Imogen Di Sapia: A Craft Profile by Melody Vaughan
Imogen Di Sapia is an artist-maker who uses spinning and weaving processes to transform raw materials into exquisitely crafted textile objects. Her contemporary weave practice combines traditional skills, and a storytelling sensibility, gathered from her background in costume design, fashion pattern cutting and puppetry, tailored to the needs of her young family. Working exclusively with ethically sourced materials and suppliers, every step of the creation of her work – from field to final piece – is transparent and traceable. The resulting pieces are unique, deeply personal modern heirlooms, enhancing a connection to home.
At the heart of Imogen’s practice lies the story of the wool, ethical and traceable, from field to final piece. It starts with a rescue flock of South Downs sheep, whose wool once sheared in Spring would otherwise be destined for compost. Instead their fleeces are sent to Cornwall where they are washed in environmentally-friendly processes, and returned to Imogen in Autumn, clean but unworked. Hand-spinning allows a freedom in blending the soft and springy wool with other ethical fibres, such as flax and silk. Guided by these natural materials’ intrinsic qualities, Imogen spins yarn that becomes an individual memory of that day and thinking: “I want to see that it’s come from a sheep, or grown from a plant. If I’m picking up a really beautiful, cranky piece of linen or a bag of curly locks, only nature can have done that. It creates an aesthetic that pleases me – it’s not perfection. And hopefully that will translate for other people.” The wool is then washed, weighted and dried, twisted into skeins ready for weaving. Through Winter, the sampling, colour research and small batch production transforms the yarn so that in Spring, once more, the latest collection is ready to be launched. This journey the wool takes outlines the pattern of Imogen’s year, bounds the scope of her production to limited editions, and transforms a heritage craft into a sustainable contemporary practice that is adaptable and responsive to family life.
There is an essential joy within Imogen’s practice that stems from her deep love of her materials and making processes. She works like a conjurer, taking the raw and the rough, transforming them into the luxurious and tactile. This process of transmuting materials, from something amorphous into something sumptuous and refined, has echoes of her previous life in costume design and fashion/couture pattern cutting. The deft skills she acquired through years of crafting highly structured garments have translated easily into spinning and weaving textiles. Partly a reaction to the precise and high-intensity worlds of her previous careers, her current way of working – of not over-designing or over-working her pieces – is an act of freedom. The pieces are realised through sampling and making. There is a rawness in the samples which is refined on the loom when the final objects are woven; the loom becomes an alchemical vessel. Within this space Imogen allows a distinctive aesthetic to emerge: “taking these raw materials and loving them for what they are, any perceived imperfections – the kink in the curl or the patchy colouring of a plant fibre – is the inherent beauty, where you can see that nature’s been involved.”
Weaving as an art form is rooted in domestic need – to be warm and safe, for shelter and security – cloth as protection. Weaving as a practice is embodied nurture, “bound up in motherhood: the comfort blanket, swaddling, wrapping yourself up in something lovely and warm.” For Imogen, the act of weaving is itself comforting and cocooning, it is at once mindful and mindless, a physical repetition that is grounding. Absorbed in the mechanics and rhythm of the weave, on such a large loom, Imogen remains present, holding the intention of the blanket’s creation, conscious that she is in the act of weaving an object that will go into people’s homes and become part of their everyday lives. Home, a place of peace and security, somewhere we are always striving to create or to return to. A place where we are most ourselves. And the blanket, within this, is one of the most tangible elements of the landscape of home. “I’m facilitating a link between a really beautiful natural resource and the psychology of the blanket, keeping someone warm at night. This feels really special, feels like a privilege.”
Stories surround stories within Imogen’s work: from the story of the wool and its defining role within her practice, and the ancient narratives about the act of weaving itself, to the myths she selects as inspiration for the collections, and even the stories that nourish the making, the audio books she listens to as she weaves. Storytelling is the thread through Imogen’s previous careers in theatre costume design, fashion pattern cutting and art therapy – creating worlds, expressing the inner lives of people, connecting to others. Stories are things we all instinctively understand; myths are metaphors for the human experience, everyone in the audience will see or hear what is most relevant to them at the time, what they most need to explore.
In her current practice, weaving becomes text, sharing stories through fabric. Weaving has its own cultural narratives which Imogen holds in the background while she works, notions of what it is to be a weaver, the superstitions and conventions surrounding the loom and the creation of textiles. She enjoys being “connected to a tradition which has historical roots and tells its own sociological story.” And, whereas these stories of weaving as a process are not overt in the work, her choice of particular stories – such as The Selkie – these directly inform the aesthetics and tone of each collection.
The Selkie is the storytelling inspiration for Imogen’s Autumn-Winter 18-19 collection. It is a tale of the mythological sea creature, the Selkie, a seal transformed by moonlight into a woman, whose sealskin is stolen from her by a fisherman. Unable to return to her true nature, she must remain on land, becoming his wife and a mother. In Imogen’s retelling, the sealskin that is taken from the Selkie represents her creative soul or her identity, which is hidden and eventually rediscovered. It is a story about the loss of freedom, in many ways, but also the reclamation of self through transformation. Imogen uses her loom as a container “to hold my response to the story and what it means to me: how I feel this journey through early motherhood and pregnancy has been, this change of being, a real change of skin. And with the Selkie, its transformation between animal and human, in the moonlight, there’s something dream-like about it. It speaks to me.” These dream-like, magical qualities informed Imogen’s yarn research as she captured the elements of sea and shore and moonlight through colour and texture, sourcing the perfect fibres to highlight the themes of the story and to develop the collection’s distinct material aesthetic. Translated into objects, the sealskin becomes a blanket, a symbol of warmth and security, a return to home. Each of Imogen’s hand-spun, hand-woven blankets is as unique as the Selkie, as unique as the person who will receive the blanket into their life. These warmth-giving, enveloping textiles offer countless moments of beauty within the weave, a chance for its wearer to reclaim or discover some part of themselves within its stories.
Imogen’s debut collection The Selkie has been shortlisted for both the Craeftiga Prize & Neptune Craft Initiative, September 2018.
Copyright 2018 Melody Vaughan, Creative Consultant & Craft Writer