An Interview with Jan Garside

Jan Garside, with one of her collaborators, John Angus, and the woven book

Jan Garside, with one of her collaborators, John Angus, and the woven book

Jan Garside, a textile artist, recently completed a set of three responses to our research and to the ‘Virtue and Vice’ exhibition at Hardwick Hall. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Jan to talk through her inspiration and the challenges of her work, and to learn more about the ‘Drawing Room’ installation.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How long have you been working with textiles?

I was still working as a midwife when in 1998 I decided to take the plunge and pursue an Access to Higher Education course at the local college. The teacher was a textile artist and she inspired me to consider the wealth of textiles as a creative medium. It was largely thanks to her that I went on to study Textile Design at Loughborough University. I intended to study mixed media textiles, but at the last minute I changed to woven textiles, and that accidental change has become a lifelong passion.  I graduated from Loughborough in 2002 and set up my own company in 2003, with the support of the Crafts Council and the Arts Council.

Can you talk us through the series briefly? What was the inspiration behind the set as a whole?

The three pieces in the installation reflect on textiles of the time and the significance of the hands of the maker, something that your research prompted me to think about as a historical phenomenon as well as an element of my own experience as an artist. The work consists of hand-woven, Jacquard-woven, stitched, printed and laser cut pieces which interpret age-old skills in a contemporary context.

The work was inspired by the Virtue and Vice exhibition, and then developed and extended as I found out more about the project behind the exhibition and about your research. The pieces reflect on the textiles at Hardwick, but also on the fabrics used and made during the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-centuries.

I wanted to use lace as a vehicle for showing that during that period, social status and social worth were expressed through expensive costume – and so it was really fascinating to talk about the stories and histories behind the fabrics at Hardwick. Handmade lace in abundance spoke of individuals who had no need to work, but I was conscious that those who made the lace were often exploited, anonymous, and poorly paid. I thought the import of lace, and the influence of foreign fashions, also spoke to the project team’s research in really interesting ways.

Fire Screen Jan Garside

Jan’s beautiful ‘lace’ fire screen

It was also striking that, in wealthy households, embroidery techniques were taught as a social necessity for making a ‘virtuous’ wife. I was particularly inspired by the portrait that hangs in Hardwick of the Countess of Bedford. Her costume is awash with lavish amounts of lace but her expression seems almost bored. The exhibition, and the research we talked about, made me think about how women might use fabrics to express their personalities, and to tell stories either in what they wore, what they displayed, or in their own embroidery and textile work.

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford

Turning first to the book. This is close to my heart, obviously, as we’ve talked about my research into how women in Bess’s day were engaged in making and using books, how books circulated in their environments, and how their physical presence shaped the responses of their users. Why did you choose the book form as part of this work?

The White linen side of Jan's hand-woven bookI found it really intriguing to reflect on what books might mean for their owners and readers, and to talk about the different ways they might be approached by people. In this instance, the book becomes not so much rooted in fact but takes the viewers on an imaginary journey, inviting them to explore a diversity of images and implied text, whilst simultaneously hinting at a story.

The meaning lies with the beholder as the imagery of the books pages shift depending on your vantage point, and as seen and unseen artefacts are hidden and revealed in the transparent folds of the fabric of the book. The fact that the book is hand woven adds a voice to the makers of all works that remain anonymous, not unlike some women writers of the day, or the patrons and printers that you have written about.

Yes, I love the idea that the book, in one sense, is like an early modern book, prompting us to think about how people received stories, and made their own fictions out of them, but that it also comments on the process of uncovering or thinking about the past, and trying to glimpse the multiple hands and voices which went into making a grand house like Hardwick. Can you tell us a bit about the process of making the book?

The book is hand woven in one continuous piece on a 32 shaft traditional dobby loom.  It is woven like a double cloth.  The warp is made of very fine monofilament and the weft is a combination of natural and white linens and silk.  When I took it off the loom, I did all the finishing by hand, and stitched in the fragments of other cloths and samples. Each fragment is made using combinations of hand woven and/or hand embroidery and screen printed elements.

