My name is Joanne Kaar. I live in Dunnet village, on Dunnet Head in Caithness Scotland. With views to the village of Brough, where I grew up. The Pentland Firth and the Orkney Islands of Hoy are in the distance. Earlier this year, I visited Joyce Laing in Pittenweem, Fife, to look at the grass garments made by Angus MacPhee. I had seen his incredible work while it was on display in Stornoway many years ago. Angus was a crofter. He lived in South Uist but spent almost 50 years in Craig Dunnain psychiatric hospital in Inverness. He chose not to speak; instead, he made garments from grass and leaves growing in the hospital grounds, twisting the plants into a rope or simians. A traditional technique he would have learned at home in Uist. When he’d finished making, Angus just discarded them and started another one. It was fortunate that Joyce Laing discovered Angus and saved some of his work.
Angus became known as ‘the weaver of grass’.
Exactly how Angus made his garments was a mystery Joyce wanted to solve. I’ve plenty of grass in my field to experiment with! The grass ‘weavings’ made by Angus are now old and fragile. With the help of my husband Joe, who sketched the construction by looking at a patch of the more open weave, and the information from Joyce with her first-hand experience of seeing Angus work, I made notes and took measurements in my sketchbook. Next, with a ball of cotton string, I made a few test pieces.
Back home, I drew out a full-size paper template to work from. Starting at the waistline, I made a grass rope to fit the width, then, by opening up the rope at regular intervals, I made a series of loops, threading the grass rope in and out of the gaps. I’m using dried grass; this will help hold the twist in the rope.
Using a looping technique, I worked upwards towards the garment’s neck, the same direction as in the original. The loops were small and pulled tight at the waistline, getting larger towards the chest. I used my fingers as a gauge and pulled the rope to the size I wanted. Whilst keeping the same number of loops in each row, the garment widened at the chest because each loop was bigger. This made a flat section for the front of the garment. The arms were to be added later.
Working with a short length was easier, as I didn’t have to pull so much rope through the loops. When I ran out of rope, I made it longer by twisting in more grass.
The cuffs of the sleeves and base of Angus’s garment were deliberately frilly. The loops on these parts were too matted, confusing to understand how they were made. So I decided to use the same looping technique for everything as this was the only one I was sure he had used. Working from the original waistband, I made two large loops into everyone in the row before – this instantly made it wider and uneven. Working from the waistline down, I followed the paper template and adjusted the loop size to complete the front side.
Making the back of the garment was easier. I started with a waistband as before, but I looped through the sides of the front piece at the end of each row, connecting the two halves together as I worked back and forth, leaving gaps for the sleeves and neck. The construction technique is easier to see on these larger loops.
The garment was getting quite heavy, so I made the sleeves separately. Again, starting with a rope, I made a series of loops, but this time I tied it into a circle, the same diameter as the sleeve, working in the round, not two flat pieces. This was stitched with a grass rope to the main body section. It’s difficult to see the original garment if the sections were made in the round or sewn together later. I used a combination of both. The sleeves attached and only the neck to do. I worked this in the round, picking up loops from the garment’s back and front until it was finished.