'NARRATIVE THREAD - conducting video interviews with major British textile artists'
This page contains a detailed report in to a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB). 'Narrative Thread' was a collaborative project with the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles (CHRRCT) at Goldsmiths College, London. Click here to go to the bottom of the page to read more about the artists who were intervierviewed and to watch clips.
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Begun in June 2003 with £4995 awarded to Matthew Partington by the AHRB, the project was described as follows in the original application for funding:
'Narrative Thread' will produce interviews with five major British textile artists. Following on from the work of NEVAC to interview ceramic artists, a project began in 2001 to interview textile artists with the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles at Goldsmith's College, London. Funded by NEVAC, interviews took place with Audrey Walker, Eirian Short and Caroline Broadhead. Using NEVAC's oral-history/film-making expertise alongside Goldsmith's textile expertise, 'Narrative Thread' will greatly expand the existing material to produce a unique archive of interviews and will test NEVAC's methodology in a different craft media from its traditional area of ceramics.
Aims & ObjectivesTo interview five major British textile artists. Interviews were conducted with Christine Risley, Alison Liley, Margaret Hall-Townley, Rozanne Hawksley and Professor Polly Binns. All of the interviewees had a link with Goldsmith's College and are significant either in the history of Goldsmiths and/or in British textile history. All of the interviews were conducted on DVC-PRO tape, a broadcast quality format. The original tapes reside in the NEVAC archive and copies have been given to the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles (CHRRCT) at Goldsmiths College.
To produce a limited edition box set of CD-ROMs of the interviews. Work has begun on producing a box-set of CD-ROMs from the archive. This will include full transcripts of all 12 hours of interviews and a catalogue outlining the content of each CD-ROM.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of collaboration relating to non-ceramic craft media. The collaboration with Goldsmiths has been extremely fruitful. The linking of NEVAC's interviewing and film-making experience with Goldsmiths understanding of British textiles has meant a much more professional outcome for the project than either partner could have produced alone. The success of this project has led to the beginnings of a similar project with researchers at Buckingham Chilterns University college which will involve interviewing people associated with furniture and the applied arts.
Just after being notified of receiving this AHRB award we were informed that one of our prospective interviewees, Christine Risley, was suffering from a terminal illness. This meant we had to move very fast and set up an interview in early June 2003. Christine sadly died several weeks later. As Christine's interviewer was Margaret Hall-Townley, a colleague of Christine's and old friend it was decided that Margaret should be one of the people to be interviewed. As archivist of the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles (CHRRCT) at Goldsmiths College, Margaret has intimate knowledge of both the college and it's past and present textile staff and given her closeness to Christine it was felt that it was important to include Margaret as an interviewee as well as an interviewer.
Pennina Barnett was originally earmarked as an interviewer but due to a family illness she was unable to take part. As a result the final interview with Professor Polly Binns was conducted by Pamela Johnson. As one of the research questions being addressed in this project was 'the extent to which the experience in interviewing and/or a particular craft media, affected the outcome of the interview', the last minute change of interviewer changed the outcomes slightly. As Pamela had not worked with NEVAC before the interview included greater intervention from the interviewer than would normally be the case. This turned out to be an interesting element to the research as it reinforced a widely held oral history tenet that an interviewer should be heard as infrequently as possible.
Research QuestionsThe very different skills of staff from NEVAC and CHRRCT were very effectively pooled. NEVAC staff Matthew Partington (Director), Gary Stadden (sound recorder) and Bob Prince (lighting cameraman) worked with Margaret Hall-Townley and Julie Graves from CHRRCT. It was found that it was possible to film textile artists involved in part of the making process much more easily than is usually the case with ceramic artists, (who often have many elements in their making process - often dependent upon equipment, time and space).
The project showed that NEVAC's approach to interviewing works when applied to textile artists equally well as it has to ceramic artists, (NEVAC's traditional base). Each artist has to be treated differently regardless of their chosen media so the specific approach differs from person to person but the overall approach remains the same.
On balance it was shown that a knowledge of the craft field in general is vital in conducting interviews but the most important element is thorough research in to the interviewee. It was shown in one case that an interviewer with enormous knowledge of contemporary textiles, and in particular of the interviewee, proved to produce the most problematic interview form an archival and oral history point of view. This interviewer knew the interviewee very well and had written about her work and as a result talked to the interviewee at length rather than allowing the interviewee to talk. It would have been better to have someone with less knowledge of the subject area but more interviewing experience. The interviewer had conducted many interviews but not for archival or film-making purposes, which require the interviewer to say as little as possible and wherever possible not to put words in to the interviewers mouth. In conclusion the best interviewer is the person with a knowledge of the crafts in general, preferably with specific expertise in the relevant field but most importantly with experience of oral history interviewing and its particular needs.
