From The Catalogue of The Exhibition
Since early childhood the making of textiles has been the cornerstone of my life,as it was for my grandmother, my mother and many of her friends. Country living gives everyone a healthy respect for what a person's hands can do.
Like my grandmother I know I will be making things till the day I die. It is as important to me as life itself. For the first time I had acquired a skill which was of no practical use whatsoever. From the outset the process interested me far more than the product.
There seemed no limit to the intricate thread patterns which could be developed from the two simple basic movements. My mind was satisfied as well as my hands; on both levels it was totally absorbing, and freer than any other medium I had explored.
In childhood the making was all pleasure. In adulthood it became many other things as well: an act of love for my family; a comfort in sadness; something I had control over when other things were uncertain; a companion in happy times. Those early lacemaking experiments marked the real beginning of my creative life.
Although I spent a long time developing and refining the necessary skills, the whole process was always much more to me than its associated practicalities. When eventually I perceived myself to be trapped in an unhappy marriage, lacemaking became my escape, and expressing myself in it became an urgent need. By 1981 my work as a lace artist was becoming recognised and I was teaching lacemaking. Since then I have also written a book and worked as a lace historian at the Powerhouse Museum.
What began as an escape - an essentially private passion became a way of life and a means of earning a living whilst being on hand for my children. I never seriously contemplated a more lucrative or secure occupation. Even now when I am heartily sick of balancing an inadequate budget and juggling several part-time jobs I am always trying to make more time for my lacemaking rather than more money. I acknowledge that my lacemaking is as much inspired and enriched by the ways in which I earn a living as by all the other events and relationships in my life. The lace I have documented for the museum is my current preoccupation and inspiration, particularly the 17th and 18th Century bobbin laces.
To me these are the most beautiful textiles ever made. To the naked eye they present an exquisite arrangement of different textures. Under a magnifier each texture reveals within it other textures - amazingly complex interweavings of threads which are repeated faultlessly to produce the pattern. I make diagrams of these tiny structures and later re-create them on a larger scale, in coloured threads, in an effort to come to terms with their complexity. The colour, of course, introduces another dimension so the exploration is endless.
Years ago I read that Indian weavers regard the warp as male and the weft as female. I was doing a lot of weaving at the time and the implications of that statement impressed me. Bobbin lace-making is essentially a very free form of weaving in which the warp and weft often change places, so the imagery carries over. I think about this often when I am making my coloured 'translations'. Although lace was always a luxury item, which only the very wealthy could afford to wear, its makers earned very little for their work. Bobbin lacemakers in particular were poor women who worked at home. Even the most skilful of them had little bargaining power because they were beholden to the dealers for the very substance of their art - the fine handspun linen thread. They are always in my mind as I work. How could they see the minute stitches they made? Who invented the stitches? Did their work give them pleasure? What else could they have done if they weren't lacemakers? Did they make lace so they could be at home with their children?
The questions are unanswerable but translating the work of those early lacemakers, for others to wonder at, has become a kind of mission. I understand their lace as if it were my own and draw strength from being part of its continuing evolution. I am really just beginning this work although I've been thinking it through for years.
It now seems to be about relationships. The lacemaking process is the mediator between my inner and outer self. The finished pieces are both an exploration and a celebration; any form they might acquire along the way is incidental. No piece is ever precious in its own right only as part of the discovery process.
© Rosemary Shepherd 1988