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“There is something magical between stitches” Interview with Fiona Harrington of Ireland

This time we will travel to Ireland to meet talented artist Fiona Harrington. Fiona is not just a textile artist. She is also a painter and is a curator of lace exhibitions.

Fiona Harrington | Irish Needle Lace

Her primary medium is needle lace. Fiona mastered this technique. Her work is filigree work, clean lines, and well-balanced composition. Her work is based on Ireland's inspiration. Lately, she is combining needle lace with eggshells. A combination of fragile eggshells and tender needle lace creates a very unique symphony.

What does lace means to you, and why did you choose needle lace to be your medium?

I have been working with handmade lace since 2012. I began my career as a painter, having studied Fine Art and then spent about ten years painting and exhibiting my work. When I first started researching lace and learning how to make it, I felt very connected to it. I was really interested in the history of Irish lace and how it was deeply embedded into our heritage and very much intertwined with ideas of identity. I felt that by learning it, I was able to continue that tradition and, in doing so, connect with the past. While this connection is important, it is also essential to ensure the relevance of lace today and in the future. For this reason, lace for me is my medium, and through it, I explore different ideas, aesthetics, and subjects relevant to my current practice.

What is your inspiration?

I find inspiration in many places. I am very excited about the technical aspects of lace and can get really consumed with a particular technique or stitch. While many would argue that technical considerations are not inspiring, I disagree. I'm aware that you use a different part of your brain, but that kind of learning really excites me and immerses me very much in the moment. Being fully present and not concerned with past thoughts or future concerns, allows us to fully access 'creative flow.'

I love the historical narratives associated with lace- where the lace comes from, who made it, the social conditions of those who made it, and the people that bought and sold it. I'm fascinated by the history of lace and find that the more I research, the more I want to make lace in response to that research. On the surface, lace is delicate and pretty. However, on closer inspection, it can reveal so much more and will often tell a story that is in stark contrast to its wholesome appearance.

Do you have any lace artists who inspire you?

There are so many but straight up, Pierre Fouche- the way he upscales and creates composition is incredible, and Maggie Hensel Hensel Brown for her amazing ability to tell a story through such tiny artworks. They are also both technically brilliant.

Can you, please, write something about your latest project, lace, and eggshells?

My latest work, Fragile Economies, I produced as part of my recent MA in Art and Research Collaboration. I was interested in female labour and how women in Ireland managed to turn domestic activities into very successful enterprises. Lacemaking, for example, was Ireland's second-largest industry at the turn of the 20th century. While there were a number of large lace schools all over the country, many of the lacemakers were rural women living in isolated areas who would make lace at home in small, dark, stone cottages. They were very poor but would bring their lace to the local town, which might involve a day's cycling! Their lace earnings meant the difference between starvation and survival, and there are many causes of the woman's lace money being the only reason a family would eat!

Similarly, nearly all households in rural Ireland kept chickens. This was the woman's responsibility. Women were considered to understand "the temperamental character of the fowl" as well as an ability to deliver the "minute personal care and supervision" that chicken required. It was an industry dominated by women and an industry within which women could enjoy a very successful career- especially if she decided to become a poultry inspector!

Today poultry production is highly industrialized, with many battery farms in operation, and the lacemaking industry does not exist.

Fragile Economies is a reflection on this. However, as the work was produced during Ireland's first lockdown, it also has the added connotations of how Covid 19 has made the world acutely aware of just how fragile our industrialised capitalist systems are.

You were the curator for the international lace exhibition The Space Between. Did this experience change your own work? Did it inspire you as an artist?

I am unsure if this has changed my own work as I have had no time to make work since the show. In saying this, we had 34 artists from all over the world send work to Ireland. Not only did I have the pleasure of assessing all the applications, but I then had the pleasure of physically seeing and handling their work. Seeing something physically is entirely different than seeing it on screen, and I was very surprised by what I saw in person to what I thought I would see. Without a doubt, this experience has influenced me greatly because it exposed me to the work of so many artists and designers, many of whom I had never heard of before. This exhibition allowed us to connect with the lace community worldwide and deepen those lace connections. As well as this, it all happened during a global pandemic, and while no one was able to travel to see the show, we were able to share it through our video and catalogue. I think so many people really appreciated this, at a time when something uplifting was badly needed.

Where do you see the difference in artistic expression between bobbin lace and needle lace?

I think once you have a thorough technical understanding of either lace, you can use it in your own way to express your artistic ideas. For me, needlelace is more free, and I can use it quite naturally to translate my ideas. Bobbin lace is a little more difficult, and I really need to improve my technical understanding of this style. The other barrier, of course, is tools- with needlelace, all you need is a needle and thread. With bobbin lace, you need pillows, bobbins, threads- which can be costly. I'm planning to spend a bit more time learning bobbin lace skills this year, with the intention that one day I will be able to use this process in my own designs and drawings.

Do you teach needle lace?

Yes. Before Covid, I used to run in-person workshops in needlelace. I have taught one-to-one sessions, and if I am running a class, I will generally not take more than four people, as each person needs so much attention.

Do you have online classes? What is your experience with online teaching?

I will be delivering live online classes this coming Spring and Summer for The Lace Museum in California and for the International Organisation of Lace. I am also currently putting together an online Kenmare Needlelace Course for Doily Free Zone, an international symposium of lace taking place in June 202. This will be pre-recorded and available to those attending the conference.

We hope you enjoy Fiona's story, and her work and contagious enthusiasm inspired you to your own creation.

Photos courtesy Kate Bowe O'Brien

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