All in a spin

As this unprecedented year draws to a close, it’s a good time for reflection. 

I heard Dr Rachel Payne talk online recently and I liked her analogy of the impact of the Covid19 situation in terms of learning, unlearning and relearning. Although she refers to this in relation to education, we can relate it to every day life and in my case my own practice. 

She describes a pre-covid situation, that is normal and functioning, which is then shredded, with normality deconstructed and everything suddenly changed. Then what appears is the ‘new normal’ where we have to reconstruct and relearn things…such as a new way of life and a new way of working. 

So how do we return to the pre-covid normality once it has been deconstructed and the entire identity changed? Can we return? Will life as we know it ever be the same again?

Through this pandemic we seem to have entered a ‘liminal space’ where a transformation has taken place. It’s like we are literally standing on the threshold between two realities. Liminal spaces tend to be transitional, transformative spaces, where they are the waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next. Often, when we are in liminal spaces, we have the feeling of just being on the verge of something. The time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ A place of transition and not knowing…. an area of the unknown. 

Certainly with regards to my own practice and life in general, I am hoping to find a way to navigate through this liminal space and emerge transformed.

In trying to make sense of this ‘new normal’ and adjust to it, I have found it challenging to be creative. The most I could motivate myself to do was to respond to the landscape during my daily walks with my dog. I made myself a little sketchbook bag, which now hangs next to the dog lead, to encourage me to take both on walks.

In no time at all, the sketchbook was full. I found it satisfying working spontaneously and subjectively in black and white expressing a sense of place but when I pushed myself further to work in colour, it was a challenge too far and unfortunately the sketching stopped. I suspect many of us have struggled during this pandemic in one way or another. I bet we’ve learned a lot about ourselves over this last year. I certainly have.

When I started growing flax over a year ago, I had no idea about the learning journey ahead of me, from growing, harvesting and retting the flax to breaking, scutching and hackling it. The time had come now to learn to spin the flax. 

Knowing I’d grown my flax fibres from seed, they became very precious, so I wanted to preserve every last fibre to maximise its use. I had no idea what a distaff was or that there were many different types of distaff. I soon learned that the purpose of a distaff was to hold the unspun fibres and allow them to be pulled out in one direction. I believe you can also just use a tea towel over your shoulder by spreading the fibres across the tea towel first and then loosely rolling it up.

I am full of admiration of ‘proper’ spinners who can do the equivalent of tapping  their head and rubbing their tummy at the same time. I started off  with the drop spindle and I knew it got its name because the spindle is allowed to ‘drop’ down while the thread is formed. In other words, the weight of the drop spindle helps to pull down the fibres. What I hadn’t anticipated was that mine kept ‘dropping’ directly onto the floor more times than I dare reveal!

I quickly moved onto the spinning wheel courtesy of Stella Schofield Adams and again a steep learning curve. Spinning is when the fibres are drawn out and twisted together to form yarn and in this case linen yarn.

In medieval times, poorer families had such a need for linen yarn to make their own fabric and clothes that practically all girls and unmarried women would keep busy spinning. I didn’t realise that is where the word “spinster” originates.

The more I practised spinning the more I got the hang of it and once I got into the rhythm, I found it quite relaxing, rewarding and enjoyable. After a number of hours (or should I say days!) of spinning, my skill improved. It was hard getting consistency with the thickness of the spun yarn but I was quite delighted by what I produced.

Certainly this project has and continues to present many challenges for me and I am still learning much. I can appreciate now how important it is to be thorough at every stage of the flax growing, harvesting and processing. 

Being a novice flax grower, ‘retter’ and processor, there would inevitably be flaws in the fibres. Some of them might have been over retted and therefore not as silky as others. There were also still bits of shive that I hadn’t got rid of during the processing and this presented challenges when spinning. Although I appreciate and respect perfection and so often strive for it in many of life’s situations, I am drawn to ‘wabi sabi’ in my own practice, embracing the beauty of flaws and rawness.

Wabi, roughly means ‘the elegant beauty of humble simplicity’, and sabi, means ‘the passing of time and subsequent deterioration’. So very fitting for my practice. With my shive covered flax fibres I do like the variations, the added interest and the texture. 

So, looking ahead towards 2021, I wish you all a happy, healthy creative year!

Breaking, Scutching, and Hackling

It has certainly been an unusual, surreal few months and I’ve struggled at times to adjust to a new way of life and new ways of working. It’s felt like a rollercoaster of emotions, trying to make sense of this pandemic situation. It’s been a period of uncertainty and self-reflection.  Aside from baking, cooking and gardening I’ve found it hard to think creatively or focus on my own work and my professional life has become digital, having to embrace webinars, online meetings and conferences. So it’s really lovely to escape the computer screen and I’m so grateful to live where I do, to be able to take long walks from my house to connect with the natural environment.

On my daily walks I’ve been taking photographs, which have now prompted some quick on-site sketches of the views, coastal rocks and sand banks. I’ve become even more conscious of time as I observe nature change before my eyes.  The coastal landscape transforms every day and the sand banks move and alter in appearance. Things washed up become displaced and it’s interesting to observe how far they travel along the estuary. I tend to walk early, around the same time each day, when the sun is low and it’s still cool. The state of the tide is always different with new gullies forming and old ones disappearing or changing route. The sand banks are sometimes dry to walk on and sometimes covered with the tide. It’s mesmerising watching the tide race in and out, creating rapids and tiny whirl pools. The colours change from greys to blues depending on the weather. It’s never the same on any two days and that’s what I love.

