Saturday, 15 November 2014

Beach tones

There is nothing I love more than rooting around for shells and pebbles on my favourite beach (expect for wave hunting on really stormy days). Here are some photos taken during my last jaunt up north. The sea, sea-life, lichen and even the slime and gloop of the beach was sparkling with colour in the autumn sun. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014


GEM is an exhibition of crystals, jewels and jewellery-making at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. The exhibition takes you through the coming-into-being of jewellery objects. It tracks the transformation of raw materials from Afghanistan into finished, crafted things. I spend most of my time thinking about these ideas on the life-cycle of jewellery objects in relation to nineteenth-century Scotland for my PhD research, so the exhibition was a real treat for me.

In one display, a selection of crystals glint from the rocks in which they were formed beside a map showing where each one is found in Afghanistan's landscape. In another, the crystals are presented in their raw glory, encased in glass baubles, accompanied by information on their natural properties and structures. Next to that, tools are heaped into a tool-box to be touched and handled, and glass vitrines containing finished works are set inside beautifully made jewellery benches.

By presenting the exhibits with a focus on process, the emphasis is on the beauty of the gems in all their forms, which highlights the skill and knowledge required to let the materials speak for themselves in the finished piece. A video of interviews with designers and makers gives further insights into the making stage, revealing the personal stories behind production. The craft work of jewellers and gem-cutters from Afghanistan is shown together with that of UK graduates and established designers, illustrating the importance of collaboration and shared influences.

At its core, this is an exhibition about the value of the craft economy - from natural resources to education and training to the role of the end consumer - to individuals and societies. It highlights the work of Turquoise Mountain, an organisation set up in 2006 which aims to promote Afghan craft and design, with a focus on the benefits to communities and the links between 'traditional' and contemporary craft. GEM is a collaboration between the British Council and Turquoise Mountain, curated by jeweller Melanie Eddy and designed by Will Shannon. It is a beautiful show from start to finish; the displays, from the cases to the information panels, could be classed as exhibition pieces in their own right.

Dovecot Studios is the perfect venue to showcase the ideas that underpin GEM: design, collaboration, skill, innovation and quality craft. The exhibition coincides with the appointment of a new apprentice at Dovecot's Tapestry Studio. Best of all, Dovecot Studios were announced as the winners of the 2014 Walpole British Luxury Awards for Luxury Craftsmanship while GEM was running. The timely award recognises Dovecot's pivotal role in sustaining contemporary tapestry and the way in which it pushes the boundaries of the medium. Hoorah for Dovecot Studios! Hoorah for craft in Scotland!

GEM: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan runs at Dovecot Studios until 08 November 2014 (only three more days to see it - aaah!).

All images copyright of Colin Hattersley.

Monday, 3 November 2014

KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook

'Cultivating inspiration in daily life ... is about learning to look at the world with fresh eyes and curiosity', writes Felicity Ford in the early pages of her Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook. The words 'cultivating' and 'curiosity' perfectly express the ideas that run through every page of this important, trail-blazing new book.

This is a knitting book unlike any other. Felix takes you by the hand through her imaginative, beautiful universe and lets you see it through her own eyes. The book muses on new ways of finding meaning in everyday things and places. Then it shows you how to translate experiences using materials, pattern and colour.

The idea behind the book was to start a new knitting tradition by translating everyday things, sights, feelings and sounds in and around Reading, a post-industrial town to the west of London, into stranded colourwork of the type found in Shetland and Estonia. Felix explores treasured objects, well-worn routes and hidden buildings with a focus on seeing them in new, different ways. The book traces a finger through inspiration, pattern, palettes and shading to help readers to 'hear yourself more clearly in the din of the modern world, and to notice and discover all the latent treasures where you are.'

A section on 'The KNITSONIK system' sets out the various stages of discovery, experimentation and modification involved in designing and making stranded colourwork. In taking the reader through these steps the book manages to capture the sort of jittery excitement that is a part of the creative process, which I think speaks volumes about the sheer passion and wonder at the world that has brought it into being.

In her exploration of pattern, palettes and shading, the sketches and swatches, Felix transforms inspiration into beautiful fabrics. The reader is taken through the working swatch as the pattern and colours are swapped and shifted in a process of trial and error, until all the elements work together to evoke the source of inspiration in a way that is pleasing to the eye and, crucially, create a good, even fabric structure.

One of the inspirations in 'The World of Places' section is 'My Commute', the A4074 from Reading to Oxford that Felix has travelled many times. She reflects on the first time she drove it, when she was first dating her partner, Mark, and studying for her MA: 'I had the sense of discovering a magical line running in the landscape between my place of work in Oxford and my blossoming personal life with Mark in Reading.' These glimpses of personal life, experience and meaning are what makes this book really special. It not only offers a look into Felix's world, but forms a manual for making your own meanings within everyday knitted objects.

