Monday, 26 March 2012

Listening at the Handweaver's Studio

One of the things which folk mentioned several times in relation to the MoDA wallpapers used throughout this project was weaving.

Weaving came up in the Sonic Wallpaper interviews both in a fantastical sense - "if I had that wallpaper in a room, I'd want to use the room for weaving" - and in relation to the textures of some of the wallpaper samples - "that looks woven".

Given that walls were hung with woollen coverings and then tapestries long before the invention of wallpaper, plus these references to weaving in the interviews I conducted, it seemed utterly appropriate to record the sounds of weaving for this project.

This is a recording made at The Handweaver's Studio in London, where Wendy Morris kindly agreed to demonstrate the sounds of some of the looms for me. This recording was created using a contact microphone, attached to a small table loom in the studio.

I don't know about you, but I find the repetitive nature of weaving to be somehow analogous with the visual repetition inherent in wallpaper designs... there is something about the way one's eye travels over a wallpaper pattern searching to understand a pattern-repeat which can be maddening and pleasing at once. I associate this sensation also with repetitive sounds such as clocks, looms, spinning wheels, and even knitting (although knitting is extremely quiet). The more complex the repetition is in a visual design, the more absorbing the process of unpicking its intricacies, and so it is with sound - at least to my ears.

I have recorded looms previously, and was specifically interested in capturing quite a detailed sound for the purposes of one particular Sonic Wallpaper design. I wanted something with a lot of wood in the sound (a warmth which you don't get with cast iron or steel); with the detail of many different moving parts, but perhaps without the din of a large, industrial mill (though I am coveting such a sound for another Sonic Wallpaper design); and with the handmade rhythm of a skilled weaver at work, rather than with the mechanised rhythms of a machine churning out cloth at a perfectly engineered, precise tempo.

You may remember that I spoke in my post about Cole & Sons of the timing of the printer as he registered each section of a screen-printed wallpaper design? To my mind the sounds of artisans at work possess an even, practised, rhythmic quality, (printing a piece of wallpaper; weaving a piece of cloth) yet those same sounds also bear traces of the human body. You can hear when the movements of a maker's arms and legs become fatigued, or when a pause in the maker's thought-process temporarily stills the movements of making.

In some of the older wallpapers in the MoDA collection, the physical traces of hand-making can also be seen. Hand-printed sheets sometimes do not match the precision of machine-applied ink for evenness of coating, as may be seen in these close-ups of a wallpaper designed by Edward Bawden and colour-printed from lino blocks by Cole & Son in the late 1930s.

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

However the trace of the maker which is sometimes visible in wallpapers such as these is undeniably part of their charm. Without exception, everyone I interviewed about the wallpapers cited their slightly handmade qualities as being desirable.

Do handmade objects specifically appeal to us because they bear the traces of having been touched by another person? Certainly in terms of sounds, I am especially "attracted" to sounds which bear such traces. That is why I approached The Handweaver's Studio for the purposes of this project. I was sure that this incredible repository of everything required for weaving cloth would yield precisely the detailed sounds which I required. I went to The Handweaver's Studio in search of the sense of an organic, human, rhythm which would reflect the handmade, repetitious nature of the wallpaper design, and my quest was fruitful!

Wendy Morris is the current custodian of The Handweaver's Studio. It was very busy when I visited, and the only way to hear any of the the looms above the chatter of folks and the clatter of looms was via a contact microphone. As well as the table loom described above, Wendy also demonstrated a floor loom for me in The Handweaver's Studio.

I noticed that the sound in this floor loom was very springy, and Wendy explained that her own loom is even springier. She also explained that in order to really capture the sound of a shuttle moving back and forward between the sheds, we'd need to go to her home and record her own loom. Next, Wendy very kindly took me to her home and demonstrated her 12 shaft countermarch floor loom for me.

I recorded Wendy weaving first of all using a contact microphone, but since it was so wonderfully peaceful and quiet in her weaving room, I was also able to make a couple of recordings with my stereo shotgun microphone, in which there is a much greater sense of acoustics, atmosphere, and space.

This is the cloth that Wendy is weaving in the sound recordings here. It's made of silk and lurex, and is of Wendy's own design. While it is on the loom being woven, it must necessarily lie flat, but once it comes off the loom, it pleats itself because of the structure of the weave.

Woven fabric © Wendy Morris, photographed by Felicity Ford with kind permission

Woven fabric © Wendy Morris, photographed by Felicity Ford with kind permission

Woven fabric © Wendy Morris, photographed by Felicity Ford with kind permission

Many thanks to Wendy Morris and The Handweaver's Studio for giving these amazing sounds to the Sonic Wallpaper project.

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