Reflections on Lockdown with James Donald

James Donald / Photographer unknown

James Donald / Photographer unknown

Our Reflections on Lockdown series explores the experiences of four makers based in Scotland – weaver Cally Bookerwoodturner Emily Stephenmosaic artist Joanna Kessel, and textiles designer James Donald 

Hear how they have adapted their practice without access to particular tools or materials, adjusted to new environments, and how they have maintained their craft business throughout lockdown. 

In this final article of the series, we hear from James Donald. Working under the label PickOne, James is primarily a weaver using materials sourced from Scotland including lambswool, wool from Shetland and other locally sourced fibres. 

My creative practice is wide and varied but I am known specifically as a hand weaver. I have a studio at Coburg House Art Studios, Edinburgh, where I hand weave my various collections for the apparel and interiors markets. I was always drawn to constructed textiles and whilst weave and I were not natural bed fellows, it is something that I have found myself doing since setting up PickOne - my weave label I started in 1997.  
My primary desire was to be a tapestry weaver and this was my main subject at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, with weave and print as support subjects. It was not until the mid 90’s where I was artist in residence at Canberra Institute of the Arts, Canberra, Australia for three months that the full range of what it meant to be a cloth weaver finally sunk in. For me, it was fortuitous meeting a group of Japanese weavers whilst there on the residency, which made the whole prospect of hand weaving sing!  

The lockdown has affected every nook and cranny of my studio-based creative practice, it has also affected my ability to work with the hosting platform Airbnb with no bookings for the room I rent out in my flat, as well as having to pull all dates for the Airbnb Experience I also offer. This took away the opportunity to sell to those who come on those weaving Experiences. 

In terms of studio-based activities, I lost sales through retail closures, postponed weekend/evening classes and the potential to mentor from the studio.  

I also lost my retail space, Concrete Wardrobe, indirectly through lockdown, which I co-ran with fellow textile designer Fiona MacIntosh for 20 years. This was a real blow as there was a loss of income and revenue from sales as well as being a space to promote my studio-based activities.  

Image: James Donald / Photographer unknown

I am not very good at sitting still, so I threw myself into organising CLOTH#20, which is a textiles showcase that takes place every year August. I use the brilliant Dovecot Studios in central Edinburgh as a venue. Planning began in early March 2020 and the whole event was then cancelled, restructured, reorganised, tweaked, modified and then became two events with a physical event being added at, what felt like very last minute as we thundered towards August. I organised the physical part, CLOTH#20 - A PIECE of WORK, in about five weeks or so - it was a logistical nightmare as lockdown rules changed daily/weekly and makers who were involved had differing challenges to face themselves. The whole thing was not perfect, but under some very trying circumstances I feel we made it work, with makers making good international sales and connections with overseas markets. I didn’t sell overseas myself, but I was pleased with my online and physical sales. 
Over 50 designer/makers from around the world saw an increase in traffic to their websites as well as engagement through the various social media platforms CLOTH#20 is on. Traffic flow to my site went up by 141% in the weekend and week after the event. The website I developed, launched and set up for the event saw just under 3,000 unique hits in the first 48 hours of going live. I think that is very exciting and something to build on for the next event. The feedback from makers has been excellent and I am so pleased to hear the many good news stories that has come from this. Capitalising on the overseas events I have been involved in with Craft Scotland means we have extended the reach of many of those who signed up for this.  

During the early part of lockdown when I was unsure what I should be doing, I went on these extended dog walks with my wee dog, Domino – a seven-year old brindle French Bulldog and discovered new parts of Leith, where I live, Edinburgh and beyond! During these walks I began to record what I saw with my phone, which was a continuation of something I did to amuse myself whilst on a very strict lockdown holiday in Gran Canaria, Spain in mid-March 2020. During these local walks the photographs then developed into observing colour, which in turn morphed into grouping colours into grids of 9 and I would post these up on my Instagram, and the responses were very favourable and positive. Friends would then share their own versions and an old school friend who is a headteacher in the Middle East set a daily project to staff and students alike to collect their own colour boards to inspire and motivate, which also drove me on to do more.  

Images: James Donald's colourboards / Images by the artist

After amassing a sizeable collection of these colour boards, I was hit with the idea to have some printed up as postcards and sell them through my website as a fundraiser for the NHS. My own wee way of contributing and giving back to the NHS, it will never be up to the giddy heights of Sir Captain Tom Moore, but it’s a contribution none the less.  

The colour boards may lead to a new body of woven work, something I may revisit when my current body of work is complete. I continued working from my studio as the Scottish Government was very clear on those who can work from home should and those that can’t can continue to do so whilst observing all Coronavirus (COVID-19) protocols. As I have a studio to myself, there was never any danger of coming into any contact with anyone else during my working day. Most makers at Coburg House were able to work from home due to the nature of their working practice, I couldn’t as there is no way I am going to fit a 32 shaft computerised loom into my small, but perfectly formed 2 bedroomed tenement flat! No way!  

How did I tackle these challenges and stay positive? Simple, I left some social media platforms and left several specific pages to reduce anxiety and life got so much better. I now try to have at least one social media-free day a week and it does make a difference to one’s anxiety levels. Life since March has been tough and finding a way through is a challenge for all. 

To continue to grow and develop as a maker, this journey never falters, it's a continuum of what we as creative makers and thinkers do to strive forward. I can say with pride that CLOTH#20 was a success and I have a couple of other selling projects I am developing. How I move forward with them will be informed by the elements that did work and the elements that need to be tweaked from CLOTH#20, all of which is still being digested. All very exciting and stimulating to be honest.  

Recently, I was awarded some funding from the Worshipful Company of Weavers from Trade House in Glasgow, (as well as a lifetime achievement award to the services of weaving) to purchase some new large 16 shaft table looms. I need to also develop a range of activities and classes for them, which were placed on the back burner whilst I developed and completed the CLOTH#20 projects. 

I also took on another studio during lockdown to allow for the expansion of my teaching practice. With social distancing being the current norm, this feels like a good solution for the time being and when the pandemic is over, the extra space will allow me to accommodate additional students - an exciting development for the PickOne Studios.  

You can discover more about James and his practice by visiting the PickOne Facebook pageInstagram and website

Reflections on Lockdown is a four part series which explores the experiences of four makers based in Scotland during lockdown. Read Part One with Cally Booker, Part Two with Emily Stephen, and Part Three with Joanna Kessel.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Materials Textiles

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