Embracing the Diaspora: An Adventure in Double Cloth

A new design embraces the richness of dual identity, and the lessons we can all learn from this.

Delving into Arctic explorer Isobel Wylie Hutchison’s sense of belonging, both to her Scottish homeland and the Inuit villages that welcomed her on expeditions, Majeda Clarke drew on her own experiences of dual identity, British and Bangladeshi, and the richness of sharing in two cultures.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was a feisty Scotswoman with a taste for adventure. Casting off the expectations of society in the early 20th century, Isobel made her way North, drawn to Arctic territories. Isobel was a skilled communicator, speaking over 8 languages, and she quickly integrated into the local Inuit villages, sharing her small Christmas ration of plum pudding with her neighbours, bartering with ribbons and whisky for local clothing items, and capturing some of the world’s earliest genuine documentary footage, filming the Greenlanders about their daily lives and activities, without trying to direct them or interfere.

Majeda Clarke is a talented weaver and designer based in London. Her designs frequently explore dual identities and lived experiences that highlight the benefits of openness to other cultures and the strength of uniting traditions. Majeda explored Isobel’s past through the lens of her paintings, the idea of being an outsider who could observe objectively as well as a welcomed guest with a special connection to the place.

‘I love that sense of being elsewhere. Everything I have done is based around how two cultures mix and what a person gains from that.’

Majeda Clarke found herself instantly drawn to the story of Isobel Wylie Hutchison, an Arctic explorer, botanist, painter and writer striking out on her own at a time when few women could not vote or live outside of the societal expectation for a life of marriage and babies.

‘I was fascinated by how she managed to withstand these environments and go on this adventure as a woman in a male-dominated world and have respect.’

The more Majeda researched Isobel, the more she felt an affinity with both the way she worked and her own lived experience.

‘That sense of being part of a diaspora, never quite fitting in which is something to celebrate rather than be concerned about. It’s very much the story that I tell with all my pieces, the idea of the dual narrative, the double culture, it’s very much my identity. Obviously, I love very strong graphic geometric things and bright colour but it’s the way it combines different cultures and finds a harmony between opposites…so, for instance, when I make a Welsh blanket I add loads of ridiculously bright Indian colours to it – it’s the idea of how two cultures work – I’ve got two homes and yet when I’m in Bangladesh I miss my home in the UK and when I’m in the UK I call Bangladesh home.’

Majeda realised through close study of photographs of Isobel that this mixing of cultures, of belonging and yet not quite belonging, followed Isobel abroad and back to her home shores of Scotland. It was with her in her calling to the north, but it was also with her in the ways she appeared to the world at large.

Uncompromising and unphased by the opinions of others, Isobel defied convention in choosing the lifestyle she did, and in the way she presented herself at home. Of particular interest was a piece of Inuit ceremonial jewellery, somewhere between a necklace and a cape, that the Inuit’s had presented to her and that Isobel was photographed wearing several times in Scotland.

This striking piece became crucial to the development of the design. Further research indicated that it would have been made up of ‘really beautifully coloured intricate beads. We couldn’t see the colour in the photographs but I could visualise the colour from the research I did.’ The structure of the blankets came to reflect this intricate beaded pattern: from a distance the lines flow up and down as the beads do, but up close the design is imperceptible, the dots of the artist’s palette taking over.

Isobel’s watercolour paintings were also to play an integral role in the design process: they encompassed so much of who Isobel was and what she did. Her paintings captured her context but also her perspective, they highlighted her sensitivity to her surroundings, and her adaptability: ‘she obviously had what must have been a tiny watercolour palette whilst going on these adventures and yet she would make many different colours and tones out of it. That’s a lot of where the colour inspiration came from.’ But the design concept was only in its infancy at this stage. With the foundations of the design established, Majeda set about understanding Isobel’s context in broader terms.

‘I started to look at photographs of her. They were all black and white so it is very hard to get a sense of colour but I wanted to incorporate that along with her sketchbooks. I did quite a lot of mood boards from these beaded capes and the environment she was in, in terms of seascapes, the cold and I researched a lot of Inuit drawings because I was trying to think about pattern and how people depicted nature and wildlife…how she would have been influenced by the drawings and artwork, craftwork of people in that environment.’

The idea of an artist’s palette was also key to the design’s development. Majeda was fascinated by ‘the idea of what happens to an artist’s palette when you’re on an adventure somewhere and you don’t have all your things around you, and the way you would work…We took the colours of Isobel’s watercolours and created dots of a watercolour palette. The way that you get a sort of blend of colours, it is supposed to suggest the way you blend colours together and get a lighter tone or a darker tone.’

