Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

(learn more about me).

The Fibre of My Being

Medieval capital, somewhere in rural France

[Photo by the incomparable Niall Murphy.]

I sometimes wonder what it is about textiles that makes me swoon. (Swoon!)

When I was a child, summer after summer my medievalist academic parents took me and my siblings around the castles, museums, walled towns, and cathedrals of France, Italy, and surrounding countries. It was marvellous. I loved it.

(My little brother didn’t, so much. One year, on our long drive from Dublin to the Continent, we stopped off in Birmingham to visit his version of a cathedral – Villa Park, home ground of his favourite soccer team – on condition that he then come quietly for the rest of the trip.)

I had a well developed aesthetic hierarchy by the time I was eight or nine. Paintings were all very well but rather dull after the first few rooms full. Frescoes were a little more exciting – possibly because of the egg yolk, the urgency, and the antiquity of the technique. Gilding was pretty, in its place (or breathtaking, in Venice); trompe l’oeil was amusing, if done well – and faintly pitiable if not. Intricate medieval statuary was absorbing and endearing, particularly when my mother explained the stories.

The best bits of cathedrals were the stained glass windows (the shapes and – my god – the colour!) and the patterns – floor tiles, pillar capitals, ceiling bosses, window borders. Those were my bits.

It’s a human thirst, this thirst for pattern, balance, repetition, order. I have it bad.

The Renaissance was already getting a bit too realist for my nine-year-old taste (apart from Italian architecture, which rather thoroughly slakes the thirst I mentioned). German Baroque was boring in architecture, though utterly arresting in music. The eighteenth century in general seemed irritatingly modern – although contradictorily, I had a burning love for Victoriana.

Trumping all other considerations, though, my absolute favourite places to visit were dwellings – by which of course I mean great houses, châteaux, palazzi: little Léan – following, let it be said, the cultural cues on offer – was an elitist to her silver-plated core.

And the best bits about dwellings were the textiles.

Silk wall coverings. Woven carpets. Massive tapestries. Needlepoint fire screens. Velvet bed hangings. Lace cuffs. Knitted stockings. Embroidered shawls. Now you’re talking.

House after house, room after room, I’d drink these textiles in. Big picture be damned – what I fiercely craved was the perspective of the maker. Frowning in a concentration that shut out the rest of the world, I’d lean in as close as I was allowed, close enough to see how the individual threads were arranged. My fingers would tingle, and I’d imagine the gestures and procedures that had resulted in the piece – try to guess at the techniques.

Machines were disappointing: for me, the work of the hands was essential to the mystique of the whole thing. Even looms were slightly outside my comfort zone – perhaps because I couldn’t imagine having one of my own. (By contrast, I owned most of what I’d have needed to make many of the things I saw.)

I suffered pangs when I learned that my all-time favourite tapestries, the enigmatic series known as La Dame à la Licorne, were woven – and that in fact, my understanding of the word “tapestry” had been slightly warped (see what I did there?) by the Bayeux Tapestry, which is embroidered.

In any case, with all my ill informed little heart I wished that I’d lived back then, in the (imaginary, composite) past, when I could have devoted my days to this astonishing union of function and beauty.

(You know what? My heart is beating faster right now, just from thinking about this stuff.)

Looking back from my current vantage point it’s clear that what I was connecting with was the domestic. It’s a question of scale, perhaps – and familiarity. The textiles, in particular, were alive for me in a way that vast paintings of martyrdoms, suits of armour, jewel-studded monstrances, were not.

Domestic spaces, domestic textiles, were primarily and centrally a feminine concern throughout this period of European history (and beyond, obviously). Without my ever articulating it, the people I pictured making the objects that so touched me were generally female. I identified with these imagined historical women through the work of their hands, and when I worked on stitched projects of my own, I felt part of a rich and complex tradition – despite knowing almost nothing about it.

I know more now about the textiles that bewitched me then. I know a little (a very little) about how they were produced, and about the kinds of lives the people who made them might have led. I’ve come to appreciate that the history we learn is usually biased by power and privilege, and that textile history, being broadly linked to women’s history, is affected by this. I know something about the politics of luxury.

Everything I’ve learned about textiles has consolidated my fascination, even as it adds complexity to my understanding.

A textile piece, no matter how dull and unpromising, will drag me across a room like an electromagnet – while treasures like La Dame à la Licorne utterly explode my head.

In other words, at the end of the day it’s still all about the emotional hit.

Is that true for you, too? How do you feel about textiles? Where do those feelings come from? Do share!

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