Sue Spooner interview: Weave tapestry
Cornwall based artist Sue Spooner developed a love for weaving in her post graduate year at Goldsmiths College. Sue creates stunning weave tapestries using hand-dyed yarns which are coloured with her own dye recipes developed over years of experimentation.
Ideas and innovation
TextileArtist.org: What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Sue Spooner: My parents’ formative years were in London during the depression which preceded World War II. They had seen a lot of hard times and were never high earners. Although as a child I never felt deprived, my mother encouraged the attitude that you should never buy something you could make yourself. My sister and I were given the space and means to use our imagination, to create our own playthings and games, and to paint and draw early in life. We were taught to make our own clothes and ‘make do and mend’ with recycled fabric, wool, buttons and any scraps left over from previous projects.
My mother made garments, soft toys and furnishings on an old treadle Singer sewing machine in the attic. I think the machine interested me more than its products, and I bonded with it as soon as I was allowed and I felt it gave me power to produce some sort of creation quickly and easily.
My school days were quite academic. I knew quite early that I wanted to go to art college but had not opted for textiles. I wanted to learn about all sorts of processes & techniques. Textiles hadn’t occurred to me then as a serious option.
What was your route to becoming an artist? What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
While I was studying on a foundation course at my local art college in Wallasey, Cheshire I stumbled by accident into a disused room full of abandoned weaving equipment. There were dusty old looms, yarn racks and warping mills lying about with unfinished weavings still in place. As with the treadle sewing machine, I think that it was the appeal of the machinery of weaving that took over my imagination and made me want to know how these contraptions could somehow be used to produce textiles.
Three years later I graduated from Cardiff College of Art, where under the tuition of Tom Hudson, I had studied sculpture and printmaking. His teaching programme was to encourage fluency in as many techniques as possible, in order to give his students the vocabulary that they would need for expression of their ideas. The processes included techniques of woodwork, metalwork, ceramics, plastics, printing and plenty of painting and colour theory, but no textiles. However I thought the course was marvellously exciting because of the freedom we were given to use our imaginations, and the tools to express them in an appropriate medium of our choice.
We were encouraged to continue our own creative work during a post graduate ATC year at Goldsmiths College, where I was once again introduced to textiles in some inspirational lectures. Living in London at the time gave me easy access to museums particularly the V&A with its wealth of wonderful examples of textile art. Here I discovered a world of embroidery, Oriental rugs, tribal Kilims and African cloths. I was galvanised again to put the peripheral knowledge I had of tapestry weaving to make a small tapestry frame and experiment with yarn, weave, colour and texture.
Structure of woven cloth
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
After two years of teaching in London, I was able to move and set up my own workshop in Cornwall, subsequently helped by a New Craftsman’s Grant from the Crafts Council and a Major Award from South West Arts. With more room to develop ideas I was able to start work professionally and using fine yarns progressed to weaving tapestries and cloth which could become parts of garments. For several years I designed and made intricately woven and sewn coats, combining figurative design with stripe and geometrical pattern. Inspiration came both from North African and Oriental textiles and from the shapes which grow naturally out of the structure of woven cloth.
Eventually, not wanting to be tied down by the processes of weaving cloth and garment cutting, I needed the freedom to be more experimental, and to be able to concentrate on tapestry-making directly. The change was liberating, and freed from these constraints I am now able to make sure that ideas and innovation are the primary concerns, where curiosity and open-mindedness can allow ideas to run free without being tied down by traditional techniques. A series of fine silk pieces investigating the structures of plant forms has led me to use stitch and tapestry together on some pieces where more definition is needed. In the heavier work I am now producing I am excited by the impact of larger areas of colour contrasts within the surface.
