Every now and then an artist comes along who seems to capture something quite unique in their treatment of fabric, colour and texture. For me, one such artist is Jilli Blackwood. I first saw her work some years ago when she exhibited in a group exhibition in Dundee’s McManus Gallery – that was at a time when textiles were seen by the curators as a viable, if temporary, alternative to paintings. Ah well, that’s another story. I loved her treatment of the fabric and the wonderful colours she used to express herself. Over the years since that first viewing I have seen something of the range of her work so I was really pleased to secure a place earlier this year on a workshop she was running at Off the Rails Arthouse, Ladybank. We spoke recently and I asked her a little more about her practice. As we wait developments following the devastating fire, I started by asking about her time at Glasgow School of Art.
As a former student of Glasgow School of Art, you will have been very upset following the recent devastating fire. Can you say something about what made your time at GSA so special and the part it has played in your work and career as a textile artist.
- I studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1982 to 1986. At that time, first year students were based in the Macintosh Building. It was an inspirational working environment. I feel privileged to have experienced the building and spend time within its four walls. Yes, the Macintosh Building is a magical place! First year was a foundation course which involved spending time learning and working on projects with the different art disciplines on offer within the School. This helped me to find and focus on the area I wished to specialise in and excel at. The following three years as an Embroidered & Woven Textile student meant I was based in the Newberry Tower. Our studios had great light and a mesmerising 360 degree view of the city. Glasgow School of Art was a friendly community. The encouraging staff and good resources helped you to develop your practice and confidence to enable you to move forward and be ready for the outside artistic world.
Was the atmosphere of the School of Art the inspiration or was there something about the Textile Department that led you there?
- The embroidered and woven textile department made a big impression on me early on. The creative output from the students ahead of me was diverse. Each student created their personal signature of how they made the department work for them. Students created fine art textiles, fashion and interior fabric design, 3- dimensional textiles, as well as product design. No student was repetition of another, each student was unique. This drew me to the embroidered and woven textile department because the staff encouraged the development of individuals.
What are your main influences and inspirations?
- Colour is my main inspiration. I hand dye the fabrics which I use in my work. This personalises the whole process and it is my way in to begin building my relationship with the textile. Ideas for colour combinations and new colour combinations, surprisingly appear accidentally because of lazilness on my behalf leaving bundles of fabric strips intermingling on the studio floor. Some colour combination catches my eye and I become excited. It strikes a cord within me and I have to use the combination to see if it will work. It’s an intuitive feeling. What influences me? I find this a hard question to answer. I don’t know what influences my work directly. Undoubtedly, I am influenced by what I see around me, and I am subconsciously absorbing all the time. At the moment, my small abstract oil paintings are influencing my work at present. The way I paint is very similar to the way I embroider.
Your work is full of colour and texture, can you say something about your favourite materials and processes? Do you work through a sketchbook or is it the fabric that informs the design and process?
- My favourite material to work with is silk. Silk is such a versatile fabric. It has many different properties, and the combination for mixing and matching are endless. I always work with natural materials, linens, wools, cottons and leather and combine to create the unexpected. Sometimes I work within a sketchbook. But I am always in a hurry to capture a thought which has just struck me, so I tend to scribble an idea on the back of an old envelope in pencil. I hold the vision in my mind, I never sketch it out from beginning to end. I prefer to allow the idea to form in my head and heart.
Every artist studio offers a glimpse into their working world. Can you tell me something about your working space? Do you, for example, like to work in silence or do you like to listen to music or the spoken word?
- I often listen to BBC Radio 4 but recently I have been listening to Om Chanting on ‘You Tube’. This is a repetitive vibrational sound which I enjoy hearing while I work. It is a meditational sound which allows me to be fully absorbed in whatever I am working on.
Do you have a regular daily routine of work or does the work in hand dictate the schedule?
- I rise at 6.30. My day begins with yoga. I eat porridge topped with stewed apples, chopped almonds and pumpkin seeds. This is an important ritual I do each day. The rest of the day has no routine, but I do make lists of things I wish to achieve or a least begin thinking about.
You have been involved with some very big commissions including the Scottish team outfits at the Handover parade at the end of the Delhi games, is there anything you can tell me about current projects?
- In January 2019, I have been invited by the World Craft Council Europe to attend and exhibit my work in Kuwait.
- 2018, I was an invited guest and keynote speaker at a number of events; the Craft Scotland Conference at the National Museums Edinburgh, The University of the West of Scotland “Inspiring Women” event and The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow as part of their Creative Industry talks.
Currently, I am working on two circular economy pieces, an embroidered carpet and I am darning and mending a double cloth paisley shawl which was shredded by a little dog. This piece may remain just mended or I may use the shawl to create a wall hanging, allowing the Paisley Pattern to intermingle with my embroidery technique. I am still thinking through this idea.
What does Jilli Blackwood do to relax or are you always thinking and planning work?
- Even when I am not working and I am supposed to be relaxing, part of my mind is considering whatever piece I am developing. I like to read, at the moment I am reading “An Autobiography of A Yogi”. I like to relax and spend time with my three daughters but as they grow older and live away from home this is becoming harder for the four of us to get together. Thank goodness for Face Time. I practice yoga every morning to relax. I find this helps to strengthen my body and mind. When I feel strong within, I am at my most relaxed.
Thank you very much for taking the time to chat, Jilli. It is such a privilege to have an insight into your work practice when you are so busy with many projects on the go. I hope you will find time to return to Off the Rails Arthouse for another workshop in the not too distant future to inspire more people.
You can find more information about Jilli’s many commissions and projects at her Jilli Blackwood website and you can follow her on
Instagram JilliBlackwood.art and on