Blanket Coverage, the exhibition currently showing at Tŷ Pawb Gallery in Wrexham, is an exploration of sumptuous and subtle modern woven blanket textiles. If you have never really considered blankets as an art form, or have never had the chance to experience them at first hand, this is a real opportunity to get up close to some examples of the most creative and skilled examples of modern British textile art. Some of the artists included in the exhibition are very well known, with established businesses and works hanging in galleries, whilst others are just starting out. Both individual artists and commercial mills are represented, and there is a good mixture of textures, colours and ideas on show. It is a small exhibition, but full of rich content.
The curators of Tŷ Pawb have inventively and successfully combined the Blanket Coverage touring exhibition from Llantarmon Grange in south Wales with their own exhibition, The Tailor’s Tale, sharing the same gallery space. The two small exhibitions, both specializing in textiles, work beautifully together, each complementing the other and offering contrast in terms of themes, styles, textures and colours. I am talking about each on separate posts, because there is so much to say about each of them separately. I have started with Blanket Coverage (just because I finished it first) and the post about The Tailor’s Tale will follow shortly.
Blanket Coverage has been curated by designer, weaver and curator Laura Thomas, and features works by a diverse collection of contributors who, at Tŷ Pawb, included (in alphabetical order) Llio James, Beatrice Larkin, Angie Parker, Sioni Rhys Handweavers, Margo Selby, Maria Sigma, Wallace Sewell, Meghan Spielman and Melin Tregwynt, as well as curator Laura Thomas. All are available to purchase. Both exhibitions opened on July 2nd and are running until September 24th 2022, between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Saturday. Entry to the exhibition is free of charge. There is plenty of parking above the gallery and public space, and it is a super, friendly place, so feel free to ask questions. Check the Tŷ Pawb website for any updates. I have talked about the exhibition space and Tŷ Pawb itself in my previous post about the fabulous Tales of Terracottapolis.
Blanket Coverage is all about woven large scale blankets (weighty and warm) and throws (lighter weight and fluid). The format of the blanket, which is big and rectangular, offers an opportunity to develop ideas on a large scale. The blanket provides a flat, symmetrical area that can be filled with compelling patterns, colour combinations, and textures in combinations that display skill, creativity and often luminous imagination. Perhaps more than any other medium, the woven work is produced within the constraint of the technology that defines it. The loom, whether manual or mechanized, is both a restricting factor, confining the weaver to the format of the physical structure of the mechanism, and an appeal to the imagination of the artist to create magic within that confinement. Just as a concert pianist is confined to wherever the grand piano happens to be, a weaver must build a relationship with the loom within its environment. Before the sketched design can be translated into a woven textile, the loom must be threaded with the warp, the structural component of the weave into which the rest of the yarns, the weft, are woven.
Within those restrictions are a multitude of options that enable the weaver to express ideas and develop new forms of connection with the person who picks up the resulting textile, handles it and is lucky enough to luxuriate in it. Some are lightweight throws that are full of movement; others are heavier, traditional blankets with more physical mass. Mixing lighter and thicker yarns creates alternative fabric weights and textures, extending the repertoire.
Dyes too, varying in subtlety and complexity, give infinite possibilities for design. Whilst some of them reference the environment in which they are made, with muted colours of the landscape, others are brightly independent of any particular context and celebrate the yarns, colours and textures with which they are created. Others are splendidly monochrome or used a limited, pastel palette, focusing attention on the shapes and patterns that create an energy through the sense of rhythm, repetition and reinforcement. The ikat dye technique, of which I was previously unaware, works by blanking off parts of the yarn and dying others, so that the dye leaches and creates the effect of colours bleeding into one another, and looks as though the surface has a liquid quality. Just as a sculptor tests the limit of his or her chosen material, weavers are experts on how to make the most of their material resources.
As well as being visually stunning, each piece has a phenomenal tactile appeal that makes it difficult not to reach out and touch. A lady with two children who was visiting when I was there was hissing “no, don’t touch!” every few minutes, and I felt total empathy with the children, because it is almost impossible not to reach out to sample the feel of the weaves. The tactile temptation of textiles like this is different from nearly all other forms of art. Just as luxurious fabrics like the soft warmth of a cashmere jumper and the cool, liquid smoothness of a silk scarf are just as attractive to the touch as they are to the eye, the finely woven blankets in the exhibition have their own special properties and personalities in which their very physical texture is important both to their functional role and their aesthetic appeal.
The exhibition presents an excellent mix of hand-woven and mill-produced textiles. Hand-woven pieces consume time, and are more expensive. Those produced in a mill are less expensive, and means that copies can be made, but most of them were first woven by hand and were then produced by the mill, building authenticity and originality into the process. Mills, with their own economic challenges, have become increasingly flexible and adaptive, and work with individual designers and design companies to provide short runs, enabling the mills to develop new opportunities, and the designers to lower prices and reach a wider customer base. The mills too have their own designers, some of them computerized, which add a new dimension to their works. The relationship between artist and mill is probably the key not merely to the survival of weaving as an art, but of its development.
