Cracking The Grass Code

23 Nov 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

JOANNE KAAR explains how she succeeded in unravelling the mystery of Angus McPhee’s grass garments

MY name is Joanne Kaar. I live in Dunnet village, on Dunnet Head in Caithness. With  views  to the village of Brough, where I grew up. The Pentland Firth and the Orkney Island of Hoy are in the distance.

Earlier this year I visited Joyce Laing  in Pittenweem, Fife, to take a closer look at the grass garments made my Angus MacPhee.  I had seen his incredible work while it as on display in Stornoway many years ago.   Angus was a crofter. He lived in South Uist, but spent almost 50 years in Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital in Inverness.

Joanne at work plaiting the grass

Joanne at work plaiting the grass

He chose not to speak; instead he made garments from grass and leaves growing in the hospital grounds, twisting the plants into a rope or simmans. A traditional technique he would have learnt at home in Uist.  When he’d finished making, Angus just discarded them and started another one.  It was fortunate that Joyce Laing discovered Angus and saved some of his work.

Angus became known as ‘the weaver of grass’. Exactly how he made his garments was a mystery, and one that Joyce wanted to solve. I’ve plenty of grass in my field to experiment with!

The grass ‘weavings’ made by Angus are now old and fragile.  With the help of my husband Joe, who made a sketch of the construction by looking at a patch of more open weave, and the information from Joyce with her first hand experience of seeing Angus work, I made notes and took measurements in my sketchbook.

Joanne with replica garment for Joyce Laing

Joanne with replica garment for Joyce Laing

Next, with a ball of cotton string, I made a few test pieces.  Back home, I drew out a full size paper template to work from. Starting at the waistline, I made a grass rope to fit the width, then, by opening up the rope at regular intervals, I made a series of loops, threading the grass rope in and out of the gaps, using dried grass as this will help hold the twist in the rope.

Using a looping technique, I worked upwards towards  the neck of the garment, the same direction as in the original.  The loops were small and pulled tight at the waistline, getting larger towards the chest.  I used my fingers as a gauge and pulled the rope to the size I wanted.

While keeping the same number of loops in each row, the  garment widened at the chest, because each individual loop was bigger. This made a flat  section for the front of the garment.  The arms were to be added later. Working with a short length was easier, as didn’t have to pull so much rope through the loops. When I ran out of rope, I simply made it longer by twisting in more grass.

The cuffs of the sleeves and base of Angus’s garment were deliberately frilly. The loops on these parts were too matted and too confusing to understand how they were made.  So I decided to use the same looping technique for everything as this was the only one I was sure he had used.

Working from the original waist band, I made two large loops into every one in the row before  – this instantly made it wider and uneven. Working from the waistline down, I followed the paper template and adjusted the loop size to complete the front side.

Making the back of the garment was easier.  I started with a waistband as before, but  at the end of each row, I looped through the sides of the front piece, connecting the two halves together as I worked back and forth, leaving gaps for the sleeves and neck.

Time to admire her handiwork

Time to admire her handiwork

The construction technique is easier to see on these larger  loops. The garment was getting quite heavy, so I made the sleeves separately.  Again, starting with a rope I made a series of loops, but this time I tied it into a circle, the same diameter as the sleeve, working in the round, not two flat pieces.

This was stitched with a grass rope to the main body section.  It’s difficult to see on the original garment if the sections were made in the round, or sewn together later. I used a combination of both.

With the sleeves attached and only the neck to do, I worked this in the round, picking up loops from the back and front of the garment until it was finished.

Code cracked! Over the years, Joyce said, many people had said, oh yes, I can make that for you, but no-one had ever managed it, until now.  I’ve now made two of these garments – one was for the Horse and Bamboo Theatre’s production about Angus (still in development), and their director, Bob Frith, drove all the way here from their studio in Lancashire to collect my Angus replica.

And the second one is now with Joyce Laing in Fife.  How it was made was just as important as the final garment, so I made sure the process was well documented with photos and  a short DVD.

See Joanne’s blog (link below) for more on the project.

© Joanne Kaar, 2011