Crafting Futures: in the Hebrides

Today I’m sharing the first of series of images and recollections from the Applied Arts Scotland residency I was part of last September – which seems, for so many reasons, like a very long time ago. This residency was part of the British Council’s Crafting Futures programme, bringing makers from Scotland and Mexico together, to develop a shared practice, and create collaborative projects. I was very honoured to be selected as one of the two Scottish makers participating in the residency, alongside the very talented Fiona Hall of Camban Studio .

Crafting Futures Mexico Team, Oaxaca 2019. The Mexican participants of our residency – Pilar Obeso, Dalila Rubicela Cruz Fabian, and Soledad Ruiz Mendoza – are depicted here, together with Lynne Mennie and Carol Sinclair, vice chair and chair of Applied Arts Scotland. Photographer Ana Paula Fuentes, image courtesy of Applied Arts Scotland

This residency gave me many reasons to feel fortunate: not only had I been given the opportunity to meet and work with Fiona, Pilar, Dalila and Soledad – brilliant women who are now my friends as well as my collaborators – but I got to do this in some beautiful Scottish places – the Hebrides and the Highlands.

Our base for the first part of the residency was the Isle of Lewis – which you’ll know, if you’ve spent any time there, is a wonderful part of the world. Who can argue with walking and chewing over creative ideas on the beach at Ness?

Pilar stepping out in Argyle stockings

or visiting the Callanais stones at sunset?

The aim of this part of the residency was to introduce our Mexican colleagues to local materials, processes and a sense of place (in so many respects, distant from their own situations in Oaxaca and Mexico City); to learn from our different (but in many cases, comparable) ways of doing things, as well as to begin to develop conceptual and personal connections that would enable us to create new work. We were guided during this part of the residency by Netty Sopata – brilliant designer, kilt maker and owner of Diggory Brown.

Pilar, Dalila and Sol got to meet, and see the shearing of, some Hebridean sheep on Netty’s croft . . .

We then took Netty’s fleeces to what’s possibly my all-time favourite mill – Uist Wool – where we learned about fleece sorting and grading . . .

scouring . . .

. . . carding and spinning . . .

Uist Wool from Kate Davies on Vimeo.

and then, on our journey back to Lewis, we were able to see the next stage in the processing of Netty’s fleeces: their transformation into fine cloth by hand weaver, Rebecca Hutton

Rebecca Hutton weaving from Kate Davies on Vimeo.

It was a real joy (and a huge laugh!) for us to spend time with Rebecca in her shed, where I learned lots about the life of a Harris Tweed hand-weaver, yarn choices and colour blending (something which always fascinates me in finished cloth), and the operations of a Hattersley loom. Then, back in Stornoway, we heard more about the past and future of Harris Tweed from knowledgeable Lorna Macaulay of the Harris Tweed authority .

A visit to Netty’s studio provided our final woolly inspiration – where we all enjoyed examining (and in some cases, trying on) the beautiful kilts and other garments that Netty designs and hand sews from her local cloth.

Hebridean cloth meets Icelandic fish leather! Wow!

Tracing the journey of Hebridean wool from sheep through skein to cloth to finished hand-sewn kilt took several days. During these trips, I felt an inexpressible sense of pride at simply being a Scottish maker and manufacturer. I don’t live in the Hebrides – this was not my particular place – but I too am part of a Scottish community which respects and values every part of wool’s processing, from the animals that raise the fleece, to the mills that process the yarn, to the skilled hands that work that yarn into bolts of cloth, kilts, haps, hats, sweaters. I felt so happy that my new Mexican friends got to see all of this, and that our woolly explorations were also able to engender many interesting conversations about Mexican community and locality, and the way that textiles are embedded in the life of both.

After learning about traditional coracle weaving at the Grimsay Community Café, Dalila sets sail!

We also were also lucky enough to get a taste of Hebridean community spirit in ways that extended far beyond the wool and textiles we were there for – for example being treated to the spectacle of the Ness tractor run on a fine morning!

Ness Tractor Run from Kate Davies on Vimeo.

I particularly liked this lassie on a Massey!

Another highlight, for me, was the evening we spent in the village hall in Ness, where a group of young people had invited everyone in their community to an event timed to coincide with last autumn’s global summit on climate change. These kids had, with local funding and a little adult assistance, created and edited a brilliant film about climate change and the Hebridean landscape, invited local speakers to talk about peat erosion and land management (an issue of urgent local concern), put together a tasty zero-waste, zero-carbon buffet, and sat and took questions from their audience, speaking articulately and knowledgeably about sustainability, good environmental practice, and their hopes for the future. Seeing these brilliant kids talk with such passion about an issue close to their hearts, and observing the way that their whole community sat and listened carefully to them, giving them time, space and respect, was deeply moving. This is the film that we all got to watch that evening – An Dràsta is well worth 15 minutes of your time!

AN-DRÀSTA! – Full Film from Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn on Vimeo.

All told, we spent an extraordinarily inspiring and thought-provoking week in Ness together, learning a lot about local textiles, and learning even more about each others lives and creative practices. September in the Hebrides can really be something special, and it was a gift to spend time there with this group of smart and funny women – especially as we were blessed with such beautiful weather.

Dawdling happily on a walk from Barpa Langass

This is the first in a series of posts about my Applied Arts Scotland / British Council Crafting Futures residency and the development of our Scotland / Mexico creative collaboration. More from the project next week!