From Blog post

Willow, smocks and The Closet Craftsman: a diverse research trip

A couple of weeks ago I went on a pleasingly varied research trip, taking in the Will Shannon exhibition in Birmingham, a display of local smocks in Herefordshire, and my main destination, Somerset Willow Growers in Westonzoyland.

Somerset Willow Growers

In the past six months or so, the Leeds contingent of our project (Tom Cassidy and I) have developed a connection with the National Coppice Federation, who are interested in the potential of design to support the survival, development and evolution of coppicing in the UK.

Through our conversations about coppicing, we made a link with Richard Roberts at Somerset Willow Growers, a large producer of willow supplying both individual customers via their website, and the Somerset Willow Company.

Bruce Carnie, Programme Leader of BA Textile Design at Leeds, accompanied me on the trip. Together, we wanted to understand more about how willow is produced and used, in order to inform our thinking about potential design strategies for the future.

Richard and Alan at Somerset Willow Growers gave us a very warm welcome, showing us round the farm where we saw willow in a range of states - from newly-cut to ready to dispatch, and constructed into traditional hurdles. I was particularly interested to hear about how different weather conditions (and especially the floods of last year) impact on the quality of the willow, and the ways in which Richard is streamlining the process of producing and selling willow in order to keep the business profitable.

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We then visited Somerset Willow Company to see how the willow is skilfully transformed into a range of contemporary products, including picnic baskets, furniture and coffins. It was fascinating for me, with my background as a solo designer-maker, to see this traditional craft being practised at a larger scale - while maintaining the hand-crafted quality. Many thanks to Darrell Hill and his colleagues there for welcoming us at short notice!

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Will Shannon

On my way to Somerset, I stopped off at mac in Birmingham (my favourite arts centre in the whole country!) to see The Closet Craftsman, an exhibition of work by maker Will Shannon.

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As the exhibition blurb explains:

Will Shannon combines the role of designer, maker, manufacturer and architect to create alternative and mobile workspaces. In the realisation of his installations he assumes a character to explore a narrative in which he teaches himself a craft discipline, before employing his newly learned skills in the design and fabrication of the studio space and the products that emerge from it. In Kiln House for example, the role of the potter is adopted and put to work in the making of ceramic tiles for the roof and exterior walls of this unique functional space.

The aspect of Will’s work that particularly connects with the Design Routes project is his interest in local production. Each of his installations uses local materials, meaning that the objects produced have a direct link with place. However, because he takes an inclusive and non-traditional approach to the idea of ‘local’, this includes locally discarded, as well as locally produced, materials - nicely expanding our ideas about what ‘place-related’ products might be.

Herefordshire smocks

After leaving mac, I swung by Berrington Hall, a National Trust property in Herefordshire, to see a stunning display of Herefordshire smocks. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m interested in smocks, and smocking, as a traditional and place-related product which could be revitalised in many different ways.

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While I’d learned a lot about smocks from a couple of great books, I really wanted to see some examples ‘in the flesh’. And I’m very glad I did! I thought the pieces I saw were stunning. It was fantastic to be able to look at the stitching up close, and also to see many variations in terms of embroidery, smocking placement, and garment details within such a recognisably traditional style of clothing.

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I look forward to starting to play around with these elements later in the project.