Sheep To Seat - Fleece to Floor
The last throes of June sunlight cast a bluish glow throughout the foyer of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s visitor centre. It’s 6.30pm on a Friday and, for a gallery set remotely in the low lying hills north of the Peak District, it has attracted a large and lively crowd. Beyond the bobbing heads, Farmer Charles Platt, whose family has reared and sheared the small flock of sheep on YSP’s grounds for generations, stands alone, arms behind back, swaying on his heels, looking across at the podium where the London-based designer Ella Doran begins her speech.
“I’m incredibly nervous,” she begins…
It is unusual to find a farmer and textile designer in the same room, but this evening is about dissolving the silos in the design-to-consumer chain. Doran’s exhibition From Sheep to Seat/Fleece to Floor is the culmination of a two-year collaboration between the designer, YSP, local labourers and national manufacturers and crafts people to realise Doran’s vision of a circular design model utilising the Park’s wool – the very wool that Platt and his brother sheared last autumn – and an onsite storm-felled oak. The artworks, furniture and textiles on display here for the next three months map their journey and the values underpinning it: connectivity, appreciation and balance.
Platt seems pleased to be here if a touch out of his comfort zone. “It’s been great to be a part of it,” he says in his broad Yorkshire drawl. “I had no idea what to expect when Ella came to me talking about circular economy and using our sheep. I never know where the wool goes after we deliver it to the Wool Board.”
Being part of the project has revealed to Platt the transformation of his wool for the shop floor and the human faces behind each stage in the process. The first of these were the staff at Haworth Scouring Company to where he accompanied Doran. One of the UK’s remaining wool manufacturers, Haworth sort, scour, and comb the course, matted, yellowish hair sheared by farmers into the bright looms of soft white fibre received by design industries. It was in learning that Haworth produce zero waste during their manufacturing process, even gathering residual dusts to mix into compost soil, that Ella Doran chose wool as her choice circular material.
“The dustbin is so called because dust used to be the only thing that we threw in it until the idea of ‘waste’ became integral to the economy,” she says. “The wool manufacturing process exemplifies how ‘waste’ is a design flaw of modernity. As the old saying goes, ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass.’”
The phrase inspired one of the exhibition’s feature pieces; a wool table designed by Doran and produced by SolidWool’s Justin Floyd, crafted from offcuts of Platt’s wool. Floyd, who has been refining the process of creating solid wool since 2012, binds the wool with bio-resins to achieve a hard, water-resistant surface. The sheen on the ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Brass’ table rivals that of polished marble, as does its dappled creamy texture – only a discerning eye distinguishes the fibre flecks of undyed wool beneath the resplendent surface. To fulfil the second half of the adage, Doran had the solid wool surface framed with brass. The effect is simple yet striking, wool and brass complementing one another in an unexpected harmony of refracted light.
The table is one of many manifestations of wool’s versatility exhibited at Sheep to Seat/Fleece to Floor. Doran’s floor runner, wall hangings, wallpaper, stools and designer Julian Mayor’s ‘kissing seats’ testify to the myriad uses of this country’s most abundant natural resource. The variety of techniques used to create the collection, from traditional hand methods, such as tapestry weaving and loom knitting, to state-of-the-art jacquard machine-weaving, pay homage to the generations of human ingenuity that has adapted this material to our needs and tastes.
Many of these techniques were new to Doran, who despite 20 years in textile and interior design, rarely witnessed the manufacturing processes transforming her designs into products.
“I was blown away by the factory,” she says, speaking of her experience accompanying Alternative Flooring, who collaborated with her on the project, to their factory. Here, Platt’s scoured and combed wool was machine-woven to create a floor runner. “It was humbling to see the number of people involved in creating a single product and all the skills necessary to manipulate this one material.”
Exploring these human links behind the material became integral to Doran’s circular design model, placing humanity at the centre of circular economy alongside environmental sustainability. She began to delve further into these links, discovering a wool-spun web of history and people in a country to whose economic success wool has been intrinsic, giving rise to its major cities from Yorkshire to London. Where the north produced and manufactured, the south exported and sold. “When wool suffered so did the nation,” summarises the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, by no coincidence the UK’s oldest livery dating to 1180.
