Interview with a Master Weaver

BY ANASTASIA CHOO

Ask anyone what the word “tapestry” means and the chances are that they’ll talk about old and grandiose designs that are metres long and wide, which the aristocracy often used to keep out the draft.

Nowadays the need for tapestries to keep out draughts in a large hall has disappeared but the weaving of tapestries did not die in medieval times and is still alive today.  I recently went to see the Heallreaf 2 (pronounced hair-l-reff) exhibition which displayed contemporary tapestry by artists from across the world alongside weavers in the UK at the Brick Lane Gallery in London.

Modern day tapestry is quite different to the medieval pieces of yesteryear. Gone are the religious themes, knights, and unicorns which were widely featured in pieces such as The Apocalypse Tapestry or The Lady with The Unicorn from the 14th and 15th Centuries. They have been replaced by a wide range of modern subjects; some representational and others more abstract.  The woollen yarn is still very popular amongst weavers however silks, cottons, synthetics, alpaca, llama and other more exotic yarns are also used.

A piece that caught my eye was The Alder Reflection by Master Weaver David Cochrane which was joint winner in the People’s Prize sponsored by Weavers Bazaar. It is a beautiful piece about a metre square in size, depicting the abstracted view of the reflection of an alder tree in ripples of water.

I was intrigued with the skills used to produce the Alder Reflection as it looks like a photograph from afar and you only realise it is tapestry when you move closer to it.  I was interested why an artist chose to present his art in this way, preserving an ancient tradition of weaving with the patience to move slowly and repetitively.  I managed to catch up with the very talented Master Weaver David Cochrane to find out a little more about him and modern-day weaving.

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Here follows my short interview with David:

Tell us more about the Alder Reflection (pictured above).  What inspired you visually?  How long did the piece take?

The inspiration first came on a visit to the Crinan Canal, Scotland in the early days of digital photography. I appreciate the random patterns and inkiness of peaty water.  I was experimenting in capturing the play of light on the water surface and the patterns it created, which included the reflections of the alder trees growing along the banks of the canal.  This inspiration lay dormant for fifteen years and then presented itself again as an idea for a tapestry exhibited in the Heallreaf Exhibition of 2017.  I undertook weaving this tapestry in my own studio using and mixing nine Shetland yarn colours, five of which were natural shades. It took me the best part of a year, two to three evenings a week to weave.

When did you begin weaving?

At the age of 18 years old I applied for an apprenticeship at the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, Dovecot Studios and provided a portfolio of artwork at the interview. I undertook a five-year apprenticeship and have been weaving as a studio weaver with the company since 1985. I have also woven in the experimental department of the Gobelin Tapestry Studio, Paris in the late 80’s and at the Nurnberg Gobelin Manufaktur, Germany, in the 90’s.  The Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, Nunavut 2009 and 2011.  I am regarded as a Master Weaver.

How did you learn the skill?

I was trained in the former premises of the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, the Dovecot Studio in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, which was purpose-built in 1912.  I was trained by a Master Weaver, Fred Mann, who himself formed part of an unbroken lineage of weavers dating back to William Morris.

You trained at the original purpose-built studio?

Yes, Dovecot Studios was established by the 4th Marquess of Bute in 1912 as an offshoot of William Morris’ workshops at Merton Abbey in London.  The loss of Dovecot’s founding master weavers, John ‘Jack’ Glassbrook and Gordon Berry, in 1917 during World War I might have seen the end of the Tapestry Studio before it had fully begun.  However, the young apprentices Ronald Cruickshank, Richard Gordon and David Lindsay Anderson returned from the war to continue weaving at the Studio. A new group of apprentices was recruited after 1919 and the cycle of activity at the Studio continues to this day.

What are you inspired by visually?

My art was inspired by the natural world and I wanted to work with my hands in an artistic field.  After 30 years I am still weaving because I enjoy the rhythm and repetition of the process of tapestry weaving, the feel of the wooden bobbin and the yarns. I enjoy translating the work of other artists into tapestry wall hangings.

How do you feel when weaving?

I feel the weight of the history of weavers of the past, going back to William Morris and further, and know that I am continuing this tradition. When weaving I am in a meditative “flow” state, which is like a dance.

Explain what you do as a weaver in the studio?

As a studio weaver, I translate many artists’ work into tapestries.  First, I trace the original design which comes in many forms, such as paintings, photographs, prints etc. I create a contour line drawing cartoon.  This cartoon shows important landmarks within the design which is then enlarged.  I then set up the warp, the upright loom by stretching cotton warp string vertically between two rollers passing through a reed, which separates the warps.  Using an ink pen I ink on (mark out) the design on the warps vertical strings by putting a dot on the front of each warp, continuing around each warp in order not to lose the design when weaving.  I then proceed to weave the image, choosing colours by eye and mixing the different colours on bobbins.  I weave in the usual way by passing the weft (yarn) through between the warps and beating it down with the point of the bobbin.  The style of weaving uses discontinuous weft, allowing me to weave any shape without having to weave all the way across the loom and back, as would be the case in weaving fabric such as tweed.

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Dovecot Studios has been commissioned to undertake some prestigious pieces, could you give an example?

To a Celtic Spirit by Alan Davie for the University of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Medicine in the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary:

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If Not, Not by R B Kitaj housed at The British Library:

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The Large Tree Group by Victoria Crowe which now hangs in the National Museum of Scotland:

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Any advice to a young person interested in weaving?

Artistic ability, good hand eye co-ordination, patience, and willing to give weaving the time and sensitivity it requires.

What next?

I will be spending three weeks in October 2017 in the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne as part of an exchange.

In my own studio, my next speculative tapestry will be woven in collaboration with British artist, Bella.  This is a gouache/chalk design picturing a helmeted guinea fowl with an abstracted leafy background.

David thank you very much for your time, we look forward to seeing the finished tapestry with Bella and all the best with your exchange in Australia. 

David Cochrane’s Twitter account can be found at @avidtapestry 

 

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