Skipton artist and knitter Joan Murray weaves fashion stories with music and movement
There is magic woven into Joan Murray’s sinewy, flowing gowns, a strangely visceral and energetic form of alchemy. “I never cease to be amazed by how a single yarn, or combination of yarns, can become a length of fabric or a sculptural garment,” she says.
She knits the garments in one piece, using short row knitting to make circles of yarn that flow as they respond to a living, moving body.
“I don't use a needle and thread for my knitwear,” she says. “It’s quite physical, and it’s a little bit of number work. You are constantly alert.”
A knitwear designer, textiles weaver and artist, Joan’s work is informed by the landscape around her. She spent her youth outdoors on family’s farms in Northern Ireland. “I grew up in the peninsula town of Portrush, roller skating along the promenade and freely running along the beaches and visiting the Giant's Causeway,” she says.
“My mother, who passed away in January, 2022, at 103 years, was a great influence, although it is only now I recognise this. She would knit me many jumpers and sew up dresses for all the parties and weekends away. I would often find them finished and on my bed the next morning.”
Joan went to the University of Ulster Art College to study for a BA, then Winchester School of Art for a postgraduate year, followed by the Royal College of Art for an MA in Knitted Textiles. This is where she met her husband, fine artist Chris Murray. They have lived in Skipton town centre for 30 years. “I draw around here and I have made friendships. I just feel I’m a part of the place now,” she says. “When we did Open Studios last year, it absolutely dawned on me that, my work and my home, there is no boundary between them.
Inspired by colour and geometry, Joan makes machine-knitted garments for clients and dancers, and fine art woven textiles for interiors, constructing fabrics using high quality natural yarns such as silks, cottons, cashmere and fine wool. She works instinctively as the work takes shape. Her drawing and painting bring fresh ideas and inspiration.
“My making process becomes part of the journey,” she says. To her, the boundaries on the loom and the domestic knitting machine bring endless possibilities for exploration. She believes that movement is key to seeing her designs at their best and has made creations for the Eliot Smith Dance company in Newcastle.
“There is a lot of drama in what I make. I love clothes that tell stories,” she says. “There is a terrific amount of literal energy in the work I make, whether it’s my paintings or my garments or my weaves. It’s not complete until the customer or the dancer or the hanging is in its place, in its environment, so I am only a part of the journey.”
For 21 years, Joan taught Fashion and Textiles at Craven College, although alongside she always developed her own creative practice, taking on commissions, cultural exchanges and exhibiting and selling her own work. She retired from formal teaching last April, but retains an active interest in the progress of her students.
“I have so many wonderful memories of amazing themed fashion events and brilliant team work that was made possible by the support of Craven College and by Silver Cross Prams, who sponsored many of the shows at Utopia, Broughton Hall, Christ Church, Holy Trinity Church, Skipton Cinema, and the college canteen.”
Soon after leaving the college, she was invited over to Nashville, Tennessee, to be weaver in residence at the Sing Global event in September, run by musicians Keith and Kristyn Getty, after Kristyn had bought one of Joan's dresses. For this, she created six weaves in preparation and while there was able to incorporate pieces of wool brought to her by members of the public. She was interviewed about her work on stage before 6,000 people. “They wanted weave to symbolise people coming together,” she says. “Weaving is slow but gives you plenty of time to think.”
Joan will be taking part in the North Yorkshire Open Studios in June this year. “Now that I am not teaching I put more time into my variety of creative work,” she says.
Models stepped out in Joan Murray designs at the grand opening of the Craven Arts House on Otley Street in Skipton last December (this new contemporary arts facility has a range of studios and gallery space and runs classes and exhibitions.
“I stop people on the train or in the street and ask, would you be interested in modelling?” says Joan. “Or I ask my students who are always ready to perform. Even though they are my past students now, they keep in touch.”
She often wears her own clothes, including the check suit seen on these pages. “It’s stood the test of time,” she says. “It was trousers and I made it into a skirt. I am a great believer that clothes last a long time, if you look after them. I do a lot of altering my clothes.”
While teaching, she would buy dinner jackets at charity shops and get the students to turn them into ball gowns. “Just by turning a jacket upside down, it has a huge collar, and the little collar becomes a peplum around the back of your waist. Life is just so rich,” she says.
See: www.joanmurray.co.uk and cravenarts.co.uk. North Yorkshire Open Studios ‘23 takes place on June 3-4 and June 10-11. See www.nyos.org.uk.