An Artisan’s Perennial Issue – Quality Raw Materials

painted silk twill scarf 18 mmYesterday I was reading a post and accompanying comments from Juliet Macleod’s blog, the Cloud Pottery discussing the choices of different clays for pottery. One of the contributors mentioned ‘extra white stoneware’, and said, “it’s definitely not as white as it used to be”. How timely, I thought to myself, as I have just been notified that my supplier of square, silk twill blanks are no longer stocking my preferred 90 x 90 cm size. And, the option to go direct to the Chinese supplier in Shanghai is not viable as a minimum order of 1000 pieces is required. More change, things are definitely not like they used to be.

Silk is similar to any raw material as it comes in different grades, weights and weaves and that is before you start to consider colour. I am not sure how often people read the textile labels when buying clothes and accessories, but if you do, you will see percentage fibre contents and for a silk item it normally just says 100% silk. Of course you can find specialist woven textiles where silk is woven with wool or cotton, or there are more complex, multiple fibre mixes that add some silk threads to the weave to add lustre to the finished textile.

But, most usually silk as clothing is sold as pure silk, 100% silk. Pure silk is the epitome of luxury textiles with a long and fascinating history including the establishment of one of the greatest trade routes the world has ever known – the Silk Road. And, with my Art Historian’s hat on, over the centuries silk has been the medium for the transmission of many Chinese and Eastern designs and motifs from the East to Europe and the West.

Silk is available in many different weaves and patterns from the simplest tabby/plain weave to complex figured fabrics such as damask. It is sold in mommes (mm), pronounced mummies. This is a measure of density as opposed to purely weight. That is kilograms per metre square. Originally it was equal to the weight in pounds of a bolt of silk that was 45 inches wide by 100 yards long regardless of the weave. Nowadays, silk is sold between 3 mm for a light gauze right the way through to 40 mm for a heavy, raw silk cloth that looks like a coarse linen.

As a silk painter for most of my designs I like to use a silk that is woven to give a clean surface and I particularly like to work on twills or crepe de chines that are between 10 mm to 14 mm giving the finished scarves a good weight that falls well. Also, as a matter of personal choice although I think satins and charmeuse look beautiful for evening wear, I prefer the gentler lustre of twill or crepe de chine for normal everyday scarves. Despite my last declaration, I do have to admit to owning a couple of showy silk chiffon scarves that I’ve been known to wear in the daytime to the accompanying remark, “Oo, we see Agnes is glammed up today – what’s the occasion?” Actually, there was no special occasion, but sometimes you just need to brighten yourself up a bit – and why not?

painted red silk chiffon 8 mm scarf
Painted silk chiffon scarf.
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Diva Pink

pink silk scarfBrilliant, vivid colours are not to everybody’s taste, but some people live technicolor, dynamic lives and appear to have larger than life personalities. For those opera stars fuchsia pink and scarlet seemed the natural choice.

A little bit of scorching colour doesn’t do the rest of us any harm during a grey, miserable January – so I give you pics of Peacock Wave Pink (no longer with me as this silk scarf was left at the Stage Door).

silk scarf pink and red

A Blue and Green Affair

Peacock by Peter Kraayvanger
Photo by Peter Kraayvanger
The enduring appeal of the peacock display of colours recently caught my attention and prompted me to venture into a so-called forbidden combination. I think I first heard my Nanna declare ‘Blue and green should never be seen’, when I was a child.

art nouveau peacocks Royal Arcade, Norwich

How ridiculous, obviously nobody told the peacocks. And, when you think about it blue and green has been a popular and classic combination for centuries!

Dragonflies also come along in blue and green combinations providing even more inspiration if you find that splendid peacock not enough.

Fallen Fruit Silks

Jane Hall Designs
It is strange how in our 24 hours a day wired and connected world we can not truly escape nature’s deep, slow rhythms. This November I’ve been working on some scarves in a range of colours I thought I’d chosen as I’d seen this pleasing combination from the Canadian Interior Designer Jane Hall of Jane Hall Designs.

