A year, digested

The longer you stay away, the harder it is to come back… I am acutely aware that it has been over a year since my last post. I have had many incredible experiences in that time, but also a few tough ones which made it hard for me to feel positive about sharing anything about myself on a public forum. I took a step back from things over summer and saw my family, which was very good for the soul (I hadn’t seen my parents for two years).

I have been trying to compose my ‘comeback’ blog post in my head for a few weeks, but couldn’t quite get a handle on it. So much has happened; how on earth do I write about all of it? And the answer is: I don’t. I hear your sighs of relief already 🙂 I was reading around on Stacey Harvey Brown’s blog at theloomroom and she inspired me with one of her posts, Ruminations, where she shares a short paragraph for each month since her last post. So simple really, but it jumpstarted a way for me to get over the hump of this post, so I wanted to give credit where it’s due. Thank you Stacey – I enjoyed your post about combined single and double cloths too.

So, where I left off. October to December: I posted a few times on my specially created Finland blog, but then the darkness of the Finnish winter seemed to swallow me up a bit. After a whirlwind summer of fabric printing, a placement at a mill for work experience, visiting family on a road/ferry trip through all four countries of the UK, turning 30, and finally moving to Finland, I was exhausted, and not really ready for another year of creating and putting my soul into it. I still had great times and met wonderful people whom I hope to stay friends with for years to come. However I couldn’t quite capture that extra spark of excitement that drives me to share those experiences here. I muddled through the design work without much joy, and it took some time afterwards (til now really) for me to really remember and appreciate all the good things about my experience in Turku.

January: A fantastic start to the New Year celebrating with great friends who came all the way from London to stay with us. I needed this so much at the time, and more than these lovely people probably know. We had so much fun that we plan to do it again this year 🙂

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After the high of this celebration (including a surprise engagement, though not mine I hasten to add!) I went to Frankfurt to attend the Heimtextil trade fair with my colleagues from Finland, to complete the last part of my Erasmus exchange course. It was tough work, on our feet for hours every day trying to sell our designs. One highlight: one of my hand-dyed, braided samples was accepted for inclusion in the 2014/15 Trendforum at the hub of the trade fair. This is where trend predictions for the coming year are shaped, so having a sample in here is a great stamp of approval.

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It is also displayed on Heimtextil’s own Pinterest page, and I had good feedback from the exhibition team, via my tutor, that it was a piece they found particularly memorable. All sorts of other things felt wrong that week however, and it was very sad because it would be the last time many of us – exchange students and Finnish students – would be together. I now have the clear vision of hindsight and can be philosophical about it, but at the time I felt awful both physically and emotionally, and then felt worse because I felt guilty for feeling awful while I was having what was meant to be the experience of a lifetime. From there it was straight back into the second term of third year back in Galashiels. No rest for the wicked.

February – March: Felt like one long slog. I had done my knee some damage with the travelling, heavy lifting and lack of any real exercise routine whilst in Finland. One night at Bellydance class something gave and the pain just got worse and worse. It took about a month before the constant pain let up, and I still haven’t gone back to dancing since. Walking was hard, let alone weaving and all the rest. On the upside it means I sought out medical help and now have insoles which have helped enormously. I still have occasional pain, but I’m working on it with physio and gym exercise and am excited to have made good progress. But at the time, with a study trip to Paris cancelled because of my knee and a project I felt sure was failing, I didn’t feel like there was any sort of bright side.

April: My Christmas present from Mr Wonderful could not come soon enough. I was whisked away to Amsterdam for 5 days and had a great time. My knee was ok enough to walk around and enjoy the city, and the break was much needed for us to recharge and reconnect. I made some decisions about the forthcoming year in order to avoid going through the same relentless routine and exhaustion again. I decided that I would live in Galashiels for final year (just over an hour away from home in Edinburgh), saving me the daily commute and precious energy. I also decided not to go chasing internships and to really take some time for myself over the summer break. Around this time I also realised that I missed my family terribly and needed to see my parents especially. Since they moved to Malawi I have found the distance hard to deal with at times, though I tell myself that now I’m a ‘grown-up’ I just need to get on with it. But sometimes to get on with things you need a hug from Mum and Dad first, and it made all the difference knowing that that would happen in the near future. Couldn’t have done it without my man and I will always be grateful for that.

May: Finished off third year and felt awful about it all. Luckily my flights to Malawi were booked for a week after we finished, and putting the best part of a continent in between me and real life rarely felt better. My Mum also won her first ever political campaign to become the MP for her home constituency in the north of Malawi, so it was wonderful to visit with something to celebrate.