Image of Jan's hand loomImageI was amazed by how fine the threads are! It’s a reminder of how delicate and complex this work really is. It’s great, as well, to think of the book as a hand-woven object, here in Bess’s home, especially because we know that she owned a number of looms, kept in the Hall towers. Can you tell us what the biggest challenges are of hand-weaving?

It’s time-expensive, and it’s physically demanding! The dressing of the loom [ed. note: the setting up of the warp so that weaving can begin] is done in a prescribed traditional manner, where any shortcuts usually lead to trouble.

Having said that, hand weaving also brings its own wonderful rewards. I love experimenting with unusual and varying threads for warp and weft and the way that the weaver holds sway over the intuitive development of pattern, design and expression.

You’ve included lots of scraps of different fabrics and stitches in the book. Could you talk a little about where the idea for that came from, and why it seems so fitting for Hardwick, and for this period?

Hardwick has such a wealth of wonderful textiles that it wasn’t difficult to find inspiration in the Hall and its historical heritage.  I tried to bring a small sample of some of these inspirations into the book as fragments of the story.

The fragments of woven, embroidery and printed textiles reflect coats of arms, pertinent initials or parts of names, examples of colours taken from Hardwick tapestries, blackwork embroidery that became popular as a result of the influx of foreign influences into England at the time – that was something I really enjoyed thinking about in the exhibition, which drew my attention to the blackwork on Bess of Hardwick’s sleeve in one of her portraits.

There are also fragments that indicate part of a letter written by Queen Elizabeth I, and a stylised flower that bears a resemblance to the Tudor rose. I also included screen-printed fragments of an early handwritten weave draft [ed. note: a pattern for weaving] that reminded me very much of the musical score on the Eglantine table.

I love the idea of weaving together different media. One of the things we have talked about from my research is how women would sit together to engage in textile work, perhaps singing or listening to music or to books being read aloud. So it’s great to get the idea that this fabric captures some of that musicality, and the rhythms of working.

On a very different scale, we have the gorgeous jacquard woven hanging in the window. Can you tell us about the process of making that?

The Jacquard loom, used to weave this piece, is a power-driven loom with a cotton warp.  It has a three-repeat sequence across the width of the cloth and is made up of single harnesses. Each harness holds one thread. So, this type of loom allows for more representational designs to be woven, at a faster pace. I need to use a computer to tell the Jacquard what design I want it to weave.

The jaquard loom at work on the hanging

Once I’ve developed my design, I use the computer to negotiate a series of programmes that makes it possible to transform my ideas into a language that the Jacquard loom understands.  Then I choose the weft, put it into place, press the start button, and the weaving is driven forward on its predetermined course. It is possible to stop and start the loom in order to change the weft colours, and alter the weave structures. We did quite a lot of sampling, making key structure and colour changes during the initial process to get this piece just right.

Jan's jaquard-woven hanging in situIt’s great having fabrics draped around Bess’s bedroom of course, as we know that her room was absolutely filled with luxurious cloths. One of the things we’ve talked about a lot is the joy of seeing the reverse of these fabrics – something we very rarely get the chance to do with the historic textiles at Hardwick. Why is that important?

Tapestries are often woven from the back, so it’s much easier to understand the weaving process if you look at the back of a tapestry. Also, the original colour of historic textiles is often easier to see on the back of the cloth because it has not been exposed to the light in the same way. On my Jacquard-woven hanging the colour on the back mimics the front but in the opposite colours.

That’s something I played with in the two streamers which run down the right-hand side of the cloth, and look very different, though they are two sides of the same fabric.

In a way, it’s an interesting commentary on the exhibition process as well – that our research is about trying to uncover the stories behind the sources that remain visible, and seeing the ways in which different elements link together in ways that might be invisible if you just look at the front of a piece of fabric.

Yes.  There are often unexpected and interesting outcomes

We’ve also talked a bit about your choice of colours. One of the things that drew me to your work in the first place was the sense that it shows both how vulnerable textiles can be, but also how durable they are. Did that inform your choices when you were designing and making the hanging?