The five interviewees have had a significant impact on textile design and education. Professor Polly Binns is a senior researcher and key figure in contemporary textile practice and research. Alison Liley, Margaret Hall-Townley, Rozanne Hawksley and Christine Risley all have very close links to Goldsmiths, having taught there during different periods. Goldsmiths textile course was and is an important part of British textile history and the key figures interviewed for this project give a unique overview of how the course worked and its important contribution to textiles being taken seriously in British art education and the applied arts generally.
NEVAC's interviewing and film-making expertise has led to a greater understanding on the part of the staff at the CHRRCT of how to conduct interviews themselves, either on video or as audio recordings.
As Director of the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), an archive often associated with ceramics, this project has allowed NEVAC to start to engage with other areas of the crafts such as textiles. The knowledge gained from this collaboration with the CHRRCT at Goldsmiths has led to a further collaboration with Buckingham Chilterns University College and their interest and expertise in furniture.
As one of the research questions centred upon the type of knowledge which is most useful to an interviewer, this project has reinforced our previously held view that knowledge of the subject area is vital but oral history interviewing skills are more important. It has shown that a person with a deep understanding of a subject area but with no oral history interviewing experience can produce a less useful oral history interview than an experienced interviewer with much less knowledge of the area. The important distinction to be made is that oral history interviewing is a very distinct area that demands a more rigorous and disciplined approach than other styles of interviewing so that an experienced interviewer may not necessarily make a good oral history interviewer. Oral history interviews demand that the interviewer ask no leading questions, ask no questions that can elicit yes/no responses and that they interrupt and speak as little as possible.
This project has shown the wider crafts community that NEVAC can engage successfully with other craft media and has increased our profile in the crafts world. NEVAC is now seen as an archive of the crafts rather than an archive of ceramics. As a result my personal profile within the crafts world has been raised and I am now known to a wider group of my peers than was previously the case.
The Interviewees - the following section gives you more information about each interviewee as well as images of their work and a short video clip taken from each interview. In total there are more than twelve hours of recorded video interviews with the five artists.
Christine Risley (1926 - 2003)
The first interview as part of this project took place on 10th June 2003 at Blackheath in South London at the home of textile artist and educator, Christine Risley. Christine is renowned as the author of several key books on machine embroidery as well as having been a lecturer and course leader on the textiles degree at Goldsmith's College. Christine was a member of staff at Goldsmith's from the late 1950's until the late 1980's.
Christine died following a long illnesss on 16th August 2003. The following is a short excerpt from Christine's obituary, written by Margaret Hall-Townley, (also the NEVAC interviewer):
'By 1967 Constance had appointed Christine as Head of Machine embroidery at Goldsmiths and Christine set herself the task of developing the machine area into one of the most exciting and adventurous of the period. To assist in this she wrote three books: Machine Embroidery,  Creative Embroidery  and her third book; 'Machine embroidery: A Complete Guide' first published in 1973. This last book set the seal on her as an authority on the sewing machine. To achieve it she worked long hours in libraries and museums, travelling to France and Switzerland for information, speaking to people who had worked on machine embroidery in industrial and trade situations. The publication of the book resulted in her being asked to lecture at home and abroad on the subject'.
Click on the camera icon to watch a short clip from the interview in which Christine talks about her first experience of textiles at Goldsmiths.
Alison Liley (born 1929)
Founder member of the 62 Group of textile artists, Alison was interviewed at her home in Kildysart, County Clare on 26th September 2003. The interview was conducted by Margaret Hall-Townley.
Alison Liley was the daughter of two RCA graduates, her father had been trained as a painter and her mother as a bookbinder and embroiderer by Mrs Christie. Having left her father's art school in the North of England Alison joined Bromley school of Art to begin a qualification in embroidery. The staff of the department were at the time involved with the Needlework Development Scheme and this also became a part of Alison's experience. From Bromley, Alison left for Denmark to study embroidery returning to a part time job in the Art School system at Canterbury.
