A Spotlight On Textiles

  • In the Collect Edition of Crafting a Difference at SoShiro, curator Brian Kennedy chose the work of three of our brilliant, female textile artists. In this week’s post, we look at the growing demand for textile art and examine the work of Katharine Swailes, Caron Penney and Jacy Wall in more detail.


    Anni AlbersDesign for Wall Hanging 1926Gouache and pencil on paper356 x 292 mm.

    Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the designer

    © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London


    Back in 2018, the work of textile artist Anni Albers was given long-overdue recognition with the first major exhibition of her work in the UK being shown at the Tate Modern, nearly 25 years after her death. This landmark exhibition, along with Woven, Cosmin Costinas’ curated section of Frieze London in 2019, has brought greater legitimacy and recognition to textile art and offers a firm indication that there is a change afoot in the perception of its role in the art world, past and present.

    So what has caused this revival in interest in this ancient craft? And why are more people buying and engaging with tapestry now? Certainly, it’s a medium that has been around for thousands of years, being both functional and artistic, telling tales of war and history, as well as warming up the drafty rooms of castles and abbeys.



     Caron Penney, Stop-Go, 62 x 92cm, wool & gilt gold thread, 2008-2013, 2016


    It’s clear that the show at the Tate exhibition and Frieze renewed engagement and brought weaving very much back into the limelight.  Feminism also played its role, as the significance of tapestry trailblazers, like Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl, and the other female weavers of the Bauhaus is acknowledged alongside the deep-rooted prejudices and chauvinism they endured in the battle to make their mark. So, is this renewed appreciation of the craft ‘reserved for women’ * finally being more valued?  We guess only time will tell but the signs are encouraging. *  Richard Sennet The Craftsman 2008



    Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937.

    Photograph by Helen M. Post, courtesy of the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina


    In her book On Weaving, first published in1965, Anni Albers wrote: “Along with cave paintings, threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning,” and in her weaving workshop at the Black Mountain College in the Mountains of North Carolina, Albers challenged her students to use found materials like newspaper or grass to explore “the stuff the world is made of’. She said she wanted to enable her students to regain “sensitivity towards textile surfaces” that had been lost in much of modern life.




    Anni Albers, Study made with corn kernels, late 1930s.

    The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation © Anni Albers/VISDA, photo © Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine, USA



     In the increasingly digitised society we live in, it’s true that our haptic sensibilities are at a loss somewhat, and this could be another reason for the renewed appreciation of this ‘slow art’ and the skills involved. Perhaps this explains an apparent rise in the use of natural materials that can be touched and felt. This, coupled with the crucial need to address sustainability, could explain why more and more of us are seeking out objects that are handmade, made slowly over time, and made to last. Tapestries are a poignant reminder of time laboured skills from centuries ago passed on through the generations and generations to come.


     Textile artist Katharine Swailes at the loom


     Katharine Swailes, one of our three textile artists whose work is on show in Crafting a Difference says: “over my time as a weaver I have thought deeply on tapestry weaving and textiles. I think more than anything textiles unite, nurture and protect us as humanity, from our infancy to our old age. We look, and without touching, sense what we see when looking at tapestry. Weaving is one of the earliest technologies and has evolved with our artistic, practical and spiritual selves. By buying tapestry you are part of a tradition spanning thousands of years and many cultures.”



    Gillian Ayres Tirra Lirra 102 x 120 cm, Hand woven tapestry, in wool 2014

    a collaboration with Atelier Weftfaced (edition of three)


    It is also worth noting, just how many painters have turned to tapestry to interpret their work searching for a different vision, a richer more three-dimensional quality, Tracey Emin, Gillian Ayres, Gerhard Richter, Alexander Calder, Chris Ofili, to name but a few. Chris Ofili’s watercolours were reproduced in a monumental tapestry over five metres wide shown at the National Gallery. Where Ofili might have used a single colour to paint an area, the weavers used five or six to make it sing creating a wonderful depth of colour. In some ways, the final tapestry was denser and richer than the watercolour itself.


    Eva Rothschild whose piece ‘The Fallowfield’ was recently acquired by the Tate said, “I like that sense of something being made up of increments, and of something being between image and sculpture. It is an additive process, unlike carving, which is subtractive.” She is also drawn to the way colour is not mixed, as with paint, but created from lots of different coloured threads: “Each colour retains its intrinsic value,” she remarks. ‘I found that the depth of colour I could achieve on wool and cotton far exceeded that which I could achieve when creating an image in paint.’



    It is this depth of colour that we are particularly drawn to in Katharine Swailes meditative six piece tapestry installation Colourfield Series II that is currently on show at Crafting a Difference.




    Colourfield Tapestries 2nd Series shown at Crafting a Difference at SoShiro
    Wool cotton bamboo, installation of six tapestries, from left to right 57.7 x 58.4 cm, 74.8 x 74.4 cm, 16.6 x 66.8 cm, 20.5 x 20.5 cm, 40.3 x 69.5 cm, 17.8 x 68 cm (approximately 3m 10cm span) all individually framed, 2020 


    The wool and cotton materials lead Katharine Swailes approach to this new body of work Colourfield and she constructs them from hand dyed worsted wools. This fibre has been a central part of her life since childhood. This long connection helps her focus inward to the slow meditative process of handwoven tapestry, drawing from a limited supply of wool yarns, newly dyed yarn supplement, bringing together this woollen palette. Dyeing is an important part of her practice, creating colour families for each project. For this series Katharine introduced one strand of bamboo yarn or cotton to create a reflection on the surface, the opposite of the light absorbing wool which creates movement.

