Tag Archives: wool

Ancient and Modern – Techniques with wool in textile Art

By Ruth Black

Starting out

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……. 

Pictish cross slabs, 9th century: left, Rodney’s Stone, which stands near the entrance to the grounds of Brodie Castle in Moray; right, a detail from the Nigg stone, Easter Ross. All photographs by Ruth Black.
Wall hanging, inspired by the Nigg stone – hand-made felt, Harris Tweed and embroidery (40 x 120 cm).

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. 

Going professional

My mother had a small part-time business [1] 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.

Harris Tweed hat from the Anna Macneil range.

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.

‘Celtic surf’ – wall hanging on display at Morven Gallery on the Isle of Lewis – hand-made felt, Harris Tweed and machine embroidery (110 x 50 cm)

Embroidery machine

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.

Laser cutter

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.

Weaving in progress on the Hattersley loom

Looms

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.

Orb mark that certifies a piece of cloth is genuine Harris Tweed (official stamp just visible top right)

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….!

Threading and tying in a new warp on the Toika loom
Wool tweed weaving in progress on the Toika loom

Computers

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.

Detail of wall hanging inspired by knotwork on the Rosemarkie cross slab at Groam House Museum – machine embroidery on Harris Tweed

Low-tech techniques

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.  

Ruth hand spinning in her garden

Felt making

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.

Laying out wool fibres prior to felting

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. 

‘Machair’ wall hanging – hand made felt with machine embroidery (100 x 50 cm)

Inspiration

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. 

Sheep breeds: cheviot (left) and blackface

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.

The Orkney Hood, 6th century, found in a peat bog in the 19th century and now on display in the National Museum of Scotland

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.

Hand spun North Ronaldsay wool – yellow is dyed with turmeric, the beige is undyed, purple is dyed with logwood

Ruth Black
www.ruth-black.co.uk
The Workshop, Inchmore, Inverness, IV5 7PX

01463 831567 // 0777 177 4172

ruth@ruth-black.co.uk 

[1] 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.

Postscript

And here is a photograph of some North Ronaldsay sheep from the Living Field’s collection (added 7 February 2022)

SoScotchBonnet

Indigenous crops; Scotch Bonnet; wool, woad and indigo; Tam o’Shanter, Burns supper; staple food of the north Atlantic seaboard; tatties, neeps, oat and barley; the grey cat!

In its undying search for the truly indigenous crop, the Living Field investigated the ‘Scotch Bonnet’, to find it was nothing local at all, but a hot little capsicum, now grown in the West Indies and other tropical places and used to give some spicy heat to food.

Why then is it called the Scotch Bonnet? It seems because it looks like one. Unlike many varieties of the chillies, this one bulges and sometimes flops when it leaves the stem: to some, with imagination, it resembles a Scotch Bonnet, on a head.

The Scotch Bonnet

Now the Living Field is well disposed to the headgear named Scotch Bonnet, originally made of local fibre, usually wool, and dyed blue with woad Isatis tinctoria, which was once grown as a crop in these islands, or with the deeper indigo Indigofera tinctoria, which is imported and replaced woad. Such skill and craft go into making this one little hat: you have to rear the sheep and shear them, then wash, spin and weave the fibre, grow and harvest the woad or indigo, extract the dyestuff, dye the cloth, then form it into a shape that would fit on a head – and it was all done before electricity.

But we see the Scotch Bonnet (headgear) is also called the Tam o’Shanter, and this is, it seems, because Tam in the poem by Burns wears a blue bonnet – it’s mentioned only once, but there it is – ‘Tam’s blue bonnet’.

Sheep being sheared of its wool (top right), wool dyed with woad (bottom right) and indigo, and photograph of scene from Gourdie's Tam O'Shanter showing Tam's blue bonnet in hand (Living Field / details of book below)
Sheep being sheared of its wool (top right), wool dyed with woad (bottom right) and indigo, and photograph of scene from Gourdie’s Tam O’Shanter showing Tam’s blue bonnet in hand (Living Field / details of book below)

Tam o’Shanter

Now these three words do not define what sort of bonnet it is, yet those who have depicted the bonnet in drawings and paintings of the epic give it the character and shape of a Scotch Bonnet, and those such as Alexander Goudie (1933-2004) who have painted in colour give it the colour blue – woad-blue or indigo-blue.

In Goudie’s fabulous paintings, the blue bonnet is there in almost every picture. It grows in significance. Even when chased by Cutty Sark and the other infernals, the blue bonnet stays on. Even when, with diminishing sark, she grabs Maggie’s (Tam’s mare’s) tail, pulls it and leaves just a stump of hair … the bonnet stays on. Considering the state of Tam, and the number and aggression of the infernals .. you wonder how the man and mare escaped? Was there something in these blue-bearing plants that somehow made Tam and his mare go faster or the infernals slower. Doesn’t matter, because if they had caught him, there would be no recitations of the poem and much less fun at Burns Night.

Burns Night

The poem Tam o’Shanter is very much associated with the festivities of the Burns Supper, and through the medium of the Supper, visitors can sample some of the great staple food and drink of the north Atlantic seaboard – oat, swede, potato and barley. Together, and with offal, including lungs, and other fleshly stuff from sheep, they make the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, the barley going not so much into the haggis as into the dram for those who partake (though, on the Night, the dram can sometimes … well … go into the haggis).

