In 2011 Bob Frith, the artistic director of Horse and Bamboo theatre in Lancashire contacted me as they were planning to develop a play about Angus MacPhee, and they needed costumes and props and wondered if I could help with this. Angus was known as the ‘weaver of grass’.
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 Dunnain psychiatric hospital in Inverness. 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 OBE discovered Angus and saved some of his work.
I made plans to start research and visit Joyce in Pittenweem, Fife, to take a closer look at the grass garments made by Angus.
Exactly how Angus made his garments was a mystery Joyce wanted to solve and.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 had experience of seeing Angus work, I made notes and took measurements in my sketchbook. Next, with a ball of cotton string, I made a few test pieces.
The construction techniques Angus use were not traditional to the UK, in his isolation, with grass, hands and time, Angus ‘invented’ and perfected his methods.
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.I’m using dried grass a 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. Whilst 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 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.
The construction technique is easier to see on these larger loops.
The garment was getting quiet 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.
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.
The looping techniques Angus used are found in many other cultures including those used by indigenous people of Australian. Socks made more than 800 years ago, using the same looping technique have been discovered in a cave in Arizona, made from combed yucca plant, with fragments of feathers to make them more comfortable.
I went on to make grass garments for the Horse and Bamboo theatre, which toured to rave reviews and sell out shows in 2012 and 2013.
I have also made full size replica garments including the iconic grass jumper, trousers with pockets and belt and many many shoes. My replicas are now held in collections with Glasgow Museums as part of the Art Extraordinary collection, along with Angus’s originals; Whitworth Art gallery Manchester in their outsider art collection as part of arts and health; Northampton shoe museum; Craftspace Birmingham’s outsider craft collection.
I continued to develop and research related techniques which have been found in the uk – nalbinding (knotless netting), a technique once used by Norse cultures, using wool to make a dense fabric for garments including socks, hats and shoes. This predates knitting and is a more complicated series of loops, with many different variations. I combined local plants with nalbinding to make contemporary artwork.
I have notebooks with diagrams and photos detailing many of Angus’s grass garments, waiting to be made.