David Brown is a farrier, based in Perthshire, with decades of experience in shoeing horses and fabricating metal.
In recent years, he’s been delighting family and friends with craftwork, whether wood-fires, garden ornaments or house-signs, all made from a collection of rods, plates and cylinders.
Examples of his work can be seen online  . The photograph below shows some of the parts being combined to make a house-sign .
Earlier in February, the Living Field went to find out how David works the metal into lettering and complex shapes of plants and animals.
It’s all done at a workshop within an old stone outbuilding in the Braes of the Carse between Dundee and Perth.
The first thing noted was that the raw materials are mostly from unwanted or scrap metal. Take the rods, tied in bundles in the photograph above. They became unfit for their original purpose in the construction industry and would have been thrown away. Yet they are ideal for making things like ornamented pokers and lettering.
To become malleable, the rods are first fired in the forge until white hot, then the hot end is placed on the anvil ready for the hammer.
Hammering, sawing, bending, twisting
A range of techniques can used to create shapes out of the fired rods. First, the rods are usually beaten with a hammer to ‘flatten’ the last few inches of the rod into an oblong.
When cool, the flattened ends can be cut with a circular saw to form two prongs, like a tuning fork. The rod then goes back in the forge until it’s white hot again and in this form, the two prongs can be bent or hammered into shape.
Or the white hot rod can be left as a cylinder, but twisted round a ‘plug’ inserted into the anvil or held in a vice and curled into a spiral.
Power of the plasma cutter
Shapes are usually made from discarded steel or iron plate. An outline is drawn on the metal, then a hand-held plasma cutter traces the shape to release it from the plate. A powerful thing, this plasma cutter ….. and it makes a cascade of sparks!
The shape can then be re-heated and bent, cut or hammered to add spirals and other patterns.
From discard to craftwork
It was heartening to see David’s positive efforts to turn waste metal into things useful and ornamental. Here’s two examples.
In the panel above, discarded metal discs (top right) were first cut radially into several segments, some taken out to near the centre, those remaining moulded into the form of leaves or petals, given texture by repeated blows from a special hammer. When aligned on a central rod, the discs combine into whorls of leaves or flowers.
In the lower photographs, metal was taken from an old calor gas cylinder, flattened and cut into the form of a hare.
The workshop is a place of fire, sparks, hammering and hot metal – amazing to see it all. And there is little duplication: each piece is hand made and unique.
In my practice as a textile artist, I work largely with wool – a fibre which has been used since the dawn of civilisation. It was almost certainly one of the earliest fibres to be used in the manufacture of cloth. Its continued use right through to modern times is testament to its usefulness.
My own development as an artist has been very much influenced by happenings and circumstance rather than a planned progression, and living in the Highlands of Scotland means that wool is the fibre that just happened to be available at times when I wanted to explore a different route.
My mother had taught me to sew at an early age – or as she described it, she allowed me to have needle, thread and scissors – and although I have no memory of it, I could sew before I could read. Adding decoration to fabric in the form of embroidery or the addition of braids seemed to just come naturally. I was 10 before my legs were long enough to reach the foot pedal of my mother’s sewing machine, but once I got going with that, there was no stopping me – machines were the way to go! After a year away from home at university with no access to a sewing machine, I spent all my summer holiday earnings on my own machine, and have never looked back.
Broadening my skills
I was given a small table-top loom by my father when I was 15 – just a happy result of him being in the right place at the right time when a colleague was doing some down-sizing. As this was decades before the advent of the internet, I made a trip to the local library to find a book on weaving and from that figured out what to do with the loom. A friend with a knitting machine gave me a cone of Shetland yarn to weave with and I was off…….
Over a couple of decades I was just a serious amateur sewer and weaver with occasional forays into machine knitting, hand spinning and various other textile techniques as and when time allowed, but in the early 90s I stumbled into the world of Pictish sculptured stones. As a design style, this really captured my imagination and figuring out ways to incorporate this art form in my embroidery resulted in me getting commissions for my work. And of course, the more I was asked to do, the more I was able to let my art develop and after a few years, I got to the stage where I was able to give up my day job as a school science technician.
My mother had a small part-time business  making hats with Harris Tweed. (She started this because of taking early retirement and moving to the Isle of Lewis. The wind blows there, so warm hats were needed!) I helped her out whenever she was busy with orders, so Harris Tweed was always around and available for me to experiment with. The combination of Harris Tweed and Pictish design works really well and I discovered there was a market for my style.
Once I started working professionally I found I was able to invest in equipment that not only saved me time, but allowed me to develop my style in ways that had not previously been possible.
