Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A new herd of folk art sheep coming onto the market in 2019.

It was during the winter of 2014/15 when out in Western Australia that I stitched the first small flock of sheep on tweed. Between the soaking windswept crofts of Lewis and the parched stubble outback of south west Australia there would seem to be no possible connection and yet sheep manage to thrive in these most extremes of climate. In the extreme heat of the day and in what seem like impossibly dry conditions sheep gather beneath a lonesome gum tree with heads bowed close to the ground, while out on the Hebrides the Scottish black face sit tight up against whatever shelter they can find as the prevailing north westerly storms bring lashing rain. The oldest recorded sheep in the world was in Australia and at 23 years of age it died of heat stroke. On the Isle of Lewis in the village of New Tolsta John A Maciver discovered one of his sheep bore an ear tag which indicated it was 24 years old. The ewe had gone missing out on the moors for several years and had become wild and very weary of humans. She was accepted back into the fold still with a good set of teeth but during handling lost one of her rather fragile horns. During a violent winters storm while grazing near the cliff edge she was blown into the sea which seemed as fitting an end as heat stroke was in Australia.
I started stitching on the long haul flight to WA and completed a small flock during my three month stay and the reaction from friends was so positive that I was encouraged to frame them up for sale.
During an exhibition in 2017 in the Victoria Gallery in Bath the small flock of twelve all sold and since then these folk art textile images have continued to sell. As with all forms of artwork each unique rendition continues to evolve with additions of flowers, crofts houses, light houses, ships and even wind turbines. The images have also become more complex with more than one sheep or a lamb and ewe and with the additional work comes an increase in price. Down south in galleries they were retailing framed at £265 while from my studio I can sell them without commission for £185.
Next year’s flock of sheep on tweed are taking shape. It is rare for me to follow a line of creative production for long but in the case of the sheep on tweed they have proven amusing as well as saleable.
 Being stitched entirely by hand means each sheep is unique and while I give little thought to the complexity of any particular image I am now compelled to start pricing them on an individual basis which takes account of the hours entailed in their production. Up to now they have been set at a uniform £185 each but next year I expect there will be some around £250 plus. Time is always a sensitive point when dealing with labour intensive work and while I consider myself to be a more than competent embroiderer I am not prepared to debase that work simply to produce a more affordable object or to accept less than the minimum hourly rate. Each images is crafted to the best of my ability and many contain an element of experimentation and discovery which give them their folk art charm.     
The sheep in this latest series are contained within a landscape that evokes island life whether that be simply the proximity to the sea with boats and light houses, the traditional shielings and habitation, or the more recent visual impact of the wind turbines. Thanks to the very generous donations of tweed off-cuts by local weavers the backgrounds have become an equally important part of the finished product. Over the next couple of months I will turn to making the frames and hope by lambing time to have a further 20 for sale.


There are times when having read some consider wise word from the past that they strike home and clarify my own present day visions. Such was the case when Simon handed me the short volume “Living Traditions of Scotland” by his father George Scott-Moncrieff a slim booklet published by His Majesty’s stationary office in 1951.
The booklet encompasses all Scottish traditional crafts throughout the ages from the perspective of architecture which was George’s life-long preoccupation. When considering ornamentation he states that simple “functional” objects can be more pleasing for their line and shape than the over ornate. I was reminded of some equally wise words of advice having planted a rambling rose on the front of my studio here in Brittany: A good architectural fa├žade requires no embellishment, use the climber to hide the hideous. George goes on to state that due value is given to an object through the proper use of material and their associated qualities, be it stone or wood or metal, wool or straw or linen. Concerning the traditional Highland “black house” while acknowledging that modern improvements are possible, it is always foolish to assume that any old tradition was pursued merely because our forefathers did not know any better. The ruined remnants of such houses will still be standing long after today’s kit home constructions have blown from their concrete foundation slab.
“In Scotland, as elsewhere, what is remarkable is the quality of design and workmanship shown in very early times, as through man’s innate sense of, and desire for, beauty could inspire him to remarkable heights even against a comparatively slight background from which to draw; a tradition established, maintained, and developed right up to the limitations of its materials and techniques.” We would do well to reflect on that the next time our gaze falls on a selection on key rings or fridge magnets in the local tourist shop. “It is difficult fully to account for the general deterioration of design during the nineteenth century. Certainly much of the blame must lie with the development of the machine, with its divorce between the designer and his materials, and its too great emphasis upon facility of production and cheapness of cost”. He emphasises that machine goods need not be ugly but warns against the tendency to be over-concerned with production and profit to the detriment of design and functional beauty. In looking at the fine things that men and women have made and that they still strive to make we may feel that they stand for the control of mind and hand, for a generosity of labour, for a search for perfection within the bounds imposed by the immediate object. When the work is done with intimate care then the craftsperson impresses their own spirit upon it. “By sympathetic use of the tools in their hands they can interpret their life and build and maintain their tradition”. So the computer generated image stitched onto tweed by an installed program has no soul and without that important human element also has no intrinsic value. Our highly skilled crafts people are being asked to debase their ability in order to produce work that is cheap enough to market for the masses, which in turn only increases the amount of produce that ends up in the rubbish bin. It is bad enough sitting through a slideshow of friends latest holiday without having to say thank you for some ghastly bauble from the Bahamas. I gave up buying gifts many years ago and instead treat myself to something special approximately every five years and this will have absolutely nothing to do with key rings of fridge magnets.   
The second half of this 1951 booklet is concerned with advertising where Reid and Taylor Ltd of Langholm Dumfriesshire boast of being makers of the world’s most expensive Twist Cheviot Cloths suitable for town and country. Nicoll Brothers of Bankfoot, Perth makers of sporrans since 1834 emphasise wholesale enquiries only, while Bailey’s Edinburgh branch offer Chateau Moulion Rose Medoc at 8/6 per bottle or a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild at 10/6.