Artists Meet their Makers: a project for West Dean Tapestry Studio at Crafts Study Centre

Artists Meet Their Makers: contemporary art reinterpreted by West Dean Tapestry Studio

Crafts Study Centre 4 April – 2 July 2017

This exhibition is a celebration of the skill and imagination of West Dean Tapestry Studio’s Master Weavers, past and present. The studio was set up by West Dean’s founder Edward James, and has worked with many leading modern and contemporary artists, launching in the early 1980s with a major body of work for Henry Moore. Over the last four decades the studio has worked with artists as diverse as Basil Beattie, Martin Creed, Tracey Emin, Howard Hodgkin, John Piper, Marta Rogoskya and Philip Sutton.

Weaving tapestry is never a quick process, not only in the execution, but in the planning which requires an excellent eye for colour and detail, and the skill to plot out designs carefully. In the weaving process there is an extraordinary and constant reassessment by the weaver, from the micro to the macro, as very fine beads of mixed threads and yarns are laid into often lengthy warps, matched carefully to the backing cartoon, in order to make the crucial leap from small detail to the overall image.

Traditionally tapestry has been woven sideways, with the ‘rows’ of weft effectively running from top to bottom of the finished image. Unlike artforms like painting or weaving there is no option to start in the middle and work outwards; the image must be created continuously from one side to another, with no option for going back or moving around. Images are often enlarged from the original artwork to achieve the detail, and weavers then use hand-drawn or increasingly now computer-printed cartoons, often in black and white but carefully annotated to refer to the pre-developed swatches of coloured yarn.

The West Dean studio has specialised facilities in adjacent rooms for dyeing yarn in house. It is essential in the development phase of each work to pay close attention to the shades and hues required, taking time to sample and experiment to get exactly the right colours. The West Dean weavers usually create their wefts from hanks of mixed yarns in subtly varying shades. Every dye batch recipe and outcome must be carefully recorded during development, so that these shades can be recreated. Once the final selection is made, enough wool is dyed for the entire tapestry upfront, as later dye lots from their suppliers may have slight variations.


DSB_4782.jpgDetail of Transformer, designed by Michael Brennand-Wood and woven by Philip Sanderson. Courtesy the artist and West Dean.

In general the weft is made of fine purpose-dyed wools laid over a slightly sturdier cotton warp in such a way that the warp is completely obscured (hence the term “weft-faced”. However in contemporary works other fibres than wool may be introduced into the weft to achieve particular effects, as can be seen in Michael Brennand-Wood’s Transformer, where rayon and linen appear, or Katharine Swailes’ meditation on colour Les Bric et des Broc which uses many stray ends of mercerised cotton to excellent effect. Philip Sanderson uses a more unorthodox weft in some of his own works: offcuts of pre-woven selvedge edges from coarse cotton fabrics, so he is effectively weaving with weaving and hence creating thickly textured three-dimensional surfaces.

What is notable and special about the West Dean Master Weavers, Katharine Swailes and Philip Sanderson, is that they are both practicing artists in their own right, weaving to their own designs and exhibiting elsewhere. Sanderson’s No 13 Thrust Block Shoe was shown at the prestigious Cordis Trust Prize in Edinburgh in 2016 and he has work in Lesley Millar’s current touring exhibition Here & Now. Swailes won a Theo Moorman scholarship in 2016 to support development of new work and her tapestry Crossing the Avenue was shortlisted for the Cordis Trust Prize in 2016.

The slow and patient nature of tapestry can be appreciated in the exhibition through the presence of Philip Sanderson on certain days, as he completes his latest commission, based on Rebecca Salter’s ink drawing Untitled 2015-32. As Lesley Miller observes, weaving is “an intensely intimate act: the weaver must concentrate on tiny areas at a time”. Salter’s drawing is also tiny, at only 30 by 40 centimetres; Sanderson has had to find unique ways to focus and interpret her abstracted and diffused dots and dapples of ink. Exhibition visitors may find watching him at work an illuminating experience.

Lesley Millar, in the introduction to Here & Now’s catalogue celebrates the UK’s “proud history of commissioning and appreciation of tapestries since the Middle Ages”. The Middle Ages are far behind us now, but this history continues today, with the master weavers of West Dean bringing their own artistic sensibilities to the careful and delicate task of reinterpretation of other artists’ work.

[Here & Now, edited by Lesley Millar, 2016, National Centre for Craft & Design, Sleaford.]

The exhibition features a newly commissioned film from R&A Collaborations which explores the making of  a commission by Emma Biggs & Matthew Collings by mater weaver Katharine Swailes.

Exhibition organised by Liz Cooper for West Dean College, the Edward James Foundation and the Crafts Study Centre; with particular thanks to Alison Baxter, Nick Benham, Sarah Hughes, Francine Norris, Simon Olding, Caron Penney, R&A Collaborations, Pat Taylor, Peter Vacher, and especially to West Dean’s current master weavers Philip Sanderson and Katharine Swailes, who have been generous with their time and knowledge, and whose continuing work is always cause for celebration.

Sincere thanks are also due to the commissioning artists and their dealers: Basil Beattie and Hales Gallery, Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings and Vigo, Michael Brennand-Wood, Tracey Emin Studio, Faye Toogood Studio, Rebecca Salter and Beardsmore.

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