‘textus ventilus’ | #Residency at Earthed by W M Clark, Upperlands

‘textus ventilus’ | #Residency at Earthed by W M Clark, Upperlands

During this exciting research and development commission awarded by Gayfield Projects to create a protoype linen product for their materials led #linen exhibition ‘Our Linen Stories’, I have been exploring how my ‘ephemeral’ work using chromatography can be transferred onto a linen textile, exploring the traditions and contemporary methods of transferring pattern design onto fabric from my studio process based on random and atmospheric alterations of #movingcolour.

The separations of pigment and solutions I make from distilled natural dye and manufactured inks and pigments develop their own ‘pattern’ on my papers dependent on where they are set up and what the weather and ambient temperature is – the colder it is the slower and more effective the process. It is a constant delight how such subtle changes in environment can create unique and beautiful outcomes in my continuous series of site specific ‘Draw-ing(s)’. By exchanging my narrative collecting medium of paper, for linen cloth, a whole new set of design questions has been evolving and required testing. How do I move colour on or in a textile?

I know and understand that the irregular but closely packed cellulose fibre structure of my paper allows for very small separations of pigment to occur. When working in the same way with linen and linen unions (a mixture of flax linen and cotton, it has a cotton warp and linen weft) the structure of weave and weft partially blocks this vertical movement which is why moving to work in digital print onto textile makes a lot of sense in transferring my original art works to textile and developing digital colour separations.

Detail of ink tests on upholstery weight Irish linen.

I love the tactile qualities linen has as a material, its ability to feel cool to the touch, how it crushes, creases and wears so nicely creating material memory. The similarities to working with paper are obvious to me; how linen can be folded, stitched, creased and printed onto, making small changes in its material structure. By thinking how I work with paper and the translation to a more permanent image that could be used as a drape, a cushion cover or a light fitting the benefits of working with linen I have begun to develop a series of digital images for sample printing.

Between 20 – 23 March 2018 I travelled via Belfast to Lisburn for a day at the Irish Linen Centre and Museum Archive and then spent a further three days in the design office with Duncan Neil, Creative Director of Earthed by William Clark & Sons in Upperlands, nr Maghera, Northern Ireland.

On the first day in Ireland at the Irish Linen Centre I enjoyed a wonderful day experiencing the rich learning materials in the museum, with a demo by expert weaver Alison showing the graphic way of translating a damask test pattern in red pen onto blue graph paper (easier on the eye than in black and white) to making a punch card for the jacquard loom which is then used as a pattern to weave the linen cloth. This is a fascinating process and the level of edit and detail required to be transferred to the loom is considerable. I learnt that as with printmaking a test ‘proof’ or woven cloth is made first with a bright pink test weft woven to show up places requiring correction in the pattern, before the final weaving begins, saving valuable material. A single thread can subtly change the shape of a pattern, but ‘edits’ can be made and a new card punched and threaded back into the pattern book.

The samples of clothing and every day linens such as table cloths and napkins, is extensive in the museum and I was particularly impressed with the work of irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly, working in the late 50’s early 60’s. Connolly was sculpting with pleated handkerchief linen to encase the body, forming perfectly folded pleats in the fabric to give it volume and texture, absolutely beautiful. This texture is something I would like to consider in my own work but specifically in the patterned areas of colour or the plain linen areas.

I also spent a few enjoyable hours in the museum archive, helped by Dr Ciaran Toal the museum research officer, researching the manufacturing and dyeing processes used with linen and looking at the way the jacquard cards were made and duplicated. Jacquard cards were produced as sets for popular patterns to be woven from. Memorandum books known as a ‘Book of Ties’ were kept by weavers to record patterns that sold well. These ‘book’ pages were made from single sheets of coated card, steel plates and often timber stitched together in a continuous but flexible strip to be set up on the loom and were ‘tied up’ for delivery, hence the name a ‘Book of Ties’. As detail image above.