As I have mentioned before, when I’m painting I often listen to an audiobook and for a couple of weeks I’ve been listening to ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. She has a superb historical imagination and a descriptive writing style that evokes a sense of place without being overdone. As I was busy preparing my autumn colours I heard this phrase from Wolf Hall

“wearing their fallen fruit silks of mulberry, gold and plum”

Pear - Doyenne du Comice
Fallen and picked fruit from my fan pear – Doyenne du Comice

Prunus persica Peregrine
The Last Peach (Sept) – Prunus persica Peregrine

Reflecting on the natural colours of fallen fruit retrieved from the fading garden and looking at the colours I’d mixed up, I realised how unconsciously I’d absorbed and then responded to the changing scene. I’ve had a few peaches, figs, apples, pears and plums filling the kitchen fruit bowl from this year’s domestic harvest. It’s been the best year so far for the fan pear, though I have lost all the cobnuts to the squirrels, again. But what a bonus – the muted colours of fallen fruit.

Inspiration from Paul Klee

Paul Klee - Blue Coat
Paul Klee, 1940, 7
Oil and pigmented wax on paper.
Albertina, Wien Promised gift of the Carl Djerassi Art Trust II
© VBK Wien 2009
In the hands of a master the most simple images can come to life and spring out of the past with uplifting vitality. I know it is, as usual, down to personal taste, but I think this oil and coloured wax picture by Paul Klee has its own intense energy that grabs your attention. Anyway, I have attempted to plug in and channel some of the energy for my own work by using his restricted colour palette for a painted silk scarf.

Although the colours are quite similar and I’ve used them in roughly the same percentage, it is nevertheless definitely very different.


Then I thought I’d use the basic overall design, but with different colours.

Reinterpretation of a Delicate Wedgwood Ceramic

Every now and then I’m asked to create a silk piece guided by the colours and decorative qualities of a non-textile form. Sometimes a commission is quite personal, a customer may wish to have a special scarf to remind them of a person or a pet or an event. Or sometimes, and this is more difficult, a sentiment.
silk scarf detail
People often turn to nature and, in particular, flowers for inspiration for silk painting, but I suggest shape, colour and the decorative details from other human made artefacts can also elicit visually creative solutions. In order to get a firm idea of what a person is looking for I suggest they select pictures that fit their mood. Often beautiful glass and ceramics are a rich source of inspiration and can be reinterpreted and reworked to produce the type of scarf that they are looking for.

I hope you can see that this beautiful Wedgwood Fairyland lustreware candlestick with its intricate design and translucent glazes was the ceramic inspiration for the ‘Guinevere’ silk scarf. Previously, I wrote a little post with info/history about Wedgwood Fairyland lustreware. https://agnesashe.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/wedgwood-fairyland-lustreware-beautiful-charming/

Silk Scarf Guinevere -  Wedgwood Fairyland lustreware inspired silk scarf.
Silk Scarf Guinevere – Wedgwood Fairyland lustreware inspired piece.

Early Medieval Stained Glass – Colourful Inspiration

A couple of months ago I was asked to design and paint a ‘stained glass’ scarf.

Stained glass early medieval
Border decoration original from windows at Canterbury Cathedral, Kent – c.1200-20
Now displayed at the V&A Museum, London.

When undertaking a commission the easiest way for me to understand a client’s wish is to ask for a ‘mini’ mood board. This can be a small postcard-sized piece of card covered with torn pieces of magazine pictures, snippets of cloth, small cuts of wool and screwed up cotton thread that give me an idea of the colours required. In the past when one customer wanted a scarf to complement her new winter look she gave me a snippet of cloth from the inside seam of her new coat.

silk scarf stained glass design

However, more recently, the wealth of beautiful photographs on the Internet, has allowed mood boards to be generated very easily on platforms like Pinterest. The advantage of this approach is the ease with which ideas come together. Unfortunately, the downside is that accurate colour portrayal of ‘real-life’ on screen is notoriously unreliable and even the same image across different screens/devices can vary significantly. So, if an accurate tonal range is critical then an old fashioned, mini mood board is still best.

With the light shining through, early medieval stained glass panels photograph well (if not too high up in a window!) and the frequent use of bright reds and blues imparts a recognisable aesthetic. It is such a strong visual form that it was easy for the Victorians to mimic and then extensively develop in their Gothic Revival church windows, and, is probably what springs to mind when most people think of stained glass.

With my Art History hat on my personal preference is for the work of the late-Victorian Christopher Whall particularly his early 20th-century windows. This example panel depicting St Chad dates from 1901-10. It is now in the V&A Museum, London, and is from a collection of stained glass produced for a commission for a new window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral.

