Friday, April 20, 2007

Day 8

Day 8 Tue April 17
It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Out the window of her Hoxa studio and gallery the water flashes a brilliant blue in this day of alternating sun and rain squalls. After graduating from art school in Edinburgh in 1980, Leila came back home and has been designing and weaving ever since. 11 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work. Leila weaves private commissions, working from her own full size b&w drawings. She interprets and chooses all the colors as she weaves. This really gives the tapestries an energy and vitality often lacking in other pictorial textiles. Words and pile texture are also trademarks in her designs. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.” after the tourist season ends in September that is.

Orkney abounds in artists. An artist collective, The Workshop, in St Margaret’s Hope carries a variety of their work. Knitwear, prints, jewelry, weaving, painting, pottery. When I asked one of the Orcadian artists we visited today why the islands are such magnets for creativity, she suggested that it was the influx of artists who came up here from England that got the movement started in the 60’s.

Crossing over to Burray on one of the Churchill Barriers, we stopped at the Orkney Fossil and Vintage Centre.
In addition to the expected fossils and rocks, this small museum has excellent displays telling about the role and history of Orkney during WWII. The British fleet was stationed here and the barriers were build using labor of POWs to protect the fleet from the Germans U boats. Before the large concrete barriers, salvage ships were lined up end to end and sunk to create the barriers. One German U-boat managed to penetrate these original barriers and sunk a British ship with the cost of over 800 lives.

I love the display of rock found within Scotland: Corundum, piperock, brucite marble, basalt, serpentine, quartzite, porphyry, mica schist, barite with galena, andesitic lava, algal limestone, rugose coral, haemotite with geotite name a few.

The Italian Chapel stands on the Island of Lamb Holm just over the 4th barrier. Italian prisoners of war who built the barriers and worked in agriculture, were given a Nissen hut to turn into a chapel. Domenico Chichetti designed the chapel and the prisoners worked to decorate and furnish it over a period of 3 years with materials they could scrounge. When the prisoners were released at the end of the war, Chichetti stayed onto finish the work on the chapel. The detailed painting and metal work is a testament to what can be created from nearly nothing when you have dedication and vision.

Sheila Fleet of Sheila Fleet Jewelry, is the sister of Leila Thompson, the tapestry weaver we visited this morning. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 14 years Sheila’s business has grown to 42 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 147 collections so far.

She took us on a tour of the workshop while explaining the lost wax method used to produce her jewelry. I found 2 of the steps extremely interesting. The skill of the master pattern maker who takes each design and hand cuts the metal master has to be exacting. The enamelists also have a painstakingly detailed job, applying the enamel mixture (ground up glass and distilled water) to the jewelry, then curing each piece, one at a time in a tiny kiln on their worktable.

Sheila enthusiasticly answered all our questions and shared her philosophy. “ A measure of success is how you feel about what you are doing. I’m still enjohing myself. You have to look at keeping the balance. Find something you really like doing and you’ll never work again.”

When we reached Kirkwall, the largest town in Orkney, we made one last stop at Orkney Hand-Crafted Furniture. Fraser Anderson is just 22 years old, but already a master at making Orkney chairs. The chairs combine wood (originally driftwood) for the frame and oat straw coiled and stitched with sisal for the chair backs. Locals made these chairs for hundreds of years with the materials they had at hand. It takes up to 3 weeks to complete each chair. Fraser is honoring the tradition while designing new shapes and styles of chairs, rockers and stools.

What do you get when you combine 15 accordians, 5 fiddles, a piano and a snare drum? The Orkney Fiddle and Accordian club. They were practicing at the Ayre Hotel. Although the average age of the members appeared to be 65 plus, there was no lack of enthusiasm in the playing of the tunes. I had neither fiddle in hand to play along or partner to dance with, so I reluctantly went back to the hotel to write this blog.

