Weaving the past alive


The end of this month brings the closing date for applications for a new arts award called the Golden Fleece. Charming as this name is, it gives no indication to the general public of the person responsible for the award's creation: Lillias Mitchell. Prior to her death last year, she established a trust to fund the Golden Fleece Award which will assist in the perpetuation of traditional arts in Ireland. "Everything she did was of lasting value," says Mitchell's friend, artist Nancy Larchet, "and this award will help people to remember her and her work."

Helen Lillias Mitchell was born in 1916, the youngest child of a prosperous Dublin family. From her earliest years, she showed a strong interest in the visual arts and at her primary school received tuition from Elizabeth "Lollie" Yeats. She later studied painting for two years under Dermod O'Brien at the Royal Hibernian Academy School as well as taking courses in sculpture at the National College of Art; in 1940, she won the RDS's Taylor Prize for sculpture with a piece called "St Patrick overthrowing Crom Cruach".

During the second World War, she spent some time teaching at a boarding school in Wales where she had once been a pupil. It would appear that during this period she discovered a keen interest in weaving and, having returned to Dublin, in 1946 she opened her own workshop devoted to the craft. Over the next few years, she began to travel around this country studying the work of spinners and weavers in Donegal, Kerry and Connemara. Weaver Veronica Rowe, who worked with her in the 1960s, says Mitchell "was just extraordinarily committed to the feeling that she must help to preserve our ethnic crafts, so she would go all around the place writing down everything she saw. She felt this was a skill that was passing and must be recorded". Mitchell eventually wrote two books on the subject: Irish Spinning, Weaving and Dyeing published in 1978; and Irish Weaving: Discoveries and Personal Experiences produced eight years later.

In 1951 she was invited to set up a weaving department at the National College of Art and Design. "She felt very privileged to be asked to establish that new department," comments Veronica Rowe. "There'd never been one before and at the time there was very little interest in the arts and crafts; she had a mission to keep these forms alive."

Mitchell's passionate engagement with traditional methods of production meant that she taught craft weaving using natural fabrics and dyes during a period when these were largely being abandoned. In addition to her work at the NCAD, she also sought other methods for encouraging the retention of old skills, founding the Irish Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers in 1975 and creating an annual Lillias Mitchell Prize for weaving at the RDS 14 years ago. Meanwhile, she continued to paint and sketch until in her 80s, exhibiting regularly at the Irish Watercolour Society.

The award being offered by the trust Mitchell established is a reflection of this. She stipulated that the prize - which will be worth not less than £18,000 in its first year - should go to help "the traditional arts" although they are very broadly defined and run from painting and drawing through pottery, glasswork and calligraphy to, naturally enough, spinning, dyeing and weaving.

The deadline for applications for the Golden Fleece Award is November 30th. Further information is available by writing to 26/28 North Wall Quay, Dublin 1 or from the website: www.goldenfleeceaward.com