The exhibitors in Blanket Coverage at Ty Pawb introduced below in alphabetical order. One of the great things about the exhibition is that it combines some well known names like Wallace Sewell with relative newcomers like Beatrice Larkin.
Beatrice Larkin works first in pencil and ink to create her monochrome designs, and works with commercial mills to produce textile runs that capture the hand-drawn quality of her works. Her patterns repeat over the surface of the blanket, and the way in which the designs are put together often creates a sense of motion. Her blanket weaves are both eye-catching and attractive. I particularly like the way in which most of those in the exhibition have a rhythmic feel to them, which gives even repeat patterns a sense of being natural and spontaneous. A good example is the double-sided “Cut Throw,” a monochrome twill weave blanket that looks as though a pattern of slashes has been reproduced across the surface. It was inspired by West African mud cloth block designs. Although she lives in Kent, Beatrice Larkin’s weaves are all produced in the north of England, and this example was woven on a jacquard mill in Yorkshire. The jacquard mill, patented in 1804 was an ingenious invention that used punched cards to speed up production and produce increasingly complex patterns, a bit like an early computer, and other weavers in the exhibition also have their designs made up on short runs on this type of loom.
Margo Selby specializes in hand woven bright colours and geometric designs. Often inspired by graphic design and Japanese art, she examines the interplay between colours, exploring the relationship between the boundaries where colours collide. Like some of the other designers in the exhibition she makes hand-woven objects and then works with a mill to produce her designs on a jacquard loom. Her company makes both large- and small-scale pieces, the latter being particularly well suited to blanket design. The pieces within the exhibition are not typical of her usual riotous colour palette, and instead focus on the interplay of blacks, whites and greys, creating an interplay between the mainly monochrome shades and textures. Although her company specializes in handweaving they also collaborate with commercial mills. As well as blankets and framed pieces, the studio produces rugs, fabrics for upholstery, soft furnishings, apparel, cushions, towels and scarves.
Wallace Sewell (established by established by Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell) is a textile design company that produces items both to hang and to use, including scarves, cushions and throws, as well as art prints of some of their designs. Their weaves are first created on a hand loom before going into production, and all are made using natural yarns. They work closely with Mitchell Interflex, a mill that straddles the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. The Mitchell family has been producing woven textiles since 1907, when they first acquired the mill. Wallace Sewell are noted for the bright colour abstract combinations of their designs, which are fresh and full of light. Although not on display in the exhibition, if you have hopped on a Victoria Line tube train in London and admired the lovely seating upholstery capturing famous London landmarks, this was one of their commissions, and a measure of both the company’s success and its creativity.
Maria Sigma is a Greek weaver trained in Britain and working in London and Athens. She uses naturally coloured yarns, including alpaca, to produce hand-woven textiles with subtle and complex patterns and textures, and some surprising details like the blue edging of the ones in the exhibition, which contrast with the muted, natural colours of the yarns. Her use of yarns that are only minimally processes gives each blanket a unique finish, where the texture is as much a part of the fabric, and of Maria Sigma’s ethical approach, as the design itself.
Llio James, a Welsh weaver who grew up in a village that supported two mills, specializes in using a palette of ecru, black, charcoal and reds to produce modern designs building on the tradition of Welsh weaving that is so familiar to her. Those at the exhibition are hand-woven, but she also works with a mill for short production runs. Most of her patterns don’t repeat, but use the rectangular blanket format as a canvas to develop abstract designs, which are best seen in full format rather than folded. She starts the design process on paper before moving on to a loom to experiment with colours, patterns and yarns, before finalizing the designs, which are produced in a traditional Welsh mill, the Melin Teifi. The photo of her two contributions to the exhibition are at the top of this section.
Melin Tregwynt in Pembrokeshire is one of the best known Welsh weaving mills, which has been in the hands of the same family for over 100 years, and there has been a mill on the site since the 17th century. The company has a huge archive of Welsh designs, and colours chosen often reflect the local landscape with its valley and moorland palettes. As well as in-house and guest designers, they also make use of a computer programme called ScotWeave to develop new and complex patterns. Their versatile product range includes Welsh woollen blankets and throws, woollen cushions, upholstery, items of clothing, accessories and bags. Although most Welsh wool is too coarse for most weaves, the Cambrian Wool Initiative has been established to introduce softer fleeces back into Wales, and as partners in this project, Melin Tregwynt now have a source of Cambrian soft wools to use in their weaves. Have a look at their website to see a series of videos on the production process: https://melintregwynt.co.uk/watch-weaving.
The popular Sioni Rhys Handweavers, established by designer Dennis Mulcahy and weaver Stuart Neale, specializes in the production of traditional Welsh cartheni, patterned bed covers that are used as throws and blankets, frequently using the distinctive twill weave shown right. Although they often reference the surrounding landscape of Brecon in their colour choices, other examples are bright and full of energy. Their aim is to combine traditional techniques with modern ideas, and the four examples at Blanket Coverage show the versatility of their carthen range.
