Making a carpet of one of my paintings
It was while I was laying out a number of paintings on a floor, selecting them for a solo show in July 2020, it occurred to me that some of them would look great as carpets.
There is a vast heritage of carpets made to the designs of Architects, designers and Artists; joseph Albers and Eileen Gray, Howard Hogkin and Kate Blee, Anni Albers and Sandra blow come to mind. What is understood is that unless specifically intended as a carpet, an artwork translated to textile is affected by the manufacturing process: an image will either gain or lose something by being translated so I wanted to understand more about the process and the history of carpet making before deciding how best to take my project forward.
Until recently the majority of handmade carpets were made in Iran (previously known as Persia) mostly to traditional designs and manufacturing practices and although there is a worldwide community of individual artists/artisans making carpets there are also whole towns specialising in carpet making giving their names to types of carpet and designs such as Wilton and Axminster in the UK, Aubusson in France and Ningxia and Beijing in China.
What unites these types of carpet is the manufacturing technique which is instantly recognisable as archaic in origin i.e. hand knotting, a technique that requires years of practice until one becomes proficient and even with proficiency carpets can take years to make. This hand knotting technique was mechanised during the industrial revolution to become a loom-based process, a process that was inherently repetitive, labour intensive, used environmentally toxic fixing agents for the dyes and was hazardous to health.
Technique affects outcomes
Standard looms only allow for 12 different yarns to be woven and although there are looms that can use 32 colours I wanted to avoid such limitations and sought to find carpet makers that enjoy being directed, are capable of adapting their processes to translate a work of art and to enable the work to gain from the process.
India and Pakistan have always made carpets with Mirzapur and Bhadohi as the traditional hub of production in India dating back to the 16th century during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, with small workshops tucked away across cities, towns and rural hamlets, but the industry there has developed to embrace natural dyeing and artisanal manufacturing techniques and now accounts for 40% of the worldwide market for handmade carpets. Modern techniques avoid the repetitiveness of industrialised processes or the time required for hand knotting by using a modern stitching gun and yarn technique with designs often generated by computer.
Individual stitching guns are loaded with yarns, a design is printed and pinned and then drawn and painted onto a stretched fabric base. The yarn is loop stitched using the guns while standing. Two to three artisans can work on a carpet at a time, looping colours in and around each other, mixing, as on a palette.
Carpet designs can now be free form and have complex colour mixes taking advantage of thousands of natural dyes and the individual skill of the artisan operator. Factories are modern, large, well ventilated, promoting good workplace practice with the artisans highly skilled and well paid.
It is this technique that I felt best suited translating a painting to a textile while gaining from the process.
Raw materials: where the wool comes from, dyeing and sustainability issues
New Zealand wool is prized for its naturally mottled whites and for ease of dyeing and India imports huge quantities. The wool is wound into hanks using large manually operated winders to be dyed using organic and plant-based dyes. The Indian dyers’ use of natural mordants was key to their expertise and was unrivalled until the invention of western chemical dyes in the 19th century. The natural processes are still used and although the process is inherently water consuming, the trend in India is towards investment in wastewater treatment for liquid discharge with factories now reusing 90% of their water.
The range of colours available now means that any colour achieved by an artist on canvas can be replicated in yarn.
Making the carpet
With all this in mind I approached an agent in Glasgow to help the process. We chose an easy painting (Solitude, which is all black and white) so that I could test the quality and the processes.
Having vectorised the painting for them, approving the many wool samples (who would have thought there could be so many white or black yarns}, and agreeing the level of finish required (trimming and colour edge definition), the data was sent to the factory in India. Within 3 weeks progress photos were sent and within 5 weeks the carpet had been completed and awaiting shipment. Then, a coronavirus lockdown was imposed across India and shipping was delayed for 2 months.
When then carpet arrived, it was a revelation with nothing lost in translation but with the benefit of it being four times the original size, with an increase in intensity of colour caused by the local lack of reflection and a softening caused by the natural mottling of the New Zealand wool
I had intended the carpet to be shown in my solo show hung from a wall mounted batten and available for sale but the quality was exceptional, with a tight weave and dense colours, so I have decided to keep it and use it for its intended purpose; a carpet.
I’m now in the process of defining how much more complex the weaving can go. I will visit the workshop to push the technique as far as it can and will have more made, and these rugs, I will sell.
I can’t wait!