Woman’s Hour Craft Prize (V&A)

As we begin the centenary year of female suffrage in the UK, I thought I would make the first exhibition visit of 2018 a female focussed one.

The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize exhibition at the V&A features the work of the twelve finalists for the £10,000 prize, which celebrates the 70th anniversary of the BBC radio programme.

Whilst the exhibition features the work of both men and women, I really enjoyed how this exhibition highlighted the work of traditionally female ‘crafts’ such as sewing and weaving, whilst also featuring women creating brilliant work in traditionally male ‘crafts’ such as bike building.

Woman's Hour Craft Prize - Caren Hartley

The exhibition is small and almost hidden in one of the V&A’s many corridors, but the entrance is clearly marked by an incredible willow sculpture. The sculpture is made by finalist Laura Ellen Bacon, who used only her hands to weave and knot the willow into a huge, abstract, but emotive form.

There is a wide range of disciplines shown throughout the exhibition, but one craft I didn’t expect to see was bike building. I was taken aback by a beautiful bike, designed by Caren Hartley, founder of Hartley Cycles.

Hartley originally trained as a jeweller and silversmith, and it’s clear she brings these unique metalworking skills to bike building. Each bespoke bike frame is hand-made incorporating precious metals and the paint work and patination is just stunning.  I found it really interesting to see a feminine take on what is usually an industrial process, making the building of a bike more like art – except ridable.

Obviously I took a particular interest in the textile craftswoman featured in the exhibition, Celia Pym. Pym, one of the leaders of the ‘visible mending’ movement, uses darning, knitting and embroidery to carefully mend people’s clothing. On display were two pieces of her work, an aran jumper and v neck vest.

The works are incredibly intimate, you notice how over time the clothes have taken on the shape of the wearer and the holes are the signs of where Pym’s hands have explored the sweater’s interior. The holes speak of the passage of time, and of the need to care for the clothes that we most rely on.

I enjoyed the contrast between the incredibly high standard of craftsmanship shown by the other finalists and Pym’s lack of perfection, (darning is usually invisible and perfect, but Pym’s is obvious and whilst effective, not necessarily neat), suggesting that the real art of mending our clothes lies in exploring and preserving the personal memories and emotions trapped in them, rather than the actual darning itself.

Two other standout craftswomen were Emma Woffenden, whose glass sculptures bare an intriguing resemblance to human behaviour, which I found really interesting, and Laura Youngson Coll, a leatherworker, whose vellum creations ‘lie somewhere between fiction and fact’, as she gives forms to the often overlooked details of our natural environment.

The work of the other finalist is equally engaging, and what I loved about the exhibition was its diversity; there are craftspeople from a real range of disciplines represented, which all challenge your mind in different ways. It’s a small, but intriguing show, perfect to expand your thoughts at the beginning of the year.

Woman’s Hour Craft Prize is on at the V&A until 5 February 2018, before touring to venues around the UK.


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