Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Sense of Identity: Contemporary Scottish Textiles


Scotland is steeped in a rich history of textile production, but it is a culture that – in textile terms – has handsomely balanced the virtues of the past with the possibilities of the future. What unites the textile artists and designers of this region is confidence in the unknown; an ability to synthesize and honour rich historical textile traditions by uniting them with unexpected and untried materials and structures that best capture the sensibilities of today. Scotland’s landscapes and seascapes demand a considerable strength and durability from cloth. But one senses from the textile practitioners Scotland, and those who support their work, an understanding that the cloth worn on the body and used in the home plays a far great role in daily life than merely protection from climate.

The Scottish textile palette has long adapted itself to the northern landscape. Gorse and heather; slate; wind and mist; these traditional associations reflect the muted tones and a need for warmth provided by the region’s wool production. But joined with these associations is evidence of a considerable vitality of spirit. Bold splashes of colour and pattern abound – moments that puncture the landscape and suggest great confidence from both the maker and wearer. Rather than style or technique, it is a common sense of spirit that most clearly unites the artists included in this exhibition. Jeanette Sendler’s knitted explorations capture the tremendous bravery of the knitters, generations before her, who used their stitches to mark the time their husbands were fishing at sea and the currents these men learnt to read to direct them home. James Donald and Fiona Hutchison produce vastly different work that challenges expected textile structures, but also draws inspiration from the powerful rhythms of the sea. The rich textures of the land, rather than water, become material in the work of Lorraine McCue and their nuances and histories are apparent in the work of Joan Baxter. It is the traditions of Harris Tweed that Ruth Morris has devoted her practice to reinvigorating, while Fiona McIntosh displays a bold and graphic confidence in her work. Finally, Claire Heminsley cleverly captures the deprecating humour of Scottish culture, a humour that plays on puns and rhymes in the spoken word that the wind so often tries to take from the mouth.

Determining a sense of national identity is increasingly difficult in the culturally fragmented world many of us now inhabit. But while an increasing number of us may share the experience of cultural or social hybridity, the physical landscape we inhabit is much less easy to dilute or deny. Today, it is our textile traditions that offer us a way to re-establish physical and cultural connections with the land. The time at which the sun rises and sets; the milky light of the north that looks so eerie to those comfortable with the saturated hues of the equator; the thirst for warmth and protection from the weather and an overriding sense of humour and confidence that emanates from the textile art and design of Scotland may not be limited to this region, but most certainly typifies the makers and designers that inhabit the northern reaches of the British Isles.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Programme Leader of Textiles, Fashion & Fibre at Winchester School of Art, England

(image: Fiona Hutchinson)