New Orleans to Norwich

Boundless community, unbridled opportunity

Head spinning and in a state of exhaustion and shock at the realization that I had arrived, I stood at the lost baggage counter with only the clothes I was standing up in. My primary thought was one of relief as the contents of my “travel” weaving and spinning studio were safely in the suitcase standing next to me. It was April 1, 2012, and here I was, standing in the airport in Norwich, England. Surreal relief!

Six weeks before I had taken the momentous decision to take a sabbatical from my professional life as an architect in New Orleans to explore new directions and consider a change in career direction. Five years ago, I began hand weaving and spinning for a creative and emotional outlet but those activities that began as a simply hobby continue to demand more space in my life. The entire decision to make this move occurred over 36-hour period of stomach-churning deliberation. I found myself at a junction with two choices: move forward – with promise of much success – along the professional path that I had selected over 10 years ago; or, take a moment to reflect on the possibilities that might exist within the world of textiles – teaching weaving and spinning, opening a fiber arts studio, pursuing additional coursework, or some combination of these as well as those yet to be discovered. The impetus for this decision had been a phone call from a friend, offering news of free accommodation for six months and my own knowledge, from a previous visit, of the rich textile history of Norwich and the surrounding county of Norfolk.

“Why Norwich?” This is a question I have grown quite accustomed to being asked over the past several months. Depending upon who is asking the question and the context, I have one of a handful of answers. The implication of this line of questioning is generally: “Wouldn’t it have been easier to remain in the U.S. to accomplish the same thing?” Or, from those who understand the inherent benefits of travel and foreign exploration: “Why not London?” These are the obvious questions, so I try to answer the question that was actually asked “Why Norwich?”

I have hinted at the beginnings of an answer: Norwich does indeed have a rich history of textiles. We will start there. Norwich was the largest merchant town in England with a considerable amount of trade dedicated to textiles, wool, and shoe making. They exported textiles to many other regions of the country as well as mainland Europe and were well recognized for particular natural dyes, burnishing techniques unique to this region, and the rich story of Norwich Shawls. During the Industrial Revolution, however, Norwich did not progress with the emerging trends of mechanical looms but instead decided to continue in their traditional work methods. As such, much of the textile and fiber trade that had originated here moved to other parts of England. In many ways, this stagnated the evolution of textiles and the prominence that Norwich played. As we look back at it historically, there is a benefit in this stagnation: it provides a unique purity to the catalogue of textiles pre-Industrial Revolution. As a result, Norwich is an incredible resource in which to study traditional hand produced textiles. Several collections, such as those in the Costume and Textiles Study Centre, are available for extended research.

A rich history does not necessarily equate to an area rich in present opportunity, and as mentioned, Norwich did not fully participate in the Industrial Revolution. This leaves one with the suspicion that Norwich was left in the proverbial dust. The most obvious sign that this is not the case is Norwich University College of the Arts. Their textile program began in 2001 and currently offers a program in which a strong understanding of materials and process is required but the expectation is that students will embrace digital and technological advancements. This was indeed my first clue. When I had the opportunity to visit last December, I sensed that the creativity and emergent talent extended beyond the university’s campus. Wandering around the city centre, I found art exhibits taking place in found building stock that imbued a sense of the impromptu but also commanded thought and respect – signs of a vibrant and well-placed creativity.

Knowledge of these opportunities and activities gave me the confidence to take that leap of faith to accept the challenge with which I was presented. As I was contemplating my list of positives and negatives, I realized that I could not possibly anticipate the best-case scenario, but I was pretty sure the worst-case scenario was simply the chance to spend half a year traveling, weaving, and spinning in a very inspiring, history-rich environment.

Everyday since my arrival, the community and opportunities that surround me reinforce my confidence that I made the appropriate move. Upon my initial arrival, there was no established set plan for next steps except to immediately begin researching workshops, locating weaving resources, and aligning myself with groups of like-minded enthusiasts.  I recall spending an entire day absorbed in this task, astounded by the myriad of opportunities such a country of this size has to offer. Given my proximity to London, the workshop possibilities range from such published experts as Jennifer Moore and Brenda Gibson to such renowned designers as Margo Selby. Here in Norwich, while much quieter in terms of international name recognition, there exist an endless number of talented, passionate individuals, doing the things they love at a very high quality. Everywhere I have gone and from everyone I have met, my pursuit has been met with enthusiasm and eagerness to share. In addition to enjoying all the nearby workshops, I am established within the Slow Makers Group, have participated in a knowledge exchange with a local elementary school group, and have made friendships that will continue through my lifetime. The weaving community of England has embraced me without reservation, making me feel completely at home and with an equaled generosity in the investment in the success of my journey.

For those of you who know New Orleans: in so many ways, Norwich is to weaving as New Orleans is to architecture. I have not been disappointed. Everyday that I have been here I have been presented with a new and unexpected opportunity. Norwich provides a deeply saturated environment filled with opportunity that never responds negatively when asked what is possible.

Follow Jenny’s journey on her blog http://textiletickety-boo.tumblr.com/; for more information about the rich textile heritage of Norwich visit http://norwichtextiles.org.uk

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