The award-winning rug weaver from Yorkshire over-coming poor vision to make her creations

Jacqueline James, based in York, is an award-winning rug weaver and dyer. She is also partially sighted. Lucy Oates meets her. Main pictures by Tony Johnson.

Vivid jewel-like colours and bold linear and geometric patterns give Jacqueline James’s hand-woven rugs a distinctive look that’s very much in demand among private collectors, interior designers and architects. The intricacy and visual appeal of her work is all the more astonishing when you consider that Jacqueline is partially sighted and works largely by touch.

When asked how her visual impairment affects her ability to weave, Jacqueline describes her work as “an expression of what I do see”, adding: “It’s not something I announce, I don’t think about it as an issue. The type of weaving I do is easy to do by touch.

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“I guess I just think that everyone sees like me; everyone perceives colour differently. My weaving is a lifestyle occupation, I’m lucky that I can do it as a career. All my hobbies are related to weaving, making, tapestry and so on.”

However, the award-winning weaver reveals that she does now have an assistant to help her thread her Swedish loom, saying: “It takes me a long time and I can make mistakes, so I let someone do that for me now, but I still do all the dyeing and weaving myself.”

Jacqueline, who was born in Dumfries and grew up on the west coast of America before eventually settling in York, cites “everyday things” as the inspiration for her work. “I draw on visual memories, I see a lot in my mind’s eye. Where I grew up was on the coast by the sea and the mountains, so I look at old photographs and, even though I can’t always see the detail, I’m attracted to patterns and shadows, maybe the branches of a tree making lines or beautiful colours in the sky,” she says.

She recalls “always being interested in art, textiles and crafts” and “making all kinds of things” when she was growing up. Jacqueline’s mother and aunt introduced to her various different crafting skills, but she adds: “We also had a good art department when I was at high school in the USA, so I first tried weaving when I was 16 years old, as well as ceramics, painting and other techniques.”

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After time spent travelling, Jacqueline returned to the UK and enrolled on a Woven and Constructed Textiles Course at Harrogate College, where she honed her skills, learning about dyeing and spinning, and chose to specialise in rug weaving.

“My tutor at the college was a skilled rug and tapestry maker, and he passed his enthusiasm and skills to me. I didn’t really know I’d become a dyer, but now I can dye yarn myself I’m not limited to certain colours. I keep exploring and experimenting,” she says.

Jacqueline, who is one of only a handful of professional rug weavers in the UK, has continued to learn new techniques by attending workshops led by others as often as she can. Her trademark style has evolved over the years and today she blends traditional rug-weaving techniques, such as shaft switching, with contemporary design to create incredibly desirable yet functional


A recent collaboration with textile designer Amélie Crepy on a handwoven and hand-dyed installation for Collect Open, part of the annual Collect International Art Fair for Contemporary Craft and Design organised by the Crafts Council and held at Somerset House in London, inspired Jacqueline to experiment with different fibres and threads.

“Amélie designs textiles for fashion and

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interiors so she got me to try different things that I’d never have thought about, such as using bamboo and banana fibre, when I would previously have just used wool, cotton and linen. Banana fibre is made using the husk from the tree and has become known as vegan silk because it’s an ethical alternative to traditional silk,” she says.

“I’m also in the process of learning more about natural dyes, trying to find natural alternatives to the synthetic ones. I’m inspired by learning from other people, but adapt their techniques to find my own ways of working.”

Entitled The Alchemy of Blue, the seven-metre piece that Amélie and Jacqueline created, features natural fibres dyed in woad and indigo, the plants historically used to produce the colour blue for textiles. Inspired by water, rivers and waves, it was created to highlight the use of textiles as an art form, reflect concerns about commercial, mass-produced textiles and to inspire people to consider living more sustainably. Amélie, with her in-depth understanding of pattern and textile design, produced the motifs for the weave, and Jacqueline then transformed them into the physical artwork. The pair worked together to dye the yarns, including sari silks, banana yarn, hemp and British wool.

Jacqueline adds: “We received sponsorship from West Yorkshire Spinners, one of the few worsted spinning companies in the UK, whose craftspeople have extensive knowledge and understanding of the unique British sheep breeds and how to blend fibres to produce the finest yarns. They kindly donated three different types of knitting yarn – Retreat Bluefaced Kerry Hill, Bluefaced Leicester Roving and Jacob Aran.”

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The pair also collaborated with David Walters, a jacquard weave specialist based in Sudbury, Suffolk, who created a woven fabric, designed by Amélie, which Jacqueline then incorporated into the installation.

“It was really interesting to collaborate with Amélie, who was also the curator,” says Jacqueline. “We come from such different backgrounds and she designed the piece, so I really had to let go and weave by instinct, working from her sketches.

“We inspired, challenged and encouraged one another, it was an amazing experience and a long process – it took two years in all.”

The project, which was funded by Arts Council England using a National Lottery grant, was the latest in a string of high-profile commissions that Jacqueline has worked on. Her work has also been displayed in Westminster Abbey and the British Library.

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Closer to her home, it has appeared at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York after she was asked to replicate a fragment of excavated cloth dating back to the Viking era, as well as in York Minster, Wakefield Cathedral and in her local parish church in Clifton, York.

From May 7 to July 16, her work will be on display at To Have and to Hold, an exhibition at the Craft Centre and Design Gallery in the Headrow, Leeds.

Jacqueline is currently working on a new collection that will draw inspiration from her collaboration with Amélie, explaining: “Although many people choose to hang my rugs on their walls, they are designed to be used and are very durable. However, for the project with Amelie, I didn’t have to make a functional rug. It was very liberating in a way – to make something that was not to my own specification. It freed me to try things I wouldn’t have dreamt of. It will definitely influence my future work.”