Ethel Mairet-The mother of English handweaving

New Exhibition

Exhibition at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. May 14, 2022   –   Oct 29, 2022

The mother of English handweaving. This is how Ethel Mairet (1872 – 1952) was described by esteemed Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada. She was a highly skilled weaver and pioneer of Britain’s twentieth-century modern craft revival. She was also the first woman Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1939, so it’s clear to see how she earned this accolade.

Credit: From the Papers of Ethel Mairet, Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative

Schools workshop

I was thrilled when I was approached to lead the school’s weave and natural dyeing workshops for Barnstaple Museums’ new exhibition on Mairet and the Arts and Crafts Movement, and I’ve found researching her life’s work fascinating.

From the onset, I felt a close affinity with Mairet. She was born exactly 100 years before me, spent time living and traveling in India, (as I did in 2006), prioritised colour and combining different textures of yarn in her weaving more than the techniques, (whilst being highly skilled technically), and she taught and influenced Peter Collingwood*, (who’s workshop contents I have recently acquired). The more I discover, the more I want to know and we share a similar approach in our weaving and teaching.

A copy of her rare book, Hand-Weaving Notes For Teachers, serendipitously came into my life when the conversations with the museum first started. This has been instrumental in how I’ve designed the school’s workshops as well as giving me insight into her mindset.

A series of books and weaving and dyeing form part of Ethel Mairets legacy

Importance of weaving in schools

In this book, she doesn’t hold back on the impact of the industrial revolution on handweaving and the value of promoting it in schools. Whilst she recognised the economic importance of power looms, she was rightly concerned that without the understanding of materials and design that come through handweaving, the textile industry was taking risks with quality and creating less desirable cloth. These concerns are just as valid 100 years on, as we address mass production, over-consumption, fast fashion, and the impact of this on the climate. In support of this viewpoint, I actively promote the ideology of fewer, better things in my own practice and teaching.

She highlighted the ways in which studying dyeing and weaving connect to other parts of the school curriculum, covering maths, chemistry, and history, as well as design.

This is also still relevant today, and it’s worth mentioning a few additions. I think craft, and particularly weaving is good for the well-being of our young people. The session focuses on the basic weave structures of plain weave and twill, with more emphasis on creating textures through the yarns we will naturally dye in the first workshop. By its very nature, the process will enable the students to be in the moment and find their own rhythm. A practice advocated by those working in the mental health sector. You can read more about the positive impact of craft on your mental health in the article from the Crafts Council https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/stories/4-reasons-craft-good-your-mental-health

I will be using dressed 4 shaft table looms in the sessions, which will give the students an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the principles of weaving without overwhelming them with the technicalities of warping up.

The Louet Erica 4 shaft table loom for schools weaving workshop

Sustainable making

Mairet was adamant that teaching in schools shouldn’t be about creating useless and unwanted things, and I entirely support this view. In response, I have created a workshop where the dyed yarns and woven cloth is made up into simple cushions which will be used to create a warm and comfortable space in a communal area. Ideally where the pastoral care team is based. I hope the students will feel a sense of pride in their creations and a better understanding of the value of handmade.

Huge thanks to expert dyer, Ria Burns for the crash course in dyeing with plants. Read Ria’s blog post on Ethel Mairet here.
An example of the simple handwoven products the students will produce in the workshops

Indian connection

In her notes for teachers, Mairet emphasises the importance of schools having access to “a collection of good, interesting modern and traditional textiles from all over the world, both hand and machine woven as an inspiration for fine workmanship, to help with new ideas”, and to maintain standards of quality.

Like Mairet, I spent time living in India and will be able to draw on this experience in the classroom as well as having examples of textiles collected on my travels to share. (Admittedly these focus more on stitch than weave).

Design

I was pleased to discover that Mairet, like myself, preferred to design at the loom, and saw transferring the pattern to paper as the last part of designing, not the starting point. The paper designs are for reference only. I will encourage the students to simply play with colour and texture when incorporating their naturally dyed yarns into their weaving. I’ll bring along some other interesting yarns to encourage experimentation too.

