Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Day 4 Edinburgh

Finally weather I associate with Scotland, rain. But that didn't keep visitors away from Roslyn Chapel. If there are 3 large buses of tourists at the venue in April, that confirms why I don't travel to Scotland in the summer. The chapel was made "famous" in the Dan Brown book "The Davinchi Code." However, it is a private chapel of the Sinclairs. A temporary roof covers the chapel undergoing restoration. Photography is not allowed inside, so you'll have to visit yourself to see the exquisite carving. Many theories and legends abound as to what is buried beneath the chapel, including the Holy Grail.

The group was free to explore the Royal Mile in Edinburgh for the rest of the day. Had the weather been fine, I favored a walk to Arthur's Seat, but in the blustery weather, I holed up in the office of the coach company I contract with and caught up on email. The rain did stop by evening and after an excellent dinner at the Hotel Ceilidh-Donia,, run by Annette and her family, a walk to a nearby estate yielded peacocks, blue sky and daffodils of course. Daffodils are planted by town councils and individuals in every ditch, boulevard, park, garden, you name it.

You can't stay home on a Friday night in Edinburgh. Three of us checked out the session at The Tass pub on the corner of High Street and Jeffrey and struck musical gold. Not only did we get seats right next to the musicians, but a fiddler offered me use of his fiddle to play a tune. I had left my instrument back at the B&B thinking the session may not be open to outsiders. But part way through the first tune, the E string broke and the owner of the fiddler promptly took his fiddle back! E strings usually break when you are tuning them, not playing them, so it was an unusual occurence. However, I did offer up a song later in the session. The session is run by guitarist George Duff, singer Christ Myles, and joined by Willie Haines on concertina and Duncan Wood on fiddle. They played a mix of Irish and Scottish tunes. Pubs close down by 12:30 a.m but a few have late licenses, like the Royal Oak. If you haven't had enough music, they play there until 2:00 a.m.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 3 The Borders and New Lanark

Each day of the tour, I shared a poem that was relevant to the place or area we were traveling. As we went to the Borders today, we passed the home of the poet known as The Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. His poem, "A Boy's Song" eloquently describes the rolling green hills of sheep and cattle pastures bisected by the rivers Tweed, Clyde and Yarrow. One stanza goes...."Where the mowers mow the cleanest, where the hay lies thick and greenest, there to track the homeward bee, that's the way for Billy and me... "

I couldn't help thinking of the song Karine Polwart sung last night, "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" as we drove through the Borders today. This sad song is on her album "The Fairest Floo'r". We heard Karine in concert last night at Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline. A fine song writer and singer, I was most moved near the end of the concert when just her voice and a piano accompanying treated us to several traditional old songs.

Locharron of Scotland was the venue of the morning. One of the few weaving mills left in the Borders, this Selkirk based company weaves tartans and fashion fabrics for designers and companies around the world. Since last year they have moved into their new home at Riverside industrial area and feature a huge new showroom of their goods. A guided tour starts with the dying process of the wool.

The process continues with cone winding, winding the warp and then tying onto the looms. If the current order has the same number of warps per inch as the previous job, a machine can tie on the entire warp in one hour. If an order has an unusal set, a worker has to hand thread the heddles, about an 8 hour job, just like us labor intensive hand loom weavers have to do in our studios. The reel that had just come off the warping machine had 9 different warps on it, one tied to the other.

The Swiss power looms the company weaves on are quite new. But still much hands on work and checking is required to retain the high standard of quality the company demands of their cloth. The women in quality control handle and inspect every yard of fabric after it comes off the looms. If an error is found, they may have to hand needle in yarn to fix the problem for up to a 40 yard length. The finishing of the cloth is jobbed out to another company. Locharron has their own inhouse design team. The head designers spend half their time in New York and Japan. When I asked the guide how Lochcarron has survived when most other mills have closed, he answered simply “quality. When companies buy from us, they know what they are getting.” In the photo you see Brad Bonar, hefting a finished roll of fashion fabric.

New Lanark World Heritage Site is the site of a former mill where cotton was spun. Today, in one of the restored mill buildings, there is a small production of wool yarn being spun on a large spinning mule for the sake of education and for profit.

The community was built below three falls on the River Clyde in the late 1700’s by a Mr Dale. The mill ran on power generated by the falls. Today New Lanark still produces hydropower that runs the community, with enough left over to sell back to the power grid. The mill was purchased and run by Robert Owen from 1800-1825. He was a social reformer and forward thinker far ahead of his time. He ideas were not popular with other mill owners. But his efforts gave him the title Father of trade unionist movement in Scotland. He banned children from under age 10 from working in the mill. He started the first nursery school in the UK. Children from ages 2-9 went to school while their parents and siblings worked in the mill. Once children reached age 10, they worked in the mill and then attended classes at night. Mr Owen treated his own 7 children no differently than he treated the children of the mill workers.