In honouring its historical connections to this country, Doran decided to experiment with pre-industrialised methods of wool production, where she took her own hand to the loom to learn traditional weaving methods, creating miniature tapestries from the selvedge of Farmer Platt’s shear, framed and displayed here in myriad textures and patterns.
“Tapestry weaving,” she announces from the podium, “is an excellent mindfulness activity.”
This notoriously laborious ancient craft of interlacing warp and weft gave the designer a newfound appreciation for and connection to generations of bygone individuals, who had experimented, invented and refined wool’s production to make possible the results achievable today. Learning about the material in the same ways they did taught Doran that to work within a circular model she would have to reset her design ideals to nature’s boundaries.
“I wanted to bring the land where the fabric comes from into the home,” she explains, “so it was important that the colour palette remained faithful to YSP’s landscape.” But while her selection of autumnal warm notes and mallard blues evoked the Park’s lake and undulating hills at sunrise, their delicacy complicated manufacturing procedures. “Our initial samples kept varying in tone because the dyes set differently on unbleached wool.” Eventually, she decided to embrace the raw material’s idiosyncrasies.
“Current commerce values uniformity and prolificacy. While I understand the need for this in large-scale economy, I believe conforming to these values has got us in a pickle. We need to find a balance.”
Alongside Camira Fabrics, a company who specialises in bespoke fabric manufacture, and through much trial and error of hand and machine, jacquard weaving facilitated Doran in transferring the colours and tessellations of Sheep to Seat’s signature design ‘Waterlake’ from her paperbound sketches onto the woollen cloth that constitutes the exhibition’s floor runner, wall hangings and chairs. The variation in colour tones is barely perceptible amid the cyclical, repetitive loops of Doran’s design. Inspired by ducks paddling through YSP’s lake, ‘Waterlake’ mirrors their movement, rippling throughout the exhibition across wall tapestries, floor runner, stools, seats, and screen-prints, its infinite cycles and nature bound aesthetic resonating a circular system that pays homage to the environment in which it is rooted.
Following Doran on the YSP podium at Sheep to Seat’s opening event is Campaign for Wool’s chairman, Peter Ackroyd, who has worked closely with the collaboration, advising and signposting.
“Lots of people talk about being sustainable,” he announces, “but fall short of actually achieving it. Ella has truly done it.”
His words ring true in the contents of the exhibition. Mayor’s ‘kissing’ pentagon-shaped stools and seats sitting side-by-side at the centre of showroom are made entirely of the YSP land: oak and wool. This means they have no prescribed ‘end-of-life’ and if discarded, they will biodegrade to become part of the land again. The limited quantity of wool and storm-felled oak available from the Park meant that their production was limited to a handful, but this does not undermine the fact that their pentagonal structure means they could, like the ‘Waterlake’ print, tessellate forever, embodying Doran’s cyclical philosophy.
“If you put five boffins in a room overnight,” claims Ackroyd, “they could not invent a material as scientifically sound and sustainable as wool. It’s fire retardant, it absorbs volatile compounds and it biodegrades.”
Sheep to Seat/Fleece to Floorpresents no large-scale answer to a global climate crisis. Wool, though heralded as the ultimate sustainable material, comes with its own environmental demands. But the exhibition does offer a glimpse into its potential in the UK’s sustainable future, and how we as land workers, designers, manufactures, retailers and consumers can change the way we approach and use our resources.
On the first open day of the exhibition, a little boy and his grandfather pore over Doran’s miniature tapestries. The boy, marvelling at the variety of their textures, asks if this one is made from the same thing as that. His grandfather explains the material and the weaving techniques that made the tapestries, the chairs, the boy’s jumper. The scene is Doran’s vision come to life: to inspire appreciation, to re-engage the consumer with the local and environmental stories behind the material, and to reconnect the human threads that quietly stitch together the fabrics of our lives.
Alessandra McAllister is a freelance writer focusing on a range of topics from arts and culture to mental health. She has written for Culture Trip, Refinery29, Feature Shoot and Open Democracy. Currently, she lives in Bristol, UK where she designs and teaches writing for wellbeing courses for mental health charity Second Step. She is content coordinator of the Bristol Wellbeing College blog and is currently working on her first novel No Borders Bar, following five years of research, working closely with an Iraqi refugee and his family. Her most recent article can be found here.