As an aside, I was intrigued to see that Mairet regarded the teaching of Scandinavian patterns as a bad influence in schools, and in another of her books she raises concerns that in trying the preserve traditional techniques the creative spirit is killed. She did recognise the instances of imaginative weavers fighting against this trend. Given that I’ve spent almost 30 years trying to exhaust the possibilities of Krokbragd, I would love to have been able to chat to her about this freedom to play with design when using these weft-faced weaving techniques, though I agree that it’s not an ideal starting point from which to learn about weaving in schools.

Example of creating contemporary textile designs using traditional Scandinavian weave techniques

Materials

Another thing I admire in her work is her receptiveness to the new synthetic materials that were coming onto the market such as rayon and cellophane and the considered way she introduced them into her weaving. I share this interest in using less conventional yarns such as glitter yarns and chenilles alongside wool and cotton in my rugs and woven panels, though I will be looking at sustainable fibre options in the future for obvious reasons.

Ethel Mairet handwoven sample using cellophane. Credit Tom Van Deijnen
Angie Parker handwoven Krokbragd sample. Cotton, chenille and glitter yarn

The more I learn about the significance of Ethel Mairet, the more I would love to have crossed paths with her in life. But given that she passed away 20 years before I arrived on planet earth I have to be thankful that she left behind a series of books, records, and samples. It must have been amazing to experiment in her workshop. Whilst she is regarded as the mother of English handweaving, I quite like the idea of being a mischievous granddaughter, and because of her, I’m delighted to have the chance to share my passion for weaving with the students from Park School.

This celebration of her life’s work and teaching at Barnstaple museum is a great opportunity for weave enthusiasts to learn more about her. The exhibition brings together items from the Museum’s own Partridge Geology Collection with loans from national and regional museums including examples of Ethel’s celebrated handmade textiles from the Crafts Study Centre and Ditchling Museum of Arts and Craft; jewelry created by Fred from the V&A,  Fitzwilliam and Birmingham Museums; and a first edition copy of a book on Mediaeval Sinhalese art from the British Library.

May 14, 2022   –   Oct 29, 2022

Book onto a backstrap weave workshop

As part of the exhibition, I will also be teaching backstrap loom weaving during the weekend of activities. Booking details here.

*In Peter Collingwoods Obituary in the Guardian Oct 25, 2008, Roger Hardwick writes:

On his return to Britain, (Peter) spent six months at Ditchling, East Sussex, in the workshop of Ethel Mairet, then the best-known weaver in Britain. He thought that she accepted him as a pupil because she was intrigued that a man wanted to weave.”

Thanks to Ria Burns and Tom of Holland. For further reading, I recommend Tom’s 2016 blog post on the Mairet collection at the Ditchling museum.

About the author

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer, and colourist. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990s and started her textile practice in 2014. She hand weaves rugs and art panels in her Bristol studio and some of her designs are produced in small batches through various partnerships. She also teaches when her schedule allows. She is currently buried underneath 2 tonnes of rug wool. Sign up to her newsletter here, for updates once she emerges.

Were blankets invented in Bristol?

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Short answer. Quite possibly, yes!

Longer answer…

I came across the story of the 14th Century Flemish wool merchant, Thomas Blanket, inventing blankets when I designed The Bristol Blanket in 2020.

My colourful throw, inspired by the painted houses of Totterdown and Cliftonwood was woven by the team at Bristol Weaving Mill-A micro-mill in the heart of the city. It was very much a Bristol thing…

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The original Bristol Blanket 2020

I had created these blankets in response to the pandemic and it was local customers who brought my attention to Bristols’ link to the origin of blankets. But is there any truth in the rumour?

Channeling my inner Blomkvist and Salander from Stieg Larssons’ Dragon Tattoo series, I headed to Bristol Central Library archives to investigate.

En route to the library, I nipped into St Stephens Church to take a closer look at the tomb of Edmund Blanket and his second wife, Margaret.

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Urban myth or historical fact?

