CIYC: Isabel McLeish

Isabel McLeish writes about her slow walking and collaborative textile project

The original project proposal evolved due to Covid-19 restrictions in terms of participant numbers, workshop scheduling and whether all participants could meet together physically. In order to follow the guidelines, I had to reduce the number of participants and I had originally hoped to have 8-10 people. Rather than doing an open call, I decided to invite a selection of people to take part and I ended up with 4 households including my own of mothers and daughters – so 8 participants in total. Unfortunately, one household lives further away and did not engage with the material and workshop suggestions and decided to pull out of the project. So the end result was 6 people from 3 households and this has meant it has been a very intimate and fluid project. As I know the households quite well, I decided to let their timetables help shape the scheduling of walks and workshops.

As all households could not meet at one time, I created a Facebook group chat for timetabling polls and logistics, a private Facebook page for participants to share work, ideas and inspiration and encouraged frequent Zoom calls as a group. This format has worked well under the circumstances as a way for the whole group to connect and share regularly.

To follow restrictions, my household only met with one other household outdoors for the walks or workshops. One of the participants has mobility issues and so she opted for spending time in her garden or using photography as a way of slowing down and connecting with nature. With the other household, we met up several times for walks in our local landscape and enjoyed sketching, photography and discussions. I encouraged all the participants to continue going for walks with their other household member as a way of witnessing autumn and the colours and seasons changing. By giving them all sketchbooks, I think this has enabled and encouraged them to document the changing colours and climate as well as slow down because they have that physical creative outlet to add to. I opted for ‘concertina’ sketchbooks which unfold like an accordion which was Joanne B Kaar’s suggestion and these have worked really well as you can work on multiple pages at once. This format of sketchbook will be ideal if we have a future exhibition as the sketchbooks can be displayed without the public needing to touch them. One participant never made a sketchbook before and has loved the process and continues to work on it.

I let the participants timetable as well as the weather inform the scheduling of the dyeing workshops which took place outside under a covered area behind my house. The funding has enabled me to purchase high quality materials that will be used again in the future and the materials meant that I was able to do the dyeing and textile processes properly and so they were successful!

I prepped all the fabric and materials prior to the workshops so that the fabric was ready to take the dye pigment. I have learnt that being organised and having a selection of options in terms of activities for participants worked well. The workshop sessions were with one household at a time and we did natural dyeing to dye fabric (e.g. onion, cabbage, bracken, brambles, cabbage, etc.), created solar dye jars (to dye small amounts of fabric or thread) and did leaf eco-printing (to pick up pigment and details of foliage). We have also begun to create fabric cyanotypes as a different kind of contact printing and experimenting with light and foliage. Participants were given their selection of dyed materials to work on at home if they wish and they are currently working on a selection of garments and pieces. These include a lampshade, a fabric map of their woodlands, a lichen jacket, a landscape, eco-printed shirt and a multi-panelled skirt.

The weekly zoom calls have been a great way to connect frequently and share the joys of the project and give the group updates. The routine of catching up with the group has been great I terms of sociability and a way to connect with others during a difficult time. We also tried a making workshop session on zoom to create our own ‘flag books’ (examples – http://www.philobiblon.com/flagbook/) which was a fun and experimental event.

Officially my part in the project is almost finished as it is not necessary to do any more walks or workshops as participants have all their materials and continue to work on their projects. Due to the slow nature of the project, it will be a while until the textile pieces and garments are complete and I think keeping the time frame open for participants and not to rush them is a great idea. It is my hope that we will be able to do a final group sharing, performance or exhibition of the work when we feel ready, hopefully in Spring 2021.

I think myself and the group have benefitted in a variety of ways, connecting with each other socially and sharing, slowing down through walking, drawing and stitching, learning new skills (natural dyeing, eco-printing, cyanotypes) as well as feeling more connected to place and the seasonal rhythms of Autumn.

Despite the challenges of Covid, I have been able to deliver the project without it suffering and it has been a more personal and intimate project because of the small group numbers. I see the project as a great experimental time and as a test-run for a potentially similar larger participatory project (this might be a good project for my current MA in Art & Social Practice, UHI). The funding has been invaluable in terms of enabling me to buy materials as well as have the support from Joanne B. Kaar and I feel more confident because of it. I have really enjoyed the ‘Creative Conversations’ and mentor meetings as this has enabled me to network with like-minded people, share thoughts and advice on how to proceed with a rural arts practice and what is important for creatives during this time. The whole experience has been really positive, and I hope that we will continue to stay in touch as a group.

Project updates on my website which I will continue to add to as garments are finished – https://www.isabelmcleish.com/#/collaborative-textile-project/

Project updates on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/isabelmcleishart/

And Instagram highlights – https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17860643552114179/