taken over the presentation, styling and finishing details.

When I read what you write about hand spun, hand dyed and hand woven fabrics I am itching to get back to my loom again! I only got half-way, I've worked out how to use the loom, tested different yarns and weave structures, now I need to get on and weave cloth I can use.

Sadly it's not just the fast-fashion shops that sell clothes that don't last, I have a long sleeve t-shirt here from a reputable high street store that has to go back as it shrunk 1-2" in every dimension on first washing. Do their buyers know nothing about fibre and yarn quality? It is hard to find good quality clothing now. This is a good time to be learning to make your own yarn and cloth.

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