Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

The Joy of Living: Jilli Blackwood

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

The Joy of Designing

Jilli Blackwood is undeniably one of a handful of designers who have risen to the challenge of expanding the vocabulary of approaches to cloth. Ironically, in her case the textile is rarely allowed to remain as whole cloth. While embroidery and weaving may be the common terms to define the materials and methods Blackwood works in, much would be clarified by adding the prefix “un” to both terms. Layers that are sewn together are also snipped apart, threads are woven into cloth, but just as readily encouraged to reverse and unravel. The effect creates surfaces full of energy and texture.

Movement. Light. Noise. All are palpable in the folds and frays of Blackwood’s bold approach to textile design. Blackwood’s distinctive handling of cloth first appeared in her student work at the Glasgow School of Art where early experiments came to be coined “slashed and show.” Her technique continues to define her design signature, which lies above all else in her handling of the edges of fabric. Textile scholar and practitioner Janis Jefferies writes of the woven edge of cloth: Unlike the self, which is a highly charged concept, the selvedge is an unremarkable detail in the construction of woven material or web of cloth. For cloth on the loom or the draper’s roll, the selvedge is the finished edge that prevents the ravelling and disintegration of the weave. When the material is cut and made up, as with seams and hems, the selvedge is the edge of cloth, normally hidden from view by seam, bind or fold. When two pieces of cloth are joined by a seam, the selvedges of each piece are laid against one another, so that two similar edges are brought side by side. Sometimes the selvedges thus formed are bound together to prevent fraying; sometimes they are pressed apart to lie flat against the cloth on its reverse face.”

Blackwood’s work focuses itself on an even less remarkable detail of woven fabric than the tidiness of the selvedge edge: the raw edge. In her hands the unremarkable detail is turned into a highly charged concept. The greatest point of weakness – the site in the woven structure where the weft and warp finally come to an end – is relished and magnified.

As Blackwood’s work catalogues, the weight of the cloth and the structure of the weave determine if fraying occurs readily or reluctantly. While others choose to turn under, stitch over, glue down, felt together or meld flat the unruly strands, here precisely the opposite is allowed. Edges are clipped and teased until they fray mercilessly. Often working with silks, which she hand dyes, weight and colour are vital components. Rich colours are layered together, sewn and then cut apart to reveal juxtapositions. The simple composition of grids and stripes, which work most effectively with this technique, create both real and illusory layers for the mind and eye to explore. The effect likens itself to op art with frayed edges.

Home

In addition to a concern for the edges of fabric, Blackwood ruthlessly disrupts the smooth surface tension of fabric, often snipping or cutting into the layers that are sewn together. Textile designers have long borrowed motifs based on tattoo and scarification patterns on the body and used them on the surface of cloth. This idea of cloth adornment drawn from the dying and cutting of skin is evident in recent work such as “Pagan”. Cautious incisions embellish the edges of the fabric surface, but leave the central surface of the work intact. The embroidery contained in the centre of the composition is symbolic, figurative even, if the people in our heads and the shapes of our subconscious doodles are allowed personalities. Works such as “Revolve” depict lozenge shapes long associated in the weaving tradition with fertility. Here the softer organic shapes evoke a sense of the child’s dreamscape, soft in colour, whimsical in mark making.

In comparison to skin ornamentation the textile artist dyes and then cuts the skin of cloth, creating in works like “The Big Pink” a wall hanging with chevron like scars that multiply across the fabric’s skin. A mysterious pattern of incisions are encouraged to peak and protrude to the surface. In more recent works, sewn lines like stitched sutures pepper surfaces. Snags and rips pull at the surface. In the process of skin scarification, incisions are shaped and then cared for in a way that limits the amount of healing which can occur so that the marks remain distinct and clearly pattern the skin. Similarly, the fraying and puckering Blackwood creates on the fabric surface visually limits the possibility of a seam of repair ever recovering the smooth cloth surface. Also palpable on the fabric surface is the energy involved in the snipping and fraying of cloth. Like the cutting of skin, the energy of the artist’s hand is immortalized in the charged surfaces of the cloth; confident and intuitive imprints of energy.

