Innovative weaving: Anni Albers and Ann Richards

Regular followers of this blog will know that my primary textile interests are to do with form and texture. So I haven’t paid much attention to weaving (although my recent explorations in basketry rely on weaving techniques). Two recent events have punctured this insularity.

The Tate Modern exhibition on Anni Albers opened about 10 days ago. After its exhibition on Sonia Delaunay in 2015 this seems to be continuing the art world’s discovery that textiles can be art too.

Ironically, Albers faced a similar prejudice when she attended the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany, in 1922. Despite its pretensions to equality, women students were often shepherded into the weaving classes rather than painting or sculpture.

But Albers made the most of the hand she was dealt. Weaving, with its warp and weft, admirably fitted in with the modernist grid concept, but by using unusual materials, such as cellophane and metallic threads, her pieces created painterly effects such as the impression of shifting light as well as retaining their texture.

La Luz 1 by Anni Albers
La Luz 1

In 1933 the Nazis forced the Bauhaus school to close, and Albers moved to the US with her husband Josef. As well as teaching, she started making “pictorial weavings” – artworks to be hung on a wall rather than used as fabric. I found these to be some of her most interesting pieces, experimenting with twisted warp threads, double warp layers, and gathering yarn to create bobbles.

Variations on a Theme by Anni Albers
Variations on a Theme

Dotted by Anni Albers

As well as art textiles, Albers also worked on architectural commissions, including room dividers and window covers for furniture designer Florence Knoll in 1951. These included very open weave lattices in linen that filtered light while also allowing air to circulate.

Albers’ most ambitious pictorial weaving was a memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York. Although she was from a Jewish family, Albers had been baptised as a Protestant and didn’t regard herself as really Jewish. But her piece, Six Prayers, beautifully interprets the Torah scrolls and Hebrew script.

Six Prayers by Anni Albers
Six Prayers

Albers was a master of technique, creating multilayered, highly textured pieces. But she also saw thread as a material she could use to “draw”.

She also turned to more conventional drawing, painting, embossing and printing techniques in a series of entangled knots, one of which was interpreted in this rug.

anni albers rug

Albers didn’t keep many sketchbooks, but she did produce lots of samples, which are absolutely fascinating.

anni albers sample

Albers is probably best known for her seminal 1965 book On Weaving. The exhibition includes some of the source material she gathered for the book, including woven pieces from around the world.

Anni Albers continues at Tate Modern until 27 January 2019.

On a slightly smaller scale, the other event that made me reassess weaving was the Praktis 2018 exhibition in the lovely Bury Court Farm in Hampshire. Two friends, Barbara Kennington and Lucy Goffin (aka Material Being) were  exhibiting some of their exquisite embroidered waistcoats, stitched pictures and paintings.

material being waistcoats
Image: Material Being

Also taking part was weaver Ann Richards, who uses high twist yarns to create pleating that happens spontaneously when the fabric is soaked in water. Ann did a demonstration while I was there, putting a small woven piece in a glass of water, whereupon it pleated by itself, apparently by magic!

The pleats instantly reminded me of arashi shibori, and I couldn’t resist buying a bracelet.

ann richards bracelet

Along with two other textile artists, Alison Ellen and Deirdre Wood, Ann is taking part in the exhibition Soft Engineering: Textiles Taking Shape, which will be moving to Whitchurch Silk Mill in Hampshire next year.


My work at Tate Modern

It’s not a solo exhibition – yet. ūüėČ But you may remember a couple of years ago that I took part in an exhibition organised by South London Women Artists (SLWA), entitled Pillow Talk. It was a collaboration with the Women’s Art Library¬†(WAL) and took the form of a pop-up¬†reading lounge in a geodesic dome¬†furnished with a selection of readings, cuttings and ephemera¬†from the WAL collection and art pillows by SLWA artists as seating.

My contribution, a felt snail pillow, was inspired by the idea of a nomadic library, carrying information about the ambitions, stories and histories of women artists around the country.

Felt snail pillow
Photo: Cygnus Imaging

Now the exhibition (and snail) has reached Tate Modern. As part of a homage to the centenary of women getting the vote in February 1918, Pillow Talk will form part of the Uniqlo Tate Late event on Friday 23 February, 6-10pm.

For this event, the pillows will be laid out on the floor in the shape of the female symbol where visitors will be invited to sit, read and have conversations. At its heart will be a mobile library full of publications, catalogues, magazines and ephemera about women artists.

Pillow photos: Yoke Matze

We’ll be on Level 2 in the Blavatnik Building Рhope to see you there!

