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TEXTiles | Fabric Of Life – Blog

Posted 13/02/21 by Calvin Wilson

TEXTiles – Fabric of Life

Joanne  B Kaar

It’s now February, and a few months since I received the wonderful news that my project ‘TEXTiles – Fabric of Life’ had been selected by Lyth Arts Centre for one of their CAIR (Caithness Artists in Residence) projects.   

When writing, and re-writing many times before submitting my proposal, we were in level one restriction band, with hope that things may gradually ease.  Two things happened over the following few weeks that made me re-think my original proposal.  Firstly everyone was placed in the highest level of restriction, band 4, with additional measures. This meant any notion I had of site visits for research or meeting groups of people was out of the question.  The second, was a podcast by Castletown Heritage Society about a tablecloth.

Obviously I’m as frustrated as everyone else with the new restrictions, but completely understanding the need for them, I started to look again at my ideas, stripping it back to its essence. Oddly, the lockdown has helped me focus, getting creative in different ways  than originally planned, making my ideas stronger.

“…an intergenerational textile based community project that while connecting with the past is still relevant today. With older people at its center,  I would like to explore a variety of techniques including the use of reminiscence as starting points for new contemporary collaborative and individual textiles that will help older people tell their story and re-connect with the wider community again…..”

My projects overlap and are difficult to untangle from each other, so I’ll take you back a few years to help explain my most recent idea that connects a tablecloth with a pandemic.  

Crafts are tactile, connecting people with place.  Research, material and techniques I use are all important ingredients in the ‘story’ of what I make.  Helping to keep stories and memories alive as well as skills by reinterpreting them.   

In 2018, I was invited, along with Caroline Dear from the Isle of Skye, by Tim Johnson and Monica Guilera, to rural Catalonia as part of an international fibre festival in Mas De Barbarans. to work with international basket makers and artists on a collaborative project. The challenge thrown down was to make a series of natural fibre artworks inspired by rock art approximately 8000 years old,  which depicted 69 figures, discovered in the mountains above the village. The artwork was to be fixed to the outside of buildings, all installed, ready for an international fibre festival.  

It was a fantastic event, working with very talented makers, but what caught my eye were the women seen early in the morning with their baskets heading to the bakery, wearing brightly coloured floral dresses, later seen sharing gossip in the local shops and in the narrow streets.  These garments were house dresses. 

I purchased 5 house dresses, all made from polyester, at a market on my last day in Catalonia. These garments brought back memories of a time when women were often seen wearing aprons, in and around the home. 

This traditional woman’s work wear garment has a fascinating history but the garment is no longer in general use.   Often women purchased fabric lengths to make their own aprons, the floral prints were traditionally small, making them flattering for all  and easy to sew (larger prints would have to be matched up at the seems).

Through an open call, members of the public emailed me photos and shared fond memories of mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers, all wearing aprons.  I made an artist book to bring them all together.    I am now custodian of 21 aprons, all once worn by one remarkable local woman, Sheila Moir.  She gave me the collection of tabards, aprons, pinnies, and wrap aprons she once wore but were now washed, ironed and neatly folded in a storage box in her spare room.  These aprons  are ordinary but at the same time quite extraordinary.  I now have them stored away, safely.  While in Newfoundland I was fascinated with the pulley system clothes lines. Not the typical souvenir,  I purchased a pinnie from a second hand store in St.Johns, so of course I had to have pegs and a pulley system washing line too.

Sheila Moir aprons

Aprons continued to inspire during lock down 2020. Using an old red bed sheet, I hand stitched in white cotton, a selection of flowers in my pressed herbarium.  Incorporating the tapes that hold the flowers in place on the herbarium sheet and their names into my design, the choice of  red was no accident, as it  also tells a botanical story as ‘Type’ specimen are easily identified by a red band on folders in herbarium collections.    I found hand stitching slow and repetitive, but also very relaxing.

Hand stitched herbarium

I could, at this point take you down a different line of enquiry all about plants and lichens on Dunnet Head, but I’ll stick with aprons or else I’ll never get to the end of my story.

I did say my projects overlap and are difficult to untangle, but stick with it, as I bring  these different strands together.

It didn’t escape my notice that these aprons are the original PPE worn by women while doing chores in and around the home. 

Due this year, the census is usually held every ten years, however because of the Coronavirus, the census in Scotland has been postponed until 2022. 

Inspired by a local table cloth that became a poignant memento of service men in World War II, I plan to  create  two unique tributes as markers of this time.

Hand stitched by Miss Custer in the 1940’s, the ‘Custer Tablecloth’  features the signatures of 125 RAF personnel who were based at Castletown Airfield during the Second World War. Donated by the Custer family, it is now part of the Castletown Heritage Society collection at Castlehill.

The ‘Custer Tablecloth’ - photo by Neil Buchan

I will create new ‘TEXTiles’ by hand stitching the names of carers from across the county onto a care-workers uniform. A second garment will feature the names of anyone in our northern community who has felt increasingly isolated throughout the pandemic. I am particularly keen to hear from older people and elders in our community who would like their experience to be acknowledged and remembered.  

These new TEXTiles will be donated to the Castletown Heritage Society.

There are other strands to my residency in the planning, I’ll share news of these another time.