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This is a special blog. Normally I wait till the end of the month and post. This however is an extra one that documents a remarkable project and a career highlight.
Over the past few months, if you have been following my posts you will know that I have been involved in weaving for the new robes for the Judges of The High Court of Australia. The posts I have made have documented what has happened after the announcement was made. Prior to that we were unable to discuss what was happening, so I had not been able to post progress of this project. The following document also appears on my website.
On the 4th October 2016 the High Court of Australia announced that their judges were wearing new robes. What made these remarkable is that each robe is custom made. A particularly distinctive feature of the new robes is the use of a unique handwoven element, designed to integrate practically and symbolically within the robe.
The robes were designed by Bill Haycock. Margaret Adam created the pattern and cut the robes while Saffron Firkins did the sewing. The sleeves were designed and hand woven by myself. All are based in Queensland.
This is the story of the development and production of this project. It is mainly from my perspective but there are also excerpts written by both Bill and Margaret. I am delighted that they were willing to contribute to this as it will give an insight into the project as a whole.
October 2014. In retrospect the project began then. I had occasion to meet with Bill Haycock in Brisbane domestic airport. The purpose was to see whether I would be interested in working on a commission. He was interested in the potential of hand weaving. Why the airport? At the time, I was commuting between home and Mittagong where I was in charge of the weaving studio at Sturt for two years and the airport terminal was a mutually convenient location. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what the commission was to be and many months passed till I eventually found out.
Bill Haycock, a theatre designer with an international reputation, had by this time already designed new robes for the other two Australian Courts: Australia’s Federal Court and the Federal Magistrate’s Court (now renamed as The Federal Circuit Court). He was approached to design the vey pinnacle of the Australia Court system: The High Court of Australia.
Bill: Since the previous experiences had been so good – both creatively challenging and professionally satisfying I willingly agreed but, since I was already busy with shows and there was no fixed deadline, it took quite some time to absorb the brief, research and develop my thinking to even preliminary designs.
One of the best decisions I made came out of the realisation that the numbers needed were relatively small. There can only ever be a maximum of seven judges on the High Court so even with spare robes and initial prototypes (‘toiles’) and a projection forward of potential new robes we’d initially be creating only about ten robes.
This opened the possibility of using unique hand weaving as part of the design. I met with the very experienced weaver Kay Faulkner in mid October, 2014 and although at that early stage I wasn’t at liberty to say who the client actually was she came on board to advise and be involved in developing hand-woven sections for the new robes. I again turned to Margaret Adam who I’d worked with so successfully on all my previous robes, to see if again she’d cut and organise the sewing of toiles (sample robes to develop and fine tune the designs).
Mid 2015 I finally heard from Bill and discovered what the project was. I must admit that I was, to put it mildly, thrilled to learn what I was about to be involved in.
Bill had by this time been in contact with all the Judges to elucidate their thoughts on design both with the practicalities and the overall impression that they required. From that he developed his design concept.
Bill: The Federal Court robes combined a series of seven equal vertical tucks. Seven symbolically denotes the various Australian states and territories – the same as the larger star under the Union Jack on the Australian flag. This was to represent equality under the law no matter where in Australia you were and a series of horizontal tucks graduating in size from smaller at top (to give more detail ‘above the bench’ and potentially in close-up on television) to wider at the hem represented the scale of Australia as the world’s largest island as well as the breadth of judicial jurisdiction. This symbolism was developed differently for the High Court robes as two sections of hand weaving placed at each sleeve end in a graduating ripple pattern ( finer to thicker, positive to negative – wool on silk/ silk on wool ) representing again Australia’s vastness as surrounded by sand beaches with internal deserts as well. The High Court’s function as the ultimate court of appeal and decision making also fed into this symbolism as a ‘helicopter view’ of both landscape and law. Further to this the handwoven sleeve ends and back detail incorporates a pair of triangles culminating at the same point referring to this peak/ ultimate facet of the Court’s power.
I prefer such design symbolism to be embedded within the make-up of the robe rather than being ‘applied’ and after much trial and error and a lot of sketches was happy with these linked but developed aspects of the existing symbolism from the other Federal Court robes into these new and quite different ‘T’ shaped robes.
Mid to late 2015. There were many meetings with both Bill and Margaret. This was the time that we had to resolve Bill’s design concept into both a workable design for the pattern and for me to interpret it into a woven structure. These meetings were also time when we bonded as a team. I know that I came away from that first meeting when the three of us met for the first time thinking that this is going to be a great project to work on. The three of us just “clicked”. It was very professional, highly efficient and yet very relaxed. It was also very much three experts coming together, each valuing what the other does. And let’s not forget it was a pretty wonderful commission to be working on. The only thing we couldn’t do was talk about it to our friends.
I sampled for types of fabrics and yarn combinations. I sourced yarn. I sampled for how to achieve “ripples” and scale. There are just so many variations that can be achieved. The whole focus though was on how to achieve a design that would be visible from a distance. Specifics about the design were resolved when the three of us met. The fabric also had to work in with the commercial fabric that would be used for the rest of the gown. Finally the actual style of weaving and yarns were finalised.
The sleeves were to be woven in wool and silk to obtain maximum contrast in lustre enabling the greatest potential for a black on black pattern to be seen from a distance. Wool (2/28) was to be used for the warp logically because it is less expensive as a yarn and to acquire (local as opposed to international). The weft chosen was 2/60 silk. The structure we chose was a networked twill but combining a weft faced straight twill (maximizes lustre of the silk) and a warp faced broken twill to maximize the flatness of the wool.
