UK Textile Tour Day 9: Audrey Walker at the Ruthin Craft Centre – Wales

One week before I was scheduled to leave on my trip, I received my “Embroidery” magazine, the publication from the UK’s Embroiderers’ Guild.  To my surprise, an article highlighted an upcoming exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre in Northern Wales of Audrey Walker’s amazing embroideries.  And it was opening one day after I was scheduled to drive North through Wales up to Scotland!

Christina Fairley Erickson with Audrey Walker's "Adam" and "Eve" stitched textiles (2000) and drawing study for "Eve".

Christina Fairley Erickson with Audrey Walker’s “Adam” and “Eve” stitched textiles (2000) and drawing study for “Eve”.  Adam and Eve each approximately 16″ w x 40″ high (the embroidery). On loan by Graham Holland.

As an artist who does a lot of pictorial work, I’ve been a fan of Audrey Walker’s work ever since my mentor and tutor, Gail Harker, introduced me to Audrey’s intricate stitched portraits.  So, without much hesitation, I worked out a change in my itinerary to stay an extra day in Wales, so I could see the exhibition on its opening day.

Detail from "Eve" by Audrey Walker 2000.

Detail from “Eve” by Audrey Walker 2000.

Audrey Walker’s six-decade long career in embroidery has influenced many contemporary embroiderers.  Not only is she an amazing artist in her own right, she succeeded Constance Howard as the head of the Goldsmith’s College Embroidery & Textiles Department (1975-88) guiding another generation of makers.  She focused on teaching her students to seek out and explore their ideas first, then to study the history and techniques to realize their artistic vision. Her first textile associate was Jan Beaney, who went

"The White Tulips" by Audrey Walker 2012. On loan from the Embroiderers' Guild UK

“The White Tulips” by Audrey Walker 2012 (approximately 48″ h x 16″ w). On loan from the Embroiderers’ Guild UK

on to become internationally renowned for her stitchwork, as well as being one of the Cities and Guilds tutors and evaluators who taught Gail Harker.  So, I guess I can claim Audrey is my embroidery great-grandmother!

Detail from "The White Tulips" 2012 by Audrey Walker

Detail from “The White Tulips” 2012 by Audrey Walker

This exhibition, in Audrey’s 90th year, is a retrospective of her work, with pieces coming from as far away as the U.S. (owned by private collectors) brought together at the Ruthin Craft Centre, the location of Audrey’s first solo exhibition 18 years ago.

Audrey’s start in textiles began ten years after completing her degree in fine art (mainly portrait painting), after seeing an exhibit of fabric collages by Margaret Kaye (1912-2002).  Prior to that , Audrey associated embroidery with the domestic textiles of her youth.  Rather than continuing on as a painter, textiles became Audrey’s medium of choice.  She even incorporated some of her family’s domestic textiles into her artwork, giving a nod of recognition to the historic roots of embroidery.

"A Cumbrian Birthday" 1997/8 embroidery by Audrey Walker uses a tray cloth from Audrey's childhood.

“A Cumbrian Birthday” 1997/8 by Audrey Walker uses a tray cloth from Audrey’s childhood. The embroidery (approximately 30″ w x 20″h) represents the Cumbrian tradition of offering guests a class of port and cream crackers with rum-butter on the best china, when visitors came to see a newborn baby.

Topics that have figured prominently in Audrey’s work include “momentary glances, encounters, inward smiles, the power of a gaze, vulnerability and the simple pleasures of life”.  Some of her figures have a wistful, enigmatic look or smile, reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.  Audrey’s process includes drawing portraits prior to her stitching and even drawing at the end of a day of stitching as a critique of her work or to an express an idea to develop in the future.

"Beach Woman" by Audrey Walker 1996, approximately 36" h x 28"w. 

“Beach Woman” by Audrey Walker 1996, approximately 36″ h x 28″w.  The larger-than-life size was to be suggestive of ‘heroes’.

Embroidery detail from "Beach Woman" by Audrey Walker 1996.

Embroidery detail  from “Beach Woman” by Audrey Walker 1996. Machine and hand stitched.

It’s remarkable to see the incredible detail that has gone into each of these large pieces.  The images are created through color blending with the threads.

“There is no doubt that building up an image with absolutely separate lines of colour – the threads – is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable activity.  But it can be infuriatingly slow and it has all kinds of hazards! …However, the very slowness of the process can be productive.  It allows a longer encounter with the idea and therefore the chance to explore it more fully and critically.  It offers opportunities for valuable interludes – for instance setting a large piece on one side for a time in order to work through related thoughts on a smaller scale or in a different medium.  The prooblems in the larger piece are often solved through side-stepping into related work.”  (Audrey Walker ‘Insights’, 1999.)

"Encounter" 1998 by Audrey Walker approximately 36 h x 54" w.

