Thursday, April 17, 2014

Naked Craft

My proposal for the exhibition 'Naked Craft' has been accepted.  I will be one of 40 makers (20 from Scotland and 20 from Canada) taking part.  The exhibition is due to open in Canada in early 2015.
 This is what I will be making:
Journeys over land, sea and through time.
A centuries old technique lost to both Scottish and Canadian shores , re-emerged in the hands of Angus MacPhee, a crofter from South Uist in the Western Isles of Scotland.  Angus spent almost 50 years in Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital in Inverness. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he made a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.
Joyce Laing, the first art-therapist in Scotland, visited the psychiatric hospitals in search of ‘raw’ art, discovering Angus in the 1970’s.  She visited him over 20 years, saving some of his work for the Art Extraordinary Trust in Pittenweem Fife.  Angus became known as ‘the weaver of grass’. When Craig Dunain closed and care in the community was started, Angus went home 1996, he died a year later, taking with him the mystery of why and how and he made the grass garments. 
The grass ‘weavings’ made by Angus were now old and fragile, and Joyce wanted replicas to be made, before the originals were lost completely. In 2011 I visited  Joyce, and with the help of my husband Joe,  who made a sketch of the construction by  looking at a patch of more open weave, and the information from Joyce with her first had experience of seeing Angus work, I made notes and took measurements in my sketchbook.   
Angus had combined the techniques of traditional rope or simmans making he would have learnt as a crofter, with a construction technique which had long since died out with the Vikings – needle-binding, which pre-dates knitting.
The basic technique of nalbinding (also known as Looping - knotless netting - weaving without foundation and Vattarsaumur ) involves making a loop and feeding all of your yarn through it to make the next loop. This means you will have to work with short lengths of yarn, adding more as required. This description also fits the technique one once used by Angus MacPhee 'weaver' of grass to make garments. Angus used the materials he had available, mostly grasses and sometimes wool which he collected from the barbed fence of the hospital farm fields.  Because of the materials he used, most of his work is chunky and large.  The Vikings also used materials they had available for needle-binding – wool.  A very slow process which makes a dense fabric, they used it to make mostly gloves and socks.
My research took me to Iceland where I was invited by Freja Hlidkvist Omarsdottir, Curator of Collections at The National Museum Of Iceland to take a closer look at the only glove found in Iceland from the Viking times made using the needle-binding technique is kept. 
According to the sagas, Icelandic Viking, Leif Eriksson discovered  North America, but it wasn’t until the 1960, proof of Vikings in North America came to light at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada during excavations when Icelandic- style house foundations and Norse artefacts were found. Vikings  had indeed landed, and briefly settled, in North America 500 years before Columbus.
It is this connection to our shared past, emerging through Angus MacPhee and his  extraordinary imagination and creativity using only his hands and local materials that I would like to explore contemporary ‘weavings’ using Juncus effusus (soft rush) which grows in abundance on my own field on Dunnet Head,  and in Canada, to make a series of socks, each with a different feel to them – some dense like the Viking techniques and others more open ‘weave’ like Angus MacPhees work. 


  1. i keep following along this journey through grasses--does it mean you will be coming to canada?