Over the sea to Islay


You know those conversations where you dream/speculate about things that are never likely to happen?  That’s how it all started….

My friends, Mary-Ann and Nick, moved to Islay in 2012 and have been busyThe Dower House ever since, lovingly restoring The Dower House – a real labour of love, if ever there was one.  They now have the most beautiful home – I knew this because  I had been following their blog, never dreaming I might one day visit.

She said ” Wouldn’t it be great if you could come up to Islay and do some feltmaking courses”…

And that is why at 6.30 on a Thursday morning I was driving through road works in Birmingham at a sedate 30 m.p.h., car loaded with wool, the sun rising in a blaze of glory to my right, and only several hundred miles to the ferry.  By the time I reached Loch Lomond it was clear I could have had an extra couple of hours in bed, but at least I had time to linger and appreciate the stunning scenery.

As darkness fell on the ‘Hebridean Isles’ I set my phone’s compass to the map and watched for the lights of Islay.  I like to think I saw the Dower House’s brightly lit windows – I definitely identified the 3 distilleries I would pass on my short drive from Port Ellen.  18 hours after leaving home I arrived (down the hill, in the forest, we’ll leave all the lights on)  – the view I was longing to see would have to wait for the sunrise.

IMG_1051Wow!  what a view!! a paved terrace outside my window, then lawn, then the beach!!!  Just heavenly!!!!  The light on the water changes constantly – one moment the horizon is a dark line, the next, shining silver, the water shifting through brown, green, orange, blue, pure white light.  The seals loll in banana-like attitudes on every free rock, or play in the water, pretending to be leaping dolphins.  The otters that rest up in the bay pop out now and then to frolic and feed.  Red breasted mergansers duck and dive, while the  herons flap lazily or just stand and watch.  I’m told that Big Red, the stag, puts in a regular appearance too.islay view

Mary-Ann and Nick have dogs – Cassie, Leo and Woody.  Jenny, their daughter, has Coire, so 4 large dogs vie for every intro and outro at the back door – it’s chaos and a lot of fun. IMG_1064 Did I forget Archie, the ancient cat?  And the chickens…

The 2 days before felting workshops started were spent learning about island life.  Saturday is changeover day – tourism is second only to whisky in the island’s list of priorities – so I helped Mary-Ann clean the lodge that she is responsible for.  The self-catering part of the Dower House was already spick and span, so needed no attention.

Islay ardbeg xOn Friday there was exciting news…..  Ardbeg, the closest distillery to the Dower House, had bottled a single cask of 10 year old malt and was selling it (one bottle per person) to anyone who got to the distillery in time.  Mary-Ann and I went and got one for her and Nick, and one for Jenny – only £275 per bottle, but we were reliably informed that it was already worth over £1000 on a whisky auction site!!!  Idon’t think we’ll be drinking it.      Islay Oa   Islay Waterfall

A bracing walk on the Mull of Oa (pronounced O) and down to the the waterfall beach was intended as a pebble and shell collecting trip – we’re doing a mosaic workshop on Wednesday – but there was so much plastic washed up on this remote, inaccessible beach that, instead, we filled our collecting bags with as much as we could manage to take away.  Leo did his part by collecting a slimy tennis ball and bringing it back with him.

Workshops started on Sunday – Emma arrived to share an early lunch before we started – she has been involved in helping Mary-Ann organise the workshops.  She’s already done a bit of feltmaking, but is very keen to learn more, so she can develop what she does and sell work locally.  The workshops had been slow to book, as folk didn’t know what to expect, but as the week wore on, we found extras creeping in, and by our Exhibition on Friday there was real interest in another week of art courses, maybe in the Spring.

islay sheepTuesday was a real wildlife day – my early morning let’s-see-if-we-can-spot-an-otter potter found me deep in a drippy, toadstool carpeted beechwood.  The flock of sheep I had disturbed decided they wanted to escape, formed an orderly queue and all waded across the river.  Then after the day’s felting workshop I saw a Golden Eagle soaring over the Fairy Hill!  As we sat in the sunshine on the terrace, celebrating the sighting with Dorset Black Cow Vodka and cheese, an otter put on a show for us.   This place is pure magic.

Wednesday – The day of Storm Ali – wet and very windy.  Not all of our workshop ladies managed to arrive as a tree blew down across the road, cutting us off from civilisation.  islay mosaicMosaics  today, so I got a rest from teaching and a chance to play.  Just before lunch Nick and Jenny announced they were off for a ‘bit of a paddle’ !  It was spectacular seeing them go with a big wave bashing Jenny in the face as she launched. They are bonkers.  Even more fun was the video that Mary-Ann took of their return to shore.  It kept us all crying with laughter for the rest of the week.  A totally delicious lunch was provided by Topsy, necessitating a ‘nap’ ;-) and rendering any further food for the day unneccessary.  Topsy took Mary-Ann and Nick under her wing when they first came to Islay, lending them her bathroom and feeding them when bathrooms and kitchens were in short supply at the Dower House.

Hundreds of house martins mobbed the house in the early evening as we were watching the seals looping the loop.  This place is so special – something wondrous every day.