Inspired by Georgia O‚ÄôKeeffe

There‚Äôs a wonderful exhibition of Georgia O‚ÄôKeeffe‚Äôs work at Tate Modern at the moment. She is best known for her flower paintings, which are indeed wonderful ‚Äď you can almost feel the blossoms unfurling before your eyes, the strong lines offset by gorgeously subtle colour gradations.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Jimson Weed No 1, 1932
Jimson Weed No 1, 1932

(Interestingly, O‚ÄôKeeffe always denied the interpretation that her flowers were representations of the female body. This idea came from her husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who tellingly wrote: ‚ÄúWoman feels the World differently than Man feels it‚Ķ.The Woman receives the World through her Womb. That is her deepest feeling. Mind comes second.‚ÄĚ OK, this was written in 1919, but some might say that attitudes towards women artists (or indeed women in general) haven‚Äôt changed much since then. ūüôā ¬†)

But I digress. One of the new discoveries for me in this exhibition was her charcoal work. Two early pieces, Special No 9 (1915) and No 15 Special (1916-17) seemed to glow on the wall, while her Eagle Claw and Bean Necklace from 1934 just blew me away with its precision.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Special No 9, 1915
Special No 9, 1915
Georgia O'Keeffe, No 15 Special, 1916-17
No 15 Special, 1916-17
Eagle Claw and Bean Necklace, 1934

There are lots of other great works, but in the last room Sky Above the Clouds III (1963) made me think of ombre indigo, which inspired me to try making a nuno felt piece.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Sky Above the Clouds III, 1963
Sky Above the Clouds III, 1963

I started by making a small sample using ombre indigo dyed cotton scrim topped with natural merino. After making this I wondered how it would look in reverse, so I made another sample with the scrim on top.

blue and white nuno felt ombre samples

I then did a small straw poll on Twitter and Instagram, asking people which version they preferred. As so often happens, opinion was divided! There was probably a small majority in favour of scrim on top ‚Äď but then one person said that they liked them both and couldn‚Äôt I join them together?

So after a bit of re-engineering, here is the final work in progress.


On a larger scale in a portrait format I didn’t think the elliptical shapes would work, so I went for a repeating grid of circles instead, despite misgivings about being able to make them regular enough.

blue and white nuno felt ombre wallhanging

I also added some white tussah silk to the plain white circles for a bit of extra texture, which you can just about see in the detail shot below.

blue and white nuno felt ombre wallhanging detail

Georgia O’Keeffe runs at Tate Modern until 30 October.

Alexander Calder at Tate Modern

calder poster

Alexander Calder is probably best known for his mobiles, so there’s no obvious connection with textiles. But a couple of years ago, when I made a mobile of felt windmills for an exhibition at Brixton Windmill, I studied quite a few of his mobiles. So I was inevitably drawn to Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture¬†at Tate Modern.

Calder was an innovator from the off. Although his mother was a painter and his father was a sculptor, he initially trained as an engineer before attending evening classes in drawing. The exhibition opens with displays of his wonderful wire sculptures, which use a linear substance to describe volume. In his circus figures a gentle arc evokes a pectoral muscle, while squiggles, spirals and coils become genitals, pubic hair and breasts.

The Brass Family Copyright The Calder Foundation, New York/ DACS, London
The Brass Family
Copyright The Calder Foundation, New York/ DACS, London

The rangy tension of a leopard becomes a series of tight coils, while an elephant sits more solidly on four hollow wire legs.

Even at this stage, Calder was fascinated by the idea of movement in sculpture – Goldfish Bowl, the first piece in the exhibition, included a small wire crank that, when turned, caused the fish to wriggle from side to side.

calder goldfish bowl

Unfortunately, for conservation reasons, none of the motorised sculptures in the exhibition move, so it’s worth investing in the audio guide, which contains footage of some of the pieces in action.

Calder also captured portraits in wire of several artists friends, including L√©ger and Mir√≥. But it was a visit to the studio of abstract¬†artist Piet Mondrian in 1930 that he described as “the shock that converted me…like the baby being slapped to make its lungs start working”.

After Mondrian disagreed with his suggestion to make the geometric elements move about, Calder started experimenting with his own abstract sculpture, suspending spheres and other shapes on wires to allow free movement.

Other artists of this period, including the Cubists and Futurists, were attempting to convey the feeling of movement in their work. Calder drew on his engineering background to make it a reality, installing small motors to “control the thing like the choreography in a ballet”, as in Black Frame, below.

He even went on to make real stage sets for Martha Graham and Erik Satie, but felt frustrated about the lack of total control and that his efforts were relegated to the status of props.

In 1938 he took part in the New York World’s Fair, creating three maquettes for “ballet objects”, consisting of revolving elements creating a choreographed movement.