Years of teaching and travel followed, plus a marriage, children and the production of two books of embroidery technique and design. During the same period Alison started the department of embroidery at Loughborough School of Art and the idea for an exhibiting group followed. In 1962 Alison, with a small group of her fellow artists founded the very successful '62 Group of Textile Artists'. Latterly Alison decided to join her husband in Ireland eventually moving to her house in County Clare. Here a new career developed in the making and selling of Irish Crafts. Alison is still working, the inspiration for her embroidery being the estuary at the bottom of her garden, (see photograph, left).
Click on the camera icon to watch a short clip from the interview in which Alison talks about first going to Ireland.
Margaret Hall-Townley was interviewed at her home in Northamptonshire on 2nd February 2004. Margaret is a textile artist in her own right as well as being Curator of the Constance Howard Research and Resource Centre in Textiles at Goldsmiths College, London. She was interviewed by Matthew Partington, Director of NEVAC.
Margaret took an art foundation course in Bristol in the mid sixties before taking a diploma in art and design at Goldsmiths College. Under the direction of Constance Howard the course concentrated on embroidery. Following an art teachers course back in Bristol Margaret began to teach at Goldsmiths.
Margaret was instrumental in managing and curating Goldsmiths textile collection from the early 1980's until the creation of the Constance Howard Research and Resource Centre in Textiles in the late 1990's. Margaret is now Curator of the Centre which is based in Goldsmith's Town Hall Building in New Cross, London.
Margaret conducted interviews with Christine Risley, Alison Liley and Rozanne Hawksley as part of this project.
Click on the camera icon to watch a short clip from the interview in which Margaret discusses a piece of her embroidery based on the hawthorn.
Rozanne Hawksley was interviewed by Margaret Hall-Townley at her home in Pembrokeshire on 5th February 2004. Rozanne is a textile artist renowned for her great drawing skills and the beautifully crafted and dark imagery of her textile pieces.
Born in Portsmouth in 1931, Rozanne was a wartime evacuee (see image bottom left). She attended art school as a fashion student and went on to write and illustrate her own column, 'Man About Town', for a London Magazine in the late 1950's. Following a period in America teaching textiles Rozanne returned to England and began to teach and make textiles in her own right. She studied and later taught textiles at Goldsmith's College, London.
Quoted on the BBC's 2002 Eisteddfod web-site, Rozanne describes her work, 'I attempt to deal with themes of isolation and suffering due to war, sickness, poverty and death and the misuse of power. Much of the stimuli for these come from my own experiences and those of my family'.
Click on the camera icon to watch a short clip from the interview in which Rozanne talks about what triggers her drawings.
Professor Polly Binns
Interviewed at her home in Hertfordshire on 27th February 2004. The interviewer was Pamela Johnson, a writer on the crafts particularly known for her interest in contemporary textiles.
An illustrated monograph of Polly's work, 'Surfacing', was published by Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery in 2003. It included an extended essay by Pamela Johnson, (ISBN 0 9528639 0 4). An exhibition of Pamela's work is touring the UK during 2004-2005.
Dr Trevor Nicholls wrote in the monograph, 'Polly Binns trained as a fine artist and went on to develop her ideas through cloth and stitch. her continuing relationship with landscape is a powerful source of inspiration and she has recently pursued this through digital imagery sequencing. Her own work has never stood still and she played a vital role nationally in promoting the concept of practice as research and active self-analysis'.
Click on the camera icon to watch a short clip from the interview in which Polly talks about her 'Landmark' series.
The Interviewers - one of the aims of this project was to use different interviewers and to assess how their expertise in textiles and/or oral history interviewing affected the interview. Margaret and Pamela have extensive knowledge of textiles whereas Matthew has limited knowledge of textiles but knowledge of the British crafts scene in general. Matthew has most experience of oral history interviewing whilst Pamela has experience of interviewing as a journalist and writer. Margaret had little experience of interviewing but proved to be perhaps the most effective interviewer as she took direction very well and had no preconceived ideas of how the interview should be conducted. Pamela's interview with Polly Binns worked well as a traditional interview between journalist and subject but less well as an oral history interview in its normally understood form. Pamela talked more than is usually the case in an oral history interview and told Polly a number of things rather than asking questions which might elicit the response unprompted. However, Pamela's understanding of Polly's work is unmatched, so without conducting another interview with Polly using a different interviewer, it would be difficult to say whether Pamela's interview could be bettered.