The school was built by money generated from the company store which was run as a cooperative. New Lanark was the first cooperative that lead to the foundation of The Co-op, a grocery store still thriving around the country today. In school not only were reading, writing, and arithmetic taught, but the children studied dancing, music, and nature studies.

The workers lived in buildings just across from the mill. A family of 10 may share one room, but they were warm, well fed, and had healthcare provided by the mill doctor. The work day started at 6 a.m with a breakfast break at 9 a.m. and lunch break in the middle of the afternoon. The work day ended at 7pm. The mill ran 6 days a week and was closed on Sunday. The mill operated until the middle of the 20th century until it could not operate profitably. The mill buildings sat empty and fell into disrepair from the elements and vandalism. A foundation saw the value in restoring the site and started the vast restoration of the mill in the 1970’s. The restoration still continues today. In the past year a new roof garden has been added on top of one of the mill buildings.

The site is a glorious example of public and private cooperation to preserve an important part of Scottish history and to educate generations to come. Today 150 people live on the site. Many visitors may only take the Millenium Ride. But I encourage you to view the movie, The Annie McLeod Story, in the school building, visit Robert Owen’s house, spend time looking through the exhibits in Mill buildings 1&2 and the housing block and take a hike up to the top falls.

This time of year, there is a 24 hour peregrine falcon watch along the trail where a falcon is nesting. Telescopes are set up so you can view the nest. This year we stayed at the mill hotel. It was soothing to fall asleep to the sound of the River Clyde rushing by. I was very struck by this place on my first visit 11 years ago and each visit deepens that impression. I think it is the most tasteful and educational tourist site in Scotland.

Day 2 Paisley Area

We started at the Paisley City Museum. This is a free museum and the oldest municipal museum in Scotland. It houses one of the best collections of Paisley shawls in the world. The collection curator, Valerie Reilly, gave us a detailed talk and slide presentation of the history of the Paisley shawl from the design's origins in Babylon where it was a fertility symbol, how it spread to the Kashmir region of India, and then finally to Europe. The East India company started importing them to Europe in 1780.

Originally the shawls coming from Kashmir were made of pashmina goat fiber that was collected bushes where the goats would rub it off. These shawls were woven on simple wooden looms and took months to weave. The limited source of the fiber and the time it took to weave these shawls in Kashmir made them very expensive. Josephine, Napolean's wife, had 200 shawls in her wardrobe. By the late 1700's the shawls were being produced in Edinburgh, Norwich, France, Russia and Paisley on draw looms. Paisley had highly skilled weavers who had previously woven linen.

The town of Paisley in the height of popularity of the Paisley shawls around 1840, had hundreds of weavers making these wonderful cloths, then on the Jacquard loom. An elaborate paisley design could take 484,000 pattern cards to produce it. But the weavers had to be accurate in their weaving, so that by the time they had woven an entire shawl pattern, they were within 1/4" of the required length.

The paisley pattern changed throughout the 100 years the shawls were in fashion. The designs became more elongated in the Victorian era. The size of the shawls also changed as women's fashion changed. In the 1850's, the shawls were woven 5' 6" x 11' so they could be folded and used like a coat to fit over crinoline skirts. When the bustle came into fashion 1865-1870, this was the death of the paisley shawl as the shawls didn't work with the protruding bustle shape.
Sma Shot Cottages are just down the road. The name Sma Shot comes from the binding weft thread that was thrown every 7th pick to hold the rest of weft threads in place in the paisley fabric. A society has resurrected and preserved one of the weavers cottages from the era when linen was woven Paisley, (1700's) and then other rooms depicting life in later years.

The men were the weavers, but there were many other jobs associated with making the shawls including designers, beamers, warpers, washers, steam pressers, stenters, fringers, and then the marketers. The weaver took an oath to eat his shuttle rather than give away trade secrets. Thus the shield for the weaver's trade has 3 tabby cats on it with shuttles in their mouths. Their motto was "Weave Truth with Trust" The first Saturday of July, is "Sma Shot Day", still celebrated. This commemorates the day in 1856 when the weavers won the case to be paid for the yarn used to weave the "sma shot."

After our tour and a fine lunch in the tea room, we treated the volunteers to our version of Danny Kyle's song, "The Music of the Loom." After just one day of practice the travelers heartily joined me on the chorus " pee nickle, po nickle a' roon the toon it's heard, pee nickle po nickle music o' the loom"

The Thread Mill museum tells the story of the huge thread industry in Paisley that shut the last door in 1992. The Coats and Clark company which was a combination of the Anchor Thread Mill and the Ferguslie thread mill at one time produced 90% of all the thread made in the world. The cases display mile reels of thread, posters, memorabilia from mill workers, and now all the photographs have been digitalized and are displayed on a large plasma screen. Most of the volunteers who run this museum worked in one of the mills.

