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.

Thread 2016 at Farnham Maltings

thread flyer

I’m very excited to be one of the exhibitors at Thread…A Festival of Textiles at Farnham Maltings on Saturday 24 September. I’ll be selling my latest indigo shibori and ecoprinted scarves, along with a selection of upcycled hand dyed indigo and ecoprinted garments. And the infamous bargain bucket of samples and seconds may also be putting in an appearance as I get ready to clear the decks before Christmas!

With around 45 exhibitors alongside a programme of talks, workshops and demonstrations, it promises to be a great day out for textile lovers.

A day ticket costs £5 in advance or £7.50 on the door, but you could win a pair of tickets here! (Closing date is this Friday.)

By lucky coincidence, the Textile Society is organising a talk at Farnham the day before. It’s by Diana Harrison, whose memorable piece at the Cloth and Memory {2} exhibition at Saltaire a couple of years ago was made up of handkerchiefs laid on the floor to resemble paving stones.

In the video below she talks about making her famous Box quilt.

Interview with artist featured in Quilts 1700-2010: Textile artist Diana Harrison from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

So it’s going to be a busy textile weekend!

Textile Society visit to Kew

Last week I joined the Textile Society visit to Kew Gardens to see the Economic Botany Collection and also some of Jenny Balfour-Paul’s collection of indigo textiles housed at Kew. The group was an interesting mix of historians, conservators, practitioners and enthusiasts.

Dr Mark Nesbitt, Curator and Research Leader of the Economic Botany Collection, explained that when the collection was set up in 1847, “economic” meant “useful”. As well as encouraging people to engage with plants and their purposes, the collection acted as a hub between countries of the empire and consumers in Britain, able to advise on which plants grew best under different conditions. It collected not only raw materials (plants) but also the end products – baskets, clothing and the like.

In the 1980s the collection was moved to a new purpose-built building and became a research collection no longer open to the public. It lends over 100 items a year to museums around the world, and museum conservation students work on important pieces as part of their studies.

The collection is organised by plant type – for example, monocotyledons like grasses and palms are stored together. This is because plants in the same families tend to produce similar types of fibre, allowing comparisons to be made.

kew nesbitt

We started by looking at a few examples of plants and fibres produced from them, including New Zealand flax, ramie, stinging nettles and mulberry. The fashion in Victorian times was to show the “illustrative process”, with examples of the plant at every stage, from the original plant stems to the extracted fibres and final fabric, and Kew has a good collection of these.

Mark explained that historical attempts at commercialisation had affected the range of plants used. Processing plants by hand to extract fibre is very labour intensive, but expensive machines imported from London to New Zealand or the Caribbean, where the plants prospered, often broke down. Where industrialisation of the process succeeded, that plant was favoured at the expense of others. Maori weavers originally used around 20 plants, but New Zealand flax is the only one that survived. However, today there is renewed interest in historic materials and methods, so a collection like this at Kew can help in the repatriation of that knowledge.

Closer to home, there have been several attempts to commercially produce  nettle fibre, especially during the two world wars. Recently De Montfort University in Leicester has had another go at industrialising the process and produced some furnishing fabrics. We were all very impressed with these – until Mark told us that they were actually 75% wool!

We then moved on to some of the finished products. A stunning Maori cloak dating from 1856 is the only such garment in any museum collection worldwide. It is made from mountain daisy, also known as the “leather plant” because of the suede-like texture of its leaves. The main cloak was woven from rolled up leaves (a tricky operation), and then the surface was covered with long strips of leaves, which helped the rain to run off.

kew maori cloak

From around the same period (1853) a loin cloth, or tanga, from the north-west Amazon was made from mulberry bark cloth. The inner bark, or phloem, is separated out and pounded to make cloth (paper makers also use it to make pulp). The cloth was made by Uaupe Indians, who crimped it between their teeth and decorated with red dye.

Also made from bark cloth but in a very different fashion was a jacket from the Nicobar Islands. Made from the inner bark of a wild fig tree, this double breasted reefer jacket edged with Manchester cotton is a prime example of a fusion garment – Victorian fashion made from local materials. It was donated to Kew in 1858 by anthropologist Edward Man, and inkstains and traces of wear suggest that it was his personal garment.

kew bark jacket

Two more fascinating items rounded off the tour. A cotton Peruvian shroud, dating from around 1400, was shaped like a large bag. Apparently the body was tied into a foetal position before being wrapped in the shroud.

And finally we saw a bonnet made from Jamaican lace bark (Lagetta lagetto), which used to be widespread in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries but is now quite rare due to overharvesting. The bark was soaked to separate the inner phloem layer, which was pulled apart into layers of white netting.

kew lace bonnet

Jenny Balfour Paul’s indigo collection

We then moved on to see a selection of indigo garments donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul to the Kew collection. Jenny herself gave an introduction to the collection, explaining how she became enraptured by indigo when she was working in Yemen in 1983. Encouraged by fabric dyer and printer Susan Bosence to apply for a grant to research indigo dyeing in the country, she was then commissioned by the British Museum to write a comparative book on indigo worldwide, and never looked back.

kew jenny bp

Her donations are eclectic, ranging from the shiny indigo embroidered Yemeni dress that started her fascination to a wooden mallet used to beat the fabric to get the shine and a collection of home-made bamboo and copper batik tools from south-west China.

kew yemeni dress
Yemeni indigo dyed dress
kew mallet
Mallet used to beat indigo fabric to make it shiny
Home-made batik tools from China
Home-made batik tools from China

Highlights of the international collection include samples of labour-intensive Indian ajrakh printing, a lovely piece of Nigerian adire painted with a chicken feather and cassava paste, and beautifully textured Mali cotton patterned with stitch resist. There was also mud cloth from Mali, where the cloth was painted with tannic acid before applying mud. The mud reacts with the tannin, leaving a pattern when it is washed off.

Indian ajrakh
Indian ajrakh
Nigerian adire
Nigerian adire
Mali mud cloth
Mali mud cloth

Moving east, Jenny showed us a piece of batik that she rescued from use as a duster(!) as well as Indonesian ikat. China was represented by a jacket from Guizhou that combined indigo batik with weaving, as well as an extraordinary lustrous jacket that was dyed with indigo and then coated with persimmon juice, egg white and ox blood to make it waterproof.

Indonesian batik
Indonesian batik
Guizhou jacket
Guizhou jacket
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white

To round off, there were a couple of contemporary pieces – a gorgeous piece of ombre dyed hemp by Japanese master Hiroyuki Shindo and a more exuberant piece from Bhutan that was produced with all natural dyes (except for the pink), including turmeric, symplocos, indigo and two types of madder.

Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo

All in all, a fascinating visit, after which we were free to visit the main gardens, including the Hive.

kew hive kids kew hive kew palm house kew water lilies