Meet the Maker – Nell Swift from Hem: Handwoven
Nell Swift from Hem: Handwoven weaves scarves, blankets and cushions on a restored 100-year-old loom that originally belonged to weavers in a utopian community led by Eric Gill. She finds inspiration in the colour and texture of the places she loves along the North Yorkshire coast and the Peak District, as well as mathematical sequences and, more unexpectedly, the tonal palette of Hollywood movies. Nell talks to printmaker and fellow Folksy seller Elly Rowbotham about her craft, how her background as an archeologist informs her work, why she believes small-scale production is the way forward, and the Öxabäck loom of which she has recently become the custodian, once custom made for one Britain’s most celebrated weavers: Barbara Mullins of the Graffham Weavers.
Shop Hem: Handwoven on Folksy – https://folksy.com/shops/HemHandwoven
I use a four-shaft loom I restored which was originally made by John and George Maxwell, who lived in a commune set up by Eric Gill. Researching the loom and its history really tapped into my archaeology – I specialise in that historical period and utopian communities, so it was a perfect find.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
Hello Nell. I’m a huge fan of your weaving and very pleased to meet you. Where did your love of weaving start?
I always made things. I was brought up in a household of makers and, as an only child, I spent lots of time alone just following my imagination and making. My mum taught me to sew on a machine when I was five, so I’ve always made my own clothes. I’m fascinated with fabric and import fabrics from Japan and Sweden. Trying to find the perfect fabric led me back to wanting to learn to weave. I remember making little cardboard looms when I was a kid, so after many dropped hints, I got my first loom. I haven’t looked back – I weave in every spare moment!
Fleeting memories are the foundation of my practice. It’s reminiscent of synesthesia – feeling the sun and wind and smelling the sea air.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
What is it about weaving that particularly draws you in?
Weaving is old. There are hundreds of thousands of drafts, offering infinite combinations of pattern, colour and texture. It’s not possible to weave everything in a lifetime. I think this bottomless quality is what appeals. It’s the same as my academic background in archaeology: you never know everything, so there’s always something to learn, a new experience to be had. My learning curve has been quite steep, I suppose.
My weaving journey took me from a rigid heddle loom to a four-shaft in four weeks. My looms found me. I use a four-shaft loom made by John and George Maxwell. They lived and worked in a commune in Suffolk set up by sculptor and artist Eric Gill. It’s about 100 years old and I restored it. Researching the loom and its history really tapped into my archaeology – I specialise in that historical period and taught on utopian communities, so it was a perfect find. I had no idea when I got it that there’d be so much history in a loom, but it’s our oldest technology – there are beautiful twill fabrics that are nearly 7,000 years old. I’m about to step up to 12 shafts on my soon-to-be-finished, custom-made floor loom.
We spent hours in Staithes, watching the lifeboat crew practise their drills. They have this magnificent tractor that pulls the boats out. The tyre tracks it leaves behind in the sand reminded me of a twill draft, so the little dash of lifeboat orange in this weave finishes my gentle tribute to this amazing crew.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
It was the strikingly brilliant orange lifeboat line and tractor tracks in your ‘Slipway‘ scarf that first attracted me to your weaves. It’s immediately recognisable from watching our own St Ives lifeboat. I love how you reference the sea, weather and coastal life in the colour, and in particular, the structure of your weaves. Could you tell us a bit about this? How does an idea become a weave?
Sometimes an idea arrives quickly, all in a flash, other times it’s months. Fleeting memories are the foundation of my practice. It’s reminiscent of synesthesia – feeling the sun and wind and smelling the sea air. Often I dream my weaves. Slowly the idea comes into focus and I have all the elements I need to begin. I never start a weave until all my ducks are in a row. We spent hours watching the lifeboat crew practise their drills. They have this magnificent tractor that pulls the boats out. Its tyres left a beautiful pattern on the slipway, and that orange, wow, it should belong to the RNLI. It’s the smallest things that grab me: raindrops on rock pools and windows, ripples in the sand, moss on walls, cobblestones.
It’s the smallest things that grab me: raindrops on rock pools and windows, ripples in the sand, moss on walls, cobblestones.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
I can completely relate to your love of Staithes. The Peaks are also beautiful. In what way do they influence your work?
I guess I’m trying to find that sense of calm of staring out to sea; the way a fabric moves, capturing the soft scent of the sea, those moments watching my boys play and swim, the complete contentment and peace. The palette of those places is so beautiful. The colours of sea glass and sand, the greys of millstone grit from the drystone walls of home – they have been an inspiration to thousands of artists, my favourite of which is Eric Ravilious, whose influence on my palette is immense. Place has always been significant to me. I guess it’s something to do with finding my place in the world, through history, an interconnectedness with everything before and to come.