“Encounter” 1998 by Audrey Walker approximately 36″h x 54″ w.  Originally intended as two separate pieces, Audrey reworked the piece through drawings and small embroideries to overlap the images.

Detail of hand-stitched eye from "Encounter" by Audrey Walker 1998.

Detail of hand-stitched eye from “Encounter” by Audrey Walker 1998.

Audrey was a regular participant in the “62 Group” exhibitions from 1966 – 1981.  Starting in 1962, the 62 Group of Textile Artists was created as support for serious professional textile artists.  Audrey joined in 1964 and remains an Honorary Exhibiting member.

"Observed Incident" by Audrey Walker 2002.

“Observed Incident” by Audrey Walker 2002. Approximately 28″ w x 60″ h (each panel). On loan from the Crafts Council.

Detail of knight's face with helmet and shield from "Observed Incident".

Detail of knight’s face with helmet and shield from “Observed Incident”.

Detail of "Still Life" by Audry Walker, 1993

Detail of “Still Life” by Audrey Walker, 1993

Inspired by a tiny embroidery fragment less than 2″ high at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Audrey created “Observed Incident.”  The 14th Century inspiration had 3 knights in full armor with a watching figure.  She wished to salute the unknown embroiderer’s imagination with a large scale version of the topic.

"Still-life" by Audrey Walker 1993 includes a tribute to Marandi, a master of still-life.

“Still-life” by Audrey Walker 1993 includes a tribute to Marandi, a master of still-life. Aprroximately 48″ w x 28″ h. On loan by Jan Beaney and Steve Udall.

"Stop and Smell the Roses" by Audrey Walker 2004.

“Stop and Smell the Roses” by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately 14″w x 20″ h. On loan by Jean Littlejohn.

"Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries" by Audrey Walker 1984.

“Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries” by Audrey Walker 1984. Approximately 20″w x 15″ h. On loan by Jan Beaney and Steve Udall.  Ground is a tablecloth c 1935 to celebrate Audrey’s mother’s domestic embroidery.  One of a series on this theme.

Detail "Stop and Smell the Roses" by Audrey Walker 2004

Detail “Stop and Smell the Roses” by Audrey Walker 2004

Detail "Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries" by Audrey Walker 1984.

Detail “Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries” by Audrey Walker 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The Big Blue Bowl" by Audrey Walker 2013.

“The Big Blue Bowl” by Audrey Walker 2013. Approximately 24″w x 18″ h.

Detail "The Big Blue Bowl" by Audrey Wal;ker 2013.

Detail “The Big Blue Bowl” by Audrey Walker 2013.

The Big Blue Bowl is part of Audrey’s recent body of work where she is experimenting with a single line of stitch, rather than overlapping stitches.

Detail "The Garden" by Audrey Walker 2012.

Detail “The Garden” by Audrey Walker 2012.

 

 

 

 

"The Garden" by Audrey Walker 2012.

“The Garden” by Audrey Walker 2012. Approximately “52” w x 48″ h.

"Early Landscape" (1960's) by Audrey Walker.

“Early Landscape” (1960’s) by Audrey Walker. Approximately 24″ w x 22″ h. On loan by Jan Beaney and Steve Udall

"Gaze IV" by Audrey Walker 1999.

“Gaze IV” by Audrey Walker 1999. Approximately 14″w bottom; 11″ w top x 14″ h. On loan by Diana Springall.

Detail of Goldwork in "Gaze IV" by Audrey Walker 1999.

Detail of Goldwork and Embroidery  in “Gaze IV” by Audrey Walker 1999.

Christina Fairley Erickson with "Temptation (The Collectors)" by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately

Christina with “Temptation (The Collectors)” by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately 36″ x 36″ On loan by Diane & Marc Grainer, USA.

Once in a while you need to give in to temptation… as I did by going out of my way to make it to this exhibition.  I’m so glad I did!

Day 3 – Part 2 – Lisburn Linen Museum & More

As many of you know, I have a wee bit ‘o Irish in my heritage.  My paternal great-grandfather, Robert Fairley, emigrated from Lisburn in Northern Ireland around the turn of the century.  I also have two g-g-grandparents from Ireland from different sides of my family tree.  So between my familial name, red-headed genes from my Dad, and family lore, being Irish was the strongest ethnic identity stressed in my childhood.

So I was very pleased to have found some possible distant cousins living outside of Lisburn prior to our trip!  Unfortunately, many records in Ireland were destroyed in the Irish Civil War during a bombardment and resulting fire that ravaged the building in Dublin which housed Public Records, so we haven’t yet been able to trace the exact relationship.  But, considering how few Fairley’s lived in the area, it’s quite likely we have ties a few generations back.  We stopped in to meet these cousins in person and then went together to lunch and the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum.

