In Conversation: Gaelle Chassery
Venture on a journey into the world of artisanal craftsmanship with our exclusive interview featuring Gaelle Chassery, a masterful creator of site-specific, mindfully improvised heirloom shawls, throws, and blankets. Delve into the unique process that intertwines pure Scottish wool, sourced ethically from small producers, with a deep connection to the natural elements of each region. Witness the artistry of intuitive design, celebrating the rich hues of undyed wool and botanical-dyed yarn, all crafted without machines or harmful substances.
11 de dezembro de 2023
Can you elaborate on your artistic journey and how it led you to become the artist that you are today?
I had little interest in textile work until my mid-twenties when I started knitting daily. I enjoyed merging colours into seamless gradients, the soothing interaction with wool, and the repetitive focus of the work. At 30, chronic pain made knitting impossible and directed me to learn crochet. That same year I learned I am autistic, which brought liberating insights into my creativity. I’ve always been creative but experienced many setbacks when trying to learn in conventional settings. It finally made sense why traditional techniques had been beyond my grasp. I started creating outside the box with my own methods to honour my abilities, my inclinations, and the way I interact with myself and the world. It allowed me to teach myself countless skills by embracing improvisation and experimentation. Ten years on, I am as excited about it as ever and bursting with ideas and projects in multiple media.
Your work is deeply rooted in the geography and nature of the Scottish landscape. Could you share the process of how you draw inspiration from the geology, topography, flora, and atmosphere of the areas where the wool is sourced for your creations?
I work with undyed Scottish yarns to showcase the incredible depth and richness of natural wool. I am obsessed with sheep, their environment, the character of each breed, the colour and texture of their fleeces changing with the seasons, and the landscape where they grow. It’s all inseparable from the yarn and it makes sense to honour that in each design.
Natural patterns captivate me. I spend a lot of time in contemplative excitement: details on rocks, tree barks, canopies, waves, ripples, lines in the sands, and the intricacy of flowers, lichens, and mosses. I feel safe and joyful with these elements, they are friendly, welcoming and interactive. Paying tribute to them in my work feels natural and invites people to notice the ordinary miracles that surround us. Being mostly housebound prompts me to find countless details within small spaces like my garden or what I see from my windows. I replicate this by creating pieces that become tiny landscapes to get lost in, to interact with by spotting details and patterns.
I am interested in topography lines and details that can only be noticed on maps or from the air, and I love the idea that my creations can look like maps or landscapes as seen from above. My work combines the open, wild freedom and sober majesty of vast expanses with the cuteness of miniature things, the safety of microcosms and the relaxed state of rest.
Can you describe your creative process when working intuitively and in spontaneous dialogue with the yarn? How do you navigate this process to produce such beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces?
I start by spending quality time with the wool: turning the skeins into yarn cakes by hand gives essential interaction with the character of the wool, the texture, shades, and the stories it tells. I let that echo within me as evocations of ancient memories. I look at photographs and videos of the place that grew the wool and select features from the landscape to honour its essence and atmosphere. I look at photos of my wool producers, their sheep, their farm and their landscape so I can be in contact with their environment. Occasionally I work with yarn from places I am lucky to have visited, which brings an extra layer to the process.
Many beings and circumstances are involved in producing wool, I am one link in that chain, a channel through which a deeper voice guides each decision as I work. The most important thing is to relax my brain and allow timeless wisdom to inform my hands: how many stitches, how many rows, what kind of flow or contrast should happen where, what kind of repetition, which hook will work best… I don’t feel I am the one who decides that, it is much bigger than me.
Illness limits my movements in the natural world and I miss the long walks I used to enjoy in all weathers. Crochet is a substitute, each stitch like a step on a walk, an exploration building connection and intimacy with the land. There is a meditative quality when walking in connection to the landscape that I replicate to an extent as I work on a large crochet piece.
Your art is not only visually striking but also environmentally conscious. Could you explain how your work contributes to a more sustainable approach to crafting and how it can impact future generations?
On a personal level, crochet is straightforward, low impact and sustainable: the hooks are cheap, silent, and durable, they don't need maintenance or repair. I find it much easier on the mind and body than knitting. It’s accessible because it takes very little space, so I don’t need a studio. As a person with serious limitations, these are essential considerations. When we talk about sustainability we have to start with our own circumstantial resources of time, mental health, energy, stamina, space and finances.
