My new housemate is a textile artist and we were talking a little about some of her work and research the other night. I tried to describe to her the amazing embroideries of Alice Kettle which I saw in an exhibition at the mac in Birmingham back in 2004. Kettle has created some amazing altar cloths and her work can also be seen on album covers by the band, Iona. She also illustrated some scenes from the Odyssey including perhaps my favourite image, the bag of winds. She uses sewing machines to embroider large pieces several metres in length and uses threads of a wide range of colours and styles.
I’ve enjoyed textile art since I was a child and was very impressed by the soft furnishings and bed covers at Hampton Court which I saw on perhaps my favourite ever school trip. I also saw the Bayeux Tapestry (or embroidery actually) on another school trip to France. I love the textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and have had two friends who have worked conserving historic textiles as well as creating their own amazing works of fashion.
I bought the weaving pictured above at a market in Cuzco, Peru. I love the colours and the subtle gradings of colour which create the design which hangs in my lounge, above the (non-functioning) fireplace. The rust colours in the rooves complement my curtains and favourite cushion as well. I would have loved to watch some of the artists creating this work and hope they were fairly paid and enjoyed decent working conditions. Unfortunately this often isn’t the case within the textiles and garment industry. Songs like The Wark o’ The Weavers (from the singing of Rev David Johnson) and Jute Mill Song (sourced from Mary Brookbank) reflect some of the hardships faced by weavers and spinners in Scotland years ago. Now so much of the textiles industry is in Asia, the workers are at more of a distance but our complicity in their ill-treatment still bothers me. I’ve previously been involved in campaigns with groups like Clean Clothes and supporting fairtrade products but I know I could do more.
Metaphors from weaving and life as a tapestry apparently go back at least as far as Plato and there are references in the Odyssey (perhaps inspiring Kettle above) as well as in Shakespeare. More recently Carole King sang about her life being a Tapestry, complete with a character turning into a toad and a final unravelling as the man dressed in black comes to reclaim her. A more uplifting ending to a weaving metaphor is found in the poem variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin or Grant Tullar. Describing life as a weaving “between my Lord and me”, the poem explains how it is hard for us to understand all we experience as we see only the tangled underside of the fabric. Only at the end of life will we see from God’s point of view. It concludes:
The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.
I love this idea – that the darker and more painful threads of our lives are a significant part of the bigger picture and tapestry being created. Enjoying the creative work of others I can imagine God as a master craftsman creating works of art out of our seemingly chaotic and messy lives. While it’s hard to see it at the time, I know that good things and encouragement for others can come out of our struggles. There’s definitely something about being woven together with others as well – maybe we make up more of a corporate work of art than just our own individual pieces. But we are all needed and we all have something to contribute to the masterpiece being created.