During this period of social isolation, I’ve often only had my shadow for company on my daily walks and without seeming narcissistic, I’ve started to photograph them. Even the presence of my own shadow, less than 2 metres away has started to unnerve me! I wonder if we will ever recover or things will ever quite be the same again.

One of the many positives to come out of lockdown is that my old fashioned mangle in my studio has been converted to a printing press, courtesy of my wonderful husband and I love it! Now I have no excuse not to be creative!

Before the lockdown I was pleased to have had one of my prints selected for the exhibition ‘Black and White’ at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster. This was a drypoint monoprint, based on the dynamic wild weather of North West Scotland.







The Coronavirus outbreak has significantly impacted on the The Flax Project  but things are still happening in the background albeit at a much slower pace. Over the winter months I managed to process the flax I’d grown.  In my previous posting I had ‘stooked’ my retted flax into bundles to dry out before processing it and what followed was a fabulous vocabulary of different stages namely Breaking, Scutching, and Hackling.









The fibres you need for making linen are located between the skin and the inner woody core (i.e. shive) of the flax stems.

Breaking is where the inner core is pounded, breaking it and leaving the fibres. Breaking the flax can be done by hand using the sharpened edge of a wooden block or by using a custom breaking machine.   


I started ‘breaking’ by hand using a wooden hand tool but found the breaking machine (courtesy of Heron Corn Mill in Beetham) much more efficient and productive. This is similar to a blunt wooden guillotine where the flax is put between the 2 pieces of wood. This is the first stage of the processing and probably every cottage in medieval times would have had one of these (see video).

Breaking the flax

Scutching is the next stage in the processing to discard the broken inner woody shive.  A scutching knife is used to scrape away and remove the broken bits, leaving the longer silky fibres. The shive left behind was often burned as fuel or used as animal bedding. These days it is used as a composite in the building trade and also used to make eco friendly bioplastic.

   I found that some of my fibres broke during the scutching stage suggesting that I might have over-retted some of my flax after harvesting it. The act of retting removes the pectins that bind the fibres to the stalk and each other. If the flax is under-retted, it is harder to separate the fibre from the stalk whereas over-retting causes the fibres to deteriorate and break.

Hackling is the final stage of processing the flax where the shorter ‘tow’ fibres are separated from the longer ‘line’ fibres.The flax fibre is pulled through various sized heckling combs or hackles. Different sized heckling combs are used, progressing from coarser combs with only a few prongs (or nails) per inch, to finer combs. The finer the final heckling comb, the finer the flax yarn.

 I would hold a bundle of flax firmly at one end and pull it through the prongs starting with the tips and progressing further into the bundle with each draw. The sharp pins clean and divide the bundles of flax and separate the long from the short fibres. The resulting strick of flax is shiny and all the fibres lie straight, parallel to each other. I can now see how the term ‘flaxen’ was used to describe hair.

Showing the different stages of flax from plant to fibre

The tangled shorter ‘tow’ fibres left in the hackles are not wasted but can be collected for spinning into a coarser yarn, then made into sacking or cord and rope. It is also used in the papermaking industries and has been used as upholstery stuffing in the furniture industry. When processing flax, it is normal to end up with more short tow fibres than the longer line fibres but the whole flax plant can be used, leaving no waste.

This whole project is an experiential learning process. Knowledge is gained through experience and by reflecting on that experience. The experiential learning cycle continues as I’ve just sown more flax seeds and they seem to be growing well. In 100 days I will be harvesting this flax and going through the whole process again!

Flax growing 2020

If you recall I had been researching into making paper from flax tow and linen rags and I had started to experiment, initially using linen rag. I learned that the food blender I was using only cuts the fibres, it doesn’t macerate them and what was needed was a Hollander Beater. I have since been in touch with Billerudkornas Paper Mill in Beetham, Cumbria and they kindly invited me to use their old Hollander Beater.

Billerudkornas Paper Mill in Beetham, Cumbria

When used with linen rag the Hollander Beater is designed to untwist and pull apart the threads in the cloth, destroying the warp and weft whilst also fraying the fibres in a process known as ‘fibrillation’.This helps the fibres to link onto one another when pulled out of the papermakers vat. The Hollander Beater scrapes, crushes, cuts and splits the fibre.  In other words macerates it (noisily!). I videoed the process which you can watch here.

The more I used the beater the more I realised just how much I was out of my depth. I soon learned that this was not going to be straight forward and it was far more complex than I ever imagined as there were so many variables to consider. For example, the ratio of fibre to water (i.e. the density of the pulp); the beating time and how and when one manipulates the pressure of the roller against the bedplate. Only by spending time and gaining experience in using the Hollander Beater would I start to understand what it was I wanted. Many papermakers using a Hollander Beater spend years before they learn what quality of pulp they require.