In terms of our larger body Earth, I don’t want to create anything that adds to the disaster. I use wool from Scotland because that is where I live and I select growers with high-welfare flocks and solid regenerative practices for impeccable provenance. Regenerative farming is comprehensive and intelligent, working with nature to improve soil health. It is concerned with the whole cycle of life and long-term focus, giving much more than it takes, which is the only way to farm if we want to heal the planet and continue to exist with it. We know it works and we should promote and support it as a priority through all layers of the economy. It is absolutely geared towards benefitting future generations.
Wool is a precious commodity with extraordinary potential that we need to rediscover and advocate for. Unfortunately, farmers are paid very poorly for their wool, it would be cheaper for them to abandon it in a field. My choice to work with these producers is one way of supporting them: I pay a fair price for the yarn and champion it so they can earn a little bit for their hard work. I like to say that at the end of their long lives, my creations will enrich the soil rather than pollute it because wool is highly beneficial to soil health. When using my completely natural woollen pieces we can all relax knowing we are breathing in the therapeutic smell of sheep and that we are not adding to the chaos of pollution. On the rare occasions that I use dyed wool, I choose yarn that has been dyed botanically so that no pollution is added to my process.
My creations are extra warm because my style of crochet uses much more yarn than knitting and traps more air, offering a viable alternative to high energy usage in order to keep warm. The heavy weight of the wool brings reassurance and is a good alternative to weighted blankets which tend to be made with plastic derivatives. The first thing I hear when people wrap up in my heirlooms is how warm, safe and reassured they feel. This is a good contribution to the world and the next generations.
Tell us more about the work Song of Wave and Stone. How did you envision this artwork?
Song of Wave and Stone is my favourite creation so far. It was made with Iona wool, where each year the undyed yarn produced has its own unique silver hue. I had acquired yarns from a few different years and wanted to create a piece where the various greys would play together. Near Iona is Staffa, an island with stunning rock formations that I wanted to honour. The improvised design depicts the balance within contrasts, marvelling at the opposites of connected extremes united through natural phenomena: sand and molten glass, lava and rock, liquid turning solid, solid turning liquid in the infinite elemental dance.
The ancient wildness of tectonic plates and volcanic activity mirror the movements of a symphony taking us on an unpredictable journey with recurring notes. Hypnotic waves, lines in the rock and intricate ripples in the sand soothe and stimulate all senses as familiarity and inspiration are gifted in natural patterns, powerfully reconnecting us with our primordial essence in a refreshing and majestic embrace.
The ever-changing patterns invite the owner to continue the process of improvisation and creativity through daily interaction. Designed to flow with the natural cycles of human needs and moods, it is at once throw, map, soft ephemeral sculpture, miniature island, a cocoon of warmth and reassurance… bringing the raw freshness and soothing comfort of nature to daily life.
Your creations are described as "heirloom" pieces. What is the significance of this term in the context of your work, and how do you envision your art being passed down through generations?
Each make is born from improvisation and is therefore totally unique. I will never make the same piece twice, and the amount of research, focus, time, thoughtfulness and skill that goes into each project makes it very precious from the start. I believe that gives it great significance, even more so when the piece is a commission made with a specific person in mind.
I imagine a newborn wrapped in one of my heirlooms, growing up with it as part of the immediate landscape of home, part of the family through chilly evenings and relaxed weekends, comforting in periods of illness, inspiring in times of curiosity, looking at all the stitches, tracing them with their fingers, allowing the mind to travel on this magic blanket. Growing up with it, getting old with it, then passing it on.
When taken care of, woollens can easily last for several generations without undergoing much change. Wool is dust-repellant, self-cleaning, fun to repair, easy to look after and stays fresh for months. I love the idea of someone spending a lifetime with my creations and lovingly passing them on to repeat the cycle. Each person can create their own meaning about the piece, infuse it with their own presence, see something unique in it, and share that story with others.
In addition to your art, you have written essays and features for various publications. How does your writing complement your visual art, and what topics do you explore in your written work that are close to your heart?