Although Angie Parker specializes in woven rugs, she began making blankets during lockdown, inspired by the colours of some the painted buildings that she was walking past in her Bristol neighbourhood. She specializes in complex combinations of bright, light colours, and this translates well into her blanket weaves, combining colours in very appealing geometrical arrangements that draw on her designs for rug weaves and costume design. There was only one blanket in the exhibition, but it was well chosen for its visual impact and firm but fine texture. It was made up by the Bristol Weaving Mill. There is a photograph of it at the end of the previous section.
Meghan Spielman trained in London and now lives in New York. “Interchange” is a wall hanging rather than a blanket or throw, but uses the same format as the blanket, enabling the design to be worked over a large area. Spielman works in a variety of materials, often in combination, which give each of her pieces a distinctive quality. The piece in the exhibition is a double cloth that uses the ikat dye technique to give parts of it something of the appearance of a watercolour, with colours bleeding into one another, whilst other blocks are far more linear, with clean edges, providing an attractive contrast to the more fluid areas of the surface. The limited palette of colours, which work so well together, put the composition at centre stage. It is composed of two sections, stitched down the centre.
Laura Thomas, the curator of the exhibition, is a well known and popular weaver, and has two of her own blankets on display, one a uniform colour in two shades of green with a pattern built into the weave itself, creating oval spaces evenly distributed across the surface. A second piece, monochrome with a repeat pattern defined by a raised texture, was particularly successful as a design concept on Instragram, and was sent to Melin Tregwynt for production for a short run. At the mill it was made of Cambrian Welsh wool, and creates a real sense of motion, like water, as you follow the design across the surface. As well as designing individual pieces like these, she also works with graphic designers on commercial works, and has contributed to public art projects, which sometimes blend with architecture to create unusual spaces. Like others in the exhibition, she has a real feel for bright, striking colours and experimental textures.
A fading tradition?
In its introduction to Blanket Coverage, the Llantarmon Grange website comments “With traditional skills such as weaving in danger of being lost, the makers in the exhibition are ensuring that traditional crafts continue to not only survive but thrive, both celebrating and innovating the rich tradition of woollen blanket production.”
Weaving is rarely taught in schools, meaning that most children are simply not exposed to it. Those who go on to study art at college may have the opportunity to experience weaving and other textile arts, but they represent a select few, most of whom will not have been exposed to weaving before.
Developing a career or a business based on weaving also presents a challenge. A fully hand-woven item is extremely time-consuming to make, and this translates into a much higher cost than an item produced on a commercial scale. Although some of the weavers represented in the exhibition only weave by hand, others have chosen to build relationships with commercial mills that can produce their designs on a more commercially viable basis, which helps to lower costs and potentially find additional potential purchasers. Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks is to find ways in which to market these products, and to locate suitable places to display them, where they will find these potential purchasers.
Some help comes from collaborative projects that support craft and design combine resources to help support practitioners and promote their interests. A good example is Design Nation, which arranged the interview with exhibition curator Laura Thomas, shown below. At the same time, galleries like Tŷ Pawb and Llantarmon Grange are important for showing us not only what skills remain but what traditions we should continue to support.
Blanket Coverage and The Tailor’s Tale, and similar exhibitions are at the heart of raising the profile of textile arts, and help to involve the visitor in challenging their own ideas about the importance of traditional skills and products in the modern world. By combining the two exhibitions in a single space, one about quilting, patchwork and costume, the other about blanket weaving, the curators of Tŷ Pawb have given local people access to a world of colour and texture that, one hopes, will continue to grow and to find new purchasers who will find great pleasure in experiencing objects of real beauty on a daily basis.
The blanket makers in this exhibition are ensuring that traditional crafts continue to not only survive but thrive, both celebrating and innovating the rich tradition of woollen blanket production. The skills, traditions and symbolism wrapped up in blankets make them a prized procession in every home, providers of comfort and warmth, both physical and psychological, which are passed from generation to generation.
By combining its own exhibition, The Taylor’s Tale, with Llantarmon Grange’s Blanket Coverage, Tŷ Pawb has elegantly combined two textile genres to bring artists working in this medium into the public eye. I loved it.
Both exhibitions opened on July 2nd and are running until September 24th 2022, between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Saturday. Entry is free.
There is an informative interview with curator Laura Thomas, who is talking to Design Nation‘s Development Manager Liz Cooper about the Blanket Coverage exhibition (55 minutes).
Sources and further reading:
In alphabetical order
- Beatrice Larkin
- Margo Selby
- Wallace Sewell
- Eleanor Pritchard
- Maria Sigma
- Llio James
- Angie Parker Textiles
- Sioni Rhys
- Meghan Spielman
- Melin Tregwynt
- Laura Thomas
Arts Council of Wales
Blanket Coverage goes on Tour
Ikat: Definition, History & Design
Touring: Blanket Coverage
Blanket Coverage catalogue on Issuu
Interview by Design-Nation with curator Laura Thomas
Series of videos on the their weaving production process
The Tailor’s Tale / Blanket Coverage at Tŷ Pawb 02/07/22 – 24/09/22