Each stage that the fabrics in Blackwood’s studio go through record traces of their previous lives. Like skin, cloth has a memory. Scars on skin record disruptions in the smooth surface. Dyed cloth can maintain the three-dimensional shapes it held in the dye pot, or creases from earlier folded lives. The over and under sequence of weaving imprints a memory in each individual warp and weft thread that is revealed when the edges of the fabric fray. Some threads crimp and look as though they want to return to the support of the weave. Other braver souls work their way out of the woven structure and are delighted by their new found freedom – curling and springing, enticing threads from other picks along with them. In later works such as “Desire” (cover image) a myopic reading reveals that the bold geometric composition is the same structure as the woven geometries contained in the threads that make the cloth before they are cut into strips, now reassembled in a magnified woven structure. “Tartan X” works in much the same way, composed of woven strips that are rewoven in a larger and looser version of right angle interlocks. Bands of warp and weft are lifted away from the original structure only to reappear in a different scale.

Dress and Ornament

Colour sense is a little like sex appeal. Either you have it or you don’t. Those lucky enough to have it can’t seem to explain it; those that don’t can spend all the time and money in the world and remain forever eluded. Like sex appeal, the most successful colour sense is always just a little off centre from conventional norms. There is a quirkiness that undeniably works, but often sounds or looks like it won’t until you see the results for yourself. Often it is impossible to pinpoint just why it works. Blackwood’s command of colour is much like the enigma of sex appeal. The unexpected contributes to the success of the overall image but it is a knowledge that the artist alone can foresee.

Blackwood’s fashions are not for the faint of heart. Skirts and chaps are cut remorselessly slim and flamboyantly tight. The “slash and show” technique that dominates the fabrics for interiors are further deconstructed in her clothing designs. Rather than evoking notions of decay or wear, the vibrancy of Blackwood’s palette banishes any reference to ageing. Instead the layers of colour she assembles feel like layers of foreign materials whose chemical makeup repels each other. Colours and textures peal away from each other like dry paint cracking not from age but instead an oiliness or roughness that refuses to let anything else adhere to it for long.

Jefferies notes, “If a garment is turned inside out it will be seen that the selvedges are as visible as ever they were. Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, it would be instructive for our selvedges, our hidden boundaries, to be more transparent.” Blackwood’s work needs no reversing to reveal seams and selvedges. A bit like the Pompidou Centre, construction and function are flayed and turned outwards. Like the Pompidou, this reversal creates a deceptive sense that all is laid bare. The giant museum’s exterior tubes and wires are colour coded to reflect the different systems necessary for architectural life, as we know it: water, electricity and airflow. But, like Blackwood’s work, the system revealed on the façade reveals only a portion of the structures involved. Blackwood is less didactic in her approach, focussing on ornament rather than structural details that an excess of selvedge, fray and seam can provide. Collars and cuffs are embellished and oversized. Hats sit at rakish angles, often topless in defiance of a need for function beyond ornament. As for our hidden boundaries benefiting from an airing, Blackwood’s sharply tailored vests and chaps reveal much as it is, sculpted to the body with ties and straps that lie close to the skin.

An expanded collection of materials make an appearance in Blackwood’s garment designs. Leather and fur have been added to wools, cottons and silks. Although the fabrics are often assembled in the same rippling layers as the wall hangings, the contrasting materials generate vastly different results. In works such as “Swing” commercial tartan is combined and layers with embellishments. These are sewn onto what looks like a smudged skin, dangling with rainbows of tassels and fabric deadlocks. The kilt reminds me of one version of the school uniform imbued with all the emotion and rebellion strictly denied the childhood garment. The cropped length and personal touches – not acceptable for a uniform – have broken free and are set on confronting the world.

In other works such as “Leather Vest” the material itself dictates new rhythms and motion. Leather has a body, is a body – of its own and tends to buckle rather than fray. The energy of the maker’s hand continues to be in evidence, this time with texture and volume replacing colour. Works such as “Millennium Kilt” bridge the gap between wall hangings, sculpture viewed in the round and the functional art-to-wear. The piece also shows the strong reference that runs through much of Blackwood’s “slash and show” work in the grids of woven colour that from the basis of the Scottish tradition of tartan weaving. Designed in the form of an embellished kilt “Millenium Kilt” can be seen as a flamboyant, fraying version of the artist’ imaginary clan.

A Move Towards Technology

Anne Hamlyn reminds us that, “To focus on and be captivated by the surface qualities of the textile is to forget that cloth is first and foremost a commodity.” Recent works have begun to explore the possibilities of larger scale production, acknowledging both the practical and the creative possibilities that larger scale production can offer. At the Research Centre for Advanced Textiles in Glasgow Blackwood has overseen the transfer of her embroidered fabrics into printed designs. Computer technology has revolutionized the printing world, allowing for projects such as this one. Rather than the traditional silk screening methods where the colours are separated and laid onto the fabric in a laborious process of individual screens, a computer scan of an image can be printed directly onto the fabric. The speed allows for quick adjustments in colour and makes multiple sampling feasible.