I learned that generally, the longer the fibre is beaten, the more water attaches to the cellulose, and the slower the pulp drains when a sheet of paper is created. The resulting paper is crisp and strong, with high shrinkage. Paper made from pulp beaten for a shorter time is softer and more flexible. This pulp drains freely when a sheet is made, and there is little shrinkage. But where to start? Did I need to cook the linen rags and tow fibres prior to putting it in the Hollander Beater? Did I need to soak the rags and tow fibres overnight? I decided to work methodically and try various approaches….uncooked, cooked, unsoaked, soaked. In my research I’d read that I should cook the rags or tow in soda ash…but how much soda ash and for how long? Some research suggested 3hrs…4hrs…5hrs.

I believe soda ash helps separate out the cellulose fibres from the plant material and breaks down and dissolves the non-cellulose parts.The liquid turns a dark brown as the non-cellulose parts are dissolved during the cooking process.When more of the non-cellulose parts are dissolved, it results in a softer paper. As my practice always seems to relate to the coast, I was intrigued to learn that in the 18th century, soda ash was derived from kelp, a large brown seaweed harvested along the western coast of Scotland.

When the paper I created from the Hollander Beater dried, it shrank and funnily resembled a poppadum. Even when I ironed it flat, it still had a crispiness which I wasn’t that keen on.

Needless to say, I continue to explore the humble food blender as this gives a much softer paper more akin to textiles. There is still certainly much to learn and explore with this ‘liquid cloth’.

Back to Nature

The last couple of months have been a busy period.   The flax I’ve been growing as part of the Flax to Linen project has transformed. Beautiful blue flowers were replaced by seedpods the size of peas that turned from green to gold as the seeds inside ripened.

After 119 days  I harvested the flax by pulling handfuls from the roots, to get the fibres as long as possible, shaking off any soil. I then set about with the ‘dew retting’ process whereby the harvested flax was laid out for a month, exposed to whatever the British weather through at it.









Retting is a natural moulding process,  rotting the outer and dissolving the cohesive gum (pectins) that holds the fibres together. This will make it easier to separate the flax fibres from the core. These fibres are positioned between the outer bark surface and the inner woody core. It is during the retting process that the fibre obtains its natural beige colour. Just like wine, the amount of sun and environmental factors influence the colour. I turned the flax regularly to make sure both sides were equally retted. For a whiter fibre, water retting is usually done where the flax is submerged but unfortunately the decaying stalks pollute the water and the unpleasant odour that would be created made this option less attractive!







I have now ‘stooked’ my retted flax into bundles to dry out before I start to process it into fibre ready for spinning and weaving. There is a certain satisfaction going through the whole process of seed to fabric and I’m looking forward to seeing just how much woven linen my little plot of grown flax will produce. It will certainly be a very valuable piece of linen in terms of time spent creating it!

Within the Flax to Linen project, I’ve been doing some research into making paper from the flax tow (the discarded shorter fibres) that will be left when the longer fibres are removed from the plant to make linen yarn. I’ve also been looking into making paper from linen rags as traditionally, old weathered linen clothes were used to make paper. I’ve done a bit of papermaking in the past from wood pulp and cotton rags by using a kitchen blender so I thought I would try the same method with cut up linen rag. How naive I was! Because the fibres are very long and strong, the blades of the blender couldn’t cut them up. The fibres tended to clog around the blender’s blades as well as the mould and deckle frame.  It proved very challenging.  Even when the fabric and fibres were cut up into tiny pieces, the blender seemed to join them back together into long unmanageable fibres.







I contacted a number of professional papermakers to ask for advice and I soon learned that the flax plant (and linen rag) is quite unique with its long fibres. I was advised to cook and soak the fibres to help break them down, so over the course of a couple of months I’ve been exploring various methods.  These have included soaking the fibres for long periods of time and cooking them for hours with washing soda and soda ash, even trying an old pressure cooker to speed up the cooking time.  All of my experiments proved inconclusive and the mistake I was making, was that the blender only cuts the fibres, it doesn’t macerate them. The fibres needed ‘beating’ as opposed to ‘blending’, ideally in a Hollander Beater or by spending days (even weeks) beating it to a pulp! I’m now presently liaising with Billerudkornas Paper Mill in Beetham, Cumbria to use their old Hollander Beater to produce enough pulp to experiment with.

Running alongside the Flax to Linen project, I’ve been doing quite a lot of coastal drawing work. I was fortunate to spend a week on the Northumbria coast this summer  and also two weeks on the beautiful Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

I’m not a painter although deep down I wish I were! As you’ll notice from my previous printmaking and drawing work, I’ve tended to shy away from using colour so it was a massive challenge to myself to try and incorporate some colour into my work. Through the spontaneity of mark making, I tried to focus on the physical and emotional impact of the landscape on my senses. I wanted to create atmospheric drawings to express a sense of place and my relationship to it, rather than a visual representation.

Feeling the full force of wind and weather, I welcomed the addition of sand and sea spray on the work. The process of applying, removing and reapplying paint is similar to the way the landscape itself is laid down over time, eroded and rebuilt by natural forces.

I love being by the coast and to me it’s a restorative experience, being mesmerised by the incoming tide. Watching the North Atlantic swell on the Isle of Barra with 50mph winds certainly was spectacular. No drawing work could ever do justice to that experience, let alone trying to keep hold of any drawing materials. A Hebridean wind is not something to be taken lightly!

On the calmer days I decided to try and capture the whole water experience by drawing whilst in the water. I’ve just started open water swimming and it felt good to be completely immersed in the sea.  The gentle incoming swell impacted on the marks that I made. I had some control but allowed the sea to be my collaborator.