Phillip from the museum was very knowledgeable to talk to about using natural dyes, in particular the use of saffron with its ‘…antiseptic powers…’ and the assumption of great wealth and power when seeing people wear it; as only those who could afford it would dye their linens. Saffron dye was also used as a practical means of hiding dirt on linens as they were not washed often!

Tommy Donnolly a retired weaver, working voluntarily in the museum archive, was also able to shed light on some of the technical questions I had about printed linens and the sample cloths, which in conversation brought me to look at the hand painted linens of the 1960’s which were vibrant in colour and pattern (marketed to the ‘urban customer’ of the time) and also the process developed by Richard Niven for colour fixing with gum bichromate which is a 19th-century photographic printing process based on the light sensitivity of dichromates. This process is capable of rendering painterly images from photographic negatives. As I have been working also with making cyanotype images, in collaboration with artist Susie Wilson, this is an area of research I am keen to return to.

Thank you to everyone at the Irish Linen Centre for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm for the poetically named #wovenwind.

Day 2 in Ireland started in the design studio at WM Clark & Sons with Duncan Neil, Creative Director of the beautiful product range ‘Earthed at WM Clark & Sons’ which is at the forefront of digitally printed linen for furnishings and interiors in Ireland.

‘Linen is the aristocrat of textiles. Strong as steel, delicate as silk, with an appearance as varied and attractive as an Irish landscape…’ – from ‘Linen on the Green, An Irish Mill Village’ by Wallace Clark, printed 1982.

There is something quite unique about arriving at W M Clark & Sons, Upperlands when driving down the bumpy track you are surrounded by the physical story of its development and progress since it was established in 1736 as a family business. You become aware of its important industrial history and position within the community as terraced cottages and factory buildings pop up in the landscape (used and disused), steam billows out of vent grills and giant rolls of linen are lined up outside for processing, even the entrance door is made from a wooden weaving shuttle. The history of textile manufacture is there right in front of you.

I really enjoyed the factory floor tours that Duncan gave me, what sound like romantic departments for processing fabric are experienced with all the senses when walking through – the sharp smell of the Bleaching House, the constant drum of the Beetling warehouse where heavy wooden blocks drop down onto dampened linen wound round wooden beams, tightly packing the fibres of the cloth to make beautifully smooth lustrous fabric – the sound pulsed through my body while watching the process, rather like a manufacturing musical, a process not requiring any technological updates and remaining unchanged as you can see!

Other processes at W M Clark & Sons include dyeing, singeing to remove fine fibres before printing, shrinking and more. The factory prepares many different types of cloth for agricultural uses (cow matting) to the fine linen interiors fabrics in the Earthed range, also printing fabric for many other small batch textile designers nationally and beyond Ireland. Linen is no longer woven at Upperlands but the linen used to print onto digitally for the Earthed range is sourced from an irish linen manufacturer, this sourcing locally is an important part of the product provenance and environmental footprint.

The Ardtara Hotel which I stayed for two nights (thank you Sean and Team!) used to be a Clark’s family house and the owners have recently invested in reupholstering furniture with some of the Earthed range of fabrics, this was my first experience of the beautiful patterns in the ‘Pilgrimage’ range inspired by a book of Victorian hand pressed flowers and is great to see it being used in a contemporary hotel with family links to the manufacturer. This range of printed linen developed by Duncan Neil, using photography and natural material from specific locations chimed so closely with recent work I had made collecting flowers and seed heads from my own local pilgrimage route the St. Cuthbert’s way in the Scottish Borders – ‘The Banks of a River, July 2016 & November 2017’ it was great to see the finished product being used, and I can confirm it is a beautiful quality and pops with rich colours.

Before I had arrived in Ireland Duncan and I had been in touch exchanging images and thoughts about how we could develop my ideas. When I arrived Duncan had made some test prints of the raw images we were sampling so I could get an idea of the editing and changes in the images quality when scaled up, also the strength of colour required when printing vivid colours onto textiles and how hung as a drape rather than a flat paper surface. We started a studio wall of samples and development work printed onto paper as well as fabric as a way of recording thoughts and colourways. A very exciting morning!