For the past few years I have produced large or small scale hangings, rugs or framed pieces as each idea dictates, and one piece of work progresses from the last.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
I make flat weave tapestry in wool or silk on a horizontal foot power loom. It is a labour intensive process, each tapestry usually taking a long time to produce. The image is methodically and mathematically built up, being gradually worked from bottom to top on the warp skeleton. There is little chance to change a previously woven part of the image without unpicking back to that section. However, I feel much happier working within these restraints than having a completely free rein, as sometimes limitless boundaries can be overwhelming. Although the nature of the process and material has to dictate the nature of the resulting image, I still like to allow all the while for accidental and unconstrained effects to occur and for the piece to change and develop as the colours and shapes grow within the overall structure. There is always a sense of anticipation and excitement when I unroll a finished tapestry and it comes off the loom to be seen in its entirety for the first time. I dye my own yarns using dye recipes I have built up for many years, colour matching and grading according to the effects I want to produce.
New and vibrant
How would you describe your work?
The built landscape has recently become increasingly influential to my work. I find I am seeking out significant man-made structures standing as historical witnesses to past events where people have lived and worked, or studying the process of decay, where the disused structures have been coloured and changed by the course of time. Flaking paint on an old door can reveal countless under-layers of colours painted by previous hands.
I have worked and reworked images from the landscape and industrial archaeology of my local area of Cornwall.
Several tapestries have sprung from the Green Line buffer zone in Cyprus. A visit to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay developed into a weave tapestry depicting the isolation cells I saw there. I am presently working from my research in ancient sites in Crete.
The rebuilding of these emotive influences in the weaving to make something new and vibrant becomes for me an increasingly important way of interpreting what I see and understand, and how thoughts can be made concrete.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
I live in Cornwall where the remnants of past industry are present all around me. Our house had a previous life as a twine factory (the twine being used as gunpowder fuses for quarrying or in the tin mining industry). Engine house remains are common in this area, preserved as memorials to the work that once flourished here.
I used to frequently drive past the deserted and decaying mine-working buildings at Wheal Jane in the Bissoe Valley, always noticing how the colours of rust and verdigris had affected the buildings and how some of the outside structure had fallen away to reveal the framework underneath. For years I planned to make some drawings and photographs here and finally managed to take my camera on a wet day and take a few shots. A few days later I went back there to find that the buildings had been demolished.
It became very necessary to me to record this image, and it became the starting point of several pieces of work culminating in a large tapestry rug called ‘Wheal Jane’.
Arrangement of patterns
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
The design process starts from the initial response motivated by sensations experienced in a particular place – from an arrangement of patterns or colours in the built or natural landscape. I then work from drawings and photographs to develop an image that can be scanned onto a computer screen and enlarged into a cartoon. This can be fixed behind the warp on the loom and becomes the guidelines for the tapestry. The yarns are prepared and dyed especially for each piece of work.
My workshop is quite intimate and cosy so I don’t have many distractions, except perhaps Radio 4.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes, and is usually very messy with bits stuck in and notes and calculations. I also rely on photography for note-making.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Matisse for his knowledge and use of colour.
Hockney for his draughtsmanship and ability to always explore, change and adapt.
African art, particularly the wonderful colour and pattern in textiles.
Bonnard and Vuillard’s powerful colour and textural compositions.
Bauhaus textile artists for their scholarship and experimentation with weave, and their legacy for future generations.
Exhibitions and recommendations
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
The Techniques of Rug Weaving (Peter Collingwood)
Costume Patterns and Designs (Max Tilke)
Matisse – His Art and His Textiles (Royal Academy Publication)
Bauhaus Textiles (Sigrid Wortmann Weltge)
African Majesty – The Textile Art of the Ashanti and Ewe (Adler and Barnard)
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My loom. This is a heavy six treadle four-shaft loom made for me by my husband over 35 years ago. It has been adapted, lengthened, added to & mended over the years, and in spite of acquiring and setting up other looms in the meantime I have always returned to the Old Faithful.
Where can readers see your work this year?
At the Knitting & Stitching Show (Japanese Connections Gallery) Alexandra Palace, Dublin & Harrogate
Contemporary Textiles Exhibition, 45 Southside Gallery, Plymouth
Cornwall Crafts Gallery at Trelowarren, Mawgan in Meneage, Helston
Trelissick Gallery, Feock near Truro
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