Day 7

Day 7 Mon April 16
Whiskey before breakfast? Not quite. But our day did start with a tour of the Benromach Distillery in Forres. This is the smallest distillery on the Malt Whiskey trail. Benromach produces single malt whiskeys. That means it is produced from a single grain, barley in the case of Benromach, and comes from one distillery. Blended whiskey is a blend of single malts from many different distilleries and a number of different grains.

The tour lead us through the entire process from the fermentation of the grain, to the storehouse where the magic happens in the aging process. Whiskey is stored in 3 different sizes of containers during the aging process, barrels, hogsheads and butts. They age the whisky in both American oak barrels that previously held bourbon and also in French sherry barrels. Benromach single malt has a very slight peaty taste and it quite light in colour. Nothing like a dram of whisky to clear the sinuses at 11 a.m. in the morning!

This was our longest travel day so far of the trip and the weather again cooperated giving us splendid views and the intermittent rain showers brought with them rainbow after rainbow. We started in Insch in the shadow of Bennachie, the tallest hill in Aberdeenshire, drove through the Speyside region to Inverness. From there the A9 winds north along the North Sea. Numerous oil rigs are visible off shore. A short stop at the Duke of Sutherland’s Dunrobin Castle allowed us to walk around the beautiful gardens that butt up to the sea. The early spring blooms gave evidence to a grand floral show once full summer hits.

Our final destination on the mainland was the Pentland Ferry at Gills Bay.
Just a short hop from John O Groats, this is the shortest ferry crossing to Orkney at this time of year. Prepared with motion sickness drugs, patches, shock watches, and pressure point bracelets, the travelers boarded the ferry for the 1 hour 15 minute crossing which proved not so rough. Half the group found the best way to sail to St. Margaret’s Hope is with the wind in your face on the open deck bundled in all the clothes I suggested they bring but to this day hadn’t needed!

St. Margaret’s Hope is on the island of South Ronaldsay. A quiet, sleepy little town, it is a great place to spend the first night on Orkney. Many visitors to Scotland don’t travel to Orkney, and even many mainlanders have never been here. I discovered the barren, enchanting pull of these islands on my first trip to Scotland. Orkney and the Shetland Islands lie between mainland Scotland and Norway. The islands once belonged to Denmark, and the Nordic influence in the place names (St. Ola, Stenness, Brodgar) is especially strong. Orcadians pride themselves in their heritage and not being mainlanders. Of 65 islands in Orkney, 17 are inhabited with a total of 20,000 residents. However, more and more folks are discovering this magical place. This summer 61 cruise ships will dock in Kirkwall. One more reason I like to to tour off-peak.

Day 6

Day 6 Sunday April 15
We traveled just 5 miles round trip today for a marathon of fun. The travelers took a workshop from Ewa Kuniczak “koo-knee-chuck”. Ewa has been felting for 30 years. She shared her innovations and her approach to nuno-felting in this one-day class on “Fine and Fancy Felting.” She started with a digital lecture on her inspirational sources and showed how she expresses herself through the felt medium. Almost anything can be an influence for Ewa. She has done a whole body of work based on 20th century ceramists, is inspired by stained glass, architecture and personal observations.

Some of the travelers had never felted before. Barb, a student with previous felting experience said “Ewa taught me how to better control my felting by giving me the realization that you can spread fibers web-thin. You can start the process, building up layers and using less water than I thought you needed. Ewa was a bundle of energy with creativity just exuding from her in her teaching and demonstrating.” Students made a several samples, the first a creative composition based on imagination. The 2nd sample started on the basis of structure, color, novelty materials. At the end of the day the students and Ewa appeared to have more energy than they started the day with. Perhaps some vitamin F should be part of everyone’s daily diet!

