Our Modern Creative this month is a weaver who grows her own flax.
Susie Gillespie’s studio is nestled next to a 15th century cider farm, overlooking rolling hills and next to the orchard field where, with her husband David, she grows the materials for her woven art. Here she finds inspiration and runs workshops where visitors can experience the slow joy of weaving by hand.
We were lucky enough to shoot our new collection in these beautiful surroundings, and used our time at Yalberton Farm House to ask Susie some questions about her process.
Where did you learn your craft?
When I was about sixteen, a Turkish boy came to stay for three months with my family. He showed me how to weave on a tapestry loom using a crochet hook to beat down. This started my interest in weaving that I continued by studying textiles at Leicester Poly.
I went on to do an M.A. at Winchester College of Art where my thesis was about the history of nettle cloth. I was struck what a human thing it is to make cloth from organic fibres.
How would you describe your woven work?
Natural and organic, uneven and random – the opposite of machine-made material. I want it to look uneven, not uniform and formal. I like the act of weaving by hand – the slowness of its growth and the feel of the yarn in my fingers.
What inspires you?
Fragments of beautiful ancient cloth, the worn-out look and faded colour of pieces that have survived the millennia. I think about the hands that first spun the plant fibres, the quiet hours spent at the loom to produce even a small quantity of cloth. It must have been much more valued than it is now, with each piece gradually cut down and re-used until only patches remained.
In a similar way, I find beauty in my surroundings and the ruins of what once must have been new – patterns in crumbling plaster, the remains of paint on wood, the texture of cob walls.
When did you decide to grow your own flax?
At first, I used hand-spun linen from an old mill in France. I loved the pale honey colour, the slightly varying thickness. I started to grow my own flax from seed to achieve the same effect.
We plant the linseed out in spring and by midsummer it’s about a meter tall. Then, we’ll get these vivid blue flowers which come out in the morning and are gone by the afternoon. This flowering takes about two weeks, then we harvest by pulling the flax up by its roots because we want a long fibre length for the spinning.
It’s such an ancient process, some of the words that we use date back to Old English:
Rippling – combing the seeds out of the harvested flax
Rettling – soaking it to soften the woody core
Breaking – bashing the flax to break the core away
Scutching – using a wooden scutching knife to strike away pith
Hackling – brushing the fibres into a flaxen ponytail
Most of the yarn I use has its natural golden colour, but we sometimes dye the yarn using iron, or walnuts, or tannin from oak galls that we forage locally.
What do you think is special about learning to weave?
It is lovely that people come from all over the world to learn how to process flax, spin it into linen yarn, colour it using natural dyes and then weave it into handmade cloth. The process is absorbing; they enter a time warp and are able to leave behind their busy lives and relax. Perhaps they unconsciously search for something human and elemental. It takes time to make even a small hank of yarn but the primeval process is absorbing.
I’m often told how satisfying it is to start with flax stems, then end with a woven artwork or cushion that is completely your own creation.