Autumn Sunflowers – Late Arrivals at the Ball

helianthus annuusIt has been a very mild autumnal day here in East Anglia with the thermometer on my sheltered terrace reading 22°C (72°F) at lunchtime. This mild spell has saved my sunflowers (they were planted out too late – my fault, I forgot them) and they are only now just in full bloom. But what inspiration? We can all see why a certain amazing Dutchman worked so hard to capture their intense yet fleeting vibrancy.

I lived in Holland for a short while and when friends and relatives came to stay I used to love to take them to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was so inspired I even had a go at copying his sunflowers and made a summer top from the finished silk.

van gogh sunflowers
Sunflowers, Arles, 1888 – Van Gogh
Caroll S Tyson Collection, Philadelphia

Recently, I found the old top in a box in the loft and was struck by the change in my own style of working. But, I was also reminded of the admiration I had felt for Van Gogh as when you settle to copy a great work of art, even in a very small insignificant way, you notice more of the choices the master has made in creating the original work. Copying is a valuable tool for teaching.

It is not just the colour that is striking as even the sunflower’s outline is unmistakable.

sunflower shadow

Prized Silk Rediscovered during the Biannual Wardrobe Rotation

black mourning crape crepe
Antique silk mourning cape made from Norwich Crape, circa 1890.

Please feel free to laugh at the somewhat quaint way some of us choose to live our lives, but twice a year I reorganise my wardrobe and generally have a sort and tidy session. It’s a boring chore, but last weekend it ended on a positive note when I came across one of my forgotten vintage/antique textiles. Actually, antique is the correct term to use as this Norwich Crape mourning cape is over 100 years old.

norwich crape company bridewell
Framed poster for the Norwich Crape Company which is now at the Bridewell Museum, Norwich

Norwich is an old city and during the medieval period it was England’s Second City (after London) with its wealth being built on the woollen cloth trade. Fine woollen cloth was a premium product exported to Europe. Weavers were based in Norwich and in the surrounding Norfolk villages and the famous worsted woven wool originates from the village of Worstead in North East Norfolk. The importance of cloth to the economics of the city is an interesting, long tale, but essentially comes to an end at the close of the nineteenth century. (Update March 2016 – An accessible and well researched account used to be able at norwichtextiles.org, but since the UK extensive funding cuts this website is no longer in existence. Ironically it appears to have gone the same way as the Norwich textile industry. A small local charity is attempting to provide some historical information, but it’s more geared to an ‘informed tourist’ than any serious research. And, unfortunately, as I write this, the most informative book ‘Made in Norwich: 700 Years of Textile Heritage’ by Thelma Morris, is unavailable.)

Norwich’s final notable textile product during the Victorian period had been Norwich Crape. Crape was the term used for black silk or imitation black silk used to make women’s mourning dress (the term crape comes from crepe a type of crinkled silk). According to Thelma Morris at the Norwich Textiles Org – ‘crape is a crimped plain woven silk cloth. The crinkling was produced by weaving a soft weft on a hard twisted warp, the latter causing the cloth to ‘curl’ in the finishing process when it was passed over a heated roller engraved with the desired pattern of the finished crape.’

crinkled silk crape
Detail of the fine crinkled silk showing a translucent quality.

Cloth for mourning dress was an important trade as an upstanding Victorian was expected to wear black for a period of two years’ after the death of a close family member. This practice fell out of fashion as the etiquette of mourning became less rigid in the early twentieth century and with the decline in demand for black silk the production of Norwich Crape ceased. I think my mourning silk cape must have been used by a woman who was expected to be out and visiting, but still in black, as it decorated with a delicate pattern of tiny black glass beads. Despite it being quite fragile due to its age I have worn this over an evening dress and as with all silk it does look better in real life than in the photos!

black glass beads detail
Norwich crape decorated with tiny black glass beads.

AND . . . THAT WARDROBE BUSINESS

You might not have guessed, but, I do like old stuff and I have this battered old Victorian mahogany wardrobe which was the only furniture I could fit into a small, cottage bedroom I once had – so I’ve got used to it even though you can’t hang clothes in it in the normal 21st-century way. Consequently, each spring and autumn I swap all my clothing round as I change from winter to summer clothes and then from summer back to winter outfits! Well, it helps to pass the time.

old fashioned wardrobe hooks
An awkward arrangement.