Friday 9 October 2015

Bright and creative future looming for weaver Muriel

Published 23/08/2014 | 00:00

Muriel Beckett at her loom
Muriel Beckett at her loom

WEAVING is an ancient creative and functional form, however the designs Muriel Beckett brings to life on her loom are modern, bright and inspired by the many and varied colours she notices all year long in the natural Wicklow landscape.

The Greystones-based hand-weaver works from a home studio where she becomes completely absorbed in her work.

Muriel's process brings her from inception and preparation to painstakingly working the loom and then finally holding the finished rug or wall hanging in her hands.

'It's extremely satisfying to have made something,' she said of a profession which only around a dozen people do full-time in this country.

At one time, weaving was a huge source of employment for many Irish people. Traditionally, it was predominantly men who were the main makers of Donegal Tweed due to the intensive manual labour involved with sitting at the large heavy looms all day, churning out tweed. The women would do the spinning and dying to make the fabric.

There was a huge linen industry based in the north of Ireland and then in the Liberties area of Dublin, where were the silk and poplin weaving industries were brought to the city by an influx of French Huguenots in the 17th century.

A native of Dundrum in south County Dublin, Muriel has lived in Greystones for the past 32 years and is mother to two adult children.

Her vocation began just after finishing secondary school when she started what was at the time supposed to be just a one-year art portfolio course in Dun Laoghaire technical college. The college, which later became Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology, was expanding and moving forward and that short course ultimately became a four-year degree programme.

'I was very happy to stay there,' said Muriel. The education she received was broad, including fine art, design, metal work, sculpture and of course textiles.

Muriel was fascinated by textiles and weaving. It wasn't until much later that she discovered one of her own ancestors was a Huguenot weaver in Dublin.

'I really liked the technique and the whole process,' she said. The college had a couple of looms, and she would also travel to the National College of Art and Design in the city to use their equipment.

She served apprenticeships following her academic training to learn as much as possible about her craft and did a year in college in art teacher training.

'I wanted to go abroad and the Irish Export Board were offering scholarships to around six Irish students,' explained Muriel.

She went to Finland to study at a college there specialising in hand weaving. It was an extraordinary experience for the young student who immersed herself in her intense training and a completely different country and culture.

Scandinavian design and architecture proved to be a strong influence on her subsequent unique rugs and wall hangings, which have been sold to clients all over the world.

On her return to Ireland, Muriel did some teaching in her alma mater at Dun Laoghaire as per her qualifications. She brought a loom back with her from Finland and set to producing ranges of rugs and tapestries.

'I always enjoyed it,' she said. 'I get lost in the whole process.' That process involves planning and organising the piece, setting up hundreds of threads, and getting the loom ready before weaving even begins.

'You do need to concentrate on getting it right,' said Muriel, who described checking the threads in batches of 50 to ensure accuracy and avoid a flaw in the design.

The materials she uses are mainly natural fibre – linen and wool, or silk for the wall hangings.

Colour is one of the most important aspects of her art and Muriel loves mixing and planning colours.

'When I'm out walking and looking around, I notice colours, particularly here in Greystones with the mountains and sea. It's one of the greatest pleasures. Once you've mastered the techniques of weaving and know what you're doing, it's your ideas and imagination that make something unique.'

Currently, Muriel teaches textiles to groups of special needs students part of the week in Dublin and completes her commissions the remainder of the time.

While life's vagaries drew her away from weaving from time to time over the years, she was always pulled back and, without it, felt its absence from her life deeply.

'It is very important to me,' said Muriel. 'There is a very strong drive in me to keep doing it.'

She enjoys the tranquility of being on her own in the studio and fully involved in what she is doing, however. she seems to have struck the right balance in her life, avoiding isolation.

She enjoys a nice balance too within the studio. The sturdy floor rugs are more physical and heavier work, while the tapestries are quite delicate and made of finer fabrics.

At the moment, she is commissioned to create a big meeting room rug which will be 2.5 metres wide by 4.5 metres long. She will have to weave it in three separate sections before joining the pieces together.

In total, Muriel estimates that the rug will have taken approximately 150 hours when it's finished. That time includes going to meetings, preparation and sourcing materials. 'You get in to a rhythm with it,' she said, on the magnitude of her latest project.

As well as commissions, Muriel's works are often shown at exhibitions including the forthcoming London Design Week in September. She will be one of the designers featured there by the Design and Craft Council of Ireland.

She participated in the design week two years ago and, afterwards, her work went on to Brussels to be shown during the Irish Presidency of Europe.

'I like that exhibition because it was tied up with the vernacular and included functional pieces,' said Muriel.

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