It was 2001 when I bought my first embroidery machine – a tiny domestic model that was very limited in terms of scale, but opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be achieved with a machine so I saved up, and a couple of years later bought an industrial machine. And a couple of years after that, I added a bigger one………. Studio space prevents me from going bigger still. Two machines running side by side is all I have room for.
The technique I developed for all my Celtic/Pictish inspired work is appliqué. This involves cutting out shapes of fabric, placing it on the background fabric and stitching over the cut edges. At first, this was all done with a scalpel on a cutting board, but it was a slow process that put a strain on my wrist, so when I discovered about laser cutters………. yes, it might be the same cost as a new family car, but I did the sums and figured out that it could pay for itself within 5 years so a bank loan was worthwhile. Speed and comfort are not the only benefits. Wool is a mobile, flexible fabric. As the laser does not actually touch the fabric at any time there is no distortion in the cutting process. The laser works by burning along a very finely focussed line and gives a sealed edge as the fibres burn away. In the case of wool this gives a slightly tarry, charred edge but this is later concealed by the stitching that goes over it. The down side is that my studio can sometimes smell a bit like a charnel house, but the smell quickly dissipates.
Family circumstances meant I was spending a lot of time going to Lewis for a few days every month. As a change from my embroidery I decided that while on Lewis I should improve my weaving skills. I managed to acquire an old Hattersley loom (and a shedful of Harris yarn to go with it) and set it up in my mother’s garage. It took a while, but I did get to the stage where I was weaving Harris Tweed and getting it stamped with the official Orb certification mark. The image below right shows an Orb design embroidered on my own weaving.
Wool is a lovely yarn to weave with, and almost all the weaving I have done over the decades has been with wool. It is a “forgiving” fibre. It has a degree of natural elasticity that makes it easy to weave with, and also easy to disguise mistakes and breaks. When it first comes off the loom it is quite hard and rough, but at this stage, careful examination gives the weaver a chance to do any necessary darning and once the tweed is washed you can’t tell where the problem was.
When my mother died I no longer had an island base for my loom so moved it to my studio near Inverness. Of course the weaving that I do here cannot be called Harris Tweed because for that the entire process has to be carried out in the Outer Hebrides, but I found that not all my customers were bothered about what the tweed was called – they were more concerned that it had been woven by me.
This year I decided I had had enough of the hard pedalling that was involved in operating the Hattersley loom and so I sold it on and invested in a new hand loom (photographs below) that has a computer dobby (the mechanism that lifts and lowers the shafts to separate the warp threads). This new adventure is allowing me to be much more experimental in my approach to weaving, and to use a wider variety of yarns. The gentler technique will also allow me to weave with my own hand spun yarns, so watch this space….!
With the exception of my sewing machines, all my equipment needs a computer to run. I now find that I design straight onto the computer most of the time, though I often do quick sketches with pencil and paper just to work out which way I am going to take a bit of knotwork or key pattern work. Being able to do the simple processes of copy and paste, flip and rotate allows me to easily bring the precision to my work that is so important in Pictish art.
Computerised technology has its place, and certainly makes it possible for me to create my art and sell it for prices that people can afford, but I do still use a lot of purely hand techniques. I weave braids and bands using a variety of methods – inkle weaving, tablet weaving and mini peg-loom. I often embellish little details of my machine embroidery with some hand stitching, beading or couching. I do a bit of hand dyeing and fabric painting, and quite a lot of hand spinning – mostly wool.
In addition to working with woven fabrics – mostly wool and silk – I also make my own hand made felt. This is another ancient fabric making technique but it has only been in the last few decades that it has become a popular activity in Scotland. Unlike weaving and knitting, no yarn is needed – just loose wool fibres. It is basically a question of rubbing the wool fibres with soapy, warm water until they bind together – though of course things such as initial fibre preparation, the techniques used and the skill of the feltmaker all play their part in how the final product looks and handles.
An important feature of felt compared with woven and knitted fabrics is that it can’t be undone – once the fibres are felted, they can’t be separated. The advantage for my way of working in embroidery is that felt doesn’t fray so there is less need for full coverage of the cut edges in appliqué work. I also make use of the thickness of the felt to achieve a semi-relief look in some of my embroideries. Although the felt has to be made largely with wool, other fibres such as silk and bamboo can be added sparingly to give interesting surface textures.
