Textile revolution

PUBLISHED: 11:38 22 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:38 22 September 2015

The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall.

The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall.

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Lucy Etherington meets a group of Suffolk textile artists who want to be taken seriously

The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall. Sally Mills at work.The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall. Sally Mills at work.

A bunch of women meeting in a village hall to stitch, embroider and weave – I know, I had the same lazy assumption. They’re probably making tea cosies and pin cushions. Nothing wrong with that, but how is it a feature for Suffolk Magazine?

Of course, I was totally wrong. I knew in the back of my mind that working with textiles is an art form. Every major arts college carries a textiles course. Grayson Perry is lauded for his fabulously intricate satirical tapestries as well as his frocks, and Tracey Emin’s major works involve sewing rude things on quilts or tents. But still, I didn’t expect the members of Suffolk Textile group Chain Reaction to be quite so, well . . . radical.

“We’re not a women’s craft group making crocheted doilies,” member Alison Couchman, one of the founders of Chain Reaction, tells me. “What we’re doing is cutting edge, unique. It’s art.”

The group show me their work, some OF which is traditional and easy on the eye, but many are more experimental. Hilary Belchak’s wall hangings are abstract paintings in felt. Liz Chester – whose work is well known through the Suffolk Craft Society – weaves tapestries of landscapes that are both contemporary and hark back to the thirties. Much of the work is sculptural, such as Carol Sutherland’s glowing vessel and Kingsley Thompson’s decorated heads.

The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall. Cherrie Stevens and Nicky Eastaugh (right) at work.The Chain Reaction textile artists group at Fornham Village Hall. Cherrie Stevens and Nicky Eastaugh (right) at work.

“We have a much wider range of skills than other artists,” embroidery artist Lesley Buckwell says. “And we use all kinds of materials, taking the word textiles in the broadest possible sense. Paper is fibre.”

What is most striking, apart from the vivid colours, is the skill and detail in much of the work, such as Nicky Eastaugh, Kingsley Thompson and Alison’s own intricate, layered patterns. A line of stitching can in some ways become more compelling than a pen line because you understand the intensity of its creation, the hundreds of stitches it took to make.

If you are the kind of person who wanders around modern art galleries thinking: “I could do that,” I’d be surprised and impressed if you felt that way about Chain Reaction’s work. Although apparently this does happen.

“I had a man who was quite insistent that his wife was a better embroiderer than me,” says Alison. “He told me I was cheating because I was doing it by machine whereas she could do it by hand. He couldn’t comprehend that I was operating the machine, that it wasn’t pre-programmed.”

“I’ve often been asked, “Why don’t you just paint it?” says Liz Chester. I bite my lip, then ask anyway. “Why don’t you?”

“I love textiles,” she says, simply. “They say that you don’t choose the craft, but the craft chooses you. Perhaps you need to be a slightly obsessive personality.”

“I always felt out of step with the rest of the art world,” Alison adds. “People were looking at me like I’d grown another head. Which is why I really value our group – we’re a community of like-minded people who understand why we’re compelled to work in this medium.”

Chain Reaction was formed in 2010 by Suffolk based members of Eastern Region Textile Forum, the new name being much easier on the tongue, but also capturing the feisty spirit of the group. All are busy stitching when I arrive Thornham St Martin Village hall, where they meet every month. The discussion over tea and biscuits ranges over politics, the history of textiles, gender stereotyping, art and practical techniques.

“We support each other,” says Lesley. “We bounce ideas off each other and learn new skills.”

“We also spur each other along to do more,” says Hilary, who took up felt-making after a successful career as a lawyer. “I know I wouldn’t push myself half as much if I didn’t have this group. I might even have given up.”

Being a group also makes it easier to exhibit their work. They have had shows in Beccles and Ipswich, and are now preparing for their third annual exhibition at The Pond Gallery at Snape Maltings. Plus, there’s strength in numbers.

“In America and lots of European countries, quilts and tapestries are art,” says Alison. “Here in the UK we’re battling against perception.”

A lot of that perception is, sadly, sexist. This group is notably all female and they wonder if men are put off by the idea that sewing isn’t quite macho enough.

This leads to a discussion on the few male textile artists out there. Only recently, the newly discovered embroideries of Norfolk fisherman John Craske made national news. There’s also Fine Cell Work, a brilliant project that trains male prisoners in skilled needlework with breath-taking results. But would they get the same level of attention if they were female inmates?

“When a man makes an embroidery it attracts a lot of attention,” says Alison, wryly.

And yet, they tell me, it’s only in the last century the idea of textiles being a predominantly female occupation has taken hold. Men were weavers. In World War I soldiers would embroider postcards. Tailors are usually assumed to be men. Tapestries were the art forms of the middle ages up to the 17th century, with weaving skills passed from father to son, and were revived in the 19th century by William Morris. It’s not entirely clear where the change occurred, but it clearly has, and with it the (entirely sexist) assumption that textiles is therefore a lesser art form.

Chain Reaction tell me they would be happy for men to join their group, and hope any male textile artists out there won’t be put off by the idea of meeting in a village hall with a lot of ladies.

“We don’t sit around talking about our emotions,” says Liz. “We’re professional artists.”

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