We arrive early in the day and the heat is already rising outside as Rachel ushers us through the front door. Immediately before us we find a winding staircase cloaked in her rugs. Wanting to remove our shoes, she tells us not to, as moths love things that are undisturbed, and rugs must be walked on. The windows are open, the house is quiet except for a radio somewhere playing softly and a welcome breeze moves through as we climb. The wool dampens the sound of our carefully placed steps and it feels as if we are walking on warm earth. Upstairs, towering forests of umbrella trees cut silhouettes out of the light and rows of blossoming orchids line the windowsills. “I think they talk to each other”, Rachel says, “how else would they all know to flower at the same time”. As we reach the top floor we arrive at her studio - a private land with soft light and a burnt black-brown palette, a liminal zone where her work begins.
Originally trained as a painter at the Royal College of Art, Rachel’s early works featured seated figures in rooms and corridors painted in earth tones, almost prophetic of the world we have been invited into today. Her home, these staircases and the people that inhabit these spaces are crucial to her creative process, and much of her work is built from proud domesticity or the need to “do something useful”, as she describes it. It becomes clear that rather than her creativity continuing despite any perceived domestic confines, it is precisely these constraints that are the inspiration for her works, the breadth of which is enormous. We have come today to look specifically at Rachel’s rugs, but we will leave filled with wonder at a life’s work in clay, wool and cloth.
Rachel has worked with her husband, Frank Bowling, a painter whom she met at the Royal College, for more than 30 years, for much of this time travelling with him between his bases in London and New York. While his career has led to him being hailed as one of the foremost British artists of his generation, her work has had a more modest audience to date. Whilst each situation offers its own freedom, at the heart of both their practices is a devotion to the mediums with which they work and a fascination with the tactile nature of colour and material.
As a girl, Rachel knitted jumpers for her father and brother but often made mistakes in the sizing and ended up unravelling what she had done. She then began making knitted rectangles that could be sewn together so the size could be adapted, and there began the patchwork principle that so much of her work adheres to. Those original flawed garments became sweaters and jackets for her daughters, and when her own dresses were worn through she cut them up and began to produce the patchwork dresses she has worn ever since. Opening a cupboard door, she points out green wool from one of her school jumpers woven into a skirt she still wears. We see fragments from a beloved dress bought during a hot summer in 1976 and a floral slice of a William Morris dress from the ’60s. She no longer makes clothes, as she says she has enough dresses and replacement patches “to see her through”. We all laugh at this sombre practicality, but there is a cyclical nature to all the works that is beautiful and inevitable – nothing is wasted and everything becomes something else.
On graduation from the Royal College of Art, pottery teachers were desired and so Rachel learned and for a time trained and worked in clay, too. She pulls out carefully stored treasures to show us; a tiny cardboard box is opened and waxed paper is unwrapped to reveal a miniature farm set with a farmer and his wife, complete with animals that include a tiny chicken the shape of the tips of her fingers. Another box has a painted chessboard on the lid, with smiling clay kings and queens and knights riding camels inside. You can see that these pieces were made with small curious hands in mind. Later, from a low shelf she retrieves earlier terracotta animal forms. Strong and graceful, the pull of her fingers is visible in the clay surface. Like an ochre handprint on a cave wall, the gestures and intent of a maker resonate through time.
All the time we are talking, it feels like the loom waits for us, a patient standing figure that dominates the studio. Today, there is a half-completed work suspended in place. Like all of her rugs, it has a graphic composition and reduced colourway, a landscape rendered into geometry allowing the beauty of the raw wool to express itself. There are pages full of shorthand patterns which are more like prompts than diagrams, as much of the pattern emerges intuitively. Even after so many years weaving Rachel still talks like a painter. “The edges are the most important,” she tells us.
As Rachel works the canvas grows within the loom, becoming a Vitruvian frame of her movements. She begins sitting on the floor to work, and then on a stool, then standing and finally standing on the stool. Built from wood pulled from a skip, the loom was originally designed to produce a rug that would fit the width of Rachel’s staircase in order to replace a worn carpet. The loom operates like an architectural space and the geometry of it is entirely in relation to the body and home. When the rug is released from its tight warp lines it is rolled up, carried under the arm and washed in the bath to start the felting process that will complete it. The movements match an embrace or the cradling of a small form.
Usually, Rachel weaves early in the day, often whilst the household is still asleep, and evening is the time for spinning. Her spinning wheel sits under the window. Made by her brother years ago with parts from a sewing machine, it has an extra-long bobbin to accommodate the large balls of yarn produced from the wool she uses. She has just had a new fleece delivered from a Herdwick sheep, the ones with the pretty faces in the pictures on the wall. They are born very dark, almost black, and their wool lightens as they age. They were Beatrix Potter's sheep that produced the wool for her winter suits. The smell is warm and delicious – rich with lanolin but softly so, as if you are wrapped in a favourite jumper and as she unrolls it the ground becomes littered with kemp – stray white strands – catching the light as they fall. She brushes the wool between carders to align the fibres, and then begins her work at the wheel. It kicks into motion with a mesmerising clackclack, clackclack sound like a train running over tracks. You can see the knowledge as her hands guide the yarn, one pulling back to add fibres while the other straightens the line and lets the string of yarn twist back into itself. Her hands softly curled into a familiar shape, she doesn’t push the material, it’s as if she is guiding it into its natural form.
One good fleece like this can yield three balls of yarn. One ball of yarn will take around two evenings to complete and six balls of yarn can make a single rug. I look at the faint lines and grooves cut into the sides of the loom and want to search for meanings in the dimensions but I realise that these works are not as much about a sacred geometry as they are about time. Time is compartmentalised into the length of a scarf, the circumference of a ball of wool, or when a glass of wine makes you nod off so that one night’s work becomes two. Time means that creativity is industry and that productivity is never indulgence. The limits of time, fibres and the scale of the loom are Rachel’s means of expression, and in this moment where so many artists are readdressing the balance of motherhood and practice, her prolific output feels enormously important to be looking at.
There is a low bed running along one wall where her children used to sleep, and where a pile of washed and completed rugs now lie. On the wall above is a painting by Frank, a diptych called Still Life of Birds, which Rachel bought from him in 1961 when they were students, before they were together. Her grandfather had given her a check for £100 for her 21st birthday and she spent half of her fortune on Frank’s painting, perhaps an intuition of the connection they were to ultimately share. The format, the cropped edges, and the colours are absolutely hers - soft browns with two black birds swooping, sharply angled wings suspended in a white storm. Throughout our conversation I have kept noticing how Rachel’s shoes are speckled with the luminescent splatters of paint from Frank’s studio and I think now how absolutely their work is intertwined. Care and preservation are at the heart of her practice and all of her works have fitted the shape of her family life and the physical walls of the domestic space. Her craft has been to weave it all together - the history of the family in rags and rugs.
Words by Lindsay Sekulowicz.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.
Find more of Rachel's rugs along with upcoming exhibitions on her website.