Mum, Grandma and me on Mum's inauguration day as MP in Lilongwe. Regular readers may recognise Mum's hat :) So chuffed to have kitted us all out with our hats for Mum's big day.

Mum, Grandma and me on Mum’s inauguration day as MP, at the Malawi Parliament in Lilongwe. Regular readers may recognise Mum’s hat 🙂 So chuffed to have kitted us all out with our hats for Mum’s big day.

June: Mr Wonderful came and joined me in Malawi. He passed the test of meeting my crazy extended family with flying colours! 🙂 We had a brilliant trip. It gave us some time just for the two of us, as well as family time meeting new babies and having parties. Richard being with me also helped me to feel like I was repairing my relationship with Malawi. I have always had a difficult relationship with my Motherland. It is not my home, contrary to what many assume when I say I’m half Malawian. I have never lived there (unlike my parents and both of my brothers) and don’t speak any of the local languages. Feeling like a foreigner in a place that your family desperately wants you to feel at home in is far worse, to me, than just being foreign. I can’t fake a feeling of belonging. Anyway, having a real mzungu foreigner with me was almost like a licence to relax and allow being there to feel different, sometimes uncomfortable, but also wonderful when I managed to relax and let it be what it is. For the first time, feeling at home there some day felt like a possibility.

Slumming it with bubbles and the sunset over Lake Malawi

Slumming it with bubbles and the sunset over Lake Malawi

July – August: I returned to working at the pub I’ve worked at on and off over the last three years. The younger of my two brothers moved in with us in Edinburgh to spend his gap year, and it is great to have him around with his positive attitude and musical tinkering on guitar, bass and now the banjo. In spite of deciding not to ‘chase internships’, I went for the one offered by my university’s weave studio. For each day spent assisting the weave technician Andrew (see his blog with all sorts of weaving tidbits here), I got a day in return to weave and have fun with my own projects. I tried out treble cloth on the Texel loom. Although I only produced a few inches of cloth, I loved working through the mental challenge of designing and weaving a cloth with three interchanging layers. The peg plans took ages but it felt good to work slowly.

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There are weave faults in this – a combination of a faulty loom and my having chosen stitching points wrongly. I don’t really need them in a cloth with so many interchanges – at least I know that now! Still very happy with it.

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Remember the surprise engagement back on New Year’s Eve? Well the happy couple tied the knot during the August bank holiday weekend. We missed the ceremony (because we were at a family wedding in the morning!) but made it to the reception and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with friends from times past. I had of course made myself a new dress as well, which held up to the demands of the dance floor 🙂

Dancing with Beth

Me and the lovely bride Beth, throwing some shapes

September: The start of term already. But with renewed energy and without the fear. The last 6-8 months have been a wake up call to me to believe in myself and what I am doing, because not doing so proves only to be self-destructive. Paradoxically it pushes others away and puts strain on relationships when you need them most. This is well known, but hard to remember whilst in the fog of an emotionally difficult time. Having spent the summer doing things I enjoy and taking a break from the pressure of achieving, my passion is back and I feel like myself again. Richard and I also attended the 2014 AGM of the Scotland-Malawi Partnership in Glasgow. This was interesting and although I cannot immediately see a role for myself, I felt inspired by the stories of others’ work. I would like to continue to be involved so that I can be close to any opportunities or ideas that do emerge.

October 2014: We are up to date. The last week or so has been an unbelievable torrent of positivity, which I am unlikely to experience again soon. I will ride the wave for as long as I can though! Richard and I were in Denmark at the Arkitektskolen (Architecture School) in Aarhus for the retrospective exhibition by architectural practice Metis. Richard used a combination of 3D printing, CNC routing and clever laser etching/cutting to produce the unique and very beautiful models for the exhibition, and I was so proud to be there with him for the culmination of months of challenging work. We had a brilliant time celebrating with the architects, the curator and other academics involved in making the exhibition happen. We have some wonderful memories to keep.

Models set out on glass tables with custom-made trestles, on top of the most amazing carpet featuring beautiful architectural drawings.

On The Surface: Models set out on glass tables with custom-made trestles, on top of the most amazing carpet featuring beautiful architectural drawings.

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The carpet at the On The Surface exhibition was created by Ege Carpets, based in Denmark and represented in over 50 countries. I was blown away by the sheer size and detail of it, and it really pulled the exhibition together. It was printed in four segments, and installed and finished by just one man (seamlessly!) on site. According to the Ege representative who was involved in the design, the hall containing the printing machinery for the carpet is so large that the employees have bikes to be able to get from one end of the hall to the other quickly enough. Of course I immediately asked if they ever hire interns 🙂 The next day, when visiting Aros Art Museum in Aarhus, we stumbled across another of Ege’s site specific creations:

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I love the optical illusion produced by standing in just the right spot, it’s so fun. I am a fan.

