Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Stones & Fibre: Sue Lawty


Sue Lawty

“Finding myself” is how the British textile artist Sue Lawty describes learning to weave. “It was not like finding something external that I learnt but a thing that was locked inside…. a knowledge in my gut.” As a furniture design student at Leeds Polytechnic in the mid-70s, Lawty stumbled upon the weaving studios. Sage advice from Unn Snju who taught in the textile department led Lawty to build an upright Scandinavian loom – which she still uses today – during her final year. The rest, as they say, is history. As Artist in Residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Lawty is now recognized as one of Britain’s foremost contemporary practitioners, recently exhibiting a solo display in the V&A’s contemporary textile gallery and currently working on a commission for the permanent collection.

The V&A’s collection of ethnographic textiles, as well as the Bankfield Museum near Lawty’s home in Yorkshire and the Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford have provided ongoing inspiration for her weaving practice. It is interesting to note that these are collections she visits again and again, often returning to the same ancient Coptic and Peruvian textiles with each visit. “Being in close contact with such fine (in all senses) textiles,” she explains, “develops in one an awareness of quality. It seems to me that part of the joy of working as an artist, a maker, is the complete obsession with getting something as right as I can make it – to some extent oblivious of commercial considerations; an antithesis to our world’s overriding obsession with economic value.”

Landscape – be it the arid interior of Australia or the drenched Yorkshire moors – is central to this work. But it is not a theme taken lightly. Inspiration is drawn from the most fundamental material level: ochre collected from central Australia, bundles of spun hemp acquired while trekking in Nepal, woven baskets of recycled plastic bags from Kenya. One senses that inspiration is not derived from a fleeting image of place, but by a very specific and visceral understanding gleaned through trekking and rock climbing. In other words, not a postcard image bought in a shop at the base or outskirts of the experience, but an elemental knowledge earned through firsthand experience.

A trip to Australia in 1987 and 1988 allowed Lawty to “draw ochre with ochre” an experience along with many others that acted as a catalyst for a fundamental shift in her practice. “The time element of being on the other side of the globe made me reassess everything,” she explains of the ten-month journey. Returning to her studio in the UK was not easy and for a time she struck the weaver’s equivalent of writer’s block. Nudging herself back into weaving by dressing her loom with an inch wide warp, Lawty allowed herself to weave spontaneously “like sketching directly onto the loom.” “It was liberating because the tiny scale allowed freedom,” she explains. Eccentric weaving – weaving at a diagonal rather than the traditional right angle to the warp – freed her imagery as did an increasingly minimal palette, apparent still today, chosen in a desire to capture “elemental qualities of the landscape.”

“Tapestry has traditionally (and subsequently) dealt in the realms of talking in the language of other disciplines, notably paint, and also drawing, sketching, print – to be a translation of other visual formats,” Lawty explains. “I am interested in discovering and developing language particular to the woven structure; a language that is fundamentally of textile. A language that cannot come from any other medium.” In this quest for a language specific to the textile Lawty has moved away from the conventions of tapestry. Subtractive elements (in a tradition known for its additive approach) now appear in her weavings. Intentional slits can be seen on the surface were the weft does not follow continuously across the pick but returns on its own path, refusing to meet the thread travelling towards it. These subtle vertical cuts reflect again a visceral understanding of the landscape, places where the unbreakable has cracked, such as the surface of a parched desert or split stones and wood. Like punctuations, Lawty explains that these slits are similar to the quickly rendered lines drawn around a sketch that contain the image and focus the viewer.

Her most recent work has seen a shift from thread to delicate arrangements of stone, yet another indication of an unquenchable thirst behind her artistic output. On the surface the shift may seem to be one that has taken Lawty away from fabric, but many of the principles remain the same: the gathering of tiny parts into a unified whole, an ongoing search for depth, intricacy and texture, the contemplative peace that comes from precise, engrossing labour. That Lawty has referred to the inspirational motifs found in the ancient textiles as “images almost like fossils set in stone” gives some indication of the connection she is now exploring between the two materials. In fact, “dry weaving” is the term British Tapestry artist William Jefferies coined to capture Lawty’s weavings – an observation that again reminds us that the stone she is now using may not, in the final event, represent that great of a shift in her practice.

Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the V&A describes Lawty’s work, “not [as] fast food for the eye, but an intense and joyous celebration of the natural world, articulated in textural form.” And Lawty herself speaks of “journeys that begin even before you know you have started,” citing a childhood project in which she sorted the various pips of fruit and vegetables, carefully washed, dried and assembled into a mosaic: motions echoed decades later in her current work. But a thirst draws her on.

As part of her artist’s residency Lawty began a blog, recording the experience and her working practice through the threads of the World Wide Web. This experience has opened up yet another landscape, one that is no less intriguing to this artist despite its virtual existence. Describing in her blog the way that the most recent entry takes primary importance at the top of the screen, she observes, “Its not until a sense of positioning and proportion envelopes it as it gradually beds down into the context of the whole that you can fully assess the tone of what you have written.” She goes on to steal the words from my mouth, reflecting upon how she now understands this structure to also be that of weaving, allowing picks to “bed down” in the “context” of the whole cloth before their voice becomes clear.

For the future? Lawty is also looking to theatre and dance, intrigued with the possibilities that shadow and light might allow in a dynamic setting. Her materials look to be growing increasingly intangible, but just as reflection reveals the tangible links Lawty is making between stone and fibre, one suspects that these increasingly intangible interests will also reveal her ongoing quest for a quintessentially textile vocabulary.

See Sue Lawty’s blog at:

Craft Arts International (No. 67, 2006: 57-61)