Saturday, 8 March 2008

Handweaving in England - 1939

An odd title, you might well think, but I am reading a book written in 1939 by Ethel Mairet, an English handweaver, who "set up her hand loom in defiance of the march of time" and went on to teach many other weavers, in several different countries.

The book is "Hand-weaving To-day, Traditions and Changes", Ethel Mairet, first published Faber & Faber 1939, my copy is the 4th edition, from 1959.

It is beautifully written, I was surprised by the use of colloquial language in a book of this time, but this makes the story flow as she tells a brief history of weaving worldwide and then in specific countries. She looks at the development of industrial weaving in England from a philosophical "post war" point of view. Writing of the influence of William Morris, she says:
"Although the Arts and Crafts movement had the disastrous effect of isolating the individual craftsman and separating him from the trend of industrial development, it did save him from extinction."

As I read this aloud at breakfast time my boyfriend commented "ah, she is of the Modernist era, then". Yes, indeed, she says:
"...we are now at the start of a post-War consciousness, a post-War art and life, entirely different from that at the beginning of the century. The idea of controlling the machine and making out of it something beautiful, is gradually developing. We are at least beginning to feel that our own age has something to express."

Curiously, this book is about hand-weaving, and yet what she seeks to do seems to be to marry the hand-craft and the industrial. This I had not expected from the title. This little book reads as an essay appealing for the standard of industrial work to be improved by going back to learning from the skills of hand-spinning - "the foundation of weaving" - and hand-weaving.

In a chapter on "Handweaving and Education" she says:
"there is much need in England for well-trained weavers. They are needed as designers for industry and for the individual small workshops doing work of fine quality".
She says the training of weavers should take 5 - 8 years:
"It is the gathering of experience that is important as well as the mastery of best technique. There should be an historical background - a knowledge of what has been done, but it must be used only as a help to creation."

In some ways, this book is charming as a picture of its times, rather dated. But it also has lovely descriptions of "contemporary hand-weaving " in Scandinavia, The British Isles, and France, and a fascinating account of the Welsh Mill form 18th century to the present day. To my surprise I read:
"there are still over a hundred small mills scattered about Wales, mostly in remote valleys, wherever there is a suitable stream to run the water-wheels...".

1939 is a long time ago, I wonder how many of these mills were still manned after the 2nd world war?

At the end of the book are short related essays by other authors. One is on sorting fleece, another I am looking forward to reading is about "Weaving at the Bauhaus" by one of the weavers who worked there.

For a weaver interested in philosophy, history, and the development of different weaving traditions, this is a very interesting book indeed, and as we are having very wet weather this weekend, I'm happy to be a bookworm :)


Janet said...

Thanks for this Dot. I'll go look up my copy of the book - and will probably find others along the same vein. Janet in Dublin where it is definitely "bookworm" weather this morning.

Helen said...

Ethel Mairet also wrote a beautiful book on natural dyeing too. Unfortunately I have not got a copy but a friend of mine has and it is a classic that I still turn too for information.

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