  • Dyeing is an important part of Katharine Swailes practice, creating colour families for each project.


    Shelves full of colour – a glimpse into Katharine’s studio which she shares with fellow textile artist and Atelier Weftfaced partner, Caron Penney


    Katharine explores tapestry weaving without the constructs of formal pattern found in traditional tapestry. She likes nothing better than to sit and weave for a day focusing only on the passing of the weft through the warp, a meditative process through repetition. Butterflies of weft are selected at random, allowing them to weave together, the tones and shades playing off each other as she focuses on the calm surface, this gives way for the weft yarns to reveal the path of her weaving process. The butterflies are the way in which the weft is held as it is passed through the warp, these are made before the weaving of the day. Seven strands of wool create one weft and each strand can be the same colour or different.

    These works are about the internal landscape as much as the one inhabited with all the hues tones and texture. The resulting installation is a minimal, textured, subtle mix of beautiful tones that echo the natural world around them.



    Our second textile artist featured in the Collect edition of Crafting a Difference is Caron Penney. Caron’s hand-woven textiles are a product of her love of pattern, systems, and repetition. Inspired by the urban environment, her work references street architecture from which she makes structural comparisons between the warp and the weft.


    Surrounded by pattern, the urban landscape feeds Caron’s interest in humanity. Often these themes respond to the ebb and flow of the daily migration across a city or town. The subject matter draws comparisons between society’s need to function and the individual’s need for identity and their subtle co-existence. This careful balance is represented in the meticulous repetition of blocks of weaving and shapes in her tapestries.


    Caron Penney: The Challenge, handwoven tapestry, 40 x 80cm, wool & gilt gold thread, 2017



    Through her work Caron brings to the fore traditional craft in a modern context. Travelling to New York on numerous occasions she is fascinated by the vertical and horizontal landscape. She depicts this combined with the signs and symbols which both start and stop our progress across this expansive city as can be seen in her tapestries Stop Go (featured at the start of this post) and Golden Handshake below.


     Caron Penney, Golden Handshake Wool & gilt gold thread, 41 × 43 cm 2016



    Caron’s ideas always develop through observation, photography, sketches and the resulting tapestries.



  • After completing her degree in constructed textiles in the late 1970s, our third featured textrile artist, Jacy Wall quickly moved into making one-off woven tapestries and has been weaving ever since.




    In the early 2000s, Jacy was invited to take part in a project which took her to Leicester Museum and its collection of dowry textiles from various areas of India. These textiles were part of family wealth and passed on through generations and, in many cases, bore the marks of having been worn, damaged, and mended, and, in some cases, re-made. This visit made such an impression on her that it has inspired her work now for more than 20 years.


    Sometimes when she’s not completely happy with a work she deconstructs it using scissors and pieces it together again, editing and adding until it feels like it has something more to say, a rather radical process some might think, but it is one that becomes integral to the piece.

    Jacy Wall: Dark Banner, woven tapestry, wool, linen on cotton warp, 1117 x 340mm, 2008/10


    Jacy’s woven and cut tapestries interrogate the nature of textiles as she deconstructs and plays with pattern structure and surface quality. Interventions such as stitching, patching and darning imply instability and fragility, reflecting on a long-time interest in the theme of mending.


    Talking about her work she said: “The central theme to my work focuses on the many qualities of textiles in all their glories. The cultural significance of textiles from around the world has so often faded from memory, and I think the urge to find an elusive story that has been lost is behind my process of cutting and re-making, adding, stitching, revealing a new perspective.”



    Jacy always hand-dyes her own wools and is drawn to working mainly in monochrome, partly due to printmaking which the artist practices alongside her weaving. At first glance, many of Jacy’s tapestries appear solid black. However, closer inspection reveals the variation in tones as the wool has been overdyed black. Jacy pays much attention to gradations in tone and texture echoing the faded and repaired Indian fabrics that started her on her journey.


    Variations of black achieved through hand dyeing


    Dyeing a full black onto yarn, particularly linens, is quite hard, and often needs overdyeing to get beyond a dark grey. Over the years Jacy has perfected ways of achieving other tones, adding a little yellow or red and when using several strands of slightly different black yarns together, the shifts in tone become more obvious. In addition, black dye works differently on wool (and again on a high twist worsted than a softer spun wool) than it does on silk, or linen, and using these different yarns in a totally black or white area enables the artist to create lines or shapes black on black or white on white, much like a painter would paint on a canvas.


    Work by this week’s three featured textile artists Katharine Swailes, Caron Penney and Jacy Wall can be seen at Crafting a Difference at SoShiro, curated by Brian Kennedy which now runs until the end of April.  Alongside, Cavaliero Finn’s artists, other textile artists featured in the exhibition are Abigail Booth, Katie Mawson (represented by jaggedart) and Annemette Beck (represented by MADEINBRITALY). 


    It is hoped that from April 12th, when lockdown restrictions are expected to be lifted, we will be able to release a series of booking slots for clients to see the exhibition at Soshiro, London, in person.  If this is something you would be interested in and you haven’t already registered your interest, please do get in touch and we will send you details of how to book a viewing slot.