On returning from Copenhagen and Aarhus, I travelled to Bradford for the Making It In Textiles conference. This was an event organised for final year constructed textiles (mainly weave) students, sponsored by the Weavers’ and Clothworkers’ Companies, Woolmark and the Campaign for Wool. Inspirational and passionate speakers came from all areas of the industry, from colour trend prediction, through yarn development to manufacture and finishing. They included Victoria Stapleton, the founder of Brora; James Laxton from Laxtons specialist yarn manufacture; Sinclair Paterson from Sinclair Duncan; and memorably, Richard Humphries from Humphries Weaving, who gave the funniest and most entertaining talk on woven textiles I have ever heard. This is to name just a few. I met some colleagues from back in the Telford days, which was a wonderful surprise – none of us had known that the others had taken up weaving and it was great to catch up. I was lucky enough to sit next to Harriet Wallace-Jones from Wallace#Sewell at dinner, and to speak to a few representatives of the Weavers’ Company about their work, among others Mr Edward Martineau who is the recently appointed Upper Bailiff.

Wallace Sewell's beautiful fabrics - note their famous Barman moquette (left of image) in use on the Central Line of the tube

Wallace Sewell’s beautiful fabrics – note their famous Barman moquette (left of image) in use on the Central Line of the London Underground

Hobnobbing at the beautiful Midland Hotel

Hobnobbing at the beautiful Midland Hotel

A mill visit to Hainsworth & Sons in Pudsey completed the two-day experience. I already had some experience of a working mill from my internship at Replin Fabrics last summer, and had seen yarn twisting, warping, weaving and finishing processes. Hainsworth’s was eye-opening however. Being a fully vertical mill it included the whole range of fabric manufacturing capability on site, from staple blending and yarn spinning, through weaving to dyeing and finishing.

Blended fibres ready for carding

Hainsworth Mill: Blended fibres ready for carding

Post-carding, the drawn fibres are twisted slightly to form a not-quite-yarn called slubbing

Post-carding, the drawn fibres are twisted slightly to form a not-quite-yarn called slubbing

Sectional warping. In spite of having seen it and hearing it explained, I still need to read up more on this process to fully understand it.

Sectional warping. In spite of having seen it and heard it explained, I still need to read up more on this process to fully understand it.

Loom weaving Kevlar/Nomex fabric for use in firefighters' protective clothing

Loom weaving Kevlar/Nomex fabric for use in firefighters’ protective clothing

Felted woollen coffins! Fully biodegradable and quite lovely. Hainsworth fills about 100 orders a month for these.

Felted woollen coffins! Fully biodegradable and quite lovely. Hainsworth fills about 100 orders a month for these.

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Piano felt

Piano felt – this goes inside the piano on the hammers and dampers. Back when these felts were dyed traditionally using cochineal beetle dye, the natural colour was too weak to penetrate fully into the fabric, leaving a distinctive white core. Nowadays, it is easy to fully colour the fabrics. However, the piano manufacturers felt that the white core was a sign of authenticity. So Hainsworth have had to develop a dyeing process whereby the modern, stronger dye is prevented from penetrating the fabric fully. Artificially slowing down modernism for the sake of tradition – I found this fascinating.

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Hainsworth specialise in fabrics for ceremonial military coats and suits – think guards at Buckingham Palace. Love the shoes 🙂

I was allowed to try on this amazing coat by Anita Massarella, made using military weight bright red wool. I didn't want to take it off!

I was allowed to try on this amazing coat by Anita Massarella, made using military weight bright red wool. I didn’t want to take it off!

Just after trying on this wonderful coat, and still feeling high from the whole previous week’s experiences, I got a call from my tutor saying I had been put forward to do some filming back at university the next day with Sheila Mary Carruthers – and with Alex James from Blur! I’m glad it was short notice so I didn’t have too much time to get nervous. My coursemate Rachel and I were talking to Alex and Sheila Mary about wool in general and weaving in particular, and had so much fun. The footage is for the Campaign for Wool I believe – I will get more details and update here. Alex is very warm and funny and put us at ease almost straight away, so it felt like a chat among friends. In spite of this, I still bottled it and didn’t ask him for a photo! Didn’t have my phone on me in case it disturbed the shoot, didn’t want to hold the crew up from the next item on their agenda… blah blah blah. I am so bad for these random attacks of shyness. Anyway, I have the memories and with any luck, there may be a few seconds of the footage coming to your TV screens in the New Year.

Watch this space. I hope to be filling it with more news very soon.

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