The story goes that it was this Flemish merchant and wool manufacturer who invented Blankets, but the tomb gave up little information. There isn’t an inscription, but there is evidence to suggest that this is indeed the Blankets. This includes the clothes worn by the effigies and the modifications to the tomb tie in with the re-building of the church. The timeline fits. Next stop; Central Library…

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Bristol central library

The information in the archives was much more revealing, and at this point, I need to give a shout-out to the librarians and archivists who helped with this task.

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I found some absolute treasures amongst these articles.
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After a satisfying session reading all the available information, I found the evidence I was looking for to conclude that there is a good possibility that blankets were invented in Bristol. Of course, we’re looking at the 14th Century so this is a bit sketchy, but I wasn’t the first to investigate and come to the same conclusion.

And the conclusion?

In a nutshell, Thomas Blanket swapped the animal skins he had been sleeping under at night for the heavy woollen cloth he had woven on his loom, and immediately felt the benefit. He went on to reduce the cost of weaving woollen blankets by setting up several looms in his Bristol home. He side-stepped the lengthy apprenticeships required by the Guilds and made woven textile bed-coverings more affordable to the masses.

Five centuries later, the Oxfordshire town of Witney became the epi-centre of the British blanket industry and two separate histories there also credited Thomas Blanket from Bristol as the inventor.

The final document I came across was an article by local historian Eugene Byrne. He had researched the same story and had already created a perfectly succinct summary of all the findings. He has kindly agreed to let me share this below, rather than me simply write the same thing again if you’d like to read more below.

Blankets for the 21st Century

I’m delighted that, quite by accident, the 2020 version of The Bristol Blanket has been aptly named for more than one reason. I’m also equally delighted that the success of the original design has enabled me to bring more warmth and uplifting colour to homes in a new collection.

The rug weaving technique that inspired the colour blocks in the blanket is called Summer and Winter, and this subsequently inspired a summer version of the blanket with a joyful yellow, and winter, with a classic slate grey.

Whatever the weather, most of us have taken to turning our heating down in recent times, for both ecological and economic reasons. There’s never been a better time to invest in a quality woollen blanket for your home, and knowing that 10% of the profits from sales of The Bristol Blanket go to Mind-the mental health charity, is another good reason to choose this uplifting design.

Which season are you? Summer, Winter, or Original?

The official launch of these new colours is Spring 2022.

But if you like being ahead of the pack I’m offering an early-bird discount. Simply select SUMMER or WINTER from my online shop. Then use the code EARLYBIRD22 to receive a whopping 20% off your blanket. They’re available for immediate posting so will be with you in a matter of days.

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Bristol Blanket-Summer Photo: Article Studio
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Bristol Blanket-Winter Photo: Article Studio
The Bristol Blanket – Original Photo: Article Studio

Who invented the blanket? By Eugene Byrne January 2012

Bristol’s most colourful Victorian newspaperman, Joseph Leech, wrote an extremely fanciful account of the blanket’s invention/discovery. In a story in Brief Romances from Bristol History (1884, a collection of what were originally articles in the Bristol Times) he imagined ‘Edward’ Blanket struggling to make his weaving business a success. One very cold night he and Mrs. B were shivering in their bed covered only by a ‘camlet’ of goat hair. Then he had an idea; he went to his loom and took a length of woollen cloth he had been working on that day, and covered the bed with it. They slept snugly, and the following morning he told Mrs. Blanket that he was going to go into the bed-covering business.

“My dearest dame,” said he, “I shall have the honour of giving a name to the article that will make my fortune and carry down my name to all future ages. Let others devote themselves to making cloth to keep them warm by day; be it my business henceforth to manufacture only that which will keep folks warm by night.”

Leech went on to call for an annual Blanket Day, in which Bristol would celebrate Mr. Blanket’s most excellent discovery/invention.

Of course, the whole idea of the blanket being invented here is just a particularly bovine bit of local nominative determinism. The idiot and famously unimaginative ancestors leaping to a ridiculous conclusion, eh?