These prints of embroidered and woven fabrics create a continuous loop of reference: whole cloth cut and reassembled as embroidered or woven cloth, printed onto whole cloth. The cycle reinstates the textile as whole cloth after its long journey which has taken it through dye pots, sewn layers, incisions and fraying and returns the textured surface to an image on the continuous and undisrupted surface of uncut cloth.

The printed fabrics Blackwood has recently begun to explore are often printed in scale and colour that differs from the original. The process distorts graspable definitions of original and simulacra. Each fabric is undeniably the artist’s creation. The first generation of the design needs no explanation, while the second and at times even third generations often mutate so convincingly that they become originals in their own right. Using existing fabrics as a reference for new designs is not uncommon, although in Blackwood’s case the frame of reference is drawn tight. Rather than working from a century old and admired motif, this cycle is self-referential. It is conceivable that a second generation of the design could appear moments after the completion of the original. In the textile’s long career of reincarnation it is conceivable that further experiments will continue this self-altering loop, each time creating a master copy that is a simulacrum.

When used as upholstery fabric, the printed series is full of further idiosyncrasies. Stretched-to-tearing seams now lie in the centre of panels rather than across points of wear and abrasion on the chair. In truth they are flat fabrics containing images of ripping and tearing – the results of Blackwood’s “slash and show” technique – rather than genuine fabric ageing. The fabric is conceptually brand-new and generations old. The blurring of original identity contained in these fabrics would be at home in Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel” that is set in the fantastical structure of a library which contains every book in existence. The complete collection arguably contains all the knowledge the world had come to understand, as well as that to come. The mind-boggling pattern created by every language system and every form of knowledge is, in the final footnote of the story, determined to be contained in a single volume. Like Blackwood’s mutating prints, the single volume would apparently be constructed such that “each apparent page would unfold into another analogous one; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.”

The home has presented other opportunities to explore the themes of destruction, memory and generational mutations of printed designs. A line of lampshades takes full advantage of the saturated combinations of colour, which Blackwood favours. Here again any reference to decay is banished through the vibrancy of colour and the smooth flat surface of the prints. Many of the fabrics that appear in the clothing and home designs are translucent. The intensity and direction of natural and artificial light play a substantial role in the sense of energy contained on the fabric’s surface. The transfer printing onto ceramics also continues to play with the idea of the original or master version and its countless possible variations. These works step farthest in each generation as they leave the surface of fabric entirely and are instead exposed to the vagaries of the ceramic’s surface.

Early experiments with printed garments have also begun to realize the possibilities of transferring the highly textured surfaces of Blackwood’s woven and embroidered designs onto a flat surface. Strip woven fabrics have been printed to great effect, the structure of the weave taking second place to the play of dominant and regressive colours, which emerge. The flowing prints lend themselves to a different feel, one that allows the garment as a whole to move, rather than the surface to vibrate as occurs in the tailored works. As a result, shift dresses and tunics have been adopted. The lightness of fabric conceals little of the body’s movement and the long otherwise unaltered stretches of the fabric mean that the textured patterns are the focus.

While the embroideries rely on both real dimension and colour to create the heavily textured surfaces, the printed variations are reduced to two dimensions and must rely on colour to create the illusion of dimension. While the printer’s ink cannot reproduce the vibrancy of the hand dyed silks Blackwood makes herself, the contrast is very much evident and creates a deceptive sense of texture on printed cloth. Sadie Plant explains her study of Ada Lovelace and the mathematics, which created the first Jacquard technology in Zeroes + Ones that “whereas the weave was once the process and the product, the woven stuff, images are now separated out from matrices to which they had been immanent.” While images can be separated out from the matrices, the textile’s relationship to the woven grid continues to haunt fabric. While the inescapable relationship of the textile to the geometric grid is constantly broken apart it is as often as not reassembled as another grid, another woven surface on a variant scale.

Joy

Textile design accommodates two distinct ways of thinking. One involves the surface: motif, pattern. Repetition, and the illusion of dimension that skilful placement of colour and form can trick the eye into believing. The other involves the structure: the pick by pick investigation of cloth construction which is engrossed with the manner in which a cloth is built up and exists as fabric rather than fibre and thread. The two often captivate different minds. Both can succeed through analytical planning or intuitive response. “The Joy of Living” reveals the complexities of the creative process. In Blackwood’s case, both the surface and the structure are interrogated. Sheer creative energy and intuition have carried the textile in new directions.