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  • From left to right, Field Hedges 2, Field Hedges 1 and Fences 1, Jilly Edwards, 8 x 8cm, woven on cotton warp, with wool, linen, cotton weft, 2013 (photos: Mei Lim)

Jilly Edwards: A traveller’s tale

The artist’s tapestries are inspired by journeys to such far-flung places as Australia and Japan, as well as trips to the local restaurant. Charlotte Abrahams explains

When Jilly Edwards emailed me the directions to her home/studio in Exeter, she also included a photograph of her garden gate, complete with its hand-made ceramic name plate. I needed it – the contemporary eco-build she lives in is completely hidden behind a Victorian terrace. Satisfyingly compact and filled with light and warmth even on the drab November day on which I visit, it’s like an urban beach hut.

Her tiny garden studio with its sedum roof is similar in style, and meticulously organised. Colour-coded yarns fill open shelves on one wall, opposite an archive of sketchbooks and 40 years worth of this magazine. Her desk is neatly busy with sketches and beautifully wrought miniature tapestries in clear yellows and inky greys – samples from her current exhibition Wanderlust – and towering across the back of the studio is her loom. Constructed from two acrow props welded into a metal stand, it is utterly utilitarian; as is the stool she sits on to work at it. Her environment speaks volumes: Jilly Edwards may be a tapestry weaver but traditional she is not. As she pours peppermint tea into a Walter Keeler mug she looks at me and states: ‘I am not a maker of woolly pictures.’

Shadows and Shapes, Jilly Edwards, 20 x 45cm, cotton warp with wool linen and cotton weft (photo: Mei Lim)

Instead she is a fine artist whose chosen medium is woven yarn. She works mostly with such natural fibres as wool, linen and cotton but recently she has also started to experiment with a high-tech Japanese nylon filament. ‘It is rather hard on your fingers, so it’s not easy to work on,’ she says, ‘but the results are exciting. The filament has a memory so you can shape it after it comes off the loom.’ 

Weaving has been Edwards’s first love ever since she taught herself to make carpets for her doll’s house on the scaled-down working loom she was given for her fifth birthday. ‘My mother sewed and my sister was a knitter, so weaving became my niche,’ she says. ‘What I’ve always liked about weaving is that there is nothing there to start with so, rather like sculpture, you have to actually construct something.’ However, finding her own voice within the picture-based world of traditional tapestry making took time. Post-school, she enrolled on a textiles course at the West of England College of Art, where she was lucky enough to be taught weaving by a painter who convinced her that what she wanted to do was to create woven versions of her abstract drawings and paintings. A decade later, Edwards arrived at Edinburgh School of Art’s prestigious tapestry department where, under the tutelage of Maureen Hodge and Fiona Mathison – people she describes as the ‘tapestry goddesses’ – she discovered a way to do it. ‘Rather than beginning with the question “What shall I weave?”’ she explains, ‘they taught me to put words, objects and drawings together until I had an image that said “weave me”. It was the most life-enforcing time.’ 

And as the large stack of sketchbooks in the studio proves, she is still following their advice today. 

Her exquisitely executed tapestries, each characterised by broad, abstract washes of colour, are inspired by journeying. Not the physical journey itself but the responses, thoughts and memories evoked by the places she journeys through. These can be exotic (she has travelled extensively in Australia and Japan for example) but a daily trip up the road to her favourite lunch place, the Exploding Bakery, can be just as rewarding. ‘Being part of the world is what inspires me,’ she says. ‘Each time I go out there’s something different to see, or a conversation to be overheard.’ Her responses to these experiences go straight into a sketchbook, the quick gestural marks of colour, shape, texture or words acting as an aide memoire for the more contemplative work in the studio.

Weaving has been Edwards’s first love ever since she taught herself to make carpets for her doll’s house on the scaled-down working loom she was given for her fifth birthday

Wanderlust, which runs at the Harley Gallery until 23 March, consists of a series of pieces that began with two long-distance train journeys, the first to Cambridge, the second to Edinburgh. Both occurred in the spring time when the landscape was brilliant with oilseed rape. Edwards returned from these trips with a sketchbook filled with yellow. And with lines too, inspired both by the field divisions she passed en route and the Agnes Martin paintings she travelled to Cambridge to see. But it was the yellow that stood out. 