As the original images were worked on in Photoshop I was able to edit and then with Duncan’s very patient help slowly began to work in the textile software AVA which enables you to look at the representation of colours and also colour separation digitally – this was a real eye opener as to the technical ability to work with colour digitally and still be experimental as with my usual studio work was very exciting. Test prints were made at A3 size to review patterns as we worked, while also referring to the originals printed onto linen for colour combinations and ideas making it a very tactile design process.

Practical issues such as cloth width available for printing on, sample books and basic pattern making using basic block repeat, brick half brick repeat, diamond repeat, dot repeat, drop half drop repeat, check, stripe and random repeat were all discussed, the potential was very exciting but needed to be refined to make samples relating to my work. Duncan was very clear in discussions with keeping in mind that the work developed was sympathetic to my paper originals and this was very encouraging and a good reference point to refrain from getting carried away mirroring a repeated pattern just because it was achievable technically! In developing sample prints some began to have distinctive reference names resulting from their appearance see here ‘Rainbow Stripe’:

By the end of the day I had a clear idea of the manufacturing processes, ideas for ways to develop the sample patterns using AVA and also a breakdown of the elements that would go into making a protoype cushion for the Our Linen Stories exhibition in May 2018.

Day 3 started with a review of the work developed and over night I had been reflecting on how to simplify my ideas, to refine them meaningfully and use my practice to apply rules to pattern making – naturally it became all about ‘folding’ and creasing linking my paper work and the work to be printed onto linen. I had borrowed (now returned!) a linen napkin from the Dining Room at Ardtara to work with folding and making cloth book signatures using standard mountain and valley folds – concertina, pamphlet etc. The napkin was a square and I was working with square patterns which also determined the prototype cushion shape in the end which was a happy coincidence.

I made a list of aims for my textile pattern making, in no particular order:

  • To be commercial – considering mass application
  • To be bespoke – considering a limited edition pattern, as with print editions the drop of the pattern could be developed to allow custom lengths of fabric to be printed, to work with the proportions of the architectural space it would hang as a drape in, perhaps referencing deep Georgian skirting details or dado and picture rail heights.
  • To be cohesive and complimentary – that the samples would investigate repeats in colours that worked together
  • To exploit the advantage of working with digital print re scale and detail – as the size increases the original image quality is so important, are individual pixels interesting or an interference in the pattern making?
  • To enjoy ‘mirroring’ (but in a meant way) – after a discussion with Duncan about aesthetics and how as humans we are drawn to mirrored pattern/ faces and enjoy mirroring, and that while this way of pattern making is so simple it is often avoided. I decided it could still be used in a contemporary way.

As with all development and research work there were certain issues raised while working, the main one was quality of the original image and how the original artwork is recorded before working on it digitally, as due to its original physical size and delicate surface it can’t be scanned with a large format scanner so I was working from high resolution photographs – I have since researched other methods of digital capture to work with so that in future developments this is not a specific issue.

Another practical issue has been to consider where hands will touch the fabric. Does the colour come up as high as hand hold level on a curtain as plain bleached or unbleached linen only looks beautiful when clean! These are details I will need to further consider but can be answered by designing a wide stripe print or a very deep ombre pattern. I would also like to try the fabric as a lamp shade as the translucency of the wet paper with natural light behind is beautiful – I think it could work well with linen also.

I had time to reflect on how important it is to understand the processes that the linen goes through from growing the flax – 100 day cycle and a single day to flower, harvesting the flax – it is pulled up and not cut, hackling flax after soaking to refine and comb the vegetable fibres, spinning and weaving the approx 4ft length fibres, washing and processing it including singeing its surface for printing onto digitally to appreciate how a beautiful material is produced. The residency has given me this opportunity to really understand the production processes and I think this will gives me an invaluable appreciation of the material when working with it.

