Fiona Daly is an Irish-born weaver who honed her craft by working in small islands in Ireland and Scotland after training in Kunsthogskolen, Norway and the National College of Art and Design, Ireland. Fusing a love of wool with an eye for subtle colours and complex patterns, she creates tonal fabrics that are deeply embedded in island making cultures.
When I visit Fiona’s Edinburgh studio, located in a former Victorian schoolroom, the autumn light is streaming through the windows onto the well-worn wood of her old loom, making the natural-coloured wools of the blanket she is weaving sparkle and dance. As she takes me through the process of creating her latest collection, from the initial idea through to the finished objects, it quickly becomes clear just how central islands are to her work.
"Earlier this year I went back to drawing in a notebook. It happened after I saw a piece of Shetland knitwear. I was fascinated by the patterns and shapes, so I made studies, which were then transferred onto graph paper to help me work out how to create the design in weave. And from there I started sampling and ordering materials.
"I use all natural wool, mainly Shetland wool but also Hebridean and Blue Faced Leicester," she explains. "I do a sample warp, testing out different patterns to see how they shape up and if the cloth is stable. Then I see how I might envisage a product. With my latest collection, I developed the knitwear patterns to create cushions backed with Scottish linen, and lampshades and blankets."
Fiona discovered her passion for weaving in 2011 during a summer spent learning the craft under Beth Moran on Clare Island, off the coast of Mayo in the north-west of Ireland. "It was on Clare Island where I established that I definitely wanted to be a weaver. I realised I loved the craft. I was completely absorbed in it, and in the environment of the island itself.
"Beth mainly uses silk, but she also has a small farm and keeps sheep. Her husband would do the shearing and Beth would spin the wool, so I learned to spin there as well. Natural dyeing, I learnt that too, all using local plants. I do some spinning now and again, but it’s something I don’t have enough time for. It’s a real labour of love.
"I really like the community sense of islands, everyone knowing and helping each other. In Clare Island I was living with a family and very much involved in the community. We did a lot of swimming. There was a little cove nearby and it was a regular thing every day – 4 o’clock, go for a swim."
In 2012 Fiona immersed herself in developing her skills by completing a residency at Global Yell, a weave studio on the island of Yell in the far north of Shetland. The experience not only gave her the drive to become a full-time weaver, it also introduced her to a special kind of wool which would go on to become central to her work.
"The residency let me spend focussed time, two full months, weaving with no distractions. The brief was to use local materials to develop sample designs inspired by the surrounding environment, which would then be used to help train local people in weaving.
"I was introduced to Shetland wool, which was huge because that’s what I still use today. It’s amazing how it comes in so many different shades; it’s really unusual for sheep’s wool. I was really drawn to it, and thought that it should be celebrated."
After Shetland, Fiona returned to Ireland before moving to Edinburgh and setting up her own studio. Three years on Fiona is still in Scotland’s capital. Her two immersive island experiences have shaped her as a maker, and they continue to inform her design and use of materials.
Again and again she returns to coastal landscapes, sometimes unconsciously: "The colours of coastal landscapes are still being drawn into my work. I look at what I’m doing and think it really reminds me of a rocky or sandy beach or a sandy beach. It’s not intentional but somehow it ends up back there."
As Fiona and I part ways, we talk about how much she treasures her time in Clare Island and Yell. I ask whether the demands of running a successful studio, and maintaining a busy teaching schedule, would stop her from being able to commit to an island residency these days.
"It won’t happen again unless I make a definite decision to end other things I have going on."
Then she pauses, smiles and adds, "But who knows … Maybe Iceland."
Sarah Laurenson is a researcher and writer specialising in craft and design. She is the editor of 'Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present', an illustrated collection of essays on wool, knitting and weaving. Originally from Shetland, she now lives in Edinburgh where she is completing a doctorate on the history of Scotland's jewellery craft.