Liz Williamson & Sara Linsday

Liz Williamson & Sara Lindsay

When Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, convened his government on February 13, 2008 the first item of business on the agenda was a formal apology to the country’s aboriginal population. The statement acknowledged the need to address Australia’s past, but also acted as a sage reminder to all of Australia’s recent history. Much like America, a large portion of Australia’s population is made up of families whose roots to the continent are relatively new. The experience of migration and displacement that connects today’s population to more than one country or culture is the experience of many Australians today. This position arguably heightens the importance of material culture to act as record keeper and bridge to the experiences of past generations.

Two Australian artists, Sara Lindsay and Liz Williamson, use the textile to explore these themes, in particular their mothers’ lives – women whose experience of home was dramatically different to that of their daughters. Both artists create woven textiles that find their home in a gallery setting. Both have found a wellspring of inspiration in the lives of an earlier generation. In Lindsay’s case, her practice provides a material interpretation of a place that was not part of her own first hand knowledge. In contrast, Williamson’s response to the darned fabrics her mother created has inspired an ongoing exploration of the beauty of darning that brings to the surface a make-do-and-mend skill that has moved from necessity to symbol.

Now based in Melbourne, Lindsay was born in Oxford, England and moved to Australia at the age of fifteen in the mid-1960s. Lindsay’s grandparents had lived in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) situated off the south east coast of India. It is a photograph of a muslin dress worn by Lindsay’s grandmother in Ceylon that forms the basis of “Serendip”, a series of works that explore stripe patterns, first on paper and then as tapestry initially exhibited at the Maroondah Art Gallery in 2006. Lindsay explains, “For nearly a decade I produced tapestries that drew on my experience as a migrant from England. Using dresses – my daughter’s, my mother’s and my own – I recalled my childhood and brought it into the present through the act of weaving.”

In 2000 Lindsay returned to Melbourne from Tasmania and began a series of works for her Masters degree. Drawing, alongside weaving, plays a central role in the work created during this time. Likening the stripe to the warp and weft structure of weaving, these formal explorations looked back a further generation, to her grandparents and mother’s life in Ceylon where her grandfather had worked and died in the country’s tea plantations. This time her work explored a place she knew only in her imagination. In place of her own first-hand experience, Lindsay explored her mother’s life in a country that was not entirely “home”: “Whilst my mother and I discussed the novels of Sri Lankan authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Michelle de Kretser, I stood at the kitchen stove immersing the fine muslin cloth in the fugitive dye turmeric and in tea from Sri Lanka. As I deepened the colour with each dip – trying different teas and discovering where they had been grown – I began to experience a vivid sense of place that has figured in my imagination since childhood.”

Lindsay describes “Cinnamon and Roses” as a tapestry that “can be described as a timeline or bloodline, documenting the life of my elderly mother; recording the births, marriages and deaths that have occurred during her lifetime – and commenting on the passing of time and the fading of the colonial past. Through the process of weaving this work I entered into a rich and informative dialogue with my mother, tracing her fascinating life as the daughter of a British tea planter in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka – 5 cm of weaving representing one year of her life.” Shortly after the completion of “Cinnamon and Roses” Lindsay travelled to Sri Lanka in March of 2005. The region was one of many devastated by the 2004 tsunami and Lindsay found the trip left her with “an acute sense of fragility”.

Lindsay explains that upon her return to Australia she “continued to produce quiet, meditative drawings, some of which using the teas I had collected in Sri Lanka. This allowed time to reflect on my experience of making the family album real. Gradually the need to ‘celebrate’ took over and I began to playfully construct a series of large collages, sections of which were later made into tapestries.” She explains her choice of “joyous circles of tangerine coloured tea, images of blue and white china and tear-drop patterns combined with cinnamon sticks and envelopes (carriers of news from home)” form the basis of her recent works “Parampara”, “Nuwara Eliya” and “Oliphant”. “Parampara” means “from generation to generation”, “Nuwara Eliya” refers to the site of her grandfather’s marriage and grave, while “Oliphant” is the name of the tea estate her mother referred to as her childhood home.

Liz Williamson is Head of the School of Design Studies at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in Sydney. Born in Victoria, Australia Williamson’s first knowledge of textiles was imparted by her mother. After extensive travels through Asia, Williamson returned to Australia and studied textile design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), establishing her own weaving studio in 1985. Today, she continues to weave scarves and wraps that explore the limits and complexities of construction within hand woven cloth. Alongside this practice has emerged the theme of darning, often translated into hand woven Jacquard cloth from repaired fabrics she has inherited from her mother, Joan Williamson. These fabrics take the simplest of repair stitches and translate them onto the surface of the complex woven structures.

A Wagga quilt inherited from her mother has proved a particularly rich source of inspiration. Wagga wagga (pronunciation rhymes with jogger) quilts are a style of quilts particular to Australia made by sewing grain sacks, sugar bags and later woollen suiting samples together. Williamson explains that the name is thought to come from the “Lily Flour Mill at Wagga Wagga [New South Wales] that produced calico bags that when washed were regarded as excellent for lining and backing quits.” The bags along with woollen suiting samples from tailors sample books were sewn into quilts by men while working away from home in professions such as shearing. Interestingly, these quilts posses a remarkably contemporary look similar to that of the quilts from Gees Bend in the south of the United States.

Williamson’s recent work makes use of the complex woven structures created on the Jacquard loom. Darning moves from an invisible, or at the very least concealed element of cloth, to the surface as a decorative element. Acting like an x-ray of previously present, but unnoticed, skill these fabrics celebrate the hours of labour that her mother and so many others devoted to the maintenance of cloth. Unlike Lindsay’s contact with the stories and connected locations of family members, Williamson’s practice makes literal use of the fabrics her mother worked to mend and repair. But an element of oral history, and a desire for its recovery, is also present. Williamson notes, “In many Australian families, darning has assumed the almost legendary status of an art, through the tales told of grandmother’s skill at mending socks, shirts, jumper elbows and the like.” Working through these themes, Williamson recovers previous generations lives of thrift and labour on the harsh Australian landscape.

It is this landscape and the ability of the textile to protect and contain that emerge in Williamson’s 2008 solo exhibition at the Object Gallery, Sydney. Liz Williamson: Textiles is part of the Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft series and contains work that while “referencing disintegration and repair [also] incorporates concepts of protection and the enclosing, wrapping, folding and layering properties of cloth.” The textile’s ability to be repaired has moved to include the textile’s ability to repair or at least comfort the emotions of boundaries of the wearer’s body.

In both Lindsay and Williamson’s practice, there is an awareness that individual and material identity is comprised of complex layers of knowledge. Some of this information is acquired intuitively. Other details are sought through specific journeys or by posing probing questions. No one approach provides the whole picture, but in combination they confirm just how much textiles can teach us.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland

Surface Design Journal (spring 2009: 44-47)

image: Sara Lindsay “Cinnamon and Roses” (detail)