A quick stop at Paisley Abbey concluded our day in this town, just a 20 minute train ride from Glasgow. The 12th century abbey has a medieval nave. The monestary was disbanded in 1560 and the central tower of the abbey collapsed in the same century. Restoration started in the 19th century and continued into the 20th century. The stained glass windows all have interesting stories, described in a pamphlet available at the entry. The abbey also houses Royal Tombs including Marjory Bruce, the daughter of Robert the Bruce.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tour 2008 Commences Day 1

I'm back in Glasgow leading another group of fiber enthusiasts through this wonderful country. As we headed north out of the city for the first venue of the trip, Stirling Castle, the sun broke through the mist and bestowed a rosy glow to the rest of the day.

The site of many famous battles, it rises out of the lowlands as the entrance gate into the highlands. From the castle you gaze across fields where many battles have taken place in earlier history and look across to the Wallace monument. Many different buildings and fortifications have stood on this site since the 1200’s. Historic Scotland's website can fill in the details of this historic place.

We have the current renovation of King James V palace to thank for the Unicorn tapestry project. Historic Scotland is working with the West Dean Tapestry studio to recreate the 7 tapestries in the Hunt of the Unicorn series.The originals are in the Metropolitan's Cloisters Museum in New York City. Tracy Chevalier also wrote an excellent historical fiction book called “The Lady & the Unicorn.”

Since records show King James had many tapestries in his palace, very likely including a version of the Unicorn tapestries, the Hunt series was chosen to be made anew. Louise Martin, the head weaver of the project, gave us an in-depth look into the scope of this amazing project. The 3 tapestries already completed are hanging on display at the Chapel Royal. it was fabulous to see the "The Unicorn is killed and brought to the castle" being woven on last year's trip, completed and hanging in full glory. The image you see is this tapestry.

The weavers are currently working on "the unicorn at bay." A temporary studio was built on the north end of the castle for this project. 3 weavers work on the project. A 5th tapestry is being woven at the West Dean Tapestry studio in England. The entire project will be completed in 2012 when the whole set of tapestries will hang in the newly renovated palace at Stirling Castle.

To render the full scale design and cartoon, the head weavers go to New York to the Cloisters. They have access to within one millimeter of the original tapestries but cannot touch them. They figure out yarn colors and make a detailed plan for each figure and motif in each tapestry. Working from full size color copy, they make an acetate tracing of the tapestry. Then from this they make a paper cartoon. Samples are woven to work out specific techniques to achieve desired effects.The wool yarn is all dyed at the West Dean studio. Instead of silk, pearl cotton is being used for the shiny parts as it has longer color fastness. Historic Scotland requires that the materials being used in the tapestry hold up for 250 years.

Reweaving the tapestries is not a matter of copying. First, the new tapestries are being woven 10 % smaller than the originals to fit in the space in the palace. They are weaving with fewer EPI (ends per inch) in the warp) because it would take too long and cost too much money to weave them at the original finer warp set. (A patron in her eighties is financing the project.) Also, the head weavers have to train the weavers who come in to weave each tapestry. Although all experienced tapestry weavers, they need to undertand the specific techniques and develop nuances of skill. There will be about 25 weavers total who have worked on the series by the time it is completed. Each weaver has to leave their own individuality and style behind and try to get into the mind of the original weavers as they work. Getting this inside look at the current project was really special. The scope, historical accurateness, detail, and dedication is amazing.

We went back to Glasgow for lunch at the House for an Art Lover Cafe before tour of the house. I personally can recommend the delicous salmon entree. The house was designed over 100 years ago by Charles Renne Mackintosh for a contest to design a house for an art lover. He submitted his entry under the pseudonym "Der Vogel" and indeed throughout the house, you find motifs of birds. He did not win the competition. But in 1980, two businessmen decided his house should be built. And in 1996, the house, in Bellahouston Park, opened.

The clean lines and the influence of nature inside the house was influenced by Mackintosh's appreciation of Japanese design. Throughout the home the "Mackintosh Rose" symbol appears again and again. Margaret, Charle's wife, a fine artist, designed the gesso plaques and the stipling on the wall . When the house was built, students from the Glasgow School of Art and other area artisans recreated the furniture, cabinets, stained glass, virtually the entire interior as the Mackintosh's designed it 100 years ago.

Charles died in 1928, poor and virtually forgotten, and Margaret died in 1932. Their marriage was a true love story. Today, people world wide value the design aesthetic we today call "Mackintosh" There are many other sites in the Glasgow area that feature the architecture and interiors of Charles Mackintosh. The House for an Art Lover might be a good place to start.