In the 1950s, Calder made a¬†connection between his work and how the universe worked: “The idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities…some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.” Ironically, much of his work in this room consists of elements held in fixed positions by steel wires.

One of the exceptions is A Universe, in which red and white balls originally moved along wires – apparently Albert Einstein stood watching it for 40 minutes when it was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

calder a universe

By contrast, room 9 brings together a stunning collection of Calder’s mobiles. After he moved to an old farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, the forms became more organic and less geometric in form. Calder saw the shadows cast by the mobiles as part of the work, and the way they have been hung and lit in this room is particularly striking.

Vertical Foliage, 1941
Vertical Foliage, 1941
Gamma, 1947
Gamma, 1947
Snow Flurry, 1948
Snow Flurry, 1948

The following room features mobiles incorporating small gongs, which rely on the random movement to produce sounds. As visitors are not permitted to touch or blow on the mobiles, you have to hope that¬†the air conditioning will¬†move them in the right way to make music. ūüôā

The exhibition finishes with spectacular 3.5m Black Widow sculpture, loaned abroad for the first time by the Institute of Architects of Brazil in S√£o Paulo.

calder black widow

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture runs at Tate Modern until 3 April 2016.


Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

Image: Tate Britain
Image: Tate Britain

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was an artist who broke with convention in all sorts of ways. A leading figure of the Paris avant-garde, she rejected the hierarchy that placed painting above other art forms, working with fashion and textiles, set design and interior decoration, architecture and advertising. The current exhibition at Tate Modern explores this beautifully.

Her early figurative paintings show influences from Gauguin and German expressionists such as Ernst Kirchner. Her first abstract work (1911) was actually a textile – a patchwork cradle cover for her son Charlie. Combining traditional Russian peasant techniques with modernist abstract design, this piece seems to have marked a turning point.

Together with her husband Robert, whom she had married in 1910, she developed the theory of simultaneous colour contrasts, which they called simultanism. Her paintings from this period show her moving from figuration towards abstraction: Le Bal Bullier represents embracing tango dancers as rhythmic repetitive swirls of colour and light.

Le Bal Bullier
Le Bal Bullier

When the First World War broke out, the Delaunays moved to Spain and Portugal. In 1917 Sonia decided to focus on the applied arts, partly because the Bolshevik revolution meant that she no longer received money from her family in Russia. A year later she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, selling fashion, accessories and home furnishings. It was a huge success, and when they returned to Paris in 1921 she continued to produce fabric designs, which she showcased at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.

Sonia employed a team of Russian women to manufacture, knit and embroider her products, but she kept her hand in. For example, she invented an embroidery stitch called point du jour, which emphasised the surface movement in her zigzag designs.

For textile enthusiasts (and maybe others), room 6 is the highlight of this exhibition. The space is filled with fabric swatches, designs and an extraordinary range of garments, including embroidered shoes, knitted bathing suits. Not all of them pop with colour РI particularly liked a simple blue and white linen day coat.

delaunay blue linen day dress delaunay room 6delaunay design deaunay court shoes delaunay bathing suit

What I found interesting is that while Sonia’s abstract paintings are full of circles and curves, her textile designs¬†have more geometric blocks and zigzags. I wondered if this was¬†related to¬†the practicality of producing curved patterns when knitting or embroidering, but who knows?

Coat made for Gloria Swanson
Coat made for Gloria Swanson

The¬†economic crash of 1929 led Sonia to close her business, and she returned to painting. She and Robert were invited to contribute to the 1937 Paris Exhibition, and three of the murals she created for the Palais de l’Air are on show here. As well as her distinctive¬†combinations¬†of vibrant colours, they manage to incorporate quite technical drawings of machine and engine parts, a propeller and instrument panel.

delaunay aircraft

Robert Delaunay died in 1941, but Sonia continued to work, often revisiting old themes in new media, including gouache, tapestry and even mosaic. She died in Paris at the age of 94.

Sonia Delaunay runs at Tate Modern until 9 August 2015.

Textiles at Tate Modern

Yesterday I visited Tate Modern to see the Richard Tuttle installation I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language before it closes on 6 April.

Image: Tate Modern
Image: Tate Modern

Well, I don’t know. I didn’t get it. The scale is impressive, the colours were gorgeous (the fabric was provided by an Indian textile mill), but it left me cold.

Much more interesting was work by an artist new to me, Nicholas Hlobo. This South African artist combines paper, rubber and stitch in beautiful, tactile pieces. He uses rubber from inner tubes and satin ribbon to bring together masculine industrialisation and feminine domesticity. The suture stitches also bring to mind surgery and internal organs.

hlobo1 hlobo2 hlobo3 hlobo4

There are also some other interesting pieces in the same Energy and Process section on level 4. Chen Zhen’s Cocon du Vide sculpture is a hollow chrysalis-like form made of rosary and abacus beads, resembling a figure bent over in prayer.

chen zhen1

In a section entitled Homeworkers, the work of three female artists use materials and techniques traditionally associated with feminine craft and the domestic sphere to make political points.

Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers is a banner-like canvas highlighting the manual labour involved in piecework and the money paid.

margarte harrison

The Pikes by Annette Messager manages to make stuffed heads and toys made out of old tights look startlingly creepy.

annete messager

And¬†Geta Br«étescu’s embroidered panels feature different versions of the same machine-stitched motif to represent the character of Medea, who took revenge on her husband Jason by sending his new bride a poisoned dress.


The Arte Povera and Anti-Form section features artists who used everyday materials in their works to upset ideas about how art should be created and displayed.

Jannis Kounellis’s untitled piece of uncarded wool displayed on a wooden frame had visceral appeal, especially as some of the wool was dyed blue (which could have been indigo!).


Godret Stone by Korean artist Seung-Taek Lee features the stones used in traditional Korean weaving.


Finally, I had a look at the temporary exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper. I loved the organic forms of her etchings, but the exhibition also includes a couple of her fabric books.

Ode¬†√† la Bi√®vre has been deconstructed, with each page displayed in a separate frame. The varied techniques include lithograph printing and dye on fabric as well as abstract drawings patched together from her fabric stash, including napkins from her bridal trousseau. One page (last one¬†on the second row down) looks like shibori. ūüôā


Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper runs at Tate Modern until 12 April 2015.

Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern

Making art from “upcycled” materials and textiles may be very fashionable now, but it’s been around for a while, as a new exhibition at Tate Modern shows.

Alghiero Boetti was born in Turin in 1940, and his first exhibitions featured many of the materials from the industries in the city – car paint from the Fiat plant, a plexiglass cube filled with wonderful contrasting textures of wood offcuts, plastic piping, styrofoam packing, fibreglass and corrugated cardboard. There’s even a classical fluted column made from cake doilies stacked on a metal pole!

But it was when he started taking an interest in travel and geopolitics that textiles came to the fore. After the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967, he asked his wife to embroider the shapes of the territories occupied by Israel. He also coloured in a school map so that each country was represented by its flag, and took it to Afghanistan, where he commissioned local craftswomen to embroider a larger version. This was the first of his maps, which was done in Bokhara stitch, a very dense but time-consuming couching.

There’s a whole room of these embroidered maps made between 1971 and 1994, and it’s fascinating to see the changes over the years. Early maps used the Mercator projection, where Greenland is the same size as Africa, before switching to a Robinson projection. You can also track political shifts, as the flag of Portugal was replaced by Angola in 1983, and the last map from 1994 loses a great block of red as the former USSR is broken up into a collection of independent states.

The embroidery canvases were designed in Italy and sent to Afghanistan (and later Pakistan) to be embroidered, but Boetti often left gaps for the Afghans to include their own messages, so the borders juxtapose Italian texts with Persian messages about exile, composed by Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The refugees also wove 50 kilims, some of which are on display. The pattern of these kilims is based on a grid of 100 squares, each of which is also subdivided into 100 squares, or pixels. The corner square starts off as one white pixel and 99 black pixels; the next one is two black pixels and 98 white pixels; the next one is three white pixels and 97 black pixels. So as the number of pixels follows a progression, the colours alternate.

As well as embroidery, Boetti explored lots of other concepts, including postal works using different combinations and patterns of stamps, and a lamp that lights up at random for 11 seconds a year (which didn’t occur during my visit!).

I particularly loved his works produced using biro pens, where individual students covered large sheets of paper with tiny blue strokes of biro. Even though they were all using the same tool, the different styles of mark making are very apparent, punctuated by white commas that encode various phrases. The overall effect reminded me of Japanese indigo dyeing.

The final room is a riot of colour, with three large embroideries called Tutto (Everything). Boetti cut out lots of images from magazines and newspapers and laid them out on canvas so that they all fitted together, then traced around them before sending them off to be embroidered.

There were lots of ideas in this exhibition – about the role of the artist being to explore inefficiency and wasting time, about how artists are expected to be private creators and at the same time public showmen producing spectacle, about creating a new world from pre-existing materials.

Indeed, the final exhibit of Boetti’s bronze self portrait on the balcony shows the artist spraying water onto his head, which conceals a heating mechanism, causing the water to turn to steam and evaporate. As the exhibition guide notes, “he shows himself as a thinker with so many ideas that he needs to cool himself down”.

Alghiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern until 27 May 2012.