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Published: 29 February 2020

By Andy Ross

Article of the week - Number Four

Each week the blog presents a different article from the collection in the studio. This week, a woven whirlpool...

If truth be told, The Maelstrom, for that is the name of the sculpture, should have been the first article in the series. This piece ignited our interest in weaving and utimately, tweed, and led to the development of the studio, the production studio and the establishment of The Shetland Tweed Company. Here is the story. 

Way back in the mists of time, that is to say, 2004, a commission for a woven piece to go into a business innovation space at the London School of Economics (LSE) was given to the Ann Sutton Foundation. At the time, we did not know much about weaving, nor Ann Sutton, but both had come to our attention at a retrospective exhibition of Ann's work in the Crafts Council gallery in Islington in 2004. The project at the LSE took, as its premise, a short (but wordy!) story by Edgar Allen Poe, A Descent into The Maelstrom.  The story formed the basis of three commissions: a film, a picture and something else. That something else became apparent when we called Ann Sutton to ask if the Foundation could weave a whirlpool for the LSE. Ann's immortal words, "Whirlpools are our speciality" secured the commission and a friend.

Shortly afterwards, Ann and the Foundation came to Shetland to talk to weavers and find out what we could do to support weaving in the islands. Out of that visit came the idea for this sculpture. The Maelstrom, which was woven by Lucy McMullen out of Shetland wool and silk-covered copper wire, was on show in the LSE before being shipped northwards for the collection at the studio. When the Ann Sutton Foundation closed its doors, the looms were shipped northwards too, and that was the start of the studio in Yell and ultimately led to the development of the Tweed Company. Although things did not work out exactly as they had been planned, the aim of supporting weaving in the islands was realised through this project, and sixteen years later, the studio continues to operate and support weavers from all over the world. 

The Maelstrom stands about a foot and a half high, and is six feet in width. it is made out of three spirals, each secured to the next by means of press-studs, and it stands on its own base of painted wood, colour-coded for each arm to be placed correctly. The arms are rolled initially and then, once fastened together, unrolled and opened out to reveal the lattice structure. It is made in a technique called "double cloth"; in this case there are four layers of cloth in the main part of each arm, with each layer woven separately to the others, interlacing at regular intervals. This necessitated weeks and weeks of complex weaving, followed by starching and ironing the lengths, to produce the final sculpture. 

The work is based on the mathematical progression popularly known as the "Fibonacci Sequence", where the sum of two immediately-preceeding numbers gives the next; i.e. 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. Here is a potted history of this sequence, for which we have to thank not the Italian Leonardo of Pisa but Sanskrit texts! It is an interesting piece by way of its materials, its genesis, its formulation and design, and for being a beautiful piece in its own right, and it has been on show in London, Wales and of course Shetland. 

The Maelstrom is planned to be on display this summer in the studio. Please do come and visit it.