Weft and Warp

Imogen Lycett Green meets textile artists Katharine Swailes and Caron Penney.
No by Caron Penney
No by Caron Penney on the loom. Photo © Caron Penney

“The weft makes the picture on the front of the tapestry. The warp is hidden, it’s the plain vertical thread through which the coloured (horizontal) weft is woven.”

Textile artists Katharine Swailes and Caron Penney, who make hand-woven tapestries to be framed or wall-hung, are explaining to me what ‘weft-faced’ means, it being the name of their business and studio: Atelier Weft-faced. “Weft-faced is the front, which looks – well should look – perfect.” Penney and Swailes are dressed identically in buttoned-up blue work shirts, dark blue jeans and round rimmed glasses. Their irongrey hair short and undyed, their nails short and clean, their skin bare of make-up, they present themselves – visually, at least – as two halves of a whole.

They are joined in civil partnership; they met at West Dean College – where Penney was teaching and Swailes attended as a mature student after a career swerve. They live together in the village of Slindon and now share a studio in a former stable in the Barlavington Stud at the foot of the steep Downs south of Petworth, where we are now. But that’s all I know. It’s unnerving meeting them on the step of their spare and organised studio, like meeting twins. On the face of it, everything is beautifully ordered. There are two rooms: a work room crowded with three looms and a storeroom where, on white tables, various art books are laid out for display, surrounded by modern shelves and boxes. I sense no disarray, no humanizing mess or muddle. Even the multi-coloured balls of wool in lined up metal baskets look perfectly rolled. No Tom Kitten at play. A wood burning stove burns merrily. The kettle is on. Florentines or chocolate cake, I’m asked. Florentines! Perfection indeed. It is too easy to use woven together metaphors for two weavers, but this united front is looking irresistibly weft-faced. Instinctively, I seek the warp.

Hidden by Caron Penney.
Caron Penney, Hidden 2024, 26 x 25 cm.

Let’s start with the work. Penney and Swailes are showing together this spring at the Petersfield Museum. What will be on show? “The exhibition is called The Language of Weaving,” says Penney, handing me a cup of coffee. We sit on brand-new oak stools. It turns out their studio is so neat because they’ve only just moved into it, from another converted horse box across the yard. “It’s a kind of retrospective of our work and lives together.” She brings me the proof of the catalogue and immediately I’m drawn to an abstract tapestry made with natural colours. It looks like a landscape painting of hills and a pink sky. “That’s mine,” says Swailes, claiming the work. “I work traditionally, with wool, cotton and linen making handwoven abstract tapestries.” She is quickly kneeling on the floor explaining the process, a building of the image from the base of the warp upwards, weaving in colours she has dyed herself. So she doesn’t start with a drawing, or an image? “No,” she says, shyly. “It’s more of a feeling, an atmosphere.” It looks like a painting, I say. “Well, my mother did paint and I grew up next to her easel.” The image of the tapestry we’re looking at (it’s already left the studio) is called Winter Light. “I didn’t realise as I was making it, but it’s not unlike my mother’s landscape painting.”

Swailes speaks with a soft Northern accent, distilled, it sounds like, through the mists of the Cumbrian hills where she grew up, one of five, the first girl after three brothers, always making and learning in an artistic household. “My father was a history teacher in the local school, my mother an art teacher, though she gave up teaching pretty soon with all of us to manage. She made all our clothes, in muddy hues. I stayed close to her palette, literally, so I suppose I have been informed by all those soft colours.” Swailes’s great-aunt was Peggy Angus, the artist, designer and teacher who lived at Furlongs, the cottage near Firle in Sussex where Eric Ravilious famously painted his Tea at Furlongs (1939).

“When I was six or seven we first went there and we really did have tea at Furlongs, with Peggy and my brothers and my sister and me. I remember the incredible light, the golden hills, the openness.” Peggy Angus came to stay in Cumbria when Swailes was 13 and not doing especially well at school. What was she to do with her life? “Peggy said to me, ‘you can be an artist, you know’. She was so encouraging.” But everyone expected Swailes to get a proper job (her brothers became engineers), so she trained in costume making and worked at Cosprop for 15 years, making historical costumes for Merchant Ivory productions, among other dramas, before she decided to retrain as a tapestry weaver at West Dean College. “I was keen to construct, to make. Handwoven tapestry is a fine art as opposed to a craft.” Swailes was inspired by artist weavers such as Archie Brennan and Anni Albers. “In costume work I was constantly applying – embroidery, buttons.” She is material driven, she says. “I wanted to explore material, to make a threedimensional object. I enjoy the scale and weight of the work. Even the putting together of the loom, the mechanics of it.”

“She dyes the wool herself, en plein air, in buckets,” explains Penney. “Sometimes in winter, the yarn freezes when you hang it to dry.” Being outside means you can detect the faintest of variations in hue. Swailes then shows me the colours. She thinks the long winters and low light of Cumbria has led to her yearning for light. “There are shades. Say this is olive green [she shows me a ball of wool], strong olive green will be an eight, down to a one which is so faint as to be just the hint of green. My natural palette is one of lightness,” she says, explaining the process of creating a palette of 30 colours for each work.

Photo by Joshua Kershaw.
Katharine Swailes, Spring Field (2022), 63 x 63cm. Photo by Joshua Kershaw.

The abstract work Katharine makes evolves instinctively from these subtle shades. “I work intuitively, living and breathing the landscape.” Her tapestry allows her to let go of the precision and perfection that was required in costume making. “It’s more painterly,” nods Penney. Katharine says: “I have no ability with numbers, so I don’t count out the weave, I follow my own pattern and rhythm so the system – there has to be warp, there has to be weft – is invisible.”