Films are a very different source of inspiration. How do they fit in?
Movies fit into my life, I suppose. My first degree was in film and media, so movies have always been a big part of my life. As my boys have grown, introducing them to the language of film has been such a thrill. In my day job I set up a community cinema and I decided to set one up at home. We’ve had so much fun with the big screen, so many shared memories, and they’ve made their way in to my weaving. I came across a wonderful public art project in Brooklyn where a coder created a bit of open source software that takes a colour average of every frame in a movie and lays them side by side, creating a series of very narrow stripes. I immediately saw a warp, so I just had to weave a movie! I’ve used mathematical Fibonacci sequences to create gradients in my warps for ages – hiding a deeper significance and meaning in my weave adds to their resonance, giving them an almost inevitable expression of captured memory, light, sound and smell. I guess weaving is so dependent on maths, codes and patterns that it was inevitable I’d find other ways to add meaning – I love a movie T-shirt, but a barcode is way more subtle and interesting.
I came across a wonderful public art project in Brooklyn where a coder created a bit of open source software that takes a colour average of every frame in a movie and lays them side by side, creating a series of very narrow stripes. I immediately saw a warp, so I just had to weave a movie.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
I’m curious about your looms and beautiful shuttles, particularly your historic Öxabäck loom. What do these tools mean for your weaving?
Oh, the Öxabäck – what a loom! This was bought for me by my partner for Christmas. He found it on eBay and asked if I knew what it was. He’d found the Rolls Royce of looms: a beautiful bespoke loom from Sweden (Öxabäck is about 50km from Gothenburg) that belonged to one of our greatest weavers. Barbara Mullins and her mother Gwen ran a weaving workshop and school – they were know as the Graffham Weavers. Their work is in the V&A and Gwen taught the finest 20th century rug weaver, Peter Collingwood. My loom was owned by Barbara. I’ve found hours of audio recordings in the British Library, talking about her life and work. It’s a huge legacy, a loom like this. Gwen went on to found the Crafts Council. They were two remarkable women whose story needs to be more widely known. I want to build a weaving shed and get it up and working again. It feels fitting that it should be working again and I feel the responsibility is on me to do it.
My partner found an Öxabäck loom on eBay and asked if I knew what it was. He’d found the Rolls Royce of looms: a beautiful bespoke loom from Sweden that belonged to one of our greatest weavers, Barbara Mullins.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
I have a longtime fascination with cosmological geometry (and its existence in our natural world), so I’m very interested in your use of the Fibonacci sequence in your weaving. Can you tell us why and how you incorporate it?
I love Fibonacci. It’s the most perfect poetic set of numbers. As I work with a lot of reclaimed mill-end yarns and a deliberately limited colour palette, I wanted to wind tonal gradients in to my warps. The Fibonacci sequence was perfect for blending one shade into another. I run the sequence in two directions. It gave me headaches at first, but I can do it without thinking now. It blends each shade perfectly – there’s something wave-like about how one colour builds into another.
Weavers have always used codes and cyphers in weaving, from Morse Code to Braille. It’s an area I intend to explore more. I want to use the golden ratio with double-weave blocks for some cushion designs, and fractals really float my boat so I’d like to mull incorporating them too.
Most of the language of weaving is really old, just like the craft. They have their roots in Scandinavia and old English.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
As a lover of tradition in my printmaking, I’ve been dying to ask about the language of your weaving tradition and its wonderful terminologies, like “Huck”, “Heddle” and “Sley the Reed”. Are there any more weaving words that you like and what do they all mean?
Most of the language of weaving is really old, just like the craft. They have their roots in Scandinavia and old English. Huck comes from a weave structure from Sweden called Huckaback – it’s a lovely lace weave and very old and shouldn’t be confused with Swedish huck weaving, which is an embroidery style. I love Sweden – I went there in my teens and I fell in love with the country and the culture. I taught myself the language but I’m really rusty now. So many terms and weave names are Scandinavian and these are the weaves I’m most drawn to.
