Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Loops / Map / Fibre / Weave / Buttons / Now

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Loops

Jeanette Sendler’s practice spans a number of techniques: tailoring, knitting, felting, printing and weaving. These skills represent knowledge newly acquired, as well as learnt during childhood. 150 years after the handloom industry of Fife came to an end, I learned to weave in Newburgh, she explains in her artist’s statement for this exhibition. Old knowledge to Fife, made new to the artist.

Sendler combines freshly acquired knowledge with techniques she has honed for decades. Tailoring, for example, was first studied during her East German teenage years in part because it was the most creative of limited options available to her generation of women. Knitting and felting, which she has more recently combined in collaborative projects, break free from domestic connotations through an ambitious use of scale. Old and new loop together. Needle punch machines matt wool that historically would have been hand felted. Industrial knitting machines create giant webs of fibre previously constructed on a modest scale by hand for sale through cottage industries.

Endless loops of the crochet hook are present here as well, connecting together knowledge that is both new and old to the artist, with knowledge that is both new and old to the community of Newburgh. These loops hang like nets, literally the fishing nets of the region; metaphorically the social history of Newburgh that Brown Linen has drawn up back to the surface.

Map

Maps of the community are layered with instructions for dress patterns and silk screen printed. These diagrams provide the potential to change scale and adjust measurements, not only according to the size of the body, but also the fashions of the time: accentuate this, dwell here, overlook this, expand that. Our city maps are not dissimilar: invest here, do not dwell there, improve and admire this area and, in return, abandon that area….

Brown Linen exposes the economic as well as material cycles of production, consumption and decline that the community of Newburgh has experienced for centuries. First the cottage weaving industry, followed by the production of floor cloth and lino, and now, in the twenty-first century a vibrant creative community.

Fibre

Linen and Jute are made of long vegetable fibres that stiffen and bend in a manner quite different to protein or synthetic fibres. Highly water absorbent, their texture can be crisp when woven. These are the fibres that often go uncelebrated, in part because of properties that lend themselves to function rather than luxury.

Historically Dundee and Fife have used these fibres to great economic success. The 1861 Parochial Directory for the area notes: Newburgh has made extraordinary strides, both in wealth and importance, within the last eighty years. Previous to 1780 the trade and manufactures of the town were comparatively limited; but, since that period, the linen trade has made astonishing progress, which at present may be said to have reached its maximum, the manufacturers not only supplying almost all the looms in the district, amounting to upwards of 550, but also agents in many of the neighbouring towns and villages.

Progress, at the time cited above, was sadly followed by massive decline. Sendler’s use of these materials today brings these fibres and their particular histories back into the public gaze. Art borne from industry, an apt approach to the legacy of Britain’s textile production that no longer resides within our shores.

Weave

Warp and weft: two strands placed together with the potential to create countless variations of whole cloth. Networks, at times packed densely for strength, elsewhere gossamer and full of air. It is these structures that we so often refer to when trying to make material social history, family lineage or the transmission of knowledge in the relatively new, but now ubiquitous, world wide web. Brown Linen refers in part to what the community of Newburgh did not weave, rather than what it did. The cottage industry production of brown, rather than the more sought after bleached white linen, eventually led to the decline and end of the weaving industry that had flourished in the 18th century. The cloth flooring and lino industries that later replaced this trade are referenced by Sendler through the use of patterns dating from the 1870’s that fuelled the community’s second wave of industry. What manner of weavings may be its third?

Buttons

Brown Linen is covered in buttons. Glinting mother of pearl, crocheted discs of fibre, circular trimmed photographs of faces from the past that stare out at us. Linen buttons create a soft and yielding row, which suggests but cannot provide closure. Curiously, both the real and the imagined buttons Sendler creates rarely operate, that is to say they rarely sit beside a buttonhole. Instead they decorate the centre of a miniature dress or the middle of a crocheted circle. Do these buttons have nothing to hold, or are they emblems of potential, waiting to function?

Now

British Textile Art has spent much of the previous decade seduced by concepts borrowed from places far beyond the textile. As this heady love affair cools, the social history of cloth and the stories particular and unique to individual contexts and times are regaining recognition. While the textile is a world wide web, it is a web that is far from homogenous. Increasingly, Sendler and her contemporaries speak to the specificity of the textile, to its particular histories and materials. Working in this way, recent textile art has provided us with stories that celebrate the unique and specific instead of the universal. Brown Linen contributes to this new wave of Textile Art. Located and grounded, the textile’s ability to communicate social history is not allowed to become generic. Instead it is precise in place and delves deeply into a specific history of commerce and the livelihoods it once provided. In doing so, Sendler secures an eloquent future for a once forgotten industry.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Reader in Textile Culture, Winchester School of Art
July 2008