My academic background is in Art History. I studied paintings and sculpture, the theories of painters and sculptors and any modern or found object in between that was deemed suitable and respectable enough to be considered art. Yet behind the scenes, in my room, when my essays were all but finished, I would spend my time with a needle and thread or a block of felt or yarn, yarn, yarn. I make textile crafts. There, I said it. For all crafters that I have known, especially those who also dabble in the world of art (contemporary or otherwise) it is a real bone of contention with non-crafters that your craft, in all it’s softness and practicality is not in the same realm as what the wider population consider art. This is why as a woman who now runs a weaving and textile crafts workshop, it was with great excitement that I learnt of the latest Tate Modern exhibition and retrospective of the work of the great Bauhaus weaver, Anni Albers.
I founded The London Loom almost two years ago after growing tired of the tedious and infantile way in which crafts were being taught and sold. I wanted a contemporary studio with real, accessible and technical crafts. Substantial textile skills taught and beautiful keepsakes to take home and not to discard during a spring clean. To teach my customers not only about the technicalities of the crafts but the materials too; why using wool is good not only for your work but for your hands and environment, why using one particular needle is good for darning and another for embroidery.
I also wanted to impart on my customers the benefits that doing handcrafts has on your mental health. The two words that customers use to describe The London Loom workshops are “fun” and “therapeutic”, what could be better than that? The repeat rhythmic nature of weaving, the pushing of pedals and harnesses up and down to create a grid of intricate pattern is so soothing that even children as young as six find that they zone out on one of my looms. This is nothing new, the practice and history of using crafts to soothe mental health issues is from where we derive the term ‘basket case’, when after the second world war basket weaving was used to help veterans with PTSD.
Albers was taught by the artist Paul Klee when she was a student at the Bauhaus. Klee’s idea that a “drawing is just taking a line for a walk” inspired Albers in her weaving and to me really pushes the idea that weaving can indeed be art. Is something not art because there is practical theory behind it? Or because the sketches take place on a grid? Look at Mondrian’s famous grid paintings for an example of when straight lines and carefully plotted composition can be considered artwork above something like a tapestry just because it happened on canvas (or dare I say, by a man?). And if we’re talking about Albers work as art, it’s worth noting that the way that she used gold lurex thread to highlight black wool and cotton is chiaroscuro at it’s best.
The Tate exhibition of Alber’s work really allows you to take a careful look at what is happening between each line of warp and weft. As a weaver walking through the exhibition it is impossible not to fixate on small moments in the work, twisted warp threads or knots purposefully used to alter the texture and look in the pictorial weavings. It is one of the great pleasures as a teacher of textiles when you are able to take a student’s work off the loom and go though these moments with them – where one colour has unexpectedly reacted to another and where suddenly a new technique has been discovered by the weaver and thus changed the direction of their piece. These lines are definitely going for walks, sometimes running, definitely waltzing. As they happen independent of canvas or paper they take on even more life, even more obscure uniqueness than I have ever felt from paint, chalk or pastel. Textiles exist on their own, the light that comes through them and the way that the time of day or touch effects them is infinitely exciting to textile lovers and this exhibition really pushes that idea to the forefront.
I felt so much pride and excitement seeing hundreds of people exploring and marvelling at something that I have dedicated my career to. Watching people gaze over textiles is thrilling to me – this is the stuff of everyday, it’s in your clothes, your home, your transport and it is so often overlooked and not considered for its beauty or technicality. There is an art to creating useable things which remain beautiful and practical all at once and I think that it is important for people to understand this, to appreciate that crafts, arts, design and technology are entwined and are dependant on each other.
In the final room of the exhibition is a display of all the fibres that Albers used in her work and recreated swatches of Albers woven cloth for you to explore. From cottons to wools and lurex there is a skein of each fibre for visitors to touch and feel. This was such a wonderful addition to the exhibition for me because yes, textiles are tactile and yearn for you to touch them. Albers’ work for the dormitories of Harvard were soft furnishings that would be sat on or wrapped around students at night. These touchable swatches and skeins tell us that not only are textiles beautiful and practical but they are an artform that insists we use more than one sense to appreciate them.
You can have a look at this blog post and more on The Common Thread blog.