I remember as a child my parents would often struggle to get me out of the water, whether it was from the sea, a lake or a swimming pool, I would spend hours in it. I’m at my happiest in and near water. It’s that primal, visceral experience which I love. The immediate relationship and connection with the environment. The liberation that comes with the weightlessness, entering a private world where it is just you and the water.



The Forgotten Fabric (of the Future?)

Over the last few months I’ve been working with textile artist Stella Adams Schofield on the Flax to Linen project at Heron Corn Mill, Beetham in Cumbria.

Heron Corn Mill is celebrating 800 years (1220-2020) of milling with a Heritage Lottery Funded project, which will explore and celebrate the mill’s historical past focusing on the medieval origins of the mill.

The Flax to Linen project is part of the celebrations by bringing small-scale flax growing and fibre production back to the Cumbrian area.   Flax is being grown and will be processed into linen cloth and the project will culminate in a piece of artwork during 2020.

With growing my own Kombucha fabric from microorganisms, it seemed a logical step for me to get involved with the project to grow my own fabric again. I am excited to be growing my own flax, to then harvest, process and spin into yarn to weave into linen.

Preparation of the bed for planting Flax seeds

In May this year I prepared my little plot at home by raking the soil until it was fine with very few pebbles and stones, then I added poultry manure pellets to make it more fertile. I used the rake to draw lines across the plot in an effort to sow the seeds in straight lines and I worked out that 65g between the 22 lines was roughly 3gms of seed for each row. I started sowing the flax seeds within these marked lines only to find I had many seeds left over so I resorted to sowing the seeds in between the lines as well. Having started in a measured, methodical way, the seed sowing ended up irregular and many were broadcast. It wasn’t crucial as I believe flax needs to be grown close together to produce good fibre and to help support each other. I covered the plot with wire mesh to deter the hungry local birds!

The linen variety of flax seed produces tall straight plants that are good for spinning. However, linseed (which is sold in health food shops), produces plants that are shorter and which produce lots of seeds but very poor quality fibre, which is not suitable for spinning.

Flax growth on Day 11, 19, 25, 29, 31, 36, 43, 50, 60, 64, 69

I hope to work through every stage of the growing, harvesting and the processing of the flax by making and using medieval tools and then to spin and weave it. I’ve been informed that the plot I’m growing might eventually make a piece of linen the size of a large handkerchief! An extremely valuable piece of linen I might add!

The more I learn about flax, the more exciting the project becomes. Flax was grown for thousands of years and was a common sight in this country.  It’s hard to comprehend that every household used to grow fields of flax and harvest and process it by hand, to spin and weave their own garments. All parts of the plant can be used, so there is no waste. Linum Usitatissimum translates from Latin as “most useful.” In naming this species, botanists must have recognised the inherent value of this humble plant. Flax growing unfortunately went into decline because of cheaper cottons being imported from America.

I believe flax grows best in maritime climates where fields would transform into a beautiful blue sea of flowers. Although each flax flower only blooms for a day, each stem produces dozens of them over the period of a month.

I support the idea of returning to natural fibres and linen fabric is 100% biodegradable and recyclable. I’m looking forward to sharing with you each stage of the project as the year progresses. 

Flax flower Day 64

Flax flowers Day 69







What has come to light is the fascinating language of the different stages in the process after the flax has been grown and harvested…starting with ‘rippling’, ‘retting’, ‘stooking’, ‘breaking’, ‘scutching’, ‘hackling’ and then going onto the spinning, weaving, and ‘beetling’ stages. I’m looking forward to describing my actions as the project develops!

I’ve learned that the flax plant is really versatile, making the finest linen to the thickest rope. As a by-product of processing the flax fibre, paper was made from the discarded shorter fibres and also from old linen rags. This is an area I’m interested in pursuing further alongside the linen production. Flax fibres have been used for textiles, paper, matting, oil, linoleum, insulation and animal bedding, utilising every part of the plant. Today, it’s being developed in the form of bio-composites for the construction, automotive and sports industries, valued for its lightness, strength and shock absorption. Can this be the forgotten fabric of the future?

Running parallel with the research I’ve been doing for the Flax to Linen project, I’ve also been doing some printmaking. These are based on my coastal drawings I did whilst in Cornwall.

As well as some etching, I had the opportunity to try out screen-printing, which has intrigued me for some time. I was particularly interested in creating the positives by drawing directly onto mark resistant film. I liked the idea of building up layers but I learned there was a lot of preparation and a lot of cleaning up with screen printing! Once you had your positives exposed, the screen and inks prepared, the printing aspect was fairly straight forward. What hadn’t dawned on me was the sheer volume of work that could be created in producing an image multiple times.

I think screen printing can be an effective way to produce editions of an image although I still have very much to learn. I think my heart will always remain with the technique of mono-printing, although I believe you can paint directly onto the open mesh screen which I might explore in the future.

Slow Sequences

I have always been interested in the physicality of making, working intuitively with materials, so I thought it was time I ventured back to using fabric again, as recently my practice has been dominated by drawing, printmaking and photography.

I created this textile sequence some time ago based on coastal imagery and rising sea levels.

Looking at it on my studio wall inspired me to create another, only this time incorporating a bit of my home grown Kombucha fabric made from micro-organisms. Although this work isn’t earth shattering, it’s the start I needed to get me back working with fabrics again.

