This article, Guilded Lilies: The Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, is the second in our series of longer blog articles and was written by Ptolemy Mann.
Across the land in village halls and community centres, there have been groups of weavers, spinners and dyers meeting and making since the 1950s; gatherings of enthusiastic craftspeople exchanging and sharing skills and stories.
Impressively, there are over one hundred individual guilds across the British Isles, each one committed to their manifesto: ‘To further the preservation, skill, excellence and improvement of craftsmanship in weaving, spinning and dyeing for the benefit of the public and to advance public education in such craftsmanship.’ In 1955 The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers was created as a charity to help bring together these numerous guilds under one umbrella (although it seems that they all still operate fairly independently). It now represents over 5,000 members.
In recent years this impressive network has also added an online guild which aims to include those who are unable to attend in person, be it due to physical or geographical limitations. It all sounds rather fabulous and old fashioned from a distance; on a par with the Women’s Institute, these guilds evoke a spirit of good British, social values.
However, on closer inspection, it appears that there are more layers and intrigues at play than one might expect. There is apparently a gap between those who are simply happy to practise their hobbies and those who wish to develop their skills in a more ambitious direction – to the ‘hobbyist’ the idea of creating income can be frowned upon. It is also quite a big umbrella; weaving, spinning and dyeing are all very different pursuits. Spinning is more immediate: new members can learn extremely fast and be up and spinning within 30 minutes. At guild meetings, spinners often converge together and are able to talk and interact more socially while they are working. For the weavers it is a totally different head-space: unwieldy equipment, combined with the need to really concentrate at a much slower pace with complex processes, means that they often feel distanced from the group at large.
Dyers and spinners are focused on producing yarns for general use whereas weavers work towards a specific end product. The issue with any large membership organisation is whether the needs of all its members are being met equally. Undeniably the notion of getting together and exchanging ideas and skills is an excellent and enduring one – but perhaps this particular umbrella covers too many disciplines?
Image: Matty Smith, Neda: Bearing Witness (2009). 490mm x 275mm.
For one member, the tapestry weaver Matty Smith, the guild was ‘a door into an area of creativity that was originally shut.’ It served as a fantastic springboard for Smith, and enabled her to learn the basic skills through a guild workshop, which then led to her undertaking an Association of Guilds Certificate of Achievement in Tapestry Weaving (CoA). Her breakthrough moment, however, came when she attended tapestry-specific workshops at West Dean College. Smith expresses concerns that the Association of Guilds has a focus on ‘craft from a utilitarian perspective rather than craft as a means to creating art.’ As with the wider craft world, this is an ongoing issue, and the emphasis inevitably falls on the making of functional objects rather than the non-functional. Smith’s work is most definitely based in the realm of fine art, and her love of technique and learning shines through. One particular artwork, Lost Boy, utilises a specific technique where the warp threads, usually hidden in tapestry, are revealed and left bare creating a three-dimensional surface. Another work, the portrait Neda, expresses an almost photographic realism and reinforces Smith’s desire to create pieces of a very personal and pictorial nature – each work is telling us a story.
One of the hardest aspects about making tapestry artworks (or any other finished piece) is getting the pricing right. This is always a very stressful topic for any maker, but especially so for an amateur moving into the realm of professional. There is a tendency for everyone (guild members included) to consistently undervalue their work. This is a universal problem worldwide across all forms of craft. The number of hours put into a piece just never seem to equate into the remuneration.
Image: Sami bands
Weaver Susan J Foulkes is a member of the Durham Guild but finds the Online Guild an important source of connection to a more worldwide membership, particularly as her area of specialism is the very niche field of band weaving. If she has any questions there is always someone, somewhere with the answer. She writes regularly for the Association journal and shares her research through this platform. In fact, research has taken a central role in her work. After experimenting with various weave techniques she settled on patterned band weaving, prompted by a trip to Peru. Although intrigued by the complex pattern charts she also became fascinated by who wove them and wore them. Little did she know, this would lead to extensive travels through Germany, The Netherlands, Scandinavia and Russia. Her first long trip was to Sweden where she discovered the importance of these bands in Sámi culture and beyond the arctic circle. They are woven in narrow widths with two or three contrasting colours, one of which is often white: the colour red also features prominently. They would be worn as belts on special occasions, both joyous and sombre. Later in the 19th century, when rainbow dyes became more readily available, they became a vehicle for experimentation with new pattern and colour. Foulkes has pursued her craft to great heights and now gives her knowledge back through teaching and writing.
What is abundantly clear is that The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers fulfils a crucial role when it comes to creating and nurturing a network of like-minded textile enthusiasts, serving as an excellent starting point from which to learn and explore further. It may be that certain niche disciplines such as loom weaving, and more textile art based pursuits, eventually require a more specialised approach: but if anyone, of any age, has ever flirted with the idea of learning about weaving, spinning or dyeing, this is a very good place to start.
Find out more about the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers on their website: www.wsd.org.uk
Written by Ptolemy Mann