Sunday 25 February 2018

Grainne sees weaving as an art form

Fintan Lambe

Grainne Kenny at work
Grainne Kenny at work

THE EGYPTIANS did it. The Vikings did it. The tradition also goes back centuries, if not millennia, in Ireland, but these days it's very specialised work, and practitioners of the craft by hand are few and far between.

Traditionally, when people think of a weaver, they imagine someone who makes traditional rugs, quilts, shawls, blankets, and scarves.

For Gorey-based Gráinne Kenny, it's more of an artistic endeavour, and her works of hand weaving and mixed media come in the form of wall hangings, table runners, and decorative items like lamp shades, cushions, and framed artworks.

'I describe myself as an artist and a textile designer,' she said. 'I studied textile design in college, but I specialise in weaving, and yes, you could say I am a weaver.'

From initial design, to dyeing the yarns, assembling it all on the table loom, and then creating the piece, it all comes from years of honing her craft. She explains how her inspirations come from the sea and the changing landscape along the Irish coastline.

Most of her work is carried out in an upstairs studio in Mount Alexander outside Gorey town. Weaving wasn't a skill handed down in her family through the generations, and it wasn't something she had wanted to do ever since childhood.

'I've always been artistic, and in school I loved art class,' she explained, adding that when she went to college, she studied a wide range of art forms, before eventually focusing on hand weaving.

There is some related experience in her family background. Her father's aunt, St Valerian, did a lot of beautiful embroidery, while her father's cousin is Denis Kenny of Ceadogán Rugs in Wellingtonbridge.

There's a strong tradition of weaving elsewhere in the country. For instance, Magee in Donegal are over 300 years old, while Blarney Woollen Mills are also known worldwide. Gráinne concentrates on a much more handcrafted and artistic product.

Though her textile business is just over three years old, it has taken many years of dedicated study to perfect her craft.

After preparing her portfolio in Gorey Community School with art teacher Paul McCloskey, Gráinne spent a year in Grennan Mill Craft School in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, where she practised a range of different crafts, and found she really liked metalwork, and developed an interest in designing jewellery.

She then did a short summer course in Kilkenny in silversmithing in 1999. After that, she spent a year on a portfolio preparation course in Gorey with Eamon Carter. There were various modules on this course, none of them weaving.

This led to a three year Diploma in Textile Design in GMIT, and she specialised in mixed media and embroidery. Then it was off to the University College of Falmouth in Cornwall, where she did her degree and then her masters in 2006-7. After that, she did a course on setting up a business with County Wexford Enterprise Board, and she also got great support from Wexford Local Development.

After college, job hunting in a recession wasn't easy, and after a year, she was given a present of a loom, and from there, she began making hand-woven articles.

Making the decision to turn textile design and weaving into a way to make a living was made easier thanks to the support of her family. 'My parents backed me and supported me to do what I wanted to do,' she said. 'If you have a love of something and are good at something, it's worth it. I knew from the age of 16 what I wanted to do.'

'It is hard to make a living from it, I won't deny that, but you have to work hard, and if you do, you get the results,' she added.

Somewhat surprisingly, she said that weaving is a male-dominated craft. 'There are female weavers now, but the majority are men,' she said. 'In college, the most popular discipline people chose was textile screen printing, as there are more jobs in that.'

'Not only that, but weaving is quite complicated. There's a lot of maths, and you need a lot of skill. It's a long process from design to making a warp, setting up a warp on the loom, and then weaving,' she said.

To understand how she creates a piece, it's easier to see Gráinne at work in the studio. Her loom is 80cm wide, and she creates a piece of cloth using interwoven threads of various colours and varieties.

She sources her yarns from Ireland, the UK and New Zealand. Materials for the yarns include wool, linen, cotton, silk, lurex or metallic yarns, and she also uses decorative materials such as beading, ribbons, pearls, feathers and other items.

The piece currently on the loom in her studio is four metres long and 840 threads across, making it up to 40 cm wide. It may be used as a wall hanging or a table runner. 'It took me a day and a half to set up,' she said. 'Then to weave, it could take anywhere from three to four days to three weeks depending on the length of the warp, the difficulty of the pattern and the yarns being used.'

Gráinne also dyes her own yarns where possible.

Her inspirations include the French artist Emily du Bois, and weaver Bernat Kiein, and Japanese textiles.

'I like to use a lot of unusual yarns, and collapse weaves, creating 3D effects on cloth,' she explained. 'I wouldn't use traditional motifs and styles. I like to push the boundaries of weaving.'

Her studio is open to the public from May to September, and at other times by appointment, but it's advisable to contact her in advance at to arrange a visit.

Gráinne is a member of the Wexford Craft Trail, and is registered with the Craft Council of Ireland, and she has also exhibited at craft showcases in Dublin and closer to home. She sells some works out of her studio, and through the Gorey Market House Craft and Design Centre, and also through Robert O'Connor's woodturning studio in Gorey. Commissions are welcome.

The partnership with Robert O'Connor has resulted in handmade table lamps. 'Robert makes the lamp bases, and I make the lamp shades with woven trimmings,' said Gráinne.

'I suppose what I do isn't exactly traditional weaving,' she said. 'But I do use traditional methods and traditional twills, and plain weave, as well as more complicated patterns like honeycomb.'

She also uses a small Inkie loom for tablet weaving to make narrow strips like belts. She also creates mixed media pieces combining weaving and stitching and found items like seashells.

Gráinne commented that practitioners of traditional crafts can make a living out of their work, but many do have to supplement their income by working elsewhere part-time.

She admitted that it can be lonely at times, but she regularly meets people involved in other areas of craftwork, and they bounce ideas off each other. 'It's nice to be able to keep the tradition alive, because it has been seen as a dying craft,' she said. 'I do enjoy it. It's really relaxing and there's a huge sense of fulfilment taking a piece from design to finished product. People get a one-off piece they can't buy anywhere else.'

Wexford People

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