The next step was to ‘look at different colourways and mood boards; some about Isobel the woman, some about her sketchbooks, and some a combination about Inuit influences. It’s funny because when you do the mood boards there are so many colourways. To tone it all together you have to get a sense of where the colours are coming from. There’s a direct match between the mood boards and the final design.’

Only now could the weaving work begin.

Majeda explains that for sampling and testing in her studio, she weaves in silk rather than wool. The wool used by the mills is only available in industrial quantities, and while traceable, is unsustainable if she has to buy so much only to test a colourway that may not go into production. Silk on the other hand offers durability, can be colour-matched perfectly to the wool yarn, and be purchased in small quantities for testing that significantly reduce wastage. Every possible colourway is tested on a single continuous weave (for this blanket, the test sample was between 3 and 4 meters long) until Majeda finds the perfect combination. Majeda began with ‘really neutral greens and then started to add more and more colour and by the end you could see the pockets of all the different samples.’

And it is not only a question of how good the front looks. Majeda uses a traditional British weaving technique called double cloth weaving. Unlike other weaving techniques which have a beautiful front and ignore the back, double cloth weaving (as the name might suggest) doubles the amount of cloth required but in so doing creates a back as beautiful as the front, effectively creating an entirely different blanket on the reverse side. In order to fully understand what is happening with her design at all times, Majeda has set up her loom with a mirror placed beneath it, enabling her to keep an eye on both sides simultaneously to see how they develop and finding the perfect combination when she is satisfied with both.

‘I’m really excited about this one just because I think the colours work so well [and] there’s a real flexibility because the contrast on the back is so strong that you’ve got a second blanket whenever you change your mind. The mood changes completely. These are supposed to be forever blankets. They’re not a fashion thing or a seasonal thing and having another colour on the back helps them last forever.’

Sustainability is ingrained in the way Majeda works, from a sense of environmental sustainability through avoiding wastage and using natural materials to the sustainability of preserving traditional skills and use of traditional mills where pride in the work produced is still palpable.

Majeda is absolutely in control at every step of the production cycle. She spent two years testing yarns before finding one she was satisfied with for its texture, traceability and responsible production (a superfine Merino Wool called Geelong that is spun for her in Huddersfield). The Geelong has the benefit of feeling as soft and fluffy as cashmere without the traceability issues and environmental ramifications of over-grazing that go with it, and with an extra weight to it that is comforting.

‘When I work, things have to be local. So if I’m using a British technique, for example British double cloth that is very traditional to Britain then I use a British mill. There are two regions that have an amazing weaving history – Welsh mills and Lancashire mills.’

As far as possible, production for this unique blanket was kept to the North of the UK, reflecting Isobel’s Scottish heritage, so the blankets were woven in Lancashire. They were then sent up to Galashiels in the Scottish Borders for finishing before returning to Halifax to be stitched.

During lockdown the logistics of moving the blankets from stage to stage, not to mention fitting them into production schedules after Covid-related setbacks and furlough periods, made this ‘probably the most stressful’ production yet, but also one of the most rewarding. ‘The most exciting thing is I’m so pleased with them and the mill is pleased with them. They weave all the time – they get hundreds of orders through, but the person who keys in my design was saying “they don’t normally mention it but everybody was saying how lovely they were.”’

Majeda’s determination to keep production local to its heritage has also taken her to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where her scarves are woven using a technique highly sought-after for millennia and termed ‘woven air’. The technique has now been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status as a dying craft, one that Majeda is keen to champion. Majeda likens her experience travelling to meet the weavers in their villages with Isobel’s experiences living amongst Inuit communities.

‘I sit in their homes and they know my favourite food and make it for me when I come. They know I am an outsider, they see me as an outsider, but they also see me as one of them. It’s a really privileged position and I could really empathise with Isobel, she kept returning to a place where she had familiarity, where people knew her and respected her for who she was. But she was always the outsider which gives her the edge because she could always observe.’ 

‘I do think very carefully when I take on work about how it fits with my values and who I am and how I make that work.’ Isobel’s appeal is clear in the picture Majeda portrays of her, drawn from her research. It is one of respect for others, of openness, of resilience and adaptability, of curiosity, of warmth and communication, of exchange and growing understanding, and of creativity.

‘I really admire that chameleon effect of fitting in without ever giving in. You have to fit in sometimes but you’re making it work for you and that’s what she did. There’s a quiet confidence in that she knows who she is and she knows her own capabilities…She immersed herself in a different culture, got the best out of it without owning it or categorising the place but sort of became a part of something…It wasn’t about ownership; it’s immersion, not feeling like I’ve got to be the first to do something, it’s not territorial. I really like that.’

Isobel’s essence permeates Majeda’s design, but it also feels like a tribute to Majeda’s own extraordinary path and the beauty of how she sees the world around her, something we might all aspire to.