These journeys took place during a particularly bleak phase of her professional life. Two years earlier, Ruthin Craft Centre had staged a major retrospective of her work which felt rather like the crowning glory of her career. ‘That exhibition was such a wonderful experience,’ she says, ‘that when it finished, I felt nothing could ever be as good as that again, so I went down into a nasty black spiral.’ She made the journeys to Cambridge and Edinburgh because she couldn’t work, but by the time she returned home with her yellow sketchbook, she was ready to weave again.

‘My drawings had captured something,’ she says. ‘Looking through my sketches, I realised that I knew what I wanted to weave about.’ On the face of it, the tapestries on display at the Harley Gallery are abstracted depictions of the landscape she saw through the train windows (they even have such descriptive titles as Field Fence and Field Hedges) but Edwards is very clear that this body of work is not about fields of oilseed rape.

‘I had wanted to feel happy again and the colour of the rape fields had made it happen,’ she explains. ‘So these yellow tapestries are actually about joy.’It matters to Edwards that people understand the work, so she will show the sketchbooks alongside the finished tapestries. As a viewer, this feels like an act of generosity – these books of painterly sketches are things of real beauty and intimacy – but Edwards hopes they will be a way to draw in a non-traditional audience. ‘Of course, it’s nice to have people who love tapestry at my exhibitions,’ she says, ‘but I want to capture the people who don’t. They tend mostly to be husbands which is so sad because, until World War Two, tapestry was a man-made craft. Weaving is a very physical activity.’

Journey of a Lifetime, Jilly Edwards, 60x 135cm, cotton warp with wool linen, cotton weft
That becomes clear as I watch Edwards at work. She stands in front of her scaffolding loom (the tapestry she is currently working on is now too tall to allow her to work sitting down), and deftly weaves a line of grey yarn through the tight cotton warp. The line made, she then bashes the yarn with a brass-tipped wooden bobbin so that it makes a flat base for the next one. And so it goes on until the tapestry is made. It can take months and involves much checking against her sketches and the backing ‘cartoon’, which she pins as a guide to the emerging tapestry – particularly as, although the finished tapestries are hung horizontally, she has to weave them vertically to ensure the sketchy lines of her drawings are accurately translated onto the final work. (Weaving them horizontally would result in too definite a line.)

The finished pieces have a spontaneity to them which belies the painstaking – and often painful – process of their creation. Her latest works are no exception. The lines which stripe through them, echoing the walls and hedges she passed on those train journeys, will be familiar to those who know her work, but the expanses of yellow give these weavings a new energy. Yellow is a departure for Jilly Edwards. Up until now, her work has been predominantly blue-toned; brooding and inky rather than fresh and vibrant. ‘At first, everyone was a bit shocked by these tapestries,’ she says, ‘and even I was rather startled, but I was just so pleased to be working again. And since I started using yellow, I’ve discovered that it’s a really important colour: for example, it’s the last colour you see before you go blind. For me, yellow is the new blue.’

Not all the work at Wanderlust is new. The exhibition will also include some pieces from the Ruthin show, including Around the Red Hills and a collection of small pieces collectively titled Nine Ruthin Sketches. The installation piece Traveller’s Samples will also be on display (the title is a reference to the journeys she made with her father, a travelling salesman, when she was a child). First made in 2009-10 for High Cross House on the Dartington Estate, Traveller’s Samples consists of a collection of objects such as train tickets decorated with stitching, script and plasterboard tape, rolled paper scrolls and delightful mini-tapestries individually arranged in open-sided Perspex boxes. Sets of these boxes will be available to buy. 

‘The idea is that people can take all the things out and move them around,’ Edwards explains. ‘They can handle the mini-tapestries, roll them up and feel the textures. I hope they help to show that there’s more to tapestry than wall-mounted, woolly representations of battle scenes.’ Indeed there is.

Wanderlust: Tapestries by Jilly Edwards is at the Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire S8O 3LW, from 22 January – 23 March 2014.