We had a great setting for the day with bright sunshine, record setting temps, and the rural setting of the studio at Touched By Scotland in Oyne. Not only does Robin Baird have studio space for classes, but a wonderful gallery full of metal, jewelry, paper, fiber, painting, glass, ceramics,wood, and straw artwork all made from UK artists.
Donald Trump isn’t the only American mover and shaker in Aberdeenshire these days.. Robin and her family moved to Scotland a decade ago. Her insight and business drive has helped the regional council see the untapped potential for more domestic and international tourism in this region of rolling farmland. This spring she is breaking ground for a bigger gallery space that will include a restaurant and community use building. You can see Robin serving us delicious Carrot Coriander soup for lunch in the picture above.

Sunday night G&T treated us to a house concert of folks songs of Scotland. Trish Norman and Gaye Anthony travel around the UK and Europe performing at festivals. Their voices blend in sweet harmonies while trading off the lead. Trish’s high, clear, lilting soprano is grounded by Gaye’s rich, round alto voice. They accompany themselves with guitar. They sing songs about the sea, fishing, and even taught us the chorus to their famous haggis song! Their stories and banter interspersed between songs kept us all smiling and laughing and singing along. They closed by having us all join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Gaye and Trish have made 3 recordings. You can hear their joyous sounds at trish

A day creating and learning, summer weather in early spring, and music…what more could a person ask for on Sunday, April 15 spent in Oyne, Scotland? Okay, a massage and chocolates on your pillow would be one step up!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Day 5

Sat April 14
Besides having the oldest university in Scotland, famous golf courses, and few relics of St. Andrew, the town named after Scotland’s patron saint is home to Di Gilpin Knitwear. Di presented a slide lecture for us of her journey as an artist knitter. She started knitting when she was 6. To make money while in university, she would knit things for people. After a stint as an English and history teacher, she moved to the Isle of Skye. For 5 years she knit, painted and took photographs, inspired by the beauty of the water and mountains out her window. She opened up Struan Knitwear and people started coming. Her goal has always been to get people to knit and over the last 25 years, she has been successful in bringing it back into vogue in Scotland.

Her early work focused on Fair Isle patterns and intarsia color work. Now in addition to those, she works with lace weaves, deconstruction and a technique she developed called “knit-weave.” Di designs for companies, writes books, travels for inspiration and travels to teach. In 2000 she moved her studio and shop to St. Andrews. A large knit club gathers there regularly. But what she still loves to do most is knit. She knits and designs as she goes, taking technical notes. “I let pattern come through me and develop. I never have a pre-conceived idea. “ Then once the piece is complete, she creates the pattern and the directions. “I think my work is innovative because I come at it from both the technical side and the creative side at the same time. Knitters like to think. I put knitters high on the intelligence stakes.”

North of St. Andrews lies Dundee. It was once known at “Jutopia” Over 50,000 workers worked in the jute mills. Verdant Works Jute Mill is now a museum depicting the days when jute was king in the city on the River Tay.

Jute fiber was brought by ship from India. Large bales were brought to the factories where it was processed, spun into yarn and woven into cloth. Boys only worked in the mills until they were 18, when they were made redundant. Women comprised the majority of the workers in the mills and had a lot of power.

Lilly Thompson, was a weaver who worked for 19 years at the J.F. Robertson mill, The Bower. She demonstrated for us how a number of the machines used in the production worked. When she found out I was a weaver, she offered up a sample of the jute cloth woven on the demo power loom at the museum. I was delighted as I’ve had a special interest in the weavers of this town having sung Sheena Wellington’s “The Weavers o Dundee” and Mary Brooksbank’s “The Jute Mill.” You can listen to this song at
and clicking on the revolving musical symbol on the home page. Now there are no jute mills left in Dundee. Some of them have been torn down, others turned into housing and others refitted for other industry. But no industry since has matched the success of the jute mills in the 19th and early 20th century.

