Jill Harris enthuses about a remarkable tapestry on show at London’s Fleming Collection

fleece to fibre

A woman is trudging through a field towards a clump of trees.

It is winter. The ground is covered in snow which is blown into mounds. An amber tinge on the horizon says evening is on its way.

Where is the woman going? To check on sheep we can’t see, beyond the trees? Or on her way home to warm up? You can feel the crack of snow as she walks, the uneven grass beneath her feet. You can almost hear the trees creaking.

This isn’t TV or photography. It isn’t even a painting, but a tapestry, and it’s here in London till the middle of February.

It was woven in Edinburgh using the undyed wool of sheep from all over Britain. It is a copy of a painting by Victoria Crowe – entitled Large Tree Group – depicting an elderly shepherd who lived next door to her during the 1970s.

As a work of art it is remarkable, but this project speaks on so many other levels. It is a celebration of nature, of sheep and of wool. It is a tribute to those who have mastered traditional skills like weaving. It is a reminder of what can be achieved when people work together in communities. It’s the story of a shepherd, Jenny Armstrong, and the artist who lived next door. Above all it is a work of love.

The gallery tells the story through what is on display.

Names like the Blue-Faced Leicester, Wensleydale and Ryeland sound like cheeses but are actually sheep, their coats ranging from poodle-like black curls to shaggy grey tassles. You can touch wool samples before and after spinning – for me the combed out fleeces with their springy warmth inspired an immediate desire to create. Wool was made up into balls, skeins and hanks. From a deep chocolate chunky twist to a single thread of oatmeal, no two colours are the same. Each has a handwritten label: ‘Kath Dunn, cheviot, spun by Elsie Read‘, ‘Spun by Laura Shirley on Erika Batty’s wheel‘.

The Dovecote Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh found in Crowe’s work a fitting subject to celebrate its centenary, and set about sourcing undyed wool. It winged its way from all over Britain, from large estates like Chatsworth and Highgrove, from island crofts and tiny smallholdings. In one photo the Broughton spinners share a joke as they bend over their wheels. In another, Debbie and Frank pose with their Jacob sheep.

The tapestry was reproduced from the painting by means of a large drawing, and took hundreds of hours to weave. A DVD at the exhibition features some of those who took part in the project.

As I sit on the windowsill before leaving, I take a last look at the scene in front of me. I feel sure the light over the snowy landscape has changed, and that dusk is about to close in on the solitary shepherd. Such is the power of this work. Do see it before it moves back to Edinburgh.

Fleece to Fibre, The Making of the Large Tree Group Tapestry is at the Fleming Collection, 13 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DU until 14 Feb

© Jill Harris