Well, yes, probably. But not definitely …

The words ‘blanket’ and ‘blanchette’ (plus assorted other medieval spellings) had been in use for at least 150 years before Edmund Blanket’s time. The Blanket family themselves might have got their name from being makers of this cloth, just as medieval blacksmiths acquired the surname Smith, and bakers became Bakers.

However, if you look closely enough, the idea of woollen bed-coverings being invented, or at least popularised, by a Bristolian is not completely ridiculous. It might, just might, have happened.

Only it wasn’t Edmund Blanket who did it. It was Thomas Blanket, who was Edmund’s brother, or possibly his father. Or maybe his son.

Weaving was medieval Bristol’s main industry, underpinning most of the town’s seaborne trade. It was tightly regulated by the guilds and the corporation to maintain the quality of the finished cloth and protect the interests of the weavers and associated trades.

King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) started to change all that. He wanted the vast English cloth industry to be more profitable, all the better to tax it to pay for his wars. He restricted the wearing and importation of foreign cloth and the export from England of raw wool. He encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England to build up the cloth industry. Some of them came to Bristol; the Blankets may have been Flemish themselves, or they may have brought in some of these foreign weavers.

In the late 1330s, Thomas Blanket set up several looms at his property in Tucker Street, just south of the Bristol Bridge. He was effectively setting up a factory, employing weavers rather than working as a self-employed artisan. Presumably, his weavers hadn’t had to serve long apprenticeships in the traditional manner. The guilds and the Corporation didn’t like this and tried to put a stop to it.

Immediately, however, word came back from the King saying that Blanket was not to be impeded in any way:

“The said Thomas and the others who have chosen to work and make cloths of this sort, and also the workmen, should be protected and defended from injuries and improper exactions on that account. Order you, that you permit the said Thomas and the others who are willing to make cloths of this kind to cause machines to be erected in their own houses at their choice for the weaving and making cloths of this kind … “

The direct personal support of the king means Blanket was no mere clothier, but a very significant figure. The Corporation got the message and hurriedly performed a u-turn, and Thomas Blanket was made a local official in 1340. Blanket’s importance and royal support would have made him a well-known figure.

We don’t know how people slept in the 14th century. Most poor people probably slept on the floor (perhaps on straw), fully or partially clothed, though getting completely naked to sleep was often favoured where possible as it helped get rid of the lice which infested most of our ancestors’ bodies.

The more prosperous classes owned beds and may have slept in linen sheets under animal skins. Woollen cloth, meanwhile, was expensive stuff, produced by artisans … Until ruthless entrepreneurs like Thomas Blanket came along.

Blanket’s industrial production methods, however small they were by modern standards, may well have gone some way towards making woollen bed-coverings more affordable and fashionable. It’s possible that they became known by the name of the family who was making them.

There’s another intriguing scrap of circumstantial evidence from Witney in Oxfordshire. Witney was famous in the 19th and 20th centuries as the centre of Britain’s blanket industry. Until the duvet came along, almost everyone in Britain went to sleep under Witney blankets. Two separate 19th-century histories of Witney both credit the invention of the blanket to “Thomas Blanket” or “Thomas à Blanket” of Bristol. (Giles, J.A.; History of Witney (J.R. Smith, London, 1852) and Monk, W.J.; History of Witney (J. Knight, Witney, 1894))

The good folk of Witney would have no reason to credit the main source of their prosperity to a Bristolian unless there was a strong local legend there, too.

So then, in summary: Few people, if any slept under woollen blankets until they became affordable and/or fashionable. Thomas Blanket’s industrial production methods would certainly have brought down the price of woollen cloth. He was a minor celebrity who was known throughout the land, and he was credited with inventing blankets not just in Bristol, but in the Oxfordshire village where their manufacture would become the main local industry.

Nope, we can’t yet definitively prove a Bristolian named Blanket invented woollen bedclothes. But I don’t think there’s any definitive proof that he didn’t either.

In the Studio Photo: Alice Jane Hendy Photography

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer, and colourist, based at BV Studios in Bedminster. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990s and started her textile practice in 2014. Her latest collection of handwoven designs and small-batch-produced textiles are available in her online shop. Subscribers to her newsletter are the first to see new designs and also get access to special offers and exhibition news. Sign up here to keep in the loop.