Up to this point I haven’t written about food. But we are eating well every day. This night we enjoyed a special feast, “A Taste of Grampian” at the Barn and Bushel in Thainstone. They featured local foods such as angus beef, pheasant, lamb, fish, parsnips, potatoes and fudge. One of our trip members is doing whiskey research at each food venue. She appreciated the knowledgable scotch tutorial from our driver Richard as she conducted her experiments with several different brands this night!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Day 4

Day 4 Friday April 13
Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh: Douglas Grierson, head weaver, has been working at Dovecot for 46 years. He told us about the history of the studios. Founded in 1912, except for a break during WWII, the studios have been weaving tapestries for commission for 90 years. After the war, they began collaborating with well-known artists, a tradition that continues through today. A masterful weaver who is drawn to geometric forms, Douglas believes that “the (artistic) translation of tapestry only comes by the weaving of many, many tapestries.” It was a delight to view a number of Douglas’s personal pieces hung around the studio.

While we visited, David Coughlin was working on “Two Views.” This 4’ x 8’ tapestry is translated from the painting of Victoria Crowe. David works from viewing the original painting which stands nearby, in addition to the cartoon behind the warp. He showed us how he sews up the slits between the woven motifs at the same time he is weaving. David was an apprentice at Dovecot for 5 years and has been weaving tapestry there now for 22 years.
At the end of 2007, Dovecot Studios is moving near the center of old town in Edinburgh. This will give them more gallery space, allow them to train new apprentices and have wider exposure to the public.

Locharron of Scotland: One of the few weaving mills left in the Borders, this Selkirk based company weaves tartans and fashion fabrics for designers and companies around the world. A guided tour starts with the dying process of the wool. The process continues with cone winding, winding the warp and then tying onto the looms. If the current order has the same number of warps per inch as the previous job, a machine can tie on the entire warp in one hour. If an order has an unusal set, a worker has to hand thread the heddles, about an 8 hour job, just like us labor intensive hand loom weavers have to do inour studios. . The reel that had just come off the warping machine had 9 different warps on it, one tied to the other.

The Swiss power looms the company weaves on are quite new. But still much hands on work and checking is required to retain the high standard of quality the company demands of their cloth. The women in quality control handle and inspect every yard of fabric after it comes off the looms. If an error is found, they may have to hand needle in yarn to fix the problem for up to a 40 yard length. The finishing of the cloth is jobbed out to another company. Locharron has their own inhouse design team. The head designers spend half their time in New York and Japan. When I asked the guide how Lochcarron has survived when most other mills have closed, he answered simply “quality. When companies buy from us, they know what they are getting.”

Just down the road from Lochcarron is Andrew Elliot Ltd. When you walk through the door of this original mill building, you sense a special spirit here. And no doubt that comes from the owner, Andrew Elliot and his love of the trade. Although Andrew purchased the business in 1975, the mill started in 1838 as George Roberts Mill. At the peak, the vast mill complex employed 300 workers. Now the operation is scaled down to one main building for the winding, warping and weaving. Andrew, a daughter, and his son Robin, run the business. Although in his eightie’s, Andrew’s hands are still the heart of the business. He is a master designer. He has been designing for 60 years and continues to be excited about the design process. He is currently working on the Organic Tweeds project for a large UK company that specializes in “organic wool.”

Walking up the creaking stairs to the 2nd story warehouse, a bulletin board proadly displays a letter from the filmmaker and photos of the costumes made from Andrew Elliot cloth for the movie “Greyfriar’s Bobby.” The sun filters onto the shelves of bolts of finely crafted tweeds, tartans, twills, and novelty weaves. Human life is finite and change is a constant, but one hopes that the remaining vestage of this family business can continue on, bringing old world quality that carries the pride in the work, well into the 21st century.

We couldn’t leave the boders without stopping at Shirley Pinder Studio. Shirley went back to school as a mature student. She graduated from the Scottish College of Textiles, now Herriot Watt University in Galasheils, 11 years ago, and immediately opened her own business. The exploration of fibers, weaving and finishing techniques she began in college continues today in her delicious line of specialty scarves. Weavers now recognize this kind as “fabric that goes bump.” But Shirley was making fabrics that crinkle and pleat and bubble before it became fashionable.