I feel nourished by the playfulness and seriousness that interact in writing, pinning words onto ideas to transmit specific meanings with nuance and directness. My favourite topics to explore are wool, creativity, mindfulness, self-regulation and self-soothing, our connection to nature and animals, and supporting ourselves through long-term grief, illness and trauma to find contentment in the everyday. To me, these themes are all inseparable from my craft.
Writing provides an important balance: I spend 99% of my time alone and silent, which feels natural to me, but it is amazing to sit down and formulate the process of creativity and healing with the language of written words. It feels like a translation, turning outwards to share with people and communicate my passion for the craft, the material, the land, the sheep and their caretakers.
Recently someone told me the “Song of Wave and Stone” piece reminds them of handwriting, which blew my mind! Handwriting and calligraphy are amongst my special interests and it was amazing to hear such an unusual comment regarding my crochet work. Everyone sees something different in what I do, but that specific connection to writing was really delightful.
Can you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that you are excited about, or any new directions in your art that your audience can look forward to exploring?
I’ve started exploring the making of soft sculptures. My dream is to create a huge crochet installation, a world that people can walk right in and be surrounded by, but that is beyond my current access to the world. However, I can start designing it and maybe it will happen. I would love to work on collaborations but don’t know where to start. Disabled artists who can’t travel have limited access to opportunities, and unfortunately, my chosen medium is not the most sought-after in the world of art and craft.
In your opinion, how can art contribute to raising awareness and being a positive driving force in the current contemporary atmosphere?
I was recently described as a craftivist, which I appreciate and relate to. I love art because it expresses our capacity to think for ourselves. Both as makers and consumers of art, we get the gift of interpretation through our own filters. I am not equipped for endless debates and swapping of information. I lean towards practical experimentations and implementing systems until I get the best results; maybe that’s why I am so comfortable creating in silence and solitude.
In a world saturated with opinions and confusion, art gives us a clear voice, a focused path, a platform; it helps us make sense of ourselves and the world. Art challenges our perceptions and opens doorways we might not have considered. My creative practice often takes me in directions I could not have foreseen and can challenge everything I know and believe about myself and the world.
There are many ways to raise awareness and be profoundly political with the choices we make, with the words we use, what we share, what we choose to fill our minds, houses and bodies with, how we spend our money, our time, who with. This can have a radical and powerful impact that is underrated. I like to be mindful about the art I create and the art I consume.
What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?
We have to maintain connection with ourselves and nature to stay regulated instead of focusing on what derails us. We live in an unprecedented era with constant access to information. Our nervous systems haven’t evolved to cope with such a stream of despair that keeps our focus on external chaos. It can make us avoid our inner turmoil, our problematic behaviours and huge issues right on our doorstep that are wrecking our family dynamics and eradicating local communities while we are over-invested in far away troubles. It’s important to nurture a corner in our lives where we feel safe to build connection and resilience, to become a local oasis in an unsettling world.
There is such an emphasis on taking action, being vocal, and getting out there. Some of us simply don’t have the resources necessary to be that kind of activist. I am a quiet activist, but my life and work contribute because I focus on offering a sane, safe and clear space. I like the idea of having a low-impact life in the ways that matter—not adding to the noise. Practising a lifestyle of knowing ourselves well, observing and simplifying gives more impact to what we choose to say and do.
If you wiah to know more about the artist and even purchase some of her incredible work, go have a look at her website here.
Colonsay song by Gaelle Chassery. Image courtesy of Gaelle Chassery.
I crochet site-specific, mindfully improvised heirloom shawls, throws and blankets, using pure Scottish wool sourced exclusively from small Scottish producers with high-welfare flocks and regenerative practices. Each of my design is site-specific: informed by the geology, topography, landscape, flora and atmosphere of the area that grew the wool used for each piece. No patterns are ever used, every project is totally unique and intuitively created in a spontaneous dialogue with the yarn.
I mostly use undyed wool to celebrate the glorious depth and richness of colour found in Scottish sheep. When dyed yarn is used, I source it from people who use only botanicals in their process. Coupled with my own making process where no machines or substances are used, the end result is a very low impact item of pure and beneficial luxury to be passed on through generations. At the end of its long life, it will return to the soil and enrich it rather than polluting it.