Part of the reason the book works so well is because of the way Felix's voice comes through in the words and images. Felix and I have crossed paths in the wool world, and listening to her talk about her work and experiences as an artist and a knitter, and where they intersect, is really something. Reading the book, it feels like she's sitting next to you, imparting her woolly wisdom while you feel your way through swatches together.

The yarn Felix uses is, of course, central to her exploration of colour and the making of a good fabric. The wonderful team at Jamieson & Smith, who are unfailing in their support for innovative, quality publications and projects,  have sponsored the yarn for the book. I know J&S's shades intimately, having worked there for a couple of years, and having that insight only increases my admiration for the book. The kaleidoscopic sparkle of J&S yarns, and their inimitable texture and lustre, is exceptionally hard to capture in a way that does them justice. Together, Felix and her brother Fergus, who took the photographs, have managed to harness their magic.

As an artist who uses sound to explore ideas of place through knitting, Felix has an understanding of wool that most of us could only dream of. In sharing her thoughts on colour, pattern and making, the book is not only essential reading for knitters but is of value to everyone who designs and makes. It shows you how to express individuality and personal taste within universal rules on colour and shade. My copy is already a treasured addition to my wool and textiles library, and I've been seeing my world in J&S shades since I first got my hands on it. Every creative soul should have one on the bookshelf.

KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is available here. Go get one.

All images courtesy of Felicity Ford aka. KNITSONIK

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Design in Middlesbrough

I spent a few days in Middlesbrough last week at a conference about Victorian Cities. The town has a really interesting history and some wonderful Victorian architecture. In 1800 there were four houses and about 25 people living there. By 1890, mainly as a result of the iron industry boom, the population was around 90, 000. It was the perfect location for a few days of thinking about industrial history and heritage.

On the second day of the conference, I got a few hours to explore. I went along to the Dorman Museum to see the Christopher Dresser (aka. 'the father of modern design') collection. The collection contains a range of Dresser's own designs as well as pieces from his time in Japan. It was such a treat to see Dresser's inspirations alongside his own work, and objects which were created by some of the many companies he worked with. One of my favourite pieces was a ceramic teapot made to look like paper (pictured below).

I ended my afternoon stomp around Middlesbrough with a visit to the jewellery gallery at mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art). It took my breath away. The purpose-built permanent gallery, which opened earlier this month, contains a diverse and downright amazing collection of contemporary jewellery. Mima describe the collection as 'one of the finest publicly-owned jewellery collections in the UK ... featuring beautiful, provocative and fascinating pieces.' There are over 200 pieces on display from designers including Wendy Ramshaw, Felieke van der Leest and Gijs Bakker.

The gallery is an absolute must-see for any budding jewellery designer. In fact, I think it will become a place of pilgrimage and an important learning resource for designers and makers of all sorts of things. It's basically a little slice of design heaven on earth.

Here is some of what I saw in Middlesbrough:

Victorian buildings...

Christopher Dresser Collection...

The jewellery gallery at mima.

Thank you, Middlesbrough, for an inspirational, design-filled few days.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts

It's been very quiet around here recently. Very quiet indeed. But what better way to break the silence than with some photos of the opening evening of the new Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts studios in Edinburgh. The studios and gallery in Blair Street (just off the Royal Mile) opened last year with 23 makers, and the new place at Abbeymount (in an old school overlooking Arthur's Seat) has provided space for another 50. These images show the opening of Abbeymount a few weeks ago, when the doors were thrown open and makers gave hoards of visitors access to their equipment - a brave move. I was invited along by my lovely weaver friend and fellow wool fanatic, Fiona Daly, who showed me around the place (you can spy her in front of her loom in the second picture).

Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts has been built by and for the makers who work in it along with a strong team of volunteers. Apart from a small grant from Creative Scotland, it is largely self-funded. The project started in 2011 with just 5 makers and its growth over the past 3 years is testament to Edinburgh's vibrant craft world and to the hard work and determination of Louise Smith, who established the project and is behind its success. Louise studied craft at university and continues to make alongside running the studios, gallery and courses. She has built something really special, from scratch.

The makers who work at Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts, many of whom are recent graduates, will tell you just how transformative the project has been to their careers. Under the roofs of these two buildings are textile and fashion designers, ceramicists, weavers, upholsterers, product designers, furniture-makers and jewellers. The variety and diversity of makers, materials and techniques are brought together by shared space and a commitment to working alongside each other to develop their work and careers. It really is an amazing and inspiring place. 

Thank you for having us, Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts, and congratulations on your new home.