Each year she spends a month designing a new line of work. Much of the weaving is subcontracted and then the fabric comes back to her studio for finishing. Just last year, the Queen was gifted one of Shirley’s scarves when visiting the Borders. Most of us walked out with at least one scarf fit for a queen. I believe the coach driver was convinced by the end of this day these education tours today were just a front so we could shop until we dropped!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Day 3

Day 3 Thursday April 12
We headed north to Stirling Castle. The site of many famous battles, it rises out of the lowlands as the entrance gate into the highlands. The statue of Robert the Bruce you see here, stands outside the castle walls. I had not realized that many different buildings and fortifications have stood on this site since the 1200’s. The web is full of endless information about Stirling Castle.

I will tell you about the tapestry project. . We have the current renovation of King James V palace to thank for the Unicorn tapestry project. Historic Scotland is working with the West Dean Tapestry studio to recreate the 7 tapestries in the Hunt of the Unicorn series.The originals are in the Met’s Cloisters Museum in New York. Tracy Chevalier also wrote an excellent historical fiction book called “The Lady & the Unicorn.”

Since records show King James had many tapestries in his palace very likey including of version of the Unicorn tapestries, the Hunt series was chosen to be made anew. Louise Martin, the head weaver of the project, gave us an I- depth look into the scope of this amazing project. The 2 tapestries already completed are hanging on display at the Chapel Royal. The image you see is the Unicorn in Captivity. A temporary studio was built on the north end of the castle for this project. 3 weavers are currently working to complete the 3rd tapestry by mid summer. A 4th tapestry is being woven at the West Dean Tapestry studio in England. The entire project will be completed in 2012 when the whole set of tapestries will hang in the newly renovated palace at Stirling Castle.

The head weavers go to New York to the Cloisters. They have access to within one millimeter of the original tapestries but cannot touch them. They figure out yarn colors, where silk was used instead of wool and make a detailed plan for each figure and motif in each tapestry. Working from full size color copy, they makean acetate tracing of the tapestry. Then from this they make a paper cartoon. Samples are woven to work out specific techniques to achieve desired effects.
The wool yarn is all being acid dyed at the West Dean studio. Instead of silk, pearl cotton is being used for the shiny parts as it has longer color fastness. Historic Scotland requires that the materials being used in the tapestry hold up for 250 years. From there the loom is warped, the cartoon hung behind and the weaving begins. This process starts fall 2007 for the 5th tapestry. Weaving on it will commence in winter 2008. But reweaving the tapestries is not a matter of copying.

First, the new tapestries are being woven smaller than the originals to fit in the space in the palace. They are weaving with fewer EPI (ends per inch) in the warp) because it would take too long and cost too much money to weave them at the original finer warp set. (A patron in her eighties is financing the project.) Also, the head weavers have to train the weavers who come in to weave each tapestry. Although all experienced tapestry weavers, they need to undertand the specific techniques and develop nuances of skill. There will be about 25 weavers total who have worked on the series by the time it is completed. Each weaver has to leave their own individuality and style behind and try to get into the mind of the original weavers as they work.
Getting this inside look at the current project was really special. The scope, historical accurateness, detail, and dedication is amazing. The sun came out while in Stirling and followed us to Edinburgh where the coach driver and I turned the travelers loose on the Royal Mile which lies between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrude Palace.

As part of Edinburgh’s annual spring Ceilidh Culture Festival, we attended a concert. Cheyenne Brown played harp with Seylan Baxter on cello and vocals.
Their traditional and contemporary tunes and songs had varied and interesting arrangements. Cheyenne is an Alaskan who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama and Seylan is still a student there. Although this combination of instruments in this up and coming group might sound a bit unusual, the styles, harmonies and rhythms can are reminiscent in the playing of Bachue Café, Ferentosh, and Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas. I would recommend listening to recordings by any of those artists.