Anna Ray

When I first wrote about Anna Ray’s practice a decade ago (Embroidery magazine May/June 2010) she had recently completed the massive and photogenic “Knot” (2007) supported by an Edinburgh Visual Arts and Crafts Award. Much of our conversation then dwelt on her beguiling series of eight small embroideries called “In the Garden” based on her three-week residency in 2004 at the Winterbourne Botanic Garden, University of Birmingham. In the intervening years Ray’s work has arguably continued to grow in scale and the inclusion of “Margate Knot”, funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, an iteration of the earlier work, in the 2017 exhibition “Entangled: Threads and Making” at Turner Contemporary marked a shift in the recognition her practice has deservedly received.

A hallmark of Anna Ray’s work is her careful scrutiny of textile structures, often translating one technique into another through dramatic shifts in scale; the “magnification of textile elements” as she describes it. Her entry to the 2019 Cordis Prize is a case in point. “Tassel” (2018) is technically not constructed in the technique of tapestry weaving. Instead it is unquestionably born out of a reflection on weaving: “I am excited by the tension of the warp and then the cutting off – what happens to the warps/ends and the woven cloth as it comes away from the loom? They buckle and recoil as the cloth softens. In the case of hand loom weaving, the ends are often held in place by being knotted against the reed, which I find compelling.” Painstakingly attached strand by strand to the wall, “Tassel”, much like “Knot”, is impossible to install the same way twice.

Ray credits her education in the Tapestry Department of Edinburgh College of Art where she received her BA (Hons) and MFA between 1994 and 1999 as crucial to her ongoing practice. She taught on the programme for six years following her graduation until her relocation to London in 2006 – the same year that Maureen Hodge the celebrated Head of ECA’s Tapestry Department (who was also the first female weaver at Dovecot Tapestry studios) retired. Ray reflects that Hodge’s retirement “marked the end of an era” – the course was rebranded Intermedia but lost the distinct vision and emphasis on fibre arts it had held in the preceding decades. Ironically, the “rigorous but not forceful” attention to textile materials Maureen Hodge is credited with fostering during her time at ECA would have put the course, in Anna’s words, “in the eye of the storm right now”.

The storm Ray refers to is the warm welcome textiles are currently experiencing in gallery and museum spaces previously experienced by many artists as off limits. Textile materials have become strangely on trend – a mixed blessing to Ray’s mind. “It is hard to voice critique of textile’s current popularity; textiles are in fashion, but that is not necessarily a good thing,” she ventures. We pick our words cautiously, both aware of what a minefield of miscommunication critique can trigger. Of London’s 2019 Frieze the Guardian newspaper reported, “Once unfashionable, textile art has a big presence at the fair”, while venues such as Modern Art Oxford held a solo exhibition of the late Swedish born Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries in early 2018. But there is a world of difference between the two. “I am tired of seeing tapestries that are incomplete, deconstructed,” Ray reflects. “Overused” is her concluding criticism of many contemporary tactics cheap on time and skill.

The start of Ray’s career pre-dates the warm welcome textiles are currently receiving. Instead, she makes light of her early work, recognising an unanticipated upside: “being ignored, no one copied me”. Today she is clearly uncomfortable with being pigeon holed as a textile artist despite her long-term attention to textile materials. “As someone whose work has never fitted into one specific context or mode, this has perhaps become a virtue of the work.” Time continues to be her crucial investment. “Maybe I am a bit slow, but I agonise over decisions,” she explains. “I stand still in front of the work and look and look.” The approach demands that she remain selective – both in what she works on and how she chooses to approach the making. “I have lots of ideas, but I don’t make everything,” she adds with the assurance of an artist whose embroideries a decade earlier had already taught her that “there is work worth taking the time to create.”

Ray’s recent work has scrutinised various aspects of textile manufacturing. In 2019 she took up a residency with Forbo Flooring, a carpet tile factory in Bamber Bridge, as part of the Art in Manufacturing for The National Festival of Making in Blackburn. “Offcut” a series of four distinct works was the outcome, each based on visual and material elements encountered in the factory. Here too scale had lessons to teach. From the factory floor, Ray describes seeing “the incredible tufting machines in action” finding herself “delighted in the comparison to my sewing machine in the studio, which suddenly seemed very small.”

The first work in the series “Offcut-Tuft” recycles offcut samples from the tufting process, threading the samples in chains suspended by nails in the gallery wall much like “Tassel”. “Offcut-cord” followed with boisterous bundles of colour which Ray likens to “embellishments created for furnishing and clothing” that she relates to her own family heritage of Huguenot silk weavers and fancy trimmings manufacturers in Spitalfields in the 1700s. Harmony has never been the ultimate objective. “I try not to be too tasteful” instead asking “What are the rules of colour?” – a search for the moments that are just off enough to surprise the eye.

For the third work in the series, “Offcut-ends”, Ray drew a composition of individual coloured threads which transition from one colour to the next thanks to a system of discrete knots. At the Forbo Factory she learned: “Changeover is when the threads are heat sealed together to tuft continuously from one colour to the next to produce different coloured top cloth.” Originally, the work ended there. But the Italian synthetic crimp yarns available from the factory stock had far different qualities to the natural fibres and fine silk threads she has typically worked with. Ray faced yarn which looked smooth on the spool but sprang up and curled when no longer under tension. She recalled the mending of snapped warp threads she had seen during an Artist’s Residency at Dash & Miller a year earlier, a technique that involves tying in a new thread and then weighing the loose end that is no longer wound around the beam to hold the warp in tension. Inspired by this temporary repair, Ray sought the same solution by weighing each strand with metal washers found in the factory – a nod to care of the loom’s warp but also the industry and creativity of ad hoc repair.

As part of the inaugural British Textile Biennial in Lancashire, “Offcut” were installed in the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum, Burnley – the only working steam mill in the world. “Offcut-cord” and “Offcut-tuft” both hung from the mill’s ceiling, flanked by rows of healds waiting to be called back to their looms and into action. The site suggests we remember that the full story of these recent works is inspired by current textile manufacturing and the many creative hands that have worked before us. Much like the factory, Ray describes her own studio as a place where “things contaminate each other” and a “closeness to materials” are crucial to the decisions she makes. But a ruthless editor is present as well – a talent we could all learn from: “I try not to add anything that does not have a logic.”

  • Image credit

    Anna Ray "Tassel" (2019)

  • Written for

    Embroidery magazine Jan./Feb. 2020