All photos copyright Damien McGlynn.

Monday, 18 August 2014


It takes double the time to get anywhere. You frequently end up being shunted off the kerb into the path of oncoming buses and bikes, left to the mercy of drivers and cyclists on the verge of road rage. Then there's the constant bombardment from pavement performances: pipers playing the Star Wars theme tune, a brass band covering ABBA, some African drums, and a tone-deaf busker thrown in for good measure. This is Edinburgh in August.

Exhausted and in need of caffeine, I end up at the door of Dovecot Studios. Inside, I find myself in a haven of calm and tranquility in the exhibition, Tumadh: Immersion, by Dundee-based environmental artists, Dalziel + Scullion. Their work explores 'the ecology of place' and 'mankind's relationship with nature'. Leaving behind the madness outside, the serenity is almost hyper-real and encountering it feels like a relief; like closing your eyes and taking a big deep breath.

The exhibition has been designed and curated to speak to the urban environment that surrounds it, and to a partner exhibition at An Lanntair in Stornoway. It advocates a more sensitised connection with the world around us, with landscape and nature and elemental forces. Tumadh: Immersion presents ideas while also creating a feeling or a mood within the space that instills a sense of those ideas in the visitor. You enter the gallery and come up behind four figures, soaked in soft light and staring out into the distance as if taking in the view from the top of a hill. An enormous skirt flowing across the room puts you in mind of a crumpled, dimpled, mountainous landscape.

The garments on display have been designed in such a way as to enable the wearer to experience the elements rather than avoid or outwit them: 'These garments instead encourage immersive natural experiences, for example a rain jacket that has a hood which is open to the elements and only allows you to look up so that you can focus on the rain falling on your face, and another with a padded back that allows you to lie down in rocky landscapes.'

The garments are not only thoughtfully designed - they are outstanding on a technical level. A beautifully-shaped seamless hood is just one example of the level of skill that has gone into the pattern cutting, and the quality of the construction of the garments is evident in the level of finishing. The fabrics themselves are central to the work: Inspired by the relationship Tweed has to the landscape of Lewis and Harris – Dalziel + Scullion explore how the tactile and physical qualities of textile can mimic and enhance the feeling of immersion in the natural world.' The origins of the materials and their production in Lewis and Harris, together with a display of rocks from the islands, creates a dialogue between city and island. 

It strikes me that this exhibition also speaks to the Ruskin show across town in the National Portrait Gallery. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ruskin inspired an increasingly urban population to get out of town, to place oneself within the landscape and to connect with the natural world. Tumadh: Immersion poses questions about how we engage with the land and the climate through the things we wear, and the materials they are made of: 'The on-going thesis throughout their practice is to do with our increasing dislocation from the natural world and that real immersion in nature requires active concentration and involvement. This is something that the they aim to guide us towards, with this show in particular concentrating on how textile and clothing can both reflect natural spaces and dictate our experience of it.'

In short, Tumadh: Immersion is nothing short of brilliant. This is a minimalist show packed with big ideas. It fuses craft, art and design, and offers a considered and thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between the things we wear - materials, design and making - and the places we wear them. But this show isn't just about pondering abstract notions about man and the world. It also presents practical tips, from being aware of your body and your breathing to carrying a nature diary to collecting feathers and stones. A gathering bag is available to buy/make, which challenges visitors to take some of their ideas on board and put them into practice.

Perhaps most importantly, the conversation between urban and rural, together with the links between the two exhibitions in Edinburgh and Stornoway offer a fairly rare example of a real partnership between the arts in Scotland's central belt and the arts in Scotland's islands. The exhibition is part of GENERATION, which is a collaborative project between various arts organisations and venues, led by National Galleries Scotland, Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland. There is often a hint of condescension underlying projects run by centralised organisations which claim to make links with, or 'celebrate', the arts outside the central belt and surrounding area. But this is certainly not the case here.

Dalziel + Scullion, together with the Dovecot, bring the island into the city, and vice versa through the sister show at An Lanntair. The Edinburgh exhibition captures a particular draw of the islands: the paradoxical feeling of freedom they can evoke as a result of being isolated, cut-off and hemmed in by open water. The works represent Scotland's landscape in a way that is neither romantic or over-wrought and they project the feeling of being the product of a mutually beneficial relationship, underpinned by a genuine respect for the natural beauty, and a shared passion for the arts, of Scotland's islands. How refreshing.

Tumadh: Immersion runs at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh until 13 September 2014 and at An Lanntair, Stornoway until 30 August.

All images copyright Michael Wolchover.

EDIT: Since publishing this post, Matthew and Louise of Dalziel and Scullion have kindly pointed out that the garments were made by Tracey Stewart Thompson of MIN Scotland.