Thursday – Feltmaking and Slate Painting.  The tree has been cleared and the ferries are running again after the storm – all back to normal.  Rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun and, of course that means rainbows.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so may rainbows in the course of one day!Isaly rainbow 2 Another scrumptious Topsy lunch rendered any further food irrelevant .isaly rainbow 3  Just as well really, as Mary-Ann and Jenny had their Gaelic choir practice in Bowmore, so supper would have been a bit of a rush.  It was a real treat to listen to them as they were put through their paces.Islay rainbow1

A night safari followed – toad, hedgehog, barn owl, tawny owl, bats, fallow and red deer.  How many more times can I have my tiny mind blown by this place?!

Islay cakesFriday – the big reveal and another day of many rainbows!  We hung the Art Exhibition sign on the gate of the Dower House and waited for them to flock in – and they did.  It might have been the promise of Topsy’s cakes that brought them, but everyone was mightily impressed by what had been achieved during the week.  So much positive feedback and so much interest in the next Art Week.  I think we might have started something!!

Saturday kind of knocked all other days into a cocked hat.  I have a bit of a thing about cowrie shells – I only found 21 today!!  and an intact green sea urchin shell. Picnic on a beautiful beach in glorious sunshine.   Topsy and Emma – plus husband, Dave – came in the evening to share a truly enormous haggis.  As the moon rose, a pair of otters put on the performance of their lives in the bay – pudding was postponed.  A little later, replete with the last of Topsy’s incomparable coffee cake, I walked down to the beach to make the most of my last hours on Islay and there he was!  Big Red, the stag, silhouetted in a pool of moonlight on the wet sand.

Sunday dawned spectacularly as otters and seals frolicked their farewells.  I have been made so completely welcome here I am utterly overwhelmed.   I can’t recall a time when I have been so consistently and outrageously happy – I will surely be back.

On my way back south – well, strictly speaking I had gone a lot further north before I could start heading south, I called in to Lochgoilhead to see my friend, Sarah Ross Thompson – she taught me collagraph printing when she lived in Wimborne.  It was so good to catch up with her, share a cuppa and taste her flapjack once again.  The print I brought back home will always remind me of my first trip to Islay.  I know it won’t be my last.

Phew – that was a marathon blog post!  Thankyou – if you’ve lasted this far – for ploughing through.  If you want to stay at the Dower House and share the wonder of the place, you can!  The self-catering side of the house sleeps 8 – 3 double rooms and a twin.  2 of the doubles are ensuite,   In Nick and Mary Ann’s side of the house there is a self-contained flat which is wheelchair friendly, sleeping 2 with a shower room and small kitchen.  They would love to hear from you.









Post 03 September 2018

 Tapestry Weaving


Bob, Bob, Bobbin along


Oh! Where to begin? 

OK – so it’s not what I do, but how I wish……

It all started way back when….. some good friends ‘lent’ me their holiday home in Central France for a couple of weeks. It was high summer – hot and sultry – hazy, lazy days relaxing on the terrace, eating well and sightseeing. On a visit to Aubusson I went to an exhibition of 20th Century woven tapestries and was completely blown away by the work of a Benedictine monk called Dom Robert. Up until that point I had only seen tapestries in ancient castles, time-worn and faded by sunlight – this was the beginning of a new obsession…

Image result for dom robert

One of Dom Robert’s HUGE tapestries.  ‘Les enfants de lumiere’.

laudes far e

My cross-stitch version on Dom Robert’s ‘Laudes’. Laudes means morning prayer – I know that seeing this in my kitchen sets me up for the day!


My first effort at tapestry weaving

His designs were so vibrant and so BIG!  I even copied, charted and cross-stitched one of his designs, albeit on a much smaller scale.  It was a labour of love (mixed with just a teensy-weensy bit of the other emotion), taking about 5 years to complete, but it was worth every second.  Yes – I know that copying is something I now try to avoid, but so much can be learned by attempting to replicate another’s colour palette.  The soft blend of colours was only achieved by mixing three colours of crewel wool in each needle, giving a vast range of subtly different shades.  It taught me a lot about colour mixing!

A few years back I did a one-day workshop in tapestry weaving  and I’ve experimented at home, but always longed to know much more.  Here it is in all its brown and black glory – it does say something, but few can interpret its meaning, although the clues are there….  sorry – no prizes if you do see the message!

In Aubusson, weavers have to complete a 5 year apprenticeship before they are let loose on the ‘real thing’!!!  I’m afraid I haven’t got the time or patience to wait that long!

West Dean College in Sussex have a deservedly massive reputation for their summer schools and short courses, so a few years ago I started to drool over their tapestry weaving courses.  They aren’t cheap and it’s taken me a long time to decide I’m worth it, but this year I took the plunge, paid my money and have just returned from a fabulous 6 day course with master weaver, Caron Penney.  Believe me when I say it was brilliant value!  Caron was patience personified and such a good teacher, guiding eight of us – all with very different styles and needs – smoothly through the process.  On the first day we were immensely privileged to be the first to see a newly completed tapestry in the West Dean Tapestry Studio and to talk with its creator, master weaver Katherine Swailes.  

silky fish

The pinnacle of my achievement (so far;-)

I now understand why the Aubusson apprenticeship takes so long!  I thought I had a rudimentary understanding of tapestry weaving before I went, but I now I realise just how much more  there is to learn.  I suppose all skills are the same – there is a level at which most beginners can produce something to be proud of, but ……. 

