Thursday, 22 December 2011

...can Spring be far behind?

As my Zoroastrian friend Shahin tells me each mid-winter:  “Spring is coming!”.  The famous last refrain of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” also comes much to mind as I walk about my garden in the short daylight hours of northern winters.  Right now, the new solar year is just beginning. Winter’s flowers are already appearing, heralding spring to come, and inspiring a new dawn of colours in my anticipated new year spinning. 

Already I have Jasminum nudiflorum in bloom, bringing its yellow sunshine to winter's gloom, and Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’, the red-brown spotted winter evergreen Clematis. Even the wonderfully-scented Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’  has put in an early appearance.  But my horticultural pride and joy is the first flowering ever in my garden of Chimonanthus praecox, or Winter Sweet, with its pale watery yellow translucent flowers and its heady scent, flowering just by my front door. 

I was told these plants can take 20 years to flower from cuttings, but mine has had under 10 and it’s bursting with round expectant flower buds and blooms.  It's a cutting taken from a Chimonanthus planted through Gertrude Jekyll’s influence on Hestercombe gardens in the west country.   The colours of all these plants are subconsciously making their way into my fibre-filled baskets, awaiting my return to the spinning wheel after Christmas and the new year. 

I was reminded of my gardening heroine Gertrude when sitting in London’s Wigmore Hall the other evening for a concert of early 20th century English music, generously facilitated by my warm-hearted brother Christian,  listening to work by composers such as Peter Warlock.  Although looking back to Irish roots, his setting of ‘The Curlew’ was totally haunting. As an adopted East Anglian, it brought winter in the Fens right into my imagination.  Warlock and Jekyll were roughly contemporaneous, and shared a love of culture of the past which shaped the future of music (in his case) and garden design (in hers).  I’m fascinated by all such connections, and their relationship to the continuous thread of life. 

Looking to the future myself, I’ve just returned from a happy day passing on family recipes to my lovely daughter-in-law Susanna, and sharing a cup of Christmas cheer with my wonderful eldest son Rupert in London.  If the turn of the solar year and Christmas is a time for anything, it’s for sharing.  Sharing with family, and sharing with woolly-minded friends across the globe - namely all of you.  Here’s wishing you all a blessed, peaceful and Merry Christmas, and looking forward to your company again here in the new year.   

Friday, 16 December 2011

Fashion designers, philosophers and Christmas trees

I’ve often wondered if trees in their own way could get a bit philosophical about life on this planet.  “I grow, therefore I am”, to coin René Descartes’ thought, is probably all the tree wants, just to be getting along with the neighbours and bringing on the children.  But no, we humans have to come along and imbue them with meanings all of our own. 

Take Christmas trees: this one’s busy making its contribution to fashion, art, sculpture, knitting, and eventually to charity when it’s auctioned off in Paris along with the other ‘trees’ in the Collection Les Sapins de Noel des Créateurs.  It was designed by Stella McCartney, and created by Extreme Knitting inventor Rachel John, and has been part of the 15th season of creations by this amazing fund-raising organisation right at the heart of the Paris fashion world.  To some, this tree radiates ‘design’; to others it will resonate through its materials and craftsmanship, and to the person who buys it, it will represent their charity giving, or perhaps a part of it, for this year. 

Across Scandinavia, what we call ‘Christmas Trees’ are the basis for many industries, in countries where there are far more trees than people.  Trees represent renewable resources, to be grown sustainably for future generations, and whose wood locks in carbon dioxide for the life of the wood product made from it.  The self-same type of tree, to the people of the city of Oslo, represents a ‘thank you’ to the people of London for their support in World War II. One has been sent from Oslo to London as ambassador every year since 1947, and this year on 1st December its lights were switched on to herald the coming of Christmas.  In more ancient times, evergreen trees were respected for their ability to continue on unchanged through the seasons, and as symbols of life and re-birth in the dark days of the northern winters. 

Discussing with my mum today the energy of Christmas, we decided it was the aspects of hope, re-birth and the continued cycle of life that gives Christmas its enduring appeal.  The hope of continuing life was brought home to me recently by Stitch London’s choice of charity for their Christmas raffle:  the Andrea Giles Yes to Life campaign Like many other craftspeople I made a donation to the raffle - a skein of my Mega Yarn.  I hope Stitch London raised loads of money to enable Andrea to continue with her treatment.   The event was supported by Knit! Magazine. 

