Reflection on Janet Rae’s Book: Warm Covers: A Scottish Textile Story, Sansom & Company, 2016

This book concentrates on several key areas of Scottish textile history, illustrated with examples of relevant textiles in both text and images.

The author examines quilts as mirrors of the processes, raw materials and technical skills available at the time they were made. One example is the inclusion of Turkey Red cotton (a vibrant, non-bleeding dye derived from the roots of the madder plant, requiring a 15 step process to achieve) in 19th century quilts.

This ties in with an exhibition case seen in my recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland, which showcased unusual materials that had found their way into the arts and crafts of different localities. Brazilian armlets were made from beetle casings and toucan feathers; a prisoner had carved a miniature tea service from fish bones. In these cases the artist has looked around them for organic materials that could be altered to fit their needs. Did the material inspire the artwork, or did the artist already have the idea in mind, and just use the material because it was available? In my own work, I have used ‘natural resources’ such as old clothing to make quilts and rag rugs, so this resonated strongly with my interests and values.

The second chapter considers the education of women in the art of sewing and embroidery, originally ‘plain sewing’ (for mainly utilitarian purposes) within the home, and in 18th and 19th centuries in finishing schools for young ladies, or with a governess, where embroidery and decorative work such as quilting, might be included in the repertoire. By the 19th century, industrial schools emerged, where young women could learn skills that would earn them a living. Towards the end of that century, a more academic offering was the norm, but still with a needlework element to the curriculum. Two larger schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow taught women domestic science, centred on cookery and basic sewing.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, (whose work I saw at The National Museum of Scotland earlier this week), along with Ann Macbeth, trained at art college to achieve the technical skills that were required to earn their works the distinction of being labelled ‘art’ rather than ‘craft’. Rae points out that most women depended on the ready-made designs of other (male) artists, rather than developing their own themes and designs.

This is an interesting observation, as I have always felt that I missed out by not having an art degree: one can only learn so much from books, websites and short courses. One of the reasons that I signed up for the OCA degree course was to remedy this deficit in my education. Learning to systematically develop art work from my own observations and areas of interest is what I am aiming for. Although, I have made unique work in the past, it has been a rather haphazard process!

Quilts are ‘covered’ in the third chapter, including those made during times of war. They include a signature quilt which was raffled to provide ‘comforts’ for soldiers; and another, made by Elizabeth Pamela Hamilton, known as ‘The Land Girls’ quilt which features embroidered scenes from the artist’s war-time service. As well as being interesting art works, they are emblems of the time in which they were made, the social and national history of the day.

A theme which I have noticed occurring on the Forum is whether or not art needs to have a deeper meaning or message behind it, or can merely be an interesting painting of a flower, for example. I have read that the difference between fine art and decorative art is purely one of art object versus artistic, but functional object. The association with functionality is perhaps one of the reasons that textile art has been overlooked when compared to, for example, painting, in the ‘art world’. Although, with the advent of artists such as Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois perhaps the importance of textile art is now being recognised.

The book goes on to feature important textiles in stately homes, ecclesiastical settings, and museum collections. These include some of the finest examples of quilts made in Scotland.

I particularly liked Veronica Togneri’s patchwork textile art pieces, which are influenced by the Glasgow School of Art and Bauhaus movements. The artist buys cotton and linen from charity shops rather than dying her own fabric, and makes quilts based on geometric patterns and variations, that concentrate on colour and ‘movement’ in the designs. She works with the simple techniques of paper piecing and hand sewing, without quilting or pre-drawn plans. The design stage occurs with arranging and rearranging the fabrics, experimenting with colour and form. Togneri studied at the Glasgow School of Art for four years.

Tognieri Quilt

Veronica Togneri, Abstract wallhanging inspired by Edinburgh’s International Festival, 1980s, 257 x 361 cm, Owned by City of Edinburgh Council Museums and Galleries (silk, velvet, handwoven fabrics, hand sewn).

I feel an empathy with this artist’s use of recycled textiles, concentration on colour and form, and use of simple shapes to form highly complicated patterns. The constraints that she sets herself seem to facilitate her work.

This book is a welcome addition to my library. Janet Rae has carried out meticulous research, which I will refer to again and again. The main message that I will draw from the book, for my own work, is the importance of gaining a formal art education, which I hope will help guide me in making better art work in the future.

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