A Knitter’s Day Trip: Double Weave
Ditchling, East Sussex, an ancient village in southern England, is a place that’s been full of human life for a very long time. Mesolithic peoples, Romans, Saxons, Normans, and their descendants left their mark in the weald land, downland, and very bricks used to make the walls of houses dating back to the 1500s.
It’s no wonder that a place so rich in patterns of geological and architectural history became a magnet for artists. In the 1980s, two artist sisters saved a crucial property—the old school—on the western edge of Ditchling from becoming a housing development and created Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts.
patterned yoke sweater designed and knit by Hilary Bourne. Geraldine Warner aka Museum Knits has created a pattern based on Bourne’s original.
One of those sisters was Hilary Bourne. She and her partner Barbara Allen are the stars of the museum’s current exhibition Double Weave.
Cloak for the film Ben Hur (MGM), 1959. Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet in Ben Hur.
Bourne and Allen wove fabrics for the most famous names in British homeware like Fortnum & Mason, Heal’s, and Liberty. They won the competition to design textiles for the Festival of Britain in 1951. To top it all off, they designed and created all of the woven fabric for the film Ben Hur.
How is it that Bourne and Allen created so many influential Modernist textiles, yet very few people have heard of them? That’s the question posed by the curators of Double Weave. Their aim is to speak about the relative obscurity of women artists in the canon of Modern art and design and to show that the definition of woven textiles as a handicraft rather than art often serves to keep that canon closed to women.
Poppy Fuller Abbott, Woven piece made in response to Bourne and Allen’s textiles, 2023. Paper Hemp, linen, silk, indigo and madder-dyed.
Contemporary artist, Poppy Fuller Abbott, who wove a stunning response to Bourne and Allen’s work says, “It’s this traditional craft—this really ancient process—but most people still don’t really understand it even though textiles are part of our everyday life. It sits in between craft and art. It can be functional. It can be purely conceptual. There’s still that gendered domestic view of textiles. It was for clothing and home furnishings—things like that. And you could do it at home, so it doesn’t have the gravitas of being in the studio chipping away at some marble. I think it’s more grounded than that and I think people, then, undervalue it.”
Double-sided fabric chosen for Royal Festival Hall for curtains, 1951. Bourne’s notes: “Brora wool warp dyed with alum and blackberry tips—weft thicker Welsh wool in same grey colour with natural white pulled weft stripe & warp overlay stripes in Festival colours: scarlet (cochineal), yellow (weld and alum), blue (indigo vat) and white.”
This is the old tussle between fine art and the fabric that surrounds us. I always think about how we can be wowed by a Van Gogh painting which we may see once in our lifetime, but we give very little thought to the fabric that covers our sofas and suffers the love of every dog, cat, snack, movie night, sleepover, and family gathering. That fabric was designed by a person to sturdily hold us and everything we love. We may live with its pattern or weave for decades, but we rarely give it the status of a painting we see in a museum. To create a textile that people can live with every single day is actually very special kind of art-making.
Wool curtain for auditorium boxes of Royal Festival Hall, 1951. Princess Elizabeth and her entourage stand in front of the curtain at the first concert.
Bourne once said of a commission they received for the new student wing at Magdalene College, Cambridge, “The architect asked us for something that wouldn’t wear out and 20 years later it was still in use.”
Aside from the quality of Bourne and Allen textiles there was the remarkable fact that they grew their own dye plants, extracted the dye, and dyed their yarns on a massive scale all whilst traveling far afield from India to Japan and across the UK to broaden their knowledge of textiles and dyes. While they were natural dye and wool experts, they didn’t shy away from using state of the art materials as well. The exhibition includes two stoles which Bourne wove using the all new American Lurex metallic filament which was being promoted in the 1950s.
Bourne and Allen were weaving with Lurex from the early ’50s. Their early adoption of the new yarn demonstrates their willingness to experiment and integrate new technology into their work, alongside natural, vegetable-dyed yarns, spun in their workshop.
Hilary Bourne grew up in Ditchling, but after meeting Barbara Allen while working on theatrical sets and costumes in London, they became a couple and lived in various places in England, settling in Yorkshire where they tended their immense garden of dye plants. Tragically, Allen was killed in a hotel fire in 1972 and Bourne was seriously injured.
After a slow recovery from her injuries, Hilary Bourne found her way back to Ditchling with the encouragement of her sister, Joanna, and their mother. Together, the Bourne sisters put their passion for making into establishing the museum and creating a legacy that we devotees of the haptic arts can enjoy today.
The many textures which adorn Ditchling’s 15th-century Wings Place are indicative of the patterns you’ll find on buildings and walls throughout the village.
Don’t miss a chance to see the exquisite weavings of Bourne and Allen in Double Weave (on thru April 14) and to learn about the community of women artists who thrived in and around Ditchling. Take a look in St. Margaret’s Church where Bourne’s memorial curtains for her mother and sister still hang today. And walk down the narrow pavements where you will see patterns to inspire you in the flint, brick, lead, and stone of this very English village.