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Source Matters

Thinking about Origin

With the projects previous to summer of 2009 I became frustrated with the limited information made available to the consumer from companies that produce craft and construction materials. I found the information available to be rife with vagueness, misinformation, even conflicting information from within the producing company.

I wanted to use material from a source that was as distilled as possible from producers that were knowledgable and accountable. I was looking for sheep fleece from a single source and began having a conversation with Doreen Marsh of Scottish Fibers in Edinburgh. Besides having a flock of cashmere goats of her own, she specializes in fine Scottish fibers for spinning, knitting, weaving etc, and beautifully made tools of the trade.

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Through Doreen I discovered North Ronaldsay, the most northerly island in the Orkney archipelago. North Ronaldsay is unique for many reasons; an ancient sheep herding community, in 1830 the Laird (Lord) of the island decided that cattle would be a more profitable and so a six foot rock dyke was built around the perimeter of the island. The native sheep were cast out on the beach side of the wall to fend for themselves. Much to the surprise of the islanders the tough breed adapted to their new conditions and began to forage the seaweed that washed up each low tide. This diet and their ability to adapt to it helped them flourish. It also resulted in the flock evolving physiologically different than any other sheep on the planet. Their digestive tract is unique along with the fleece they grow and the taste of the mutton.

The Islands isolation has also prompted the islanders to process the fleece clipped from the flock in an annual cooperative effort known as “the pund”.

Rather than sending the each years take off island it is processed in the small mill on the northern tip of the island. The mill, one of the last left in the U.K. and the only one to process from only one region.

Being specific about material origin is an excuse to tell a story, of people, plants, animals and places. As Helen Denise Polson suggests in her Cabinet Magazine article “Leftovers/ Where do teeth go?”, objects and in my case materials are “(U)nsettleing and compelling in their realness, inviting us to conjure up a connection between us and their original owner”.  This connection whether invented or legitimate is a integral and important aspect whether acknowledged or not. The journey taken – the absorption of limitless matters are a hidden history making any given material unique. Each has a an inherent power and story to be told.

In my next post I will show the work I made with the fleece I clipped and tell the story of the North Ronaldsay Crofters.


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