Heddles are the strings that move each individual thread. The Reed is the comblike structure through which the warp threads are passed to beat down the weft (the horizontal thread in the shuttle) and to create the sett (the density of the fabric – how many threads in an inch of fabric). When the shafts that carry the heddles are lifted they create a shed – a gap between threads that the shuttle passes. When the shed is changed for a new combination, it creates the structure we recognise as woven fabric – threads passing over some and under others. My favourite weave structure is an old Swedish weave Jämtlandsväv, which means a weave from Jämtland. Lots of weaves are place names, traditional patterns from towns and villages. The Jämtlandsväv weave is commonly known as Crackle Weave, because it resembles the cracked glaze on pottery. It’s really complex to design, thread and treadle but it is so very beautiful that the headaches are worth it.
We need to de-scale production levels, produce and value quality fabrics, repair what we have and really see fabrics for the technical and artistic miracles they are.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
I love that your yarn is sourced from industry ends – what a perfect alternative to landfill. Do you have a favourite yarn to work with? Is it possible to mix yarns in a woven product?
Oh yarn is an addiction, just like fabric. I only work in natural fibres – I find they produce a much lovelier finish and, from an environmental perspective, the appeal is pretty obvious as we should be looking for the least impactful fabrics. Place is again significant for my practice. I’m surrounded by fields full of sheep, so wool is my absolute favourite fibre. It’s the most versatile, and renewable, of fibres, and as long as the sheep are well looked after and live out their natural lifespan, it’s the ideal solution to the massive environmental and social impact of fast fashion and fibres derived from oil and plastic. I’m fascinated by the fibreshed movement, which seeks to link land reclamation, farming, yarn spinning, weaving and garment production together in small community networks. I’m about to receive my first fleece of a particularly handsome pet sheep from over my garden wall. I’ll really get to weave my landscape now! This linking of beginnings to endings, inputs to outputs that creates connections between people, preserves skills and creates local small-scale production is the way forward. We need to de-scale production levels, produce and value quality fabrics, repair what we have and really see fabrics for the technical and artistic miracles they are.
Wool ‘fulls’ or swells, so this needs to be taken into account when designing a weave. Cotton doesn’t – it just relaxes when wet finished. Silk is unbelievably stable and gorgeous to weave with. I’m looking at sourcing ethical silks at the moment because I don’t like the traditional method of harvesting, as I think it’s cruel. Linen is utterly beautiful: strong, with a sheen. The purpose of the end fabric and how it should behave also determines the choice of fibre. Fibres can be mixed as long as you understand how they behave. I’ve deliberately mixed fibres to produce a crepe finish by collapsing one fibre through shrinking it in wet finishing it on a warp that doesn’t shrink. All weaving needs to be wet finished before it becomes fabric. The trick is knowing when to stop!
How does weaving fit in with your family and work life? Do you encourage your boys to help you or do you view it as your haven?
Weaving is my special time. It’s very zen, calming and balancing. It clears my mind, so I love to grab a few picks once my boys are asleep. I love weekends, particularly in winter when I can weave with my boys playing around me. My twins are my loom monkeys, retrieving dropped weights and lost reed hooks. I’ve taught one the basics, so maybe one of them will take up the shuttles. I run a small community arts centre by day, which I love, but I do hope to have more time to weave as the centre grows. I’d love to weave full time but I think it would need a fundamental change in our textile culture for this to be achievable. People are rediscovering weaving, so we could get there. One day I’ll have a studio by the sea.
I’d love to weave full time but I think it would need a fundamental change in our textile culture for this to be achievable. People are rediscovering weaving, so we could get there.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
And lastly… What future plans do you have?
My imminent plan is to get my custom-made 12-shaft loom set up to do weaving. My partner has made exactly the loom I want. It folds, so it can fit in the living room, meaning I can weave with my boys. It’s a ridiculously compact floor loom complete with treadles. I’m so looking forward to getting it all set up and weaving a new range of movie blankets. Longer term is setting up a weaving shed and getting the giant Öxabäck loom weaving again. I’m going to start offering workshops soon, and I’d really like to get my work into some galleries and shops, particularly ones by the sea. I’d love my work to go home to Staithes, and one day I’d like to be there too.
Nell is supporting the #artistsupportpledge. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists around the world have found themselves without work, teaching, technical support, gallery work and exhibitions. To help alleviate some of this stress, artist Matthew Burrows @matthewburrowsstudio has founded the #artistsupportpledge. The concept is that an artist or maker posts a work for sale up to a value of £200, and when they reach £1,000 of sales, they pledge to buy £200 of work from other makers or artists. Read more about the pledge here – https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/articles/artistsupportpledge
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Elly Rowbotham, a printmaker based in St Ives, Cornwall. You can read our interview with Elly here and purchase her prints on Folksy – https://folksy.com/shops/EllyRowbothamPrintmaker