Whether you’re a fashion designer or a charity knitter, if you’re putting up a Christmas tree soon for the festive season, take a moment out to consider its many positive contributions, to you, to the environment, maybe even to the economy.  But most of all consider the tree as an object of wonder in its own right, a work of art, science, sculpture and nature, worthy of marvel even before the decorations go on. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Church bells, crafts and community

An ancient site on a high and windy hillside, overlooking a vale throughout which Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans and more have all left their mark:  this is the village of Great Chishill.  It was a great privilege to take part in the village’s first ever ‘Crafts in the Barn’ event on Saturday last, in aid of the bell fund for St Swithun’s church, an already-established institution when it was gifted to the monastery of Walden by  Geoffrey de Mandeville in 1136.

Invited by a generous friend from our local spinning group, I joined all kinds of talented craftspeople from the village and surrounds.   Though it’s probably been true since time immemorial, it still amazes and pleases me to discover so many different and complimentary talents tucked away in villages and communities far and wide.  It opens a window on a past in which each skill had its role to play in the continuity of life, and each was valued for its contribution.   

It’s not until a community comes together for a cause like St Swithun’s that you realise just how deep the well of creativity runs in every human being, be they knitter or spinner, potter or baker, seamstress, or saddle-maker, jeweller or grower.  It felt very warming to be amongst fellow inadvertent craftspeople, whose hobbies have, like mine, taken them in interesting directions.  It also felt encompassing to be in the midst of their community of friends, all surprised and delighted to see what their neighbours can create and full of happy hopefulness that the event would set in motion a chain of good things, the church bell being just one of the beneficiaries. 

In the past, whole communities developed craft specialities, like Harris Tweed or Nottingham Lace.   Yet within each craft, the individual identities of the craftspeople could be discerned through their handling or choice  of materials, their use of colour, or the subtle differences in their techniques.  Celebrating and understanding these differences is the aim of the ‘Woven Identities’ exhibition, running through to April 2014 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in  Santa Fe, featuring the work of over 240 Native American basketmakers, some named and many unknown.  

Today, our modern lives are somewhat isolated from each other.  Like ghosts, we wave at each other through the ether of the internet, visiting perhaps less than we should, even though our transport is hugely more comfortable than that of our ancestors.  But real connection, with families and community,  only comes through engaging face to face, talking to others, or coming together in a common cause. 

Crafts, it seems, can re-awaken people’s shared creative genes.  Craftspeople, and those who appreciate craftwork, are open and willing  to learn from each other.  It should also be our joy to pass on our enthusiasm, and to hopefully do a little good along the way.  Here’s hoping St Swithun’s bell will be ringing again soon.   

Friday, 2 December 2011

Knitted Textile Designer of the Year: texture, colour or both?

Who'd be a competition judge? Especially when the competition is for Knitted Textile Designer of the Year at the Clothes Show Live?  What an impossible choice to make!  Will the judges go more for texture? Or for colour?  Or for a mix of both? The brief this year was to take sculptural knitting into 3D, so I for one can't wait to see what the designers come up with.  The competition is sponsored by Rowan, in association with Simply Knitting and The Knitter magazines. 

There are some wonderfully-talented young knitwear designers coming through universities such as Nottingham Trent.  You've only got to take a peek at their student gallery to be whisked off to the heights of creative inspiration. Nichola Evans, Gemma Lloyd and Michelle Legere's work would take my vote any day!  Each of these three innovative designers have combined colour and texture in their own special way, and it's that expression of the person through their creation which binds human spirits together and allows us to appreciate their work.

I'm particularly interested in texture, as I feel it's got something to say to us beyond the visual.  The tactile nature of wool in all its forms - rough Hebridean to springy South Down - takes mankind back to the dawn of our times, and its sustainable nature shows a path for our future.  I like texture in plants too, like Viburnum rhytidophyllum with its deeply-etched leaves. 

My most memorable encounter with this plant was in the garden of the man who designed the 'new town' of Harlow in Essex after World War II, Sir Frederick Gibberd.  The Gibberd Garden is a festival of texture. It's present on every surface, from paving to plants and water.  Your eye can't stray further than a few feet without seeing something new.  If a person expresses themselves through their creativity, then you have to wonder how fascinating a person Frederick Gibberd must have been - his hidden exuberance is utterly manifest in the garden he has left behind. 

We all have a hidden level of exuberance we don't let on to others, but for spinners, knitters and weavers, our natural verve tends to leak out here and there! We express our most private selves when we set to with new fibre, yarn or drafting plans, creating something which suits us well, in whatever colour or texture best resonates with our spirit.  How much more difficult then to design knitwear for the fashion catwalk - fashion that contains a part-essence of your personality yet can be replicated successfully to chime with the spirits and self-image of many others.

Good luck to all the finalists in Knitted Textile Designer of the Year 2011 when the Clothes Show Live opens in the morning:  we look forward to making a new journey of knitted discovery with you, through your creations.