Robert McKee Fairley, my great-grandfather, at his tailoring shop in Salinas CA, c 1900.

Lisburn, Northern Ireland – exhibition tracing the history of Irish Linen

The Museum’s researcher, Ciaran Toal, had kindly answered my inquiries about my family and met with me when we were there.  The top floor of the museum is dedicated to their “Flax to Fabric – the Story of Irish Linen” exhibition.  If you get a chance to go to Lisburn, a visit here is a must!

It starts with through the whole process of growing flax; hand harvesting & tying into parcels called”beets”; soaking the beets in water to soften the stems (a very pungent process); drying out the beets; and “Scrunching” by beating the flax stems with wooden clubs and then separating flax fibres from the unwanted woody parts of the stems.  They have wonderful old photos of the each step of the process, as well as equipment used and samples.

After the flax production, the history of linen in the Lisburn area is displayed in depth, starting in 1698 when King William III appointed an Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture in Ireland and a weaving premises was set up in Lisburn.  In the late 17th C, many immigrants from Northern England and Southern Scotland came to the Ulster region, probably including my Fairley ancestors.

Linen seal stamped on linen to assure quality

The spinning of the flax into linen yarn or thread was mechanized in the 1820s, giving a fine quality yarn which was more reliable for weavers than hand-spun. When the linen cloth was taken from the loom, it was the original brown colour of the yarn.  This was sold in “brown linen” markets.  The process of bleaching brown linen yarn was complex and could last up to six months, but created a finer product.  To create a lovely sheen on white linen, the bleached cloth went through a final process known as beetling, involving beating the cloth with mallets to close up the weave and achieve a dense, lustrous finish.  Both brown and white linens had quality inspection processes where they had a seal used to verify the quality.

The stitching of the cloth, whether into garments or as embroidered embellishments, was the final step of the long process.  While I’m not able to share any photos per agreement with the museum, I can tell you the needlework is nothing short of extraordinary!  Veils of soft, semi-transparent linen gauze with incredibly fine perfect stitching; cutwork and drawn-thread work; Irish crochet lace; and much more.

Some of the height of the collection includes pieces made for Queen Victoria, including a Golden Jubilee  damask table doily from 1887 which was part of a set of 24 damask doilies depicting the new Royal Irish Linen Warehouse and a set of different miniature household items made for Queen Mary’s dollhouse!  There was also information about Irish designer Sybil Connolly (1921-1998), who took inspiration from traditional Irish clothes and fabrics.  Her clients included the Rockefellers, Mellons, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

I could go on and on, but suspect I’ve probably written more than most would care to read.  It was with some regret that I said good-bye to my newfound friends/cousins and to Lisburn.  But, I suspect that I’ll be back sometime in the future!

 

 

 

Outside of the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum

Day 3- Carrickmacross, Ireland

Ireland has a rich history of lace-making, including several distinct styles:

  • Carrickmacross lace
  • Irish Crochet lace
  • Krnmare kace
  • Limerick lace
  • Youghal lace

Knowing this, I wanted the chance to see some of this beautiful needle art!  Driving North from Dublin, we made our way to the little town of Carrickmacross.

Christina with talented lacemaker and member of the The Carrickmacross Lace Co-operative at the Carrickmacross Lace Gallery

Carrickmacross lace was introduced into Ireland in about 1820 by Mrs Grey Porter, wife of the rector of Donaghmoyne, who taught it to local women so that they could earn some extra money.  During the famine years in the mid-1840’s, a lace school was set up by the managers of the Bath and Shirley estates at Carrickmacross as a means of helping their starving tenants, and the lace became known and found sales.

A beautiful rare sample of a Carrickmacross Lace priest’s vestments. Most vestment pieces were buried with the clergy for whom they were made.

The lace is made on a base of cotton net (similar to tulle, but much softer and pliable).  A lightweight soft white muslin (sheer enough to see a pattern underneath) is appliquéd onto the net.  Additional embroidery stitches create edgings, patterns and cutwork.

Here you can see areas where the Muslim has been appliquéd to the net, as well as designs embroidered into the net.

The meaning of this Irish Gaelic saying is “a hundred thousand welcomes”- quite apt in our experience- the people are so friendly and welcoming here!

Christina Fairley Ericksonand Mom Nan outside the Carrickmacross Lace Gallery.

After the worst of the famine years, through the last half of the 19th century, the lacemaking declined. Then in the 1890’s, the Sisters of St Louis founded their own lace school to revive the craft, and this was quite profitable for several years. Although the outbreak of the 1914–18 war marked the virtual end of commercial production of hand-made lace in Europe, the lace school kept the technique alive throughout the 20th century. In 1984 the St Louis Sisters assisted in the formation of The Carrickmacross Lace Co-operative, which maintains the tradition to this day.

