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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Photograph of weaving framed and mounted on a wall with blurred person walking in front

Artist in Focus: Katharine Swailes

[ Artist in Focus, Artist Interview, Stories )

We caught up with Katharine Swailes to chat about what inspires her, her use of ancient and modern weaving techniques and how the landscape shapes her work. Katharine’s Chalk Quartet was on display in our exhibition Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water.

How does it feel to be included in this exhibition?

A personal thread runs through the exhibition for me, and since meeting your former curator, Louise Weller, I have reflected on my early trips to the county and found a connection I had not truly acknowledged. I am the great niece of Peggy Angus. I met Peggy firstly as a child, holidaying at Furlongs and at many family gatherings on Barra, and Cumbria. Later I lived and worked in North London and would visit her studio in Camden. Finding Peggy’s work in the exhibition has made me reflect on my relationship with Sussex. I have discovered that Sussex is an industriously creative county now, as in the early 20th century.


What has been your journey as an artist?

I am a visual communicator, my mother (Ann M A Anderson 1926 -1999) was an artist living in rural Cumbria and I observed and joined in with her mixing colour and love of the place she lived. Lessons learned in these pre-school years have become an instinctive knowledge that I draw on in my Colourfield works; the dyeing of yarn is integral to their existence.

Textiles were from the start the medium I responded to. As a teenager I worked in a knitting factory in the evenings and after attending Carlisle College of Art (1980 – 82), I worked in costume construction, which I still do intermittently. I worked in a very sculptural way constructing costume, working directly on the body, creating one-off pieces. Like tapestry I was working with wool, linen, cotton and silk. The skills that I learnt for each material is as important to me today as it was then.

I studied post graduate tapestry weaving 1998 – 2000 at West Dean College and worked as a studio weaver for twenty years at West Dean Tapestry Studio.


Photograph of a woman sitting on a stool to left in front of a large weaving loom. To the right of her are reels of yarn and weaving equipment.

Katharine Swailes in her studio.

Since 2013 I have followed my own artistic path based at the studio of Atelier Weftfaced, founded by my partner Caron Penney. Currently we are based at Barlavington, West Sussex. It is a rural location on the north face of the downs, with woodland and streams. Here I have been able to explore larger series of works in a dedicated space and use wonderful tapestry looms, collected over the years and sourced second hand. A recent realisation is that I have always worked in a sustainable way, something learned in childhood, thanks to my parents and the place they inhabited. 


Which other artists inspire you?

Currently I’m inspired by Magdalena Abakanowicz. Tapestry for me has always been sculpture, building with textiles in a three dimensional way. For her work to be profiled in Tate Modern this year is fantastic for the medium of tapestry weaving as an artistic expression, it is an emotional experience to walk amongst her work.

Peggy Angus has also been an influential figure for me. Peggy visited our family home in Cumbria when I was a teenager, a time when you are directed to make sensible decisions. I was not a high achiever at school and getting a ‘proper job’ was always seen to be the best route for me. Peggy encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. For me this has always been textiles, and art college. I loved the creative process, but had not worked out how to put them together. Peggy showed me that this was possible.


Photograph of a thistle held below green yarn that matches its stem colour

Matching yarn with thistle.

Weaving is an ancient craft, do you use original techniques or have you adapted them for your present needs? 

I use ancient and traditional European techniques but reinvent them. Discovery is an important part of what I do and with a craft as ancient as tapestry weaving, there is room for rediscovery for a new generation. The forgotten is waiting to be revisited. 

Handmade things offer a connection with the past. If you look carefully, the signature of the maker is visible in the weaving. Just like a painter’s signature, it is unique and often the only record tangible within a piece of textile when all records have been lost. From the ancient woven text of pre-columbian textiles to more recent records from the workshops of manufacture, generations of individual makers have not been recorded, their identities lost.


How do you choose your materials? Do you look for different textures? Are the colours important?

The starting point for me is how the materials work in my hands, we have to get on and be able to work intuitively together, I work with wool, cotton and linen. 

The wool yarn is dyed, I consider the pigment and what colour will be produced mixing and creating colour instinctively, feeling rather than recreating a colour that is already prescribed. I then progress to a series of colours, all with connected recipes of dye so they become a family that can be plied together creating a harmonious effect once woven.


Photograph of a pile of light green and pink coloured yarn.

