Nicola Gates

A contemporary maker inspired by the Digital Film Archive

I was struck by how much of the archive footage emphasised the close ties between land, agriculture and craft and was particularly inspired by Land of Ulster, a documentary commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland. It shows local farming practices, including the harvesting of flax and dry stone wall building in the Mournes. The narrator comments that the walls look ‘as if they’ve been knitted with giant knitting needles, and every stitch was a stone’.

I decided to use the symbolism of the dry stone wall in my design because of its direct use of a local material in the construction of something functional and practical that also happens to be quite beautiful. Using locally-produced materials helps to connect an object to the land and society, and imbues a sense of place within it. The film shows men taking large stones from the land, where they may have been a nuisance to farming, splitting them by hand with a hammer and chisel before using them in the same field to build boundary walls. I think that the loss of these connections in the recent past has contributed to an increase in waste, a disregard for our environment, and a lack of appreciation for the human labour involved in creating a textile.

Unfortunately using materials of true local provenance is not often possible in my regular weaving product range because of their scarcity. This project gave me the chance to source special materials and to produce a more decorative piece of work. I used a rep-weave technique, composed of blocks of contrasting colour. In the weft I mainly used linen factory waste from Ferguson’s Mill, Banbridge which creates the ribbed surface and gives weight to the piece. In the warp I used yarn spun from locally-farmed wool, supplied by Freda Magill of The Wool Initiative, Rathfriland, who aims to highlight the value and unique properties of the fleeces from native and rare sheep breeds. 

Nicola Gates is a designer and maker specialising in woven textiles. She is passionate about natural materials, especially wool, with its ability to insulate and to felt; to cushion and protect. In late 2015 she established Olla Nua, a collection of contemporary handwoven woollen goods. The name is derived from the Irish words for 'new wool', reflecting Nicola’s aim to use this traditional and sustainable material in a modern, imaginative way. Nicola grew up on a small farm in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and is currently based in Belfast. She graduated from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, in 2005 with a degree in Textile Design. In addition to her weaving practise she works as a freelance project co-ordinator for local museums and teaches weaving workshops.


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