Creating my own cloths, whether this is on the loom, the knitting machine or at my felting table, means that I can blend colours in a way that would be impossible with shop-bought fabrics. As I am creating the fabrics I am thinking about how I am going to use them. If I am making clothing I will weave, knit or felt just the amount I need to make a particular garment and will introduce colour changes as I go along. If I am planning a piece of wall art it may be that I let the fabric develop organically and then decide how I am going to embellish it once I have the fabric completed.
I don’t really sample. With weaving I might weave a small section in 2 or 3 different colours of weft before I start for real, but generally I rely on my decades of experience and am confident that something will turn out the way I had envisaged – and if not, there are always other ways I can use a piece of cloth. Nothing is wasted. And while it may take a while to sell a particular piece, there is always someone out there who likes it enough to buy it. I am also very lazy about record keeping, so don’t ask me to repeat something. I can do something similar, but it won’t be the same.
In terms of what inspires me…. just about everything! I am always seeing things and thinking, “That’s a nice shape, colour or texture, how can I work that into my art?” I suspect I will never grow tired of Pictish design. Sometimes I take the ancient designs and recreate them in my embroidery – other times I just take ideas from them but develop my own designs. The possibilities are endless and as even now, ancient sculptured stones are still being discovered, I don’t anticipate running short of inspiration – just the time to bring all my creative ideas into being.
The Future for Scottish Wool and Textile Art
Scottish wool has had its share of ups & downs. Currently sheep farmers are getting a lot less for their fleeces than it costs them to shear the sheep. But it is not that there isn’t a market for the wool. Now more than ever, people want to use natural fibres but the systems and manufacturing capabilities are not in place to connect producers and customers. The Harris Tweed industry relies on local wool. The Outer Hebrides wool clip is not enough to support the current level of tweed production, so wool is brought in from mainland Scotland. Most British wool gets used in carpet manufacture because it is considered too course and rough to wear – but these features make it excellent for walking on. It would also be ideal as house insulation (wool is naturally fire retardant!) and we are all being advised to better insulate our homes. We need a bit of joined up thinking.
At the other end of the scale, some small scale farmers are making direct connection with textile enthusiasts who are happy to pay for nice fleece – particularly for some of the more interesting breeds.
I am currently working on a long-term project that is entirely for my own amusement rather than with thought of finding a paying customer. I am spinning my way through a couple of kilos of North Ronaldsay fleece. Once it’s all spun and applied I will venture into the world of natural dyes and then start weaving.
My ultimate aim is to use a combination of tablet weaving and loom weaving to construct my version of the Orkney Hood. However, I want a finished garment that is soft and luxurious, not something that looks as though it has been in a peat bog for 1500 years! This project has been made possible by the covid pandemic. As the world went into suspended animation, I found myself more in control of my time. It is quite liberating to work without having to be concerned about the commercial aspect of what I am doing, but maybe as I work I will try to figure out if there is a viable way to make such garments for sale – and see if there is a demand for it.
Author | links
Ruth Black www.ruth-black.co.uk The Workshop, Inchmore, Inverness, IV5 7PX
01463 831567 // 0777 177 4172
 For my Harris Tweed products I trade under the name of my mother’s business – Anna Macneil www.annamacneil.scot
All images on this page by Ruth Black.
Ed: many thanks to Ruth for giving the Living Field such insights to her art and craft based on natural fibres and providing the photographic material for this article.
And here is a photograph of some North Ronaldsay sheep from the Living Field’s collection (added 7 February 2022)
Caroline Hyde-Brown, at Norwich University of the Arts, gave the Living Field this account of her work with the legume, grass pea. Here are some examples of her craft.
Read on to see how it is done.
Introduction to the grass pea
The grass pea Lathyrus sativus is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) and commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa (Caroline writes). It is a hardy yet under-utilised crop and able to withstand extreme environments from drought to flooding. The grass pea fixes nitrogen from the air which helps maintain a healthy and well fertilised topsoil .
However, the grass pea contains a potent neurotoxin called B-ODAP which increases if the plant is exposed to conditions of severe water stress. Historically the grass pea is known to produce adverse side effects with excessive human consumption which exacerbates the risk of a neurological disorder known as lathyrism which can cause permanent paralysis below the knees both in adults and children.
Growing the plants
In September 2019 I initiated a collaboration with John Innes Research Centre in Norwich to investigate whether this ancient legume could be utilised to create a biomaterial with a sustainability strategy of raising its residual value. With a mixed methodology of qualitative research, critical inquiry, and home-based experimentation, I explored the inherent qualities of the natural raw plant residue with Anne Edwards and Abhimanyu Sarkar . I used a framework known as the ‘whole systems’ approach adding freshly collected rainwater and solar heat .