Now came many hours developing the actual weaving draft. Prior to now, I had been working on the basic concept. Now I had Bill draw to scale what he envisaged. It was from this that weaving draft specifics were developed. Thank heavens for the internet and weaving programs that can be scaled down to enable us both to see how the weave pattern would fit into the same scale of sleeve pattern.
One of the drafts that were considered. Bill had a cut out template that could sit over the weaving image.
And don’t forget, in the meantime Margaret was also busy working with Bill on pattern for the robes and how to fit this all together. Before I have Margaret tell her story, it is important to provide some background on how both she and Saffron became involved in the project. Margaret: It was one of those being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time stories when I first met Bill. We were both working on a show at the Queensland Theatre Company and a mutual friend, designer Maria Cleary, introduced us and Bill asked me if I would like to make judges’ robes. That was 16 or 17 years ago. I also met Saffron Firkins on that day.
Margaret on the robe design: My first role is to take the sketches and brief from Bill and make the first pattern and robe. Bill and I then meet (with the robe) and start looking at the finer details of lines and textures and shapes (such as a neckline or the point position at the back of the robe). I very much enjoy working with Bill. He lets me make all kinds of suggestions… but best of all …he makes all final decisions. I then start sourcing and purchasing the materials needed… which included talking with Kay about the lengths and widths of the hand woven pieces needed.
And then eventually the day arrived, and we were given the go ahead to start production for the first toile and I put on the first warp; enough for one set of sleeves. The design worked. The yarn worked. The pattern worked.
The sleeves are 75 cm wide when finished. That means I have to weave wider. Often when you thread a loom there is a basic repeat that you thread over and over for the full width. There are 1380 warp threads to be threaded before weaving even starts. Unlike many weaving patterns there is no pattern repeat in the threading. It is constantly changing. No threading mistakes please! I don’t want to rethread. That’s what gives the wide and narrow ripples across the width. The weaving sequence also changes. The pattern repeat is 150 cm long or if you like when I weave, each of the 2,100 rows that I throw a shuttle for is also constantly changing. That’s what enables the ripples to go from wide at one hem of the sleeves to narrow at the other end. The fabric is hand woven on a 24 shaft computer assist loom. That’s what enables the complexity of the pattern.
Margaret had started on the construction of the gown. She now had the handwoven fabric to work with. This was her first experience of working with handwoven fabric.
Margaret: What a treat it was to work with such beautiful fabrics…mind you…it took me an hour to check and then check again before I cut into Kay’s fabrics.
Early/mid 2016. Finally the first toile was complete and ready to be presented to the judges. It was an exciting and yet “hold your breath, hope they like it” time and then came the wonderful moment that we were given the go ahead. I remember the meeting where we all came together to celebrate after Bill had been to Canberra to present the proposed new robe.
At around this time it also became evident that the female Judges required a neck piece that would fill in the top of the gown in much the same way that a man’s collar would. There were currently three female High Court Judges. The fabric for this is based on elements of the gown. It has a rippled effect but in a smaller scale regular repeated design. This fabric is in cream 2/60 silk. This more simplified design is woven on 16 shafts. Margaret designed a fitted insert that sits inside the gown.
June 2016. The pressure is on to have the fabric woven so that Margaret can construct the gowns for a September deadline and prior to my overseas trip to USA/Canada. I had to weave enough fabric for the seven High Court Judges robes and for three collar inserts. I now have two designated High Court looms.
Meanwhile Margaret starts production. This is when Saffron and I start working together. I went to Canberra and met each of the judges and came back to my workroom to make the individual patterns, and cut each robe. I can sew ….but I am nowhere near the quality of the machining that Saffron gives us…each robe has 7 box pleats spaced 5 mm apart…that’s 49 pleats in total. Each robe also had 25 metres of silk binding and piping….and far too many hand stitching hours to guess!
Then came the announcement that we were waiting for.
Tuesday 4th October, Bill has the go ahead to announce: I’m pleased to be able to finally say, without embargo, that as of this afternoon’s sitting the High Court of Australia are wearing new robes.
Finally we can celebrate this amazing project. We can also talk about it. Until this moment it has been kept totally under wraps. The media picks up on our achievement with articles being published Australia wide and even a very early morning interview on 612 ABC radio.
Bill hears from the Judges. Bill: The great feedback so far has been how much lighter, more comfortable, cooler and more stylish they are than their predecessors while matching the required gravitas and remaining as flattering but subtle foils to emphasise the faces and hands of the individual judges wearing them.
October- December. I weave! The commission is for a total of 20 sleeves, enough for current and medium term needs. It is interesting to note that since the launch, the original Chief Justice has retired. Chief Justice Susan Kiefel is Australia’s new Chief Justice and the first woman to hold that position. This has of course resulted in a vacancy and the need for a new robe. I also need to weave more fabric for the collar inserts. Each female Judge requires three and again more for projected needs. What will happen when all the fabrics are used up and if I cannot weave them? The future viability for the continuance of the design is maintained as The High Court has acquired the copyright to my designs.
14th December. All finished weaving. We all get to celebrate my finish with a Grand Cutting Off Ceremony. Bill, Margaret and Saffron (and children) all experience weaving on the sleeve warp.
Then it is finally cut off. We celebrate!
The final step is to wash and iron the fabric and prepare for delivery.
The full length of one set of sleeves. Note the progression of narrow ripples at one end to wide at the other. How much of the fabric length and width will be used depends on the size of the individual judge.
Detail of robe. Photo credit: Adam McGrath, courtesy The High Court of Australia.