Display of some of the pieces that the Carrickmacross cooperative members have made and are available for sale.

Piece available with incredible miniature stitches in patterns

Detail of tiny stitches!

The lace cooperative also has some little kits and supplies if you want to try your hand at making your own Carrickmacross Lace.  Their kits are available via their website at: https://www.carrickmacrosslace.ie/

I couldn’t leave without bringing a little souvenir of this lovely technique From the Carrickmacross Lace Gallery!

Here in the 21st Century, the most famous use of this beautiful historic form of lace must be when Kate Middleton incorporated Carrickmacross lace into her wedding to Prince William.  I highly recommend you make the time to come visit, if you’re ever in Ireland!

Dublin Day 2, Part 2

While I’m no expert on couture fashion, the pieces displayed at the National Museum of Ireland- Decorative Arts’s Special exhibition of Ib Jorgensen’s fashion were clearly a cut above the ordinary. Born in Denmark, Jorgensen immigrated with his family to Ireland in 1950. He attended Dublin’s Grafton Academy of Dress Designing and first garnered attention when he won the Academy Cup is his graduating year fashion show in the tailored suits and coats division.

Hand embroidered and beaded silk jacket with evening skirt of green silk faille, 1989

Bead embroidery detail

Bead embroidery detail

Jorgensen’s work caught the eye of fashion hours, Nicolas O’Dwyer, who hired him as a designer and pattern cutter at only 20 years old.  He was strongly influenced by the high standards of quality demanded by the workforce dervived from an old Jewish tailoring business.

Ib Jorgensen on the exhibition poster at the National Museum of Ireland- Decorative Arts, Dublin

High quality tailoring, superior pattern cutting, a relentless attention to detail and flawless finishing became the hallmarks of Jorgensen’s work.

The exhibition looks back at Ib’s long career, displaying a selection of some forty garments including day, cocktail and evening wear from across three and a half decades, supplemented with original fashion photography and illustrations. His first wife Patricia, a textile designer, created designs for extravagant hand beading, appliqué and embroidery, and these techniques were frequently used to great effect on Ib’s evening wear.

Hand beaded sequin shift dress in a harlequin design of soft pastel colors, 1967

Evening dress of orange silk voile with halter necked bodice entirely beaded and embroidered, 1985

Halter bodice detail

Beadwork embroidery detail.

For more information on this exhibition, go to the museum’s website at:

https://www.museum.ie/Decorative-Arts-History/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/Ib-Jorgensen-–-A-Fashion-Retrospective

Day 2 -Dublin, National Museum of Ireland

We headed over to the one National Museum of Ireland- Decorative Arts & History location after lunch. I’m impressed that the museums are Free!  I think this egalitarian concept prevails throughout much of current Irish society.

The preservation of clothing, however, is largely restricted to the upper classes, due to the poorer people wearing their clothes until they were worn out. In the 18th C. Only the wealthy could afford to wear luxurious dress, but by the late 19th C., prosperous people in towns and villages across all of Ireland could dress fashionably.

Silk waistcoat embroidered with silver thread in Ireland about 1760.

Having precious metal embroidery on your clothing did come with some risk. ‘Friends’ or staff might cut off threads to steal the expensive metal!

Detail of silver embroidery – silver thread darkens over time. In the 17th C., they would sprinkle hot breadcrumbs over the silver and rub with linen to remove the tarnish.

Lace has been an important industry in Ireland. Many families survived hard times by making lace. There are numerous distinct styles (several of which I hope to see on this trip!

Lace from Woman’s Drawers made in 1880’s Ireland. Women started wearing undergarments that could be ‘drawn on’ in the 1800’s. These had separate legs that were stepped into and tied at the waist with a linen band.

Beautifully embroidered Irish linen apron, 1740’s.

Apron embroidery detail

Man’s embroidered waistcoat, Irish 1790’s.

Lace collar worked by a girl in an embroidery class, County Down, Ireland, 1860’s.  In the 1840’s, thousands of girls as young as 5 years old worked for pitifully low wages to provide Glasgow merchants stock for London markets.  But the meager wages helped some families survive the famines.

Day gown made in Ballymore Co, Sligo, Ireland about 1867.

This gorgeous blue color of the silk was created using ‘new’ synthetic abalone dyes.  The gown remains pristine… Maria Sweeney had the gown made for her brother’s wedding and then also wore it to Mass the Sunday following the wedding. The priest disapproved of the “figure-displaying style” (say, what???) and Maria never wore the gown again!

Early Contemporary Machine Lace, about 1867 with wool braid trim.

Next time I’ll share the Irish fashion icon Ib Jorgensen’s couture designs, on special exhibition at the Museum  of Decorative Arts.

Slán go fóill!