Who is Jess Cleeves?
I’m a 20-year-old knitter and a recent hand weaver. I love anything handmade, especially textiles and pottery. The environment, nature and landscape here in Wales is very important to me and is a main focus of my work.
How did you get into textiles?
Both of my Nans taught me to knit when I was about 7 and helped me along the way through the years. So, knitting has been a significant part of of my life. I started making small things like dolls, blankets and small bags, I then moved on to jumpers, socks etc. It wasn’t until my second year university project, Water and Wool, that I began considering knitting and textiles as part of my artistic practice.
So what is your practice? How would you describe it?
I usually plan out a piece by making a rough sketch as I see it in my mind, but they rarely turn out the way I imagine them! I don’t mind that though, I like the pieces to develop naturally and kind of speak for themselves. In my previous works, the knitted pieces have been directly linked to the significance and history of the landscape they’re situated in or are influenced by. In my most recent project, they are far more abstract and tend to represent my own interpretation of that landscape.
What made you think of combining photography and textiles?
I first began playing with the idea of introducing textiles to my photography work whilst researching into the historical woollen mills of mid/west Wales. I was researching so much into wool, Welsh textiles and natural dyes and I felt that images alone couldn’t possibly encapsulate the entirety of the project. I wanted to add something physical to my work, something that you could interact with and feel. In Water and Wool, I made a version of a traditional Welsh tapestry using Welsh wool and natural dye to depict the Afon Teifi, a river which once powered many woollen mills. Since then, my photography projects don’t feel complete until they have both physical and photographic elements.
Jess Cleeves, Water and Wool (2018)
How long does one piece take to make?
It really depends on the piece! Obviously, the bigger the piece the longer it takes. More complicated knitting stitches are more time consuming and the use of multiple colours can also slow down the process. I tend to use thicker yarns and large knitting needles, both to cut down on time and also to create larger pieces. If I am planning on modifying yarn or material through dyeing and so on, that whole process can take a while even before the making process starts. I have found that hand weaving is quicker but can also be more restrictive in some ways. Overall though, the more time put into a textile piece just gives it more importance, meaning and substance in the long run.
You seem to make work that reflects the landscape you’ve photographed in, how do you find those locations?
Yes, I’m really interested in portraying and engaging with the Welsh landscape in a more unique, contemporary and artistic way. I love exploring and interacting with disused or abandoned locations and heritage sites. Most locations aren’t very well known or documented and so I search for historical information in online forums like urbex, as well as looking at maps and word of mouth. I engage with various online community groups too as they are often full of local information.
As you’ve said, your work often centres around Welsh landscapes and in the past it has referenced Welsh history. Is there a reason you concentrate on Wales?
Yes, there is; I love where I live, and I have always been interested in learning and exploring more. I find that, although creative engagement is definitely improving here in Wales, there is a lack of contemporary portrayals of unusual Welsh landscape through art and photography. I love to work with obscure heritage and location, not just the typical valleys communities or coal mining themes which seem to dominate welsh art. Also, as a Welsh person, and a graduate of a Welsh arts university, it would be crazy for me to ignore all the inspiration I find and the opportunity I have to add to modern work coming from Wales, about Wales.
You’re about to graduate, do you know what’s next for you?
I’m really not sure! I wish I knew. I know that I want to continue working with textiles, and photography plays a major role in the way I work at the moment, so definitely continuing with that in some way. As you can tell, I’m passionate about heritage and textiles in Wales, as well as nature and culture and so perhaps some of that will be in my future.
Who inspires you?
Ah that’s a tough one! Many people really, but I find a lot of inspiration from social media. Instagram has a very prominent textiles community which is a fantastic place to find new and innovative techniques and visually stimulating pieces. Another place is obviously nature, I find lots of colour, shape and texture inspiration from natural formations in day to day life.
Do you have a quote that you like to live by?
“this too shall pass”
It’s something my nan told me years ago. I’ve always been an awful worrier and I think back to it whenever I feel mentally stuck; be that in my work or in every-day life, it reminds me not to get too caught up in the small issues.