Using techniques that date back hundreds of years, Susie Gillespie weaves linen into subtle patterns.
Deep in the Devon countryside, a weaver is busy creating fabrics and yarn that hark back to a time long predating her 15th century barn. The linen cushions she weaves are inspired by ancient fabrics woven by early textile makers. Subtle geometric patterns are created in one or two colours, their muted tones reminiscent of a time gone by. Larger, wall-hung pieces are also inspired by prehistoric textiles and the ancient process of weaving.
Much of the visual interest of her work derives from the slight imperfections in the hand-spun yarns she uses. The differing textures introduced during the weaving add to the unaffected simplicity and appeal.
Inspired by the past
Weaver Susie Gillespie has long been fascinated by archaeology, an interest reflected in her work. She worked at the Oxford Archaeological Unit for several years. “I was keen on doing conservation work but I struggled with the chemistry,” she says.
It was during this time that she fell in love with Coptic textiles. These Egyptian fabrics are some of the oldest known surviving textiles and can date from as early as the 3rd century AD. People were often buried in these fabrics, which then survived because the dry climate helped preserve them.
As a child Susie loved making things with her hands. Working in archaeology failed to fulfil her need to be creative. Instead, she decided to study a degree in Structural Textiles at Leicester’s De Montfort University. “Textiles brought together all my feelings about making things with being creative and artistic,” she says.
Her BA was followed by an MA in Woven Art. Then, in 1995, a grant from the Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers helped her set up in business. She bought her first loom and since then has gradually built up her practice.
It is now 20 years since Susie started working as a weaver. She relishes the ability to work doing something that gives her so much pleasure. “I often feel a bit guilty as I have a lovely time,” she laughs. “I find weaving both emotionally and aesthetically satisfying.”
Her woven fabrics are influenced by her enduring love of the early textiles. Like her own work, these were mainly woven in linen with small areas of pattern. “I love the heavy plain linen tunics the Coptics wore and the detailed intricate tapestry bands around necks and arms,” she says. She takes great pleasure in using the same ancient techniques and materials as those used
by the ancient weavers.
At the same time, inspiration also comes from objects surrounding her home. These include field and building outlines, shapes of barns, textures of stone and cob walls.
“They are all materials which carry a human element, things that are worn out and have a feeling of history and of people in the past,” she explains. “I am very keen on simplicity and use mainly plain weave with everything done by hand.” Pieces often look slightly aged, in a muted range of colours. “I’m drawn to subtle colour palettes as I love things that look old.”
Most of her pieces are woven in linen. “It’s perfect to work as it’s strong and I can use it to get the tension really tight on the loom,” she says. She appreciates its sheen and the way it can look different depending on the light. Her preference is for hand-spun linen yarn as this contributes to what she describes as ‘the clothiness’ of her weavings. “You lose all the subtle variations of colour and texture with machine-spun yarns,” she explains.
To get everything exactly as she wants it, Susie now produces some of her own linen for her artworks. She is unable to make enough for all her work, however, so still has to buy in yarn. Hand-spun linen is not easy to source, which is why she was delighted to find an antique batch in a derelict weaving shop some years ago.
All her work is woven on a pine floor loom, measuring approximately 6ft 6in (2m) wide and the same high. Before starting on a new piece, the loom has to be set up. First job is to tie in the warps, the parallel yarns that provide the structure of the cloth. Each one has to be threaded through a heddle. This is alooped wire or cord with an eye in the centre which a warp thread passes through. There is one heddle for each warp thread. Threading them can be a time-consuming job as one of Susie’s cushions has 300 warp threads.
When all are in place, they run from the back to the front of the loom. The threads are tied onto the warp beam at the back of the loom and a wooden bar, known as a cloth beam, at the
front. It is a day’s work to set up a loom to make a 14in (35cm) wide cushion cover.
The weaving is done using her feet to work floor pedals. These move the different shafts, which separate the warp threads to create a gap known as a shed. It is through this gap that the shuttle is passed. The coloured weft is wound on to the shuttle. As it is passed along the loom the thread unwinds, leaving a line across the warp threads. The weft is then pushed down by a beater, which Susie pulls towards her. It is then passed back the other way, gradually building up a dense structure of thread running over and under the warps.
A different weft thread is used to introduce a new colour. Each new colour or weft in the pattern is on a separate shuttle. A cushion cover can take up to two days to weave depending on the amount of detail. When the weaving is finished, the piece is cut off the loom.
The loose warp ends hanging from the weaving are stitched up to stop them fraying. Sometimes these ends are turned into decorative tassels. The woven panel is then hand sewn onto a piece of plain linen backing to finish the cushion cover.
Some weavers draw detailed designs before they start work, known as cartoons, but Susie prefers to work more instinctively. “Ideas on paper don’t translate particularly well into my weaving. They can help, but it is more a combination of having ideas and then doing it and seeing where it leads you,” she says. Working in this way allows her the freedom to respond to the material taking shape on the loom.
Her work is very much about the weaving itself, rather than designing. She takes pleasure in the actual making process. “I love the act of weaving, the slowness of its growth and the feel of the yarn on my fingers.”
Flax: from seed to yarn
Three years ago, Susie started producing her own flax to spin into linen yarn. She grows the variety bred for fibre, Linum usitatissimum. This has long stems, up to 3ft 3in (1m) high, and fewer seeds than the type bred for linseed oil. The flax is grown from seed in a polytunnel, which protects the long stems from wind damage. Planted in spring, it is harvested in August. Once harvested the plants are dried in the polytunnel for approximately two weeks. The seedheads are then removed from the stems with a comb called a ripple.
The next stage in the process is called retting. The stems are soaked in water, which encourages the pectins that hold the fibres to the woody core to break down so that they can be easily released. The retting flax must be carefully monitored. “You have to test it to see if the fibres are coming free but you can’t leave them in the water too long as they lose their strength,” says Susie. The process normally takes up to two weeks. Once finished, the stems are dried again.
The flax fibres are then separated out from the stems using a breaker. This wooden machine is approximately 3ft (1m) wide and resembles a guillotine. It crushes the wooden core of the stems, releasing the fibres. Any remaining woody fragments are removed using a wooden knife known as a scutching knife. The fibres are then combed through with a hackle to create a smooth length of flax, 25in (65cm) long, ready for spinning.
The yarn is wound onto a distaff, a wooden stick approximately 3ft long, and then fed onto the spinning wheel. Susie turns the spinning wheel with floor pedals while feeding the flax onto the wheel. The process twists the separate flax fibres into one continuous thread, which is long enough and strong enough to weave.
A self-taught spinner, she is fascinated by this ancient process. “I love spinning. It’s amazing to think that people did exactly the same thing in the olden days. My mother gave me a hank of antique yarn and it looks identical to the stuff I produce. It has the same texture and colour even though it’s over 100 years old.” As well as the pleasure she gets from the process, the hand-spun yarns add an important aesthetic element to her work. “I love using the linen I spin because since I’m not a very experienced weaver, my yarns are quite coarse and irregular. But without the odd bump you might as well be using machine spun yarn.”
Words: Diana Wardle Photography: Jeremy Walker