Would you like 2 tonnes of wool with that?

When the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase the entire contents of the Collingwood rug weaving workshop came up, my gut instinct, without much hesitation, was to snap it up.

Admittedly, the UK’s most prominent and successful rug weaver, Jason Collingwood, announced his retirement a little sooner than I had expected. I wasn’t quite ready, but it was only a ‘small’ matter of logistics.

I simply had to move three full-size looms, all the additional equipment, and approximately 2 tonnes of yarn from Nayland in Colchester, to my shared studio space in Bristol. Only that! Oh, and the sampling loom made from a piano! Fortunately, the reality has allowed this to happen in stages, so much less overwhelming.

Three looms in the Collingwood workshop-Nayland. Photo: Theo Rooden

Serendipity

There were signals from the onset that this was the right move.

Firstly, I’d set my heart on one day owning the Harrisville shaft switching loom after weaving a rug on it in 2014. I voiced this intention at the time, and possibly a few times since, which put me at the top of the list when Jason decided to sell up. (Does anyone reading know if there are any more of these looms in the UK?)

The fact that I could make the figures work was obviously the biggest factor.

Initially, I expected to move my workshop to new premises for more space. However, in a serendipitous twist, the two adjoining spaces in my studios became available (was it something I said?), and I was able to expand without having to move.

It’s a bit of a squash and a squeeze and it certainly ain’t ‘Instagram pretty’, but it’s working for me and I love being at BV Studios. I can walk to work and it’s filled with so many amazing artists and friends.

Closing a chapter and cobwebs

The move is taking longer than originally estimated, but personally, I think this is better than an abrupt end to this chapter. There’s so much weaving history and some incredible cobwebs in The Old School and I’m conscious to be respectful of what came before. Two more trips should cover it though and I’ll miss my 24-hour mini-breaks driving a white van.

In the meantime, I’m knuckling down to some intense core strengthening and some hardcore rug weaving. And whilst I’ve no inclination, nor the skill set to emulate the prolific business model used by the looms previous owners, I do have productivity targets that require an improved level of stamina and endurance. (Note to self-Time to Plank).

Insane or savvy?

And the wool… Yes, let’s not gloss over the wool-shaped elephant in the room. A wise friend advised me not to go near it, but I’m trusting my gut instincts as they’ve served me well so far, and a deal’s a deal.

One section of the wool storage in the Collingwood workshop.
Ridiculous…

That said, my inner critic is screeching expletives on a regular basis about the ridiculous amount of yarn I’ve just transported across the country. Luckily, my inner advocate is louder, and I’m reminding myself that I now have the option to grow my business without buying new raw materials…ever again!

I’ll also try to sell what I don’t need over the coming months so drop me a line if you’re in the market for some good quality sustainable wool.

Life is a fairytale…by the brothers Grimm. Illustration: Vera Southgate

Yes, right now I feel I’m playing all the key roles in a weaving version of Rumpelstiltskin, although fortunately, no infants need to change hands in return for weaving this heap of wool into rugs.

There’s plenty more to share about my plans for this unusual business move. It feels nuts to be surrounded by more wool than I’m ever likely to weave, and so many looms.

However, it also feels right that this special collection of looms is staying together for the time being, and I’m looking forward to the time when I can open my studio doors for other weavers to use them, while I (to coin someone else’s phrase), pick up the baton to take on the world…one rug at a time. That should be shuttle really, shouldn’t it?

Angie Parker Phtoto: Alice Hendy Photography

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer, and colourist, based at BV Studios in Bristol. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990s and started her textile practice 8 years ago. Subscribers to her newsletter are the first to see new designs and also get access to special offers and exhibition news. Sign up here to keep in the loop.

New Editions of The Bristol Blanket for 2022

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In 2020 I created The Bristol Blanket in response to the daily walks I had around Bristol’s colourful houses with my family during the first lockdown. This was also to raise money for MIND – the mental health charity.