Several details in terms of presentation for the exhibition were considered while working including developing a product logo and selvedge detail, for if I developed a range of prints for manufacture and online sales. I have used my logo of a compressed signature from my website and thought that using this on a deep inky blue would work as a graphic. I further worked on this when I returned home adding the commission logo ‘journeys in design’ to a square format card with fabric care instructions and contacts on the reverse. I found a company who prints onto cards made from old recycled cotton t-shirts. I am very interested in being sustainable in production for development products and appreciate that this is only a start.

Duncan and I did our first ever Facebook live interview with Dr John Ennis, curator for Our Linen Stories and you can view our brave attempts to work with the technology here.

Day 4 was a whirlwind of activity before I caught the bus back to Belfast airport to fly home.

The time in the morning was spent setting up sample patterns for printing on the Monday to be processed and quality checked the following week on Wednesday, then to be sent to the UK (Note: due to a delivery issue outwith our control the fabric wasn’t delivered until 23 April and despite having suffered a slash during its journey it was wonderful to unroll it and see the vivid prints up close).

We have printed ‘ombre’, ‘rainbow fang’, ‘white stripe’ – in several versions as specific blanket samples along with ‘spot’ and ‘splash’ influenced by the pattern of the beetling hammers. However, as these are working titles they may well change and be edited once more sample fabric is printed and reviewed. It is worth while considering that a manufactured range can take between 6 – 9 months of development work to get it to production so I am delighted to get to this stage with the work!

With the sample fabric delayed we worked on designs for the cushion that we had samples of and were the scale we thought would work on a cushion size 40 x 40cm square. Woven product labels were designed and samples ordered. Six sample patterns were sent to print and they are in the process of being made-up by Duncan’s expert seamstress Jill (thank you for your patience and expertise!) for the exhibition, presenting a limited edition of 18 prototype cushions for sale during the run of the exhibition and as it travels this year.

It has been a very exciting commission with its creative and manufacturing challenges along the way which I feel will bring some changes and developments within my practice.

A special thank you to Dr John Ennis, Curator and all the Gayfield Projects team for their hard work and specifically thank you to John for the opportunity enabling me to explore an aspect of my practice with such an experienced textile designer, Duncan Neil, Creative Director of Earthed by WM Clark.

When researching mills and manufacturers Earthed by WM Clark was at the top of my list for so many reasons to visit and having spent some time there I was so impressed by the quality and care that goes into their product from factory floor to the quality control and finished product. I was made feel so welcome by everyone.

A huge thank you to Duncan at @earthedfabrics for the patience and time he gave for all my questions and ideas, his constant refills of coffee to keep the creativity flowing and for sharing his extensive experience working in the manufacturing and design industry opening my eyes to the possibilities of product development as a small scale maker. This has been a really invaluable learning research experience with potential for more development over the next few months. The work being presented in May is a ‘raw’ material outcome, a protoype from a very intense period of work and I look forward to taking these ideas forward over the following months and to hear visitors responses to the samples. Here they are being inspected during quality control – film credit, Duncan Neil.

You too can share your linen stories by going to the #ourlinenstories website where you can add to the growing collection at: www.ourlinenstories.com

Please follow my 2018 Gayfield Projects Commission via @textusventilus on instagram for updates about my ‘material journey’ with #linen #ourlinenstories #wovenwind #textusventilus #EarthedbyWMClark

For more information about the series of events and the exhibition details please go to: Our Linen Stories

Program Details:

Exhibition: Custom Lane, 67 Commercial St. Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 6LH

Exhibition Dates and Times: 5th – 26th May 2018; Tues-Fri 10:00-18:00, Sat-Sun 11:00-16:00

Moving Colours – Artist Talk by myself Felicity Bristow; 12 May 2018, 14.00 – 15.30pm

Twilight Talk: Place Making and Creative Industry; 17 May 2018, 18.30-20.30

Artist Talk by Helena Loermans: Weaving a Textured History; 19 May 2018, 14.00 – 15.30pm

With special thanks to Gavin, Rosa and Archie Yuill, the members of the bound : unbound collective for their support, Mary Morrison (Creative Leader of CABN) and Susie Goodwin (Creative Director of North Light Arts) who have all given me the time, support and space to take on this commission.