Textiles, weaving, spinning and dyeing.
We were introduced to the many different ways of working with textiles, the idea was that children should be encouraged to work with as wide a range of materials as possible. There was a kind of William Morris ethos that work with the hands is good for you and is honourable. I must say that the children I worked with in later periods of my life produced some wonderful work.
I have already described the waistcoats that Corsham students made for their party.
We learned how to spin raw fleece on hand spindles (incidentally Ghandi spun wool on a hand spindle every day (as a kind of meditation) after having teased the raw wool into straight strands with carders, the resulting wool threads were then woven on a back strap loom. A backstrap loom is one of the simplest forms of all looms. You do need a heddle, the heddle is usually made of metal (in more primitive cultures from wood or string) with a series of alternate holes and spaces, that are threaded with the yarn. The threads at either end are knotted on a stick. The stick at one end is fastened to something solid like a tree or a door handle whilst the stick at the other end is tied around your waist…therefore when you lean back you get the tension necessary to hold the threads taut. When you raise the heddle it creates a gap in the warp threads through which you pass the weft threads which are then pressed dorn firmly with the heddle. It’s the simplest basis for all weaving yet it is capable of producing the most suble or the most colourful of cloth, which is extremely sophisticated. The women of South America especially Guatemala are masters of this method.
Tablet weaving. A tablet is made of thick card or in these days plastic about three inches square. A hole is made in each corner, you need about twenty or more depending on the length of the final strip. A thread is passed through all the (say) top right hand holes and a separate one through each hole once again they are tied at each end, you lean back and this time turn the first tablet to the right before putting the weft through, depending on how many times you turn each tablet you get a different pattern. This is the principle that all the great jacquard looms use. The jacquard looms with their system of perforated cards controlling the warp are the forerunners of the binary system that underpins all computing. I have used tablet weaving successfully in my own hangings.
Dyeing. With Riette Sturge Moore (daughter of yet another poet!) we learned various methods of colouring cloth which we made into costumes for drama. With her we also made masks, she was one of the principal costume designers on the London stage, she smoked like a trooper. We all got used to being addressed as ‘dahlings’. She had an indigo dye vat, indigo is such a special rich and ancient colour. The dye vat is pretty smelly, in old times they used urine as the liquid today it is urea produced in the lab. On the top of the liquid is a putrid but irridescent mess, it looks foul. You dip a piece of cotton cloth into the vat and bring it out instantly, it is yellow but then it oxidises in the air and turns pale blue, if you want it darker you re-dip it, darker still re-dip it and so on. The darkest colour is like no other colour you have ever seen, it is deep and mysterious a bit unearthly and quite magical. No wonder jeans were so popular they had that touch of magic as the original ones and the best of the bunch today have been dyed in indigo.
Later when I taught in schools and colleges I always formed an association with the drama dept to make costumes and masks. In my first job in the public school, it was a tradition that the deputy headmistress would produce a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (in which she always took a leading part.) This particular year it was Patience and she was playing the part of Reginald Bunthorne. She sent me a message (she was quite autocratic) that I should produce twenty brass helmets for the guardsmen complete with the horse hair plumes in one week. Panic, panic. I remembered Riette. The girls made five clay moulds and we covered them with papier mache, waited till they dried, then on to the next set. We left a hole at the top for raw plumbers sisal trimmed like a broom. The dried papier mache was painted raw umber first, then gold to allow the umber to show through here and there, much better than just pure gold. That was my introduction to the world of school and college drama.
I learned to love the creative possibility of fabric when I was at the grammar school. Materials and money were short but we needed to make costumes for Shakespeare plays, Lady Precious Stream, Androcles and the Lion etc. I sent a note round to all parents asking for any materials or suitable old clothes that they had, also hats, feathers, jewellery etc. We had such a response, bits of velvet, silk, glorious old curtains etc. I kept them all in big boxes under the tables. Knowing what was there the girls designed the costumes and made them. OK we didn’t have fine stitching, they were hand stitched with rather large stitches, copydex was used liberally but the resulting costumes were inventive keeping close to their original drawing and wearable. The transformation of hats, soaking in water and re-forming, dyeing, painting and applying jewellery was loved by all. I must find their drawings (which I still have somewhere) and add them to this later.
Fabric Printing. Marian Richardson, the art educator, whose ideas they adhered to at Corsham, believed strongly in the importance of pattern. We printed on fabric first by making potato blocks, with which you can make the most rich patterns if you shift and overprint and if you cut the potato into a square or rectangle and gauge out part of it with a lino cutter. Then on to lino and wood blocks. I enjoyed it and in the typical Corsham way they spotted this and sent me off to the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to study printing blocks and pattern generally. That visit really changed my life, it’s a museum of ethnography and full of the most wonderful human artefacts. This was in the days before it was tarted up and you could be in there on your own happily routing through drawers. It is still my favourite museum and I fell in love with ethnography. If you plonk me into an ethnographic dept. and let me draw I am utterly happy. I think it is partly because the wonder of the human spirit that makes these things gets through to me every time.
My own work For a lot of my own work subsequently I have used textiles, I’m not interested in the practical utilitarian ways of using fabric, threads etc but in it’s expressive use to convey an idea or feeling. I regard it as just another material that an artist can use, why just paint? The study of ethnography tells you that a truly creative person uses everything st his disposal, Later Rauschenberg, Jim Dine and other American Expressionists came to Corsham. In the past we looked towards France as the centre of artistic excellence now it was moving to the States.