Yes.  In many ways this was quite a challenge.  In the hand woven book I was able to choose all of the materials and colours within the piece.  We discussed the feeling of something that had an antiquated sense about it. The bleached and white linens are yarns with historical lineage and can vary in subtle colour combinations to enrich the feeling of age and history. The monofilament lends itself to transparency, allowing layers to be seen, one through another but it is in fact, durable.

The large Jacquard woven hanging is made using a pre-set warp of white cotton yarn, which is very durable but doesn’t have the transparency of monofilament. I wanted the hanging to have the overall appearance of a hand- made piece and some uniformity of antiquated colour, so I experimented with the weft and warp colour mix to achieve colours that reflected inspiration taken from textiles in the house while at the same time experimenting with weave structures to mimic a hand-made aesthetic.

I was particularly interested in trying to achieve the beautiful faded feel of particular colours from parts of the appliqué hanging, ‘Faith and Mahomet’, which is so important to your exhibition. I found it fascinating to discuss with you some elements of text and imagery in this work. I found what you had to say about the way one set of fabrics were transformed into another context really fascinating, and wanted to reflect that.


I I also wanted the hanging to have an integrated element of the foreign influences that were creeping into English costume at that time – we talked about how the materials in the hanging tell a very different story from the message that is conveyed by the design. I integrated this type of blackwork into the hanging with the use of the ribbons designed to hang down the front and to one side of the work.  The border of lace, at the bottom of the hanging, is again inspired by elements of lace from this period.

Detail from the firescreenAnd finally, we’ve got the fabulous firescreen. When it’s lit it really looks like the most delicate lace just hanging, perfectly formed, in space. What was the idea behind this piece?

When a fireplace was the main heat source in an important space, such as a withdrawing room, the firescreen was used to protect the occupants in the room from the fierce heat. It was a great way to think about how people lived and worked, and to highlight the delicacy and vulnerability of the lace.

You’ve called the triptych as a whole ‘Drawing Room’, partly as a way of thinking about women’s textile work and how it was used in Bess’s day. How important is the idea of space and place in your work?

The idea of space and place are very important in my work, and it’s also very important to me to think about how the work will be displayed and experienced.

What were the challenges of working with the acrylic?

Personally, working with acrylic material on this scale was a new and challenging experience for me. The acrylic engraves really well and we were able to replicate both the texture of fabric and the fine detail and transparency of the lace design.

However, to ensure that the flat piece of acrylic was shaped into the curved surface that we wanted, a forma needed to be built, over which the acrylic sheet could be slumped.  It needed quite careful planning and skill by John and Adam, nail biting from me and a very big kiln. We needed quite a few trials to test the elasticity of the material and the heat settings to eliminate cracks and breakages. The trials, the laser expertise, the finishing of surfaces and the expense were all challenging.  But, the finished result was so true to the design inspiration and resonated so well to the two other pieces that it was more than worthwhile.

For all three of these pieces – and especially the jacquard and the firescreen – you’ve obviously found it essential to work together with your collaborators. We’ve talked before about my research into women’s work in the early modern period, and the ways in which women and men worked together both within and beyond the household to produce cultural objects. Can you tell us first how you tried to reflect that in your work?

Collaboration in action!

It was really an enriching experience to collaborate with other people who could appreciate the vision for the project and contribute expertise that enabled a tangible outcome. Usually, I work in isolation in a studio at home, so working with other artists provided a great opportunity to learn new skills, exchange ideas and appreciate other perspectives. The University of Derby have been fantastic in supporting me through this project, giving me access to equipment, and bringing me together with some really talented people who have helped me to realise my vision.

It can be an extremely liberating experience. The artists I have worked with have been so generous with information and with their time. This team was not designated by gender but by what each person could bring to the practice. I have found it a very inspiring project to work on with everyone concerned. I find it really interesting to think about that in relation to your research, thinking about how collaborations work, and the ways those histories come through in the form of the objects.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Jan Garside

  1. Pingback: Embroidery commission for Jan Garside | Ruth Singer

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