I’m conscious that sequences keep emerging in my work. I like the idea of a set of related items that follow each other in a particular order. In looking at the definition of what a ‘sequence’  is, I was intrigued to question whether in their creation, do I  combine things in a particular order or do I discover the order in which they are combined!

In trying to unpick how I work and how I start to create these textile sequences,  I know I work instinctively focussing on the inherent qualities of the fabric…whether it’s something related to the edge, the fibres, texture or colour. I tend to have an underlying concept in mind and through exploring variations, decision making is improvisational and relies on feeling, response and adjustment. (1)

I liked the emphasis of time in the definition…Sequence – a following of one thing after another in time… serial arrangement in which things follow in logical order,  although I would question whether there is much logic taking place. Through a process of thinking on my feet, I believe new understandings are created in the moment. Theorist Michael Polanyi (1983) believed that we can make informed guesses and act on hunches in an informal and unquantifiable way, which he refers to as ‘tacit knowledge’ (2) that cannot easily be described or expressed in language. I agree that this idea of knowing more than we can say, sometimes goes hand in hand with a more conscious approach to what we are doing. We may not be able to articulate why we do or think something, we just know.

I remember from an exhibition some years ago, I found the philosophy and approach of practitioner Jane Rushton (2010) inspiring. In speaking about her experimentation being central to her process, images are found through testing, manipulating, and saying what if? (3). I do tend to use this approach across my practice and ask myself what would happen if I do this?…move this?…layer this?…change that? 

I also like the idea of defining sequence as a continuous or connected series so in an effort to create a continuous sequence, I joined together individual pieces to create a couple of longer extended pieces.

Remembering back to my involvement in Alice Kettle’s Stitch a Tree project, I really enjoyed the stitching aspect of these sequences and found the whole stitching process relaxing and contemplative. In Claire Wellesley Smith’s book Slow Stitch (4) she makes the observation that

The speed of life in the 21stcentury can be overwhelming but taking a calmer, more measured approach to the creative process can help you find new joy in the experience of making.

Although I often tend to work fast, normally in bursts, I think it’s good to stop and change pace. As Claire Wellesley Smith suggests it’s all about balance and finding the right speed. I know when I’m drawing, I want to get things down as quickly as possible to try and capture the essence and atmosphere of a place. I work with a burst of energy to translate and capture what I feel, see and sense. Even though we might initially be oblivious to things changing, time does not stand still and within minutes, seconds even, what I’m trying to capture has already changed.

Stitching however, particularly by hand requires a slower pace. I find it’s a process that involves contemplation, space for thinking and being in the moment both with the stitching but also with my surroundings. I’m fortunate living in a rural place where sounds of nature are at their best. Taking time to stitch allows the senses to tune in to the many surrounding sounds. The faint scratching of a wasp along the wooden arm of the garden seat, the blackbird foraging in the hedgerow, the cacophony of bird sounds and the whispering sound of the wind in the birch trees . I came across the word ‘Psithurism’ the other day, meaning the sound of the wind in the trees. It comes from the Greek word psithuros, which means whispering. The naturalist author and founding member of the RSPB, W.H. Hudson, suggests in Birds and Man (1901), that psithurism is salubrious. He describes the sound of wind in the trees as “very restorative” – a mysterious voice which the forest speaks to us, and that to lie or sit thus for an hour at a time listening to the wind is an experience worth going far to seek. I find that sitting stitching helps connect me to the environment, as does walking and drawing. Every stitch is a mark in time and every stitch marks time.

Despite my efforts to work with fabric, I couldn’t resist the urge to create some sequences in print. These are created using simple aluminium silver foil board, again based on coastal imagery.

I’ve mentioned previously that once I have an image in my head, I tend to see it everywhere, not only within other artists’ work but also within the environment.

Gizella Warburton’s ‘notes on pale board i-vi’

Lubaina Himid’s ‘Metal Sea Paintings’ (acrylic on zinc 2019)

Lubaina Himid’s ‘Metal Sea Paintings’  were made specially for the exhibition Invisibles Narratives  that  I managed to get to see at the Newlyn Gallery in Cornwall, investigating place, space and time. Whilst in Cornwall, in the  picturesque fishing port of Mousehole, I also saw these marvellous set of shutters, which I feel are works of art in their own right!

1. Gray, C. and Malins, J. (2004) Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art & Design. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

2. Polanyi, M (1983) The Tacit Dimension Polanyi, Michael, 1891-1976 Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith

3. Ruston, J & Halsall, C (2010) Arctic Dialogues: Conversations between Art and Science

4.Wellesley-Smith, C (2015)  Slow Stitch. Mindful and contemplative textile art  London: Batsford

Dynamics of the Sea

I spent some time in Cornwall recently, which was a bit of a change from Scotland. Thinking it would be good to experience a different kind of coastline, I went hoping for wild weather and wild seas to capture through drawing a dynamic sense of place.  The weather unfortunately was too kind with sunshine and light winds but the North Atlantic swell didn’t disappoint.

I couldn’t take enough photographs of the crashing waves. That breaking point where a wave peaks and then crashes down is mesmerising. The waves surge and begin to lean as they approach the shore. It seems that when a wave breaks, it’s the fast-moving back of the wave which spills over the slowing front of the wave  before it explodes at the shoreline and the shape of the ocean floor impacts significantly on this.