I was hoping to be able to use my handspun silk yarns and Caron encouraged me in this, suggesting that I add very fine worsted-spun wools to subtly vary the colour and tone.  The result was chunky and textural, not to mention colourful (you all know by now that I don’t do subtle!).

If you get the chance to go to West Dean, grasp it with as many hands as you can manage – you won’t regret it! 

I know this for sure – I’ll be setting up my frame at home, just as soon as I’ve got Handmade for Christmas behind me and I’ll be scanning West Dean’s 2019 prospectus, planning next year’s tapestry adventure.



Post 23 July, 2018

The evolution of a wet-felted picture….

People often ask
“Where do you start?”
”Do you work from a photo or a sketch?”
“How do you build up a picture?”
Hopefully this little picture-story will give an insight into what happens in my head, my sketchbook and my workshop ;-)
Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 11.27.46     Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 11.28.00
This photo was taken on a sunny July day last year – the only trouble with photos is that they contain way, way too much information and, although the colours are true, they simply don’t give me enough variety or contrast.  So, out comes the sketchbook – mine is an A4 Seawhite book with a ruled page on the left – just perfect for making completely irrelevant notes about the day – and a lovely blank page to the right .  The wonderful thing for me is that the irrelevant notes transport me back to the sights, smells, sounds of the day.  I failed to record the purchase of 3 mackerel direct from the bottom of a newly winched-in fishing boat, but the memory is deliciously clear.
My very inexpert sketching and painting efforts record the details and colours that I want to include in my wet-felted picture.   Complicated areas of light and shade are simplified and any details  I don’t want to include are left out…
 penberth notes  Penberth sketch fish
Once back in my workshop at the Workhouse Chapel I can begin to build up the picture , first laying down a layer of white merino wool to form a base – if we look at the work as a painting, this is my paper.  I then start to build the colour, starting with the thing that’s furthest away – the sky.  I like to make sure that each part of the composition is complete before moving forward. 
  p1   p2 
Next I add the hill and then the sea, leaving the foreground until last. If we go back to the painting analogy, it’s a bit like laying down color washes., with the subtle difference being that at each stage  I’m including all the detail necessary.  Silk fibres are added, giving extra depths of colour and texture. When I start to add the rocks, I also make sure that I’ve created all the shadows and ruggedness they deserve. The little fisherman’s cottage gets built next, using my handspun silk and woollen yarns to define the architectural details.
p3   p4
.  And last of all, the slipway and the boats….   The boats are the focus of the picture, so I spend a lot of time trying to ensure I haven’t forgotten anything. Only when every detail is in place do I start the felting process.  Because of the amount of detail, I work my pieces flat, covering them with net and rubbing carefully by hand.  As the wool fibres felt together and trap the silk and yarns into the surface, everything moves, shrinks and distorts; colours soften as fibres blend together and previously well defined lines and details blur and wriggle.
p5 p6
My pictures  have no stitched details and no needle-felted details.  All the detail and all the textures have been created during the wet-felting process.  I just love the unexpected squiffiness and organic edges of the finished work.

Post 24 January, 2017

 A New Year — Blog Objectives!

How to start a blog? – it feels a strange cliff to climb, not for the faint of heart, and yet one that has been climbed by many before. Were they all as apprehensive as me? Or were they already on the top and just jumping off, all gung-ho and fearless?
Well, faint-hearted or gung-ho, I’m going to give it my best shot.
I’ve read all the blogs on how to write a blog and somehow none of them seem to apply to me – a special case, or just a hopeless case? They say “Choose your subject” ! Really? Not interested thanks…. “Choose a subject you are passionate about” Getting better, but still a bit limiting…. What if my subject was beauty and creativity? Is that a tad wishy-wash? It’s certainly what I’m passionate about – or one of them. What if I chose Alphabets – another of my abiding passions – then I could be free to cover any subject in an alphabetical fashion
I am shortly to celebrate a significant birthday and life seems to have granted me permission and opportunity to diversify/indulge/enjoy.
2017 feels full of promise, packed with excitement and change, new experiences and opportunities, so it seems only right to keep a record and share.
But first, a little background. I struggle to label myself and have no desire to be labelled by others. I am
A textile artist – I make felt and silk paper
An occasional writer/poet
A thinker of outlandish thoughts
A reluctant business-woman
Thankfully I have found a way to run a business which accommodates my other proclivities. I teach felt-making, write sporadically and think my strange thoughts in a gorgeous Victorian Chapel . Every now and then I deem it time to subject the unsuspecting public to a slightly off-kilter exhibition or event. It’s surprising how many people like to be encouraged to be off-kilter – it’s almost as if they’ve been told this is not how adults behave.