Painting with Purls

Frida Henriksen is currently studying for a Masters degree in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of St Andrews. This term, Frida has been cataloguing and researching the textiles collections at the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust as part of the course. The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust holds a small collection of textiles worn by, designed or made by the artist, including a small selection of clothes by notable designers, knitted ties and table mats. Here, Frida shares some of her research on the knitted ties or cravats designed and made by Willie in the 1980s.

Barns-Graham at a preview of her 1989 Retrospective exhibition at the city art centre wearing one of her knitted ties © The Scotsman. Photo: Denis Straughan

Between August 1985 to April 1987, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham knitted over fifty ties. These colourful knitted ties became part of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust’s collection following Willie’s death in 2004 and have remained somewhat of a mystery. The fifty ties, or cravats as Willie intermittently referred to them, come in various bright colours and designs, ranging from muted earth tones in geometric patterns to circles in typical 1980s colours like fuchsia and cobalt. What exactly the purpose of these ties was, we have yet to determine. Was knitting a hobby for Willie? A foray into a new artistic medium? Or did she intend to sell the ties?

While we do not have any definitive answers to these questions, several clues in the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust Archive provide insight and contextualization to Willie’s knitting endeavour.

A selection of Barns-Graham's knitted ties in neutral tones

Inspiration for Willie’s Knitting Enterprise

The impetus for the ties appears to have been a knitwear shopping spree on 3rd August 1985. In her diary, Willie writes, “Coffee in Jennys [sic] house Queen St. + She showed us fabulous jumpers & wool coat (…) near High St. this was our undoing as off we went & I bought a Mondrian style colours & hood + gave Rowan a black & brown grey + white stripe + They are not cheap but made of Shetland wool.”  Within a few weeks of making these purchases, Willie was already knitting up to two ties in a day.

Another possible source of inspiration was the work of artist and knitwear designer Victor Stuart Graham. A knitted black cotton tie with an abstract geometric print in red, grey, blue, and yellow by Stuart Graham is a part of the collection of Willie’s personal items held by the Trust. Willie presumably bought the tie sometime in the early to mid-1980s, and it may have served as a source of inspiration for Willie’s knitting enterprise.

Willie’s diaries frequently make mention of her tie-knitting, noting which ties she’s working on. These are primarily short notations detailing what number of the tie she’s working on, occasionally describing the ties’ colours. For example:

Knitted purple & reds navy & blue & brown tie (no 11.) 4 November 1985

Began creating my 18th cravat! White, terra cotta, slate, navy, beige. 1 March 1986

Finished cravat 32. Strong blue – white zig zag with the odd colour …… under the white line. Interesting. 26 July 1986

Began white cravat with colour circles. 12 October 1986

A photograph found in the archive of Barns-Graham standing in front of Expanding Forms (Coast) Touch Point no. 6, 1981 (BGT474) at the RSA c.1986 wearing one of her knitted ties

I ought to be working

An initial impulse may be to view the ties in relation to Willie’s work as they often intersect by using a similar artistic vocabulary and colour palette.  Looking at the photograph of Willie studying her Expanding Forms (Coast) Touch Point no. 6, 1981, the knitted tie she’s wearing matches the artwork in both colour and forms.

However, in her journal, Willie gives the impression that her knitting is a separate activity from her painting. On 3rd October 1985 she writes:

a beautiful day. Knitting this scarf for Mummy. I ought to be working.

The ties may have provided Willie with a welcome reprieve from her other work.

The sew-in label used by Barns-Graham for her knitted ties. It reads: Designed and Knitted by W. Barns-Graham

A New Venture

Willie may have intended to start selling the ties. While there are a small number of sales records for the ties, it’s unclear if they were intended as a commercial project. However, there are several further clues that point to Willie’s intention to sell the ties. Most of the Trust’s collection of ties has sew-in labels reading “Designed & Knitted by W. Barns-Graham.” She painted some of the tie designs and also had her assistant, Rowan James, document the ties writing in her diary, 14th June 1986:

I began my 26th cravat + R photographed them + W long sides too.  

On 6th June 1986, she refers to her knitting as a ‘venture’, perhaps indicating commercial intentions, writing in her diary, “I have to rest & I start again on designing my cravats or ties now onto one for (…) + another based on no. 1. Therefore making to my 25th since starting this venture in August last!”  

Venturing into a side hustle that was complimentary – or even an extension of – to her artistic production was familiar to Willie. In the 1950s, Willie and a group of St. Ives artists designed a series of silk print table mats through Porthia Prints. They were produced and printed by Denis Mitchell and Stanley Dorfman at Porthia Prints, St Ives for Heal’s. They were exhibited in 1955 at the exhibition Abstract Designs at Heal’s Mansard Gallery. Initially a success, however, Porthia Prints and the participating St. Ives artists needed help to keep up production with the demand and the collaboration with Heal’s ended in 1960.

A selection of Barns-Graham's knitted ties in bright tones

Knit your own Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Tie!

The last mention of the ties in Willie’s journal is 6th April 1987:

Busied myself in black & white knitting cravat (probably no 51.)

We do not know why or if Willie phased out tie knitting after her final journal reference to them. Whatever the ties’ purpose was for Willie, her journals reveal that in the mid 1980s she was knitting frequently and enthusiastically, and knitting served as a welcome reprieve.

If you would like to try your hand at knitting your own Wilhelmina Barns-Graham tie Knitwear designer Jeni Allison has created a pattern by using the drawing and measurements of tie no. 30, created by Willie in 1986.

We would love to see your creations. Please share with us using the hashtag #KnitBarnsGraham.

Tie No. 30 designed and knitted by Willie in 1986 and recreated as a knitting pattern by Jeni Allison