If you’re familiar with my home city of Bristol, you might have noticed that the inspiring painted houses overlooking the harbour frequently get a makeover. If you’re not, here’s a photo from a recent harbourside walk. Spot the new additions in luscious ochre and grey.

This gave me the idea to subtly alter the design and the shades I’ve used the Bristol Blanket. The news additions to the harbourside view, plus the fact that the weaving technique which I use to create the blocks of colour for the blanket is called Summer and Winter, made the new micro-collection an obvious choice.

Now there are three fabulous options for you to choose from this season; Original, SUMMER (left), and WINTER (right). 

EARLYBIRD DISCOUNT ON NEW EDITIONS

The official launch of these new colours is Spring 2022.

But if you like being ahead of the pack I’m offering an early-bird discount. Simply select SUMMER or WINTER from my online shop. Then use the code EARLYBIRD22 to receive a whopping 20% off your blanket. They’re available for immediate posting so will be with you in a matter of days.

The blankets are a warming addition to any bedroom or sofa. And they are just the thing to snuggle up with if you’re trying to turn your heating thermostat down a notch or two.

Lots of the recipients have fed back that they feel they were sent a soothing, cosy hug through the post, so why not send the gift of warmth and joy to someone special.

Focus/21

Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour with Contemporary Applied Arts

I’m delighted to showcase my original one-off handwoven artworks and digitally printed designs at this prestigious event from 20-24 September 2021

The remaining chair from the Danis Disruption Collaboration with Jonathan Rose Design also featured alongside the work of other members of Contemporary Applied Arts.

Do one thing today…for better mental health

There’s really no need to point out that this year has been challenging for everyone, in varying degrees, and as we approach World Mental Health Day on 10th October, there’s never been a better time to shine a light on the work of MIND – the mental health charity. They are actively trying to help those who are suffering from new or worsened mental health problems as a result of the pandemic, as well as campaigning relentlessly to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.

Charities have been dealt a double blow this year. Demand for their services has increased significantly and fund raising opportunities have been scaled back for obvious reasons. Whilst I can’t fix the negative impact of COVID-19, I can make a small change to the way I sell my luxury woven textiles, and the decision to donate 10% of the profits from sales of The Bristol Blanket to MIND works for me on a few levels.

I could have done this privately of course, but I’m making the donation part of the story for a few reasons. The main reason is that I think that now, more than ever, we need to keep the conversation about mental health at the top of the list. I’ve no specialist experience in this area, but I do know that things need to change with attitudes and the way many of us handle this part of our lives.

Another reason is that it’s slightly unsettling to have a business that’s doing okay when so many industries and individuals are suffering this year. (Rest assured, I’m thankful). Making this one change means that not only can I see a percentage of my profits go towards helping an organisation that can make a real difference, but it’s also helping my own mental well-being.

The Bristol Blanket. Photo: Article Studio

The Bristol Blanket is all about feeling good. The bright colours in this sumptuous lambswool blanket are designed to lift spirits and bring joy to homes. Inspired by the colourful Bristol houses which brightened up daily lock down walks, the blanket was created in partnership with Bristol Weaving Mill. The optimistic design reflects the connections with our neighbours and local community, which for many were strengthened during lock down. As an artist, I set out to design a textile that reflected the special bonds that formed from the shared experiences, in the hope that we continue to strengthen them and support each other more in the future. The response so far has been astonishing.

Available from www.angiepakertextiles.com

It’s a Bristol thing….. The Bristol Magazine October 2020

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and the message from MIND for this year is ‘Do one thing…for better mental health’. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk or doing something creative simply do one thing that improves your mental well being. There’s loads about it here.

Angie Parker Photo: Alice Hendy Photography

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer and colourist, based at BV Studios in Bedminster. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990’s and started her textile practice in 2014. Her latest collection of handwoven designs and small batch produced textiles has been launched ahead of schedule in September 2020. Subscribers to her newsletter are the first to see new designs and also get access to special offers and exhibition news. Sign up here to keep in the loop.