Haggis, neeps and tatties (top), whole swede and sliced swede (Living Field)

Would Burns have known the main crops that now form his Supper – he was a farmer for a few years? Sheep of course he would have known. Of the three main vegetable constituents, only oat has been here for a long time and that for thousands of years. He would have known oat. The neeps, usually swede rather than the (white) turnip, and tatties (potato) are relative newcomers, arriving perhaps a few decades before Burns was born. Burns probably knew about swede and potato but might not have grown them. Barley is older than oat here and he would have known barley and certainly known its products.

So while Burns (1759-1796) is now celebrated around the world, the world reciprocated before he was born by offering the vegetable constituents of his commemorative supper – oat and barley from west Asia, swede from (probably, though it’s not certain) east Europe or west Asia and potato from Central America. What a generous world!

Sources at the bottom of the page give links to his poems and song and to the Scots Dictionary. The image of haggis, neeps and tatties (above) was taken at a Burns ‘lunch’ at the Hutton staff restaurant.  For those who want to know more about the crops, below is something more on swede, potato, oat and barley.

The crops

Tatties

The tatties’ tale is well told elsewhere. Briefly, potato Solanum tuberosum arrived in Britain from the other side of the Atlantic in the late 1500s, but gained little interest other than a garden curiosity until …..

“To Thomas Prentice, a common day-labourer, who lived near Kilsyth, is the honour due of bringing this useful esculent into general notice in Scotland [so wrote Lawson and Son in 1836 only 40 years after Burns’ death … and read on … ] He procured, in 1728, some “sets” from Lancashire, and bestowed considerable care in their propagation; and as their value became known, they were eagerly sought after by his immediate neighbours. By continuing the cultivation he, in a few years, saved upwards of £200, with which he purchased a small annuity, on which he lived independently to an old age, dying at Edinburgh in the year 1792.”

So Thomas got his tattie tubers from Lancashire well before Burns was born and he died only a few years before Burns did. Burns was probably familiar with the potato, but only just. His parents’ generation probably did not know it and his grandparents’ would not have known it. Yet what an explosion of genetic resources there was after that, because little over a hundred years later there were 175 recognised types of potato known to Lawson and Son (1836, 1850) and today there are great collections of genetic resources such as the one at the Hutton Institute.

Neeps

In their list of 1852, Lawson and Son, seedsmen from Edinburgh, write “in modern times the turnip seems to have been re-introduced to this country from Flanders about two-hundred years ago” which is the 1650s or thereabouts, but they also state that the time of introduction and the degree of cultivation of the swede or Swedish turnip is less certain though probably later (let’s approximate to around 1700). By Burns’ time the turnip had become a commercial farm crop in some areas of Scotland. Today the turnip has the botanical name Brassica rapa and the swede Brassica napus.

Both types of turnip were used to feed horses and cattle, but also people. The swede, the same species as oilseed rape, has leaf that is less coarse and hairy than the turnip, bluey-green rather than bright green and generally a yellow-orange flesh rather than white, which colour remains when cooked and mashed. So the neeps that are eaten these days with haggis and tatties are mostly swedes. An excellent vegetable, rich, smooth and distinctive to the taste, one of the very finest of the cabbages.

The corn

Oat Avena sativa and barley Hordeum vulgare had been the staple cereals of the north atlantic seaboard for a very long time. Charred grain of barley has been found in the earliest farming settlements. Their relative popularity has risen and fallen but in Burns’ time, oat was by far the most common, and it is the meal ground from oat grains that binds the animal constituents of the haggis. Today it’s the other way round, barley is the commoner crop, though oat is the one still used in haggis. More on oat and barley can be found on this site at Garden/Cereals and in the series of articles on landraces, e.g. The bere line – rhymes with hairline.

The grey cat?

She says “Arrived, invited, for a SoSCOtchBOnnet photoshoot posing in nothing but a Scotch Bonnet – and what a bonnet! Fine wool, indigo-dyed, cost me the earth … credit card maxed out … but the editor says ‘no nudity on the Living Field web site’ and I had to keep my fur on … no fun in that. Name’s Meggie by the way, like Tam’s horse Maggie but with an ‘e’. I do photoshoots. Call me.”

The grey cat, enigmatic, with natural dye strips (from top) hazel catkins, indigo, dock, rhubarb and (vertical) madder (Living Field)

Sources

Burns poetry. Best get a book of it – there are several – and read it by a fireside on a winter’s night or in a field of corn and poppies in midsummer.

Burns is accessible online, e.g. http://www.robertburns.org and http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/biography.shtml

Tam o’Shanter, a tale by Robert Burns, illustrated by Alexander Goudie. 2011. Berlinn, Edinburgh. More on the artist at http://www.alexandergoudie.org.uk at which – check under ‘paintings’ and ‘Tam o’Shanter’. 

A Scot’s dictionary is handy if you are not familiar, e.g. The Concise Scots Dictionary (The Scots language in one volume from the first records to the present day). Editor in Chief: Mairi Robinson, 1985. Aberdeen University Press. 

Online Scots http://www.scots-online.org and http://www.dsl.ac.uk

Lawson and Son’s exhibitions and lists of 1836 and 1852 are described on this site at Bere in Lawsons’ Synopsis 1852