I can sit and watch the waves for hours. I get fixated. Years ago, I spent some time in Greenland and similarly I couldn’t take my eyes off the ice bergs. After 200+ photos  of them I vowed to put my camera away and take no more. But then I saw another and another and couldn’t resist. Each one was unique in shape, colour, texture and light.

I had this same fixation with the Cornish waves and surf.  The sea, the light, the constant motion of the Atlantic swell was all absorbing. I spent the first few days walking and watching, overwhelmed by the beauty. There was so much to take in as the ocean is never still.

It’s interesting to observe the swash rushing up the beach and the backwash moving the sand, shells and pebbles down the beach, back to the sea and  changing the landscape underfoot. Standing with bare feet in the water, you can feel the drag and pull towards the sea. The constant movement and dynamics of the water impacts  significantly on the surrounding landscape. The granite rocks in particular, showed all the scars of time, weather and tide.

I don’t know if it’s a genuine quote by Van Gogh but I can relate to “my sketchbook is a witness of what I am experiencing, scribbling things whenever they happen”.

After walking the coastal path, often high up on the cliffs from Porthcurno to Cape Cornwall. I realised I needed to be much closer to the water to feel its full impact. Most of all at the level of the incoming tide and surf  to smell the  sea air, taste the salt on my lips, hear the crashing of the waves, filling all my senses. That whole sensation and physicality of being there and being exposed to the elements first hand. The wind and the salt spray in your face and on the sketchbook page are all part of the creative experience, trying to gain an emotional response to place.

Kurt Jackson similarly regards his sketchbook as a visual diary, collaborating with the environment in an almost controlled chaos. His lines, marks, and strokes are often spontaneous. His approach and interest in environmental issues resonates with my own. He’s done quite a bit of work with Surfers against Sewage, a partner organisation of the Marine Conversation Society (MCS) which I’ve been a member for many years.

Kurt Jackson: Obsession – Following the Surfer

On a completely separate note I was delighted that one of my pieces of Kombucha work Salt Sequence 1  was chosen as 1 of 15 works by ‘Emerging Artists’ in the Fiber Art Now magazine Vol 8 Issue 3 Spring 2019.

You might recall that Kombucha fabric is grown as a by-product from the Kombucha fermented tea drink. The microorganisms feed on the sugary nutrients in the liquid, building nanofibers of cellulose that bond together into layers, creating a non-woven mat.

For this piece, the sea was my collaborator and salt crystals were formed on the surface of the Kombucha. Ideas relate to rising sea levels and climate change.

Traces of Time and Tide

Where I live, I try to walk by the coast most days. The sea draws me in. That feeling of calmness you experience being by the sea is now being referred to as “blue space.” Over the last 10 years there has been quite a lot of research on blue space and how the soothing smells and sounds of water have a positive impact on your brain, health and wellbeing. I believe Victorian doctors used to prescribe the “sea air” as a cure for an assortment of ailments. But why is the sea such a draw? Is it evolutionary? I know that my own experiences as a child and adult are deep rooted and significant. I’ve certainly wanted to bottle up that whole coastal experience and bring it home.

The act of walking by the coast helps formulate my thoughts and ideas. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the late 1700s spoke about his whole being came to exist when walking and the movement of the body related to the movement of his ideas. I can relate to how the rhythm of the movement and the repetitiveness encourages the mind to reflect and think.

Rebecca Solnit (2006) also described walking as articulating both physical and mental freedom (1.) and German philosopher Nietzsche similarly conceived  ‘only thoughts that come by walking have any value’.(2.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own practice and where to place it contextually. During and after my MA in Textiles, I naturally called myself a textile artist but my practice is so much more than this as it includes drawing, printmaking, photography and making artist books. So, is this breadth of creativity a good thing or a bad thing? Should artists ‘go with the flow’ and do what excites them at any moment in time or might this appear to be dabbling and superficial? Certainly at this present time, I’m quite happy to ‘dabble’ and enjoy the creative experience to then see where it takes me.

Spending time at the coast, you start to notice subtle changes in the landscape. Although the tide comes in twice a day, as it has done for centuries, you have to look closely to see the evidence. Things will have been displaced, hidden or revealed. The tide will have altered things…the substrate will have been transformed.

Like many people I enjoy beach-combing to see what has been washed up. In my earlier work I would often use driftwood and rusted metal as part of my artists books. I like the idea that driftwood carries with it a sense of history, having survived turbulent waters.  It and the rusted metal no longer fulfil their original function but carry forward with them a character and presence in their new role. Traces are left behind from their undisclosed journeys.

 Like the artist Antoni Tapies, I enjoy utilising ‘mundane, everyday materials’  that often go unnoticed (3.) and light-heartedly remember the Wombles of Wimbledon making good use of the things that they find.

However, it does sadden me to see so much plastic being washed up. As a diver and member of MCS for over 30 years I’ve always been aware of ocean related environment issues.  I was pleased when Sir David Attenborough in Blue Planet II highlighted the enormity of the problem and the devastating impact plastics have on our oceans. For so long, the sea has been treated as a dumping ground and as a result there’s now a plague of plastic that’s choking and suffocating the ocean. Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering our oceans every year – that’s a truck full every minute!

