50 shades of brown at Dovecot Studios

Dovecot Studios is a contemporary tapestry studio housed in a renovated Victorian swimming pool in the capital.

As well as some highly skilled and experienced weavers they have recently reinstated an apprenticeship programme to pass on skills to a new generation of craftsmen and women.

Naomi Robertson is the studio manager and master weaver at the studios. Her route into the craft came via a degree in tapestry from Edinburgh College of Art, although she began tapestry weaving at school.

Naomi has been with Dovecot for 28 years and has worked on some major projects, including the Alison Watt-designed tapestry that measures just over five and a half metres in height and hangs in the foyer of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

The work, which took four weavers just over ten months to complete, is inspired by Madame Butterfly and is an abstract piece which is resplendent in reds and golds.

She has also created a tapestry corset and head piece for fashion designer Chris Clyne, a project which threw up some new challenges for the experienced weaver.

‘It was great to look at how we could weave flat pieces which could then become something quite sculptural like a corset,’ explains Naomi. ‘It took a lot of planning.’

In 2012, the studio’s centenary year, they worked with Sir Peter Blake on some of his iconic star, rainbow, heart and target pieces.

‘My fellow master weaver, David Cochrane, was the last apprentice from the old Dovecot studios, in the late 1980s,’ says Naomi. ‘We do have a newly qualifi ed weaver, Freya Sewell, who finished her apprenticeship 18 months ago, but our latest apprentice, Ben Hymers, is the start of a three-year programme of apprenticeships.’

Ben was chosen from the many applicants who had no previous weaving experience and is currently learning the ropes by working on a sample. He started with plain weaving and is building up the repertoire of techniques required to weave various shapes and patterns. His apprenticeship will take three years to complete.

‘I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,’ says Ben. ‘I love the fact that every fibre and thread that passes through your hands is thought about. I can see how it’s not for everyone. It takes the ability to concentrate and focus on the work that you are doing. Some of the techniques are quite simple to learn but will take the best part of a lifetime to master.’

Colour matching is a large part of weaving and an aptitude for this was a must for the apprentice.

‘I had never realised that there could be so many different shades of brown,‘ laughs Ben. ‘There are ten shades of coffee brown, then another ten shades of toffee brown and so on. But being part of Dovecot, the studio and the gallery – straddling traditions and working with some very contemporary artists – is really exciting.’

Visit www.dovecotstudios.com for more details.

This feature was originally published in 2015.