I experimented with different types of potting containers to observe growth patterns and plant behaviour. Shallow containers produced spindly and weak plants compared to the much stronger and higher yielding plants grown in deep ‘rose’ containers or in a glasshouse.
My assistance with the harvest at John Innes yielded positive results during January 2020. I began with behavioural growth studies in agar flasks, which provided a fascinating insight into the delicate root structure as the roots are normally below ground. Unexpected discoveries about how the grass pea behaved under certain conditions helped the iterative design process.
During lockdown last year I had time to observe the plants on my windowsill and how they used the agar provided by John Innes. I didn’t need to water them, and it was fascinating to see how the plant easily grew, the perfect house plant!
I also planted some grass pea in different types of container with various depths to see which environment the crop preferred. The black container (photographs above, lower left) provided the wonderful patterned shapes shown lower right.
Embroidery with roots and tendrils
Perfectly formed tendrils from the harvested residue of grass pea inspired me to do some hand embroidery. I used Kantha stitching on cotton to reflect the Indian traditional embroidery technique of simple straight stitch.
My overall aim was to see whether the grass pea residue could be recreated into a cloth of some kind. Cutting up the paper samplers and using other threads and vintage lace slowly transformed the paper into a fabric, but the harvested residue was extremely dry and brittle.
I was unable to spin a thread out of the stalks. However, I believe, with the right biotechnology, cellulose could be extracted from the grass pea to make clothing, paper, shoes and lighting. Recent advances prove that using agricultural waste is an extremely profitable and sustainable operation with companies such as Agraloop , already spinning innovative and unique fibres.
Initially my papermaking explorations were unsatisfactory. The handmade paper felt stiff, broke easily and resembled cardboard. After boiling the residue and retting it in a bucket for a week however, it softened to produce a softer slurry or pulp.
Although I was unable to provide precise samples of artisanal stationery, each piece of handmade paper had its own individual character. I began to realise that imperfections can help create an authentic narrative and felt more confident in exploring other possibilities with ingredients.
A series of handmade papers were constructed from localised resources. I wanted to see if the grass pea could hold other grasses and petals within multiple layers of slurry. I took advantage of the warm weather and dried them in the garden. By adding spices from the kitchen, combined with grass clippings and petals taken from hedgerows and heathers they took on a lovely range of colours.
I also wanted to test some of the bio-resins from my collection of azeleas to see whether it added another material dimension. I looked at adding colour and referenced the pantone colour range for 2020 to provide inspiration for a moodboard of handmade paper.
Bio pots and other functional products
Interpreting scientific knowledge and merging it with my own craft-oriented methods is a lengthy and complicated process. The bio pots initially started out as a conversation when I decided to see whether the knowledge I had gained through papermaking over the summer could result in something more tangible like a functional product.
I looked at whether the grass pea pots could be dyed to provide colour, starting with kitchen spices such as paprika and herbal tea bags with raspberry, blueberry, tea, and coffee. These were quite successful samples and ongoing observations are being made into the waterproofing and durability. Further growth studies will commence this year with a view to creating something that may offer a sustainable alternative for the tree planting initiatives overseas.
… and some final remarks
Research into the use of natural resources to provide extra sources of income has proven potential. It shows how the bridging of traditional artisan work with modern design can provide sustainable solutions. An essential part of the process includes rigorous testing of raw materials to demonstrate that the process is both restorative and circular from the beginning of the supply chain to the end product.
As an inter-disciplinary artist, I seek to implement new ideas through forming partnerships which help shape and question my own practice. I feel fortunate that we could build a strong professional network to bridge knowledge gaps. It was a collaborative process that reinforced our objective of helping to improve rural livelihoods in India.
I conclude that the grass pea supply chain could be disrupted from field to biomaterial and repurposed to provide vital ingredients for economic change.
Sources | Links
 Caroline writes: “When all other crops fail, grass pea will often be the last one left standing. It is easy to cultivate and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, which makes it a popular crop. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) states that at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin. More at the Crop Wild Relatives Project: The curious case of the grasspea.
 The “whole systems approach” was devised by a group of Product Design Students at the Iceland Academy of Arts in 2015 during a project using willow. They designed a unique range of products including paper, glue and string adding just heat and water.
 Agraloop: transforming low-value waste to high-value fibre.
The editor writes: Many thanks Caroline from the Living Field for sharing your experiences and experiments on grass pea. We hope you can continue to develop the technology and craft work and help to generate new income streams for growers.