Ptolemy Mann

Ptolemy Mann Chroma Ikat cushion Monolithic Box Series at Roast Restaurant
Ikat collection
Circle 2

Weaver Ptolemy Mann is best known for her linear, colour-soaked wall panels. Colour is crucial to her work and her woven artworks are all about zinging colour combinations and subtle gradations of colour achieved by the ikat technique she uses to dye her warp threads. Although she cites the greats of Modernism as her inspiration, including the likes of Anni Albers, Charles and Ray Eames, along with abstract expressionists such as Rothko, she also finds inspiration in photography and the landscape saying, ‘colour is everywhere you look’.


What first attracted you to weaving?

I always wanted to be a painter, but I wasn’t very good at it! During my foundation course I spent a lot of time working with colour and one of my tutors encouraged me to think about doing textiles as a degree course. Someone once told me that it was important to learn a skill so I thought this was a great opportunity and ended up doing a degree in Textile Design at St Martin’s. I really liked all areas of textile design at St Martin’s and found it quite difficult to chose one area to specialise in, but eventually I settled for weaving. I felt it was the most complex process and would be less easy to pick up later on in life, and then once I started weaving I discovered that I was actually quite good at it.

Why do you think weaving suited you so well?

At the time I had so many different ideas and things I wanted to do that I think the restrictive nature of weaving was quite good for me. It channelled my ideas in a very specific direction and really forced me to focus on one quite narrow technique. I was also attracted by the physicality of weaving as well as its mathematical, geometric nature. I loved architecture and weaving seemed to have a similar structural and practical approach.

Were you always interested in producing abstract patterns?

When I started weaving there weren’t many jacquard looms available at the college so I learnt on an upright dobby loom (which I still use today). You can’t make narrative or pictorial imagery on a dobby loom and so my weaving has always been about producing colourful abstract linear/geometrical patterns. I hadn’t realised that I was such an abstract person until I started working on this type of loom. I’m interested in photography and pictures but have never been interested in reproducing images in my weaving, although recently I have made some more commercial pieces which are less linear than my earlier pieces.

Was colour always important to your work?

I would have worked with colour in whatever field I had ended up as I was always drawn to it. During my time at St Martin’s I began to develop a real expertise in it as I had one day a week of learning about colour theory in my first year which was invaluable.

When did you develop the technique of ikat or dip-dying your warps to produce the subtle gradations of colour which are so integral to your weaving?

The ikat dying started early on in my career. At St Martin’s the yarn store only had white thread in stock and so if you wanted to introduce more colour you had to dye it yourself. I realised quickly that the dip-dying technique really suited me as it produced many different colours on one single warp – it was the best way of introducing the most colour variation into the artworks. My woven fabrics are warp-faced and very little can be seen of the single colour weft threads.

What materials do you use to weave with?

Both my warp and weft threads are mercerised cotton – I like to keep them the same so that there is no difference in surface texture to distract from the geometry and colour of each piece. The mercerisation process gives the cotton a sheen and so adds an extra intensity to the colours. It’s also quite strong so you can pull it tightly over a stretcher without damaging it (this is important as my work is displayed mounted on stretchers), and an added advantage is that moths don’t eat it.

What are the most important elements in your weaving?

Geometry is very important – my visual language is very linear and I make sure that it’s presented in the cleanest possible format (mounted on stretchers) so nothing will distract from this. The context each piece is seen in is also very important, particularly with site-specific work. A piece is judged as a success by how well it responds to the architectural space it’s seen in and how appropriate it is to that particular space. And of course, colour is vital, particularly the transition from one colour to another.

How do you work out which are the most effective colour combinations and which ones don’t work so well?

I am not sure that there is such a thing as a piece which doesn’t work. Different people have different responses to different pieces. Sometimes other people love work which I think is not so successful. The various colour combinations trigger off different emotive responses which are often very personal to the viewer. I’ve learnt that colour is a very emotive and individual issue and it’s impossible to predict what colour combinations will work for different people. I have had to become more open about my work and more relaxed about how people respond to it. I follow my own instincts which is all an artist can do really.

What aspects of colour are you particularly interested in?

I think what people really like about my work is the transition between different colours – for example, the graduation from light to dark colours. If the transition is achieved in a clever, interesting way I think the piece is more successful. I’m particularly interested in the in-between colours - the colours you pass through to get to the next colour – and I think that that transition process is what people most respond to in my work.

Do you pre-plan much of your work before you start weaving?

It depends whether I’m working on a commission or not. For commissions I do a lot of detailed sketches and scale drawings showing how the artwork will look in situ and try not to vary from them. When I’m working for myself I don’t always plan. Now I’m more technically confident I’ve become more interested in intuitive ways of working and the accidental. I am more relaxed in the dye lab: dying the warps is a very quick process and I’m now more prepared to take risks during the process and experiment with the outcome. But you can’t change the outcome of a piece during the weaving process as once the warps are set up there’s no going back.

Recently you have applied your interest in colour to architecture, colouring the facades of public buildings such as hospitals. Can you explain how your work as a colour consultant come about?

I was approached in 2006 by the architects Swanke Hayden Connell who had designed Kings Mill Hospital in Gloucestershire about applying colour to the outside of the building and it’s just grown from that. It was a great step for me, but also a kind of logical progression of my work. There has always been a link between architecture and my work - weaving and architecture are both constructed and are about the interaction of vertical and horizontal structures. Colouring the facades of buildings is like making a giant weaving, but using glass or powder-coated metal instead of thread to build up the blocks of colour.

How did you approach the commission?

At Kings Mill Hospital it made sense to reflect what was happening internally on the facade – identifying different zones on the building. I approached it like a weaver introducing tonality and gradations of colour across the facade. The building has three different towers and I gave each one a separate colour – green, magenta and blue - and made the entrance area a warm, welcoming orange colour. It was a way of turning the building itself into a work of art, making it look exciting and colourful and, crucially, not too like a hospital.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

I think I will be doing some more commercial work. I’ve recently launched collections with John Lewis and Ercol and am now working on a range of bed linen, but I don’t want to stop making one-off pieces. Now that I’m more confident it’s easier for me to branch out into new projects – I’m considering doing a ceramics range and perhaps a textile/glass sculpture for outside.

An exhibition of work by Ptolemy Mann is currently on at Ruthin Craft Centre until 15 January

Interview by Diana Woolf