How do your materials shape the work you create?

I am working on two series of work currently, the wool tapestries like Chalk Quartet are called Colourfield, and the other series I am creating from linen and cotton, called Glyphs and Loops. I focus on the particular materials and exploit the qualities that interest me. This defines the works and the particular outcomes that are reached. The work is broken into two series as I explore these specific materials repeatedly. Repetition is found throughout my work with the practice of weaving becoming a form of meditation.


You mention that weaving is a form of meditation. Could you explore this? How does it influence your work?

After many years as a studio weaver with a weekly deadline, I found visitors often commented how meditative it appeared. For me production weaving was not a meditation but an organised planned activity, with a target to meet.

I decided to rebel in my own work, to look at the meditative side of weaving, to turn things on their head. I removed all the traditional tapestry weaving techniques that would interfere with my weaving day. The only remaining technique was the ‘invisible diagonal’. It is not intended to be seen and can be produced without having to change the action of the hands to the mind. I deliberately made this technique intermittently visible, using different colour butterflies (bundles of yarn).


Photograph of different coloured yarns tied in butterfly bows

Yarn tied in butterflies

We are displaying your Chalk Quartet in our Sussex Landscape exhibition. Could you tell me a bit about that work?

Working intuitively, sometimes it is not until a work is on the gallery wall that you see its beginnings. With Chalk Quartet I have discovered my liking for the chalk landscapes of Sussex, the chalk seen through the vegetation.

I first visited Sussex on a family holiday in the late 1960s, to Furlongs near Glynde, the home of Peggy Angus. It felt like heaven, the summer warmth and dry ground underfoot. Wild flowers and grass filled lanes, with long views over golden August fields. We had traveled from the high north Pennines, in the county of Westmorland. It is these memories of the contrasting landscapes, that like layers of sediment weave their way through Chalk Quartet.

Now based in West Sussex for twenty five years I currently weave from my studio in Barlavington. The high downs and deep woodlands on the doorstep unfolding a ritual of meditative weaving. Abandoning the traditional structural weaving techniques, I focus on the daily routine at the loom. Passing the weft through warp over the span of my own hand, the jigsaw path becomes an intuitive process that builds a subtle moving image.

I dye the wool yarns myself in an outdoor dye studio in my garden, making the most of daylight and the influence of the colours in the landscape surrounding me. Once the wools are dyed, they are plied up to create the weaving weft, and formed into butterflies (bundles of yarn). These are woven at random. This unmapped weaving is rolled out of sight, and revealed at the end of the process. The preparation of weaving yarns, plied then butterflied, is the key to being able to sit at the loom uninterrupted. Preparations complete and sitting at the loom everything is ready and the days and weeks of weaving can start. 

Chalk Quartet was woven in 2022 as part of the Sussex Colourfield series that was shown at Kevis House Gallery.


Photograph of four narrow vertical panels of weaving

Katharine Swailes, Chalk Quartet

How has the Sussex landscape and the local area inspired your work?

I live on the southward side of the Downs and my studio is on the north facing edge of the Downs. In the morning I travel down Duncton Hill and turn on to a single track road with the early low sun speckling through the woodland, returning home I travel into the evening light looking over the sea. Each day is different and I try to bring this difference into my work. The light, the colours, the weather, the rain, all influence my work. The hours between these times are spent in the studio. It is difficult to break the focus and step out.

Are there any sort of particular parts of Sussex that you particularly like and find inspiring?

I think of one place and instantly another springs to mind, so perhaps it is all the places I am yet to discover and the artists makers and creatives who inhabit these places. But currently Barlavington and the surrounding hills streams and woodland. Furlongs and Beddingham are fresh in my mind always as this was my first encounter with Sussex.

Photograph of a square panel of weaving in pinks greens and browns mounted on a white wall

Visible – Invisible Diagonals

What are your plans for the future? What are you working on at the moment?

I am working towards an exhibition in 2024 with my Glyphs and Loops works, these are wall relief works in cotton and linen. Currently I am dyeing wool for future work when the weather is warm. I dye outdoors, liking the connection with nature. My current weaving plans are to complete my largest single piece of weaving. I am hoping to exhibit this work in London in May 2023.

It is with thanks to Kevis House Gallery, Petworth, that I participated in Sussex Landscape: Chalk Wood and Water. Please get in contact with them if you are interested in my available works.

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