The Physic Garden Group Tapestry
Led by Jo McDonald, design by Natalie Taylor
The first ever Cordis Groupwork, also known as the Physic Garden Tapestry, has been a lot of hard work, but the end result proves it has been more than worth it! Over a period of almost a year, Miranda’s vision to bring together the weaving community from in and around Edinburgh to produce an ambitious group piece for the new education centre at the Palace of Holyrood House has gradually unfolded.
Miranda first approached weaver, and well-respected teacher of the medium, Jo McDonald back in summer 2018. The first hurdle was to commission a design suitable for translation into tapestry. The piece was to reflect the Royal Botanic Garden’s origins as a physic garden, taking inspiration also from the re-creation of the original Physic Garden at Holyrood, to be opened there later this year. We commissioned Edinburgh visual artist Natalie Taylor to do this. She carried out extensive research into the history of Physic gardens and the representation of medicinal plants. Among other sources, she drew on the Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis, published 1683, which is the original catalogue of botanical specimens in the Edinburgh Physic Garden.
The design is based on research about traditional 17th C plant-based medicines in Edinburgh, specifically at the Holyrood Palace Physic Garden. The three plants are ‘Selfheal, Onion, and Purple Foxglove, all widely used at the time. The chemical formulae refer to active compounds found within these plants and are overlaid as a unifying device by the artist. The design was created in collaborative conversation with Jo MacDonald and assisted by generous advice from staff at RBGE. The original woodcuts are reproduced from the Theatrum Botanicum, by John Parkinson, 1640.
The next challenge was to recruit 64 weavers, and embark on a series of Saturday workshops, based in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, running for four months through the spring. The group was split into two sessions, with 32 weavers gathering in the morning and afternoon sessions to share their vast accumulative experience. Some had been weaving for three months, some for 30 years! But in the spirit of the tapestry community everyone’s contribution was valued equally, and the weavers learned as much from each other as from their esteemed tutor.
Jo then had a task on her hands to pick the materials pallet, having started off with 150 plus materials, she eventually whittled it down to 62 yarns of various textures and colours, with which the weavers would each translate their small section of the larger design. A range of materials – wools, cottons, linens, jutes, tencels – allowed the weavers freedom to blend multiple materials and surfaces.
The first 2-3 weeks were the most difficult. Many weavers were nervous. There was trepidation of where, and how, to begin, and a lot of debates between weavers, whose sections were next to each other. It was important to discuss material and colour blends, and to repeatedly check sections matched up with each other. Many preliminary samples were woven, much like trying out ideas in a sketchbook, until final decisions were made, and the merry team of weavers got on with the creation of their contribution to this important piece of community artwork.
Bringing so many weavers together, to work on the same project, is rather a daunting prospect. Managing this project, even more so!!! Throughout the months, a LOT of hard work ensued. Even though some of the workshops could be quite hectic, the feeling of community and camaraderie prevailed. The variety of experience from the weavers showed in the sharing of techniques and advice. The final weaving is stunning, and a great testament to the commitment and dedication of all involved in the project. It has exceeded all my expectations!
Jo McDonald, Project Leader
Where to Weave
Weaving is an important heritage craft, and one that anyone can participate in. Check out our ‘Where to Weave’ section to find tuition, workshops, or exhibitions near you.
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