Diana Harrison at Crafts Study Centre in Farnham

I first came across Diana Harrison’s work at Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in Bradford three years ago. Her contribution to the exhibition was a series of handkerchiefs dyed black and then discharged and laid out like flagstones on the floor in subtle quiet shades of charcoal, cream and peachy pinks.

diana harrison handkerchiefs

The handkerchiefs have returned as part of a solo exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, part of the University for the Creative Arts, where Diana teaches. Diana Harrison: working in cloth includes samples of her work from the 1980s up to the present.

The Textile Society organised a tour of the exhibition with Diana herself last week, and as it was the day before I was exhibiting at Thread at Farnham Maltings I went along.

Diana started off with an embroidery degree at Goldsmiths with Constance Hawker before going on to the Royal College of Art to study printed fabrics. Here she developed her technique of masking out areas of fabric before spraying them with dye – one of her dresses featured in Vogue.

She continued this at Studio 401 ½, where she made lots of upholstery fabric. After experimenting with flicking and splattering dyes she moved on to dyeing fabric black and then discharging it and stitching, which brought her fame in the quilting world – her work has been bought by museums in Japan and the US, among others.

Diana Harrison box

One of her best-known pieces was Box, made for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition on quilts in 2010. This exhibition includes only the “lid”, but you can see the whole piece and hear about the context in the video below.

Some of her most recent pieces, Pillowcases, use a similar technique, stitching fabric together before dyeing, discharging and then unstitching and sometimes overprinting with pigment.

Diana Harrison pillowcases

Diana’s fascination with the way things are constructed is evident from the selection of found objects on display. A self-confessed hoarder, she is forever picking up roadside rubbish or coastal debris, including bits of old tyre, tape, coffee containers and envelopes, finding points of comparison between squashed frogs and Japanese clothing.

Diana Harrison found objects Diana Harrison found objects

One of my favourite pieces was a series of six strip-like panels made for the Lost in Lace exhibition in Birmingham in 2011. Each panel represents a decade of her memories – delicate networks of thread, cloth fragments and dog hair suspended on grids of black pins.

Diana Harrison lost in lace Diana Harrison lost in laceDiana Harrison lost in lace

Other recent work includes similar panels with ghostly images of dancers behind, made for an exhibition in Poland, and balls of dates, where all the dates she has worked at Farnham are printed on a piece of fabric and then moulded into a ball.

Diana Harrison A4Diana Harrison date ball

After the talk we were also lucky enough to see a slide show of her pieces in context, as well as some of her sketch books and a sample collection that we could handle. Diana also kindly showed us her collection of commemorative hankies and Japanese boro collection.

Diana Harrison sample Diana Harrison sample Diana Harrison sampleDiana Harrison hanky collectionDiana Harrison boro collection

Diana Harrison: working in cloth runs at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham until 8 October.

Boro exhibition at Somerset House

Literally translated as “rags”, boro are heavily patched bedcovers and clothing made by the rural poor of Japan.

Although cotton was grown in southern Japan from the 16th century onwards, it was only the richer urban dwellers who could afford it. Poorer people wore homespun hemp, nettle and ramie, but cotton was lighter and warmer than these so was highly valued.

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So it was that merchants in the south found it worth their while to transport worn out cotton garments up to the north of Japan, where they were eagerly snapped up and turned into layered cloths and clothing.

As they wore through, fresh patches were added, so the cloths become a kind of family history, passed down through the generations, like patchwork quilts in the West.

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The colour is predominantly blue, from indigo, but there are also patches of brown, grey and black. This is because these were the only colours that commoners were allowed to wear in the Edo period (1603-1868) – lavish kimono and vivid silk were confined to the Japanese aristocracy.

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As Japan developed and became more industrialised in the 20th century, such textiles were looked on with shame, as a symbol of its impoverished past, and many of them were thrown away.

In the West, however, they are regarded as beautiful examples of folk art, and Somerset House has brought together 40 examples in a wonderful exhibition. You can see from the photos here how the personality of the maker shines through each one.

Some incorporate extensive rows of sashiko stitching to help strengthen the fabric.

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Others resemble more “conventional” patchwork as we know it in the West.

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Yet others looked as if they tried to stay as true as possible to the original colours of the garment.

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Some had stitching that was more whimsical, creating its own design.

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The pattern of wear on some of them was fascinating too. I got talking to one of the exhibition assistants who said that a visitor from Hampton Court suggested that this type of wear came from someone kneeling on the fabric. This is mark making of a very special kind.

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As you can also see from some of the photos, the boro are beautifully mounted, mostly on stretchers like works of art, while this garment was hung on an intricately carved bamboo pole.

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This did make me feel a little uncomfortable. The people who made these items were not making works of art – they were making them as necessities, to keep warm. Now they are self-consciously being hung in galleries and sold at £5,000 a pop.

Of course, this is not unique to boro, but I think I would prefer to use them as originally intended. Textiles – especially these textiles – are tactile things, to be touched, stroked, snuggled in, draped, wrapped, caressed. And if it wears through, I’m willing to continue the tradition of patching up as necessary. Now, where did I put that stash of shibori scraps? 😉

Boro continues at Somerset House until 26 April.