Having admired the camera-less photographic work of  Susan Derges and Paul Kenny during my MA,  I thought I would take a leaf out of their books to create my own photographic plates from washed up plastic bottles.

I’m intrigued by the journeys the plastic must have gone through and how long they’ve been exposed to the elements, moving with the tides. As plastic bottles take 450 years to biodegrade their journeys might have been very long. Every scratch is a memory and a trace of that journey.

  1. Solnit, R (2006) Wanderlust: A History of Walking London: Verso Books
  2. Nietzsche, F (1997) Twilight of the idols Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co
  3. Franzke, A. (1992) Tapies. London: Prestel Publishing


Moment in Time

In trying to capture a sense of place and a moment in time, I’ve been branching out with my printmaking to explore etching (soft ground and photo polymer). I have much to learn but was pleasantly surprised by the outcomes. I like the idea of the acid eroding the surface of the etching plate, almost like the effects of time, weather and water on the natural landscape.

5It was interesting to observe that I treated the etching plate as I would a monotype and through the inking process, tried to translate my emotional connection to the landscape. I wanted to capture light, mood and atmosphere.


Spending time along the West coast of Scotland and the Hebrides feeds constantly into my print work and my drawings. There is something really special about being out on a remote beach, far way from anyone. Immersed in the landscape and exposed to the extreme weather of strong winds, driving rain and moody skies. I enjoy watching storms forming and developing before my eyes, changing by the minute.

There is no substitute for physically being there, tasting and smelling the salt on my skin, feeling the cold wind penetrate my clothes. Nature’s elemental forces at their best. I want to capture that whole emotive and sensory experience of being there by the sea in all weathers and although my photographs provide a memory and capture a ‘moment in time’, they seem to lack something.

But what is a ‘moment in time’ ? Is it a ‘very brief portion of time, instant’?  Is a moment in time that which ‘defines’ something? A point at which the essential nature … is ‘revealed or identified’?  Its origin is directly taken from the Latin momentum ‘movement, motion; moving power; alteration, change’.

How would I capture this in a photograph or through drawing? The act of drawing within the landscape helps me to feel part of it, albeit an insignificant part. Everything I see, feel, hear and sense feeds into that drawing. It’s about translating and interpreting… a process of thinking and learning.  I want much more than observational representation. I want to capture a sense of place, atmosphere, experience and translate change and time. I can relate to what printmaker Norman Ackroyd describes as “What I’m interested in”, says Ackroyd, “is making an emotional response, rather than just recording what is there”. 

I’ve mentioned previously that when my working process begins, the end is undetermined and unknown. The journey evolves. I recently came across an interesting word online  Coddiwomple’. The Old English Dictionary doesn’t seem to acknowledge it but I believe it means…..‘to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination’ or ‘to travel purposely toward an as-yet unknown destination’ . This certainly sums up my practice in that I work purposely without knowing where it’s leading. As Gray & Malins (2004:2) describe an explorer of unknown terrain. (1)

I can understand the sentiments of artist John Virtue in that he only uses black and white in his work as he sees colour as an “unnecessary distraction”. When immersed in the landscape, there are so many ‘distractions’ of sounds, smells, taste, light, movement and atmosphere, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  Time also (whether in seconds, minutes, hours or days) changes all of these. I think it will be some time before I venture into colour!

At some stage in the future, I would like to take my printmaking into the landscape to work directly on to the wax covered etching plate as Norman Ackroyd does. He comments “things that stirred me, I wanted to get to the root of” and in doing so, he will take ink, plate and acid into the field. The plate can be worked on directly, the acid painted on as if a watercolour, and the ‘bite’ stopped by a quick rinse in a stream or a wipe on the wet grass, giving a freedom and immediacy.

I haven’t yet experienced this ‘immediacy’ with etching but then my exploration has only just begun. I do enjoy the immediacy of monotypes and I recently exhibited a collection of these at the Blue Light Gallery in Masham, North Yorkshire. I also included a number of my monotypes in the Iron Press Printmaking print fair in Lancaster.  Having not given much thought to selling my work, I was quite touched when visitors wanted to buy some of my prints.  To think my prints are now displayed and being ‘enjoyed’ rather than being stored away in my studio plan chest is quite a lovely thought.

Quite separate to my own practice, if you recall I did some work for textile artist Alice Kettle last year on her ‘stitch a tree’ initiative, part of the multi stranded project Thread Bearing Witness. For those of you not familiar with my Facebook page, the aim was to connect communities and individuals around the world through the universal language of stitch, to show support for refugees and displaced people. People all ages contributed by stitching a tree and these were collated together into a ‘Forest’. We expected a couple of hundred stitched trees but the project escalated and we eventually received over 4,000 trees. I was delighted when I eventually got to see ‘Forest’ in situ, exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.


  1. Gray, C. and Malins, J. (2004) Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art & Design. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Sense of Place

It’s been a busy few months. I was invited to give a couple of talks about my Kombucha research work. Cleveland College of Art & Design (CCAD) and the Hutton Priory Patchers textile group from Preston were both lovely audiences, keen to know more. My Kombucha research was met with some disbelief that a fabric could be actually grown from microorganisms. So often this baffles people.

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I took along sketchbooks full of Kombucha samples as well as larger pieces for the audience to touch and experience. It hadn’t occurred to me that once they knew that Kombucha was a bi-product of a healthy tea drink, some of my audience proceeded to taste it!