Penney is the one with the numerical brain. The child of Southampton greengrocers, she grew up with different sets of colours, standing head height to row upon neat row of apples and oranges, pears, potatoes and peaches. I find it fascinating that this experience has informed her own, stronger, sense of colour and her relationship with numbers. She likes grids, lines and patterns. “And she is a well-known colourist,” says Swailes, beaming. For Penney, who teaches colour workshops, the grocery business also informed her work ethic. Her father would set off to market at dawn and come back with the day’s fruit and vegetables, work alongside her mother in the shop, then do accounts in the evening. Both Swailes and Penney possess a similar attitude to life and work. These are intermingled, there is no natural cut off point, no beginning or end of the work. Penney ran the West Dean Tapestry studio, made up of a team of weavers commissioned to make work for an international array of artists, where Swailes came to work after her training. Melding their own lives and work with each other came after a research trip to New York in 2001.

“In Manhattan for the first time, I looked up and saw these incredible vertical lines, the scale fascinated me,” says Swailes. Penney interjects enthusiastically: “While I stood at the top of skyscrapers and looked down, mesmerised by the grid system, the shapes and patterns of the roads far below. Oh the perfect opposition of that.” Ah, so here we have the secret of their partnership. Penney looks down at the detail, the form, sees the systems. Swailes looks up, her imagination reaching to the sky, soaring. That they see the world so differently brings a wonderful balance to their work, and, you might imagine, to their personal partnership.

Harmony by Caron Penney.
Harmony by Caron Penney on the loom. Photo © Steve Speller.

For the Petersfield show, alongside Swailes’s abstract works, Penney will contribute her more political geometric texts and patterns. She does draw first. In her sketch book, on mathematical squares, she works out the patterns. On the loom is a piece she is working on which will say PROTEST/ PROTECT in gold thread on dark grey. Elsewhere, in red on grey there is OPEN/CLOSED. Previous work includes a beautiful and balanced TRUTH/TRUST in greys and gold (2022).

The words form patterns which are balanced in themselves, binary in context, opposing, their harmony, in colour and form, making sense of a harsh and not always kind world. One of her works, which says FUCK OFF, was made in response to the financial crash of 2008. Penney was in New York walking along the street when the Lehman bankers started leaving their office with those cardboard boxes containing the contents of their desks. In their faces, she recognised what she felt, as Penney had just been made redundant herself. I like Penney’s depiction in tapestry of handprints – primitive handprints in red or grey or black which she calls ‘STOP hands’ (special edition, 2023). They were originally inspired by the STOP street signs in New York, but have come to represent many things for Penney. She says of them, “In New York and since, I have become increasingly aware of government control, which I think needs to be applied with a careful hand allowing for democracy, creativity and expression, not to stifle people.”

Tapestry has not often been used as a form of protest. But it has always been used to communicate. With obvious awe and delight, Swailes outlines the history of handwoven tapestry for me, starting with early civilisations such as the Egyptians and Incas who buried some of their high-ranking dead in woven tapestry clothing. Of course, we have the famous Bayeux ‘tapestry’, commissioned by the Bishop of Bayeux for William the Conqueror following his conquest of England in 1066. But this 70m-long decorated cloth is made by embroidery, with wool yarn, on linen, not tapestry weave. The ancient Greeks decorated temple interiors, like the Parthenon, with hanging hand-woven tapestries, and an earlier example of woven tapestry, dated to the first century AD, was discovered in Sampul, now in China, fashioned into a pair of men’s trousers. But it was really between the 14th and 18th centuries that handwoven tapestry flourished in Europe, alongside the boom in wool production. English wool was generally sent to Flanders or Paris to be woven by schools of tapestry weavers. Traditional tapestries are still made at the Gobelins factory in Paris and the royal factory in Madrid, where old or damaged tapestries may be sent for repair.

In the UK, there is a tapestry workshop at Hampton Court, which is a department of the Royal Collection, but the exciting renaissance of traditional tapestry in the hands of individual artists really began in the 20th century with Henry Moore, Philip Robin, Brennan, Albers and Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Bourgeois’s parents repaired Aubusson tapestries and the girl who would grow up to ‘become an artist, whether I wanted to or not’, was brought up in a traditional tapestry workshop run by her mother. Rescuing scraps and stitching them together came to represent emotional repair for Bourgeois, and her famous spider continued the metaphor: ‘The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.’ (Bourgeois, 1998).

Language of Tapestry exhibition.
The Language of Tapestry exhibition.

Bourgeois in the tapestry workshop. Swailes beside her mother’s easel, Penney with her mother in the grocer’s shop, counting out apples. Does the imagination of an artist develop before the method and material? Or does early exposure to colour and form make an artist from the child?

Katharine Swailes’ artistic voice is at a thrilling stage of early development, only just evolving after years of working on other people’s designs. She has a Romantic response to the landscape, its timelessness and atmosphere, its changing light and tone appealing to her sensibility through the seasons. Yet she is also articulate about the building of images from the source material, this ‘building’ being key to her abstract practice. She never knows where both the restriction and potential of the loom will lead.

Caron Penney may be more regimented with her practice than Swailes, but she is open to change, and this new show of their work together marks the beginning of a new chapter. Both have also worked in collaboration with visual artists such as Gillian Ayres and Martin Creed, whose vision they realise in tapestries. But the main collaboration is clearly with one another: Swailes is as engaged with Penney’s work as she is with her own, and vice-versa. The two are, if you like, intertwined, each providing warp for the other’s weft, and – more to the point, perhaps – weft for their warp.