Tuesday 10 May 2016

The Story of Wool: the fourth Textile Stories Study Day, 23rd April 2016

The fourth annual University of Chester Textiles Stories Study Day took place on the 23rd April 2016 at the Guildhall, University Centre Shrewsbury. ‘The Story of Wool’ was the focus of this year’s event and the diverse schedule of talks, displays, and stalls offered something for everybody, whether a knitting novice or spinning expert!
   Jean Huff, spinning in the foyer               Woollen items made by participants at the event
                The talks got off to a fascinating start thanks to textile artist Fiona Nisbet. Fiona talked us through the steps involved in the creation of her beautiful textiles, which begins with sourcing the ideal sheep. Once she has found the best fleece, Fiona explained how she starts the process of spinning the raw material into thread, using the techniques of carding or combing depending on the design she hopes to produce. She then talked us through the various dyeing and weaving techniques, before explaining how she transforms the end material into her stunning designs. Fiona very kindly brought in some of her pieces, so we were lucky enough to see (and even buy) some of her original work.

 Fiona Nisbet talking about fleeces

                Next up were Dr Graham Atkin and Professor Deborah Wynne, both English lecturers. Their talk: ‘Woolly Stories: From Shakespeare to the Brontës’ focused on the importance of the pastoral, wool, and the wool trade within the literature of Shakespeare and the Brontës. Graham discussed his interest in the pastoral literature of the Renaissance by taking us through images from Edmund Spenser’s The Shepeardes Calendar (1579). We were also given examples from several of Shakespeare’s plays where pastoral imagery can be found including As You Like It (1600) and The Winter’s Tale (1611). Deborah’s talk centred around examples of the wool trade in the work of the Brontës, especially their childhood experiences of the Yorkshire woollen mills. Deborah explained how both Branwell and Charlotte took inspiration from the mills near their home in Haworth, an area where the spinning and selling of wool was an essential part of the local economy. Deborah focused on Branwell Brontë’s The Wool is Rising (1834) and Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) in her talk.

 Graham Atkin talking about Shakespeare.         Deborah Wynne with some members of the Shropshire Spinners and Weavers Guild
                After a delicious lunch, everybody was ready for the third talk of the day from the local sheep farmer, Thelma Thompson. Despite a successful career as a solicitor, Thelma decided she had had enough of her office in the city. After heading to a sheep market with her friend, farmer Henry, Thelma had a chance encounter with a small but feisty ram named Tinker. Before she knew it, she had purchased Tinker and the rest was history! Thelma’s fascinating talk detailed the highs and lows of being a twenty-first century shepherdess. Though she has had to deal with financial pressures, long hours, and never-ending administrative work, she is also able to spend every day in the great outdoors, breeding and rearing her sheep with Henry’s help. Thelma’s talk included some beautiful photographs of her new lambs, while her stall provided some more opportunities for retail therapy!

Thelma Thompson with some useful leaflets from the Wool Marketing Board
                The final talk of the day was given by Professor Sandy Black from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, at the University of the Arts, London. Sandy has enjoyed a varied and fascinating career as a designer, a researcher and an academic. Her talk, ‘Wool in Knitting and Fashion: From underwear to couture’ focussed on the important role knitting has played in fashion throughout the ages, from beautiful examples of early knitting in the fifth century, to couture pieces from the modern day. Sandy explored in detail how wool has maintained its cultural importance in domestic terms, especially throughout the nineteenth-century, when knitting was used to make extra money, and as an educational tool in schools. She transported us through history, up to the twenty-first century, when wool strengthened its importance as an art form for modern designers whose work graces catwalks, and can be seen amongst the pages of Vogue magazine.
One of our participants holding a 'Sandy Black' jumper she knit in the 1980s. Her friend holds the original pattern,
Minnie and Bryony, University Centre Shrewsbury students who kindly helped out on the day.

The fourth Textiles Stories Study Day provided a wonderful opportunity to hear expert speakers talk about wool and knitting in original and fascinating ways. We do hope you will join us next year for the story of silk at Macclesfield Silk Museum on the 1st April 2017. 

Report by Katie Baker, PhD student, English Department, University of Chester