In all the time I’ve been working with Kombucha and despite its apparent health properties, I’ve not been able to bring myself to drink the tea or eat the harvested fabric. Maybe one day!


I was pleased also to be invited to contribute to the microbiology blog from the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM)


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This was again to disseminate the work I’ve been doing in growing Kombucha fabric exploring the crossover between art and science. I was delighted to be able to include so many images, from conception through the different stages of growth to the harvested fabric. Following on from this, I shared the article on the Growing Materials Google Community where other people grow materials from an array of different living organisms.

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Doing these talks and writing the article has made me aware that I’ve still got much to learn and explore with Kombucha, yet it’s had to take a bit of a back seat due to other commitments and my present interest in printmaking and drawing work.

I continue to challenge myself with the notion of how to make time visible. Whether this is by capturing changes that happen over time or capturing a fleeting moment in time or by working with time itself.

I was invited to exhibit some of my prints alongside three other artists in an exhibition titled Elements of Landscape at Blackburn Museum Art Gallery. I was already exploring landscapes through monotypes and drypoint so it was the ideal opportunity to push this work further.

Still very much drawn to the sea and coast I wanted to try and capture a sense of place, atmosphere and change. So working with time in a different way, I immersed myself in the moment, creating one-off monotypes.

I like the quality and subtlety of the marks that can be achieved through printmaking, working quickly and spontaneously. I also like the sense of ambiguity of an image, not quite representational but with a hint of what might be. Monotypes are inherently unique with no two prints being the same. I like that.

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I am drawn to wild, desolate places where weather and nature dominate. I often escape to the west coast of Scotland with its ever-changing weather conditions, driving rain, mist and turbulent seas. I love to be completely immersed in the landscape with large expanses of sea and sky and the isolation it brings. There is something quite satisfying being at one with the elements and feeling the wind in my face. I like to sit and watch the changing light and the endless motion of the tide, being in and part of the landscape.

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Drawing and working outside, directly from the surroundings helps me capture what I’m sensing and feeling. My drawing work is always an investigation, trying to make sense of what I perceive and my physical engagement with the landscape. The connection between me, the landscape and the marks I create give the work spontaneity seldom achieved in the studio. As Norman Ackroyd once said It’s exciting painting in stormy weather…… What I hope for most when I’m painting is for all my rational thoughts to disappear: my eye, heart and hand become connected, and then I can distil the real essence of the landscape.





20180408_123543 copy 2Since early December last year, running parallel with my own practice, I have been working for textile artist Alice Kettle on an ambitious nationwide project called ‘stitch a tree’. The project aims to connect communities and individuals to show support for displaced people around the world.


Individuals from all walks of life, all ages have been contributing to the project by stitching a tree and we’ve received between one and two thousand trees! Although we’ve come to the end of receiving stitched trees, the hard work has now started in hand sewing these to large panels of fabric to create a ‘forest’, which will be exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester late summer. You can find more information about this project at Alice’s website.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the work and project develops.



Catching the Tide

Although I’ve not been writing about it here, I am still exploring and experimenting with Kombucha albeit on a smaller scale but as yet there’s nothing new to share. I’ve also been exploring salting different fabrics and it’s interesting how different fibrous material response to the saline water, forming different types of salt crystal and formations.



I am still exploring the notion of making time visible and I’ve been spending quite a lot of time enjoying creating monotypes. Working with time in a different way, I like the immediacy, immersing myself in the moment, creating one off pieces. I like the sense of atmosphere that can be created and how the ink of the monotype records every touch, mark and texture, developing its own vocabulary and language. I find monotypes are a wonderful combination of printmaking, painting and drawing.



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I like the definition that Monotypes are ‘pulled impressions’ that are drawn or painted on a plate. The images are created through applications of ink and then, with the material, that is to accept the impression, are “pulled” with the use of a press or manually rubbing and adding pressure.

I also like the idea that no two prints are the same. Each is unique. Monotypes are inherently unique because only one or two impressions maybe pulled before the ink is used up. Although there may be a second impression, it is quite different from the first in that most of the ink was lifted from the plate in its first pass through the press. The second impression, called a ghost is much lighter or thinner and is more of a suggestion of the first. I like this as its similar to leaving a trace, a memory of its existence.


This same immediacy I enjoy taking into drawing work. I’m not one to spend hours on one drawing. For me it is a vehicle for learning, to make sense and meaning of something, to explore, investigate and articulate my thoughts through marks. I like the direct, immediate and dynamic means of rendering thought itself into form.

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In terms of the coastal environment, I feel I have just scratched the surface and I can’t help but be drawn to the effects of time, the transience of nature, the things that go un-noticed and the ever-changing fragility of the things around me, particularly marks left by the tide.

21As Jacques Cousteau once said… the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever and in the words of Nancy Price in 1947 … I have a passion for the sea, a passion which never abates. It whispers in my ear things that cannot be expressed in words.

waves1l am still drawn to sequences and wherever I go I keep seeing them, not only within images of the sea and the environment but also within other artists work.Untitled 22.15.4720170523_125857 copy


notes on slate xiii – xviii, series 3
© Gizella Warburton Notes on slate xiii-xviii, series 3


© Tracy Hill