An hour with a self-taught weaver named Christopher Duncan

Interview by Jonathan Mahon-Heap

Photography TÜR Studio

The hard-won elegance of Christopher Duncan’s woven structures has found its home in the casual glamour of Auckland's Hotel Britomart. Duncan creates dimensions of fabric, written with small constellations of shapes — artworks evoking the sky as much as the earth they come from. Seeming to still be stitching and unstitching themselves fluently before you, like some ineffably chic insect’s web, his pieces impress themselves upon your eyes. Some touchingly plain, others intensely complex, INDEX enters his Karangahape Road studio, finding ourselves entranced by Duncan’s warp and weft.

Jonathan: Tell us what you do and why you do it.

Christopher: I weave textiles by hand on a loom. Why do I do it? [long pause]. I don’t know. I guess a series of different events led me to being a weaver. I don’t really question why I do it so much. My mother was an artist and, I think, after being at Uni I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist but I wanted to be imaginative. And that was really missing in my life, and I knew that, and I kept trying to paint and draw and I think you can try and force things, and you can be okay at it, and have half-decent skills, but if there’s no real passion underneath it all then you don’t want to do it when you get home from your eight-hour day at work or on Sundays. 

But, with weaving, it was different. I was kind of at a loss, and I moved to the countryside, near Melbourne and my sister bought me a loom. I think I’d seen looms at Massey, when I was there, and I’d seen some carpet weaving in India. And that was my only relationship with weaving, at that point, other than studying fashion.

I must have been talking about it, I don’t know why, it was just in my head. But this lady, I was working, with bought me a box of wool and I just started weaving in my spare time. It grew from there. And, after a year living there, I decided to return to Auckland. Well, New Zealand, but I moved to Auckland. And bought a bigger loom. Got more serious. Then slowly built it up. And it’s become what it is now.

Jonathan: It’s a nice origin story. I’m curious with people who are self-taught, which you are, in terms of how they measure their learnings and to what extent do you change and grow and how do you know that you’re doing it right?

Christopher: Well, I knew what a woven fabric was. Then, I guess, because it’s been practiced, for as far as people know, 30,000 years. When I was first setting up a big loom, it was wrong and the process was arduous. I’m pretty inquisitive, when I want to know something I’ll inquire about it so I’d figure out that certain things weren’t working properly and take shortcuts. Looking back on it, I think, so naive, so stupid, in such a rush.

Jonathan: Easy to say.

Christopher: In retrospect. The setting up of the weaving of the loom is something I always wanted to make as quick as possible so that led to a lot of complications. So it just took a lot of trial and error to figure out the multitude of tiny things that I was doing slightly wrong. When I was trying to weave, threads were dropping and it wasn’t very nice. The whole process was a headache and, I was like, ‘people haven’t been weaving for this long, for it to be such a headache’.

So, I knew that I was messing something up and I knew, seeing big mechanical looms and the way they work, that, surely, if they could do it at that sort of speed then I can weave by hand, more slowly. It wasn’t one big thing, just a whole lot of tiny minutiae that I was overlooking and, obviously, had never been told because I didn’t have a teacher. I just had to trawl forums and books. Many say the exact same things, but there would be one little detail mention that everybody else didn’t bother to.

Especially in the 70s, all the books often just have shorter how-tos on things, and don’t go into much depth. Or they only relate to weaving heavier, thicker yarns and, when you come to finer ones, you might come into problems with wider warps. The warp is what goes through. Then you weave the weft throughout the warp.

Jonathan: You sort of stitched it together, so to speak and, obviously, it’s an ancient practice but you’re looking at it through manual from the 70s. Has your own style changed over time?

Christopher: Definitely. For a long time, I really only worked in plain weave, which is just under and over. Not that I go deep into structures because there’s an infinite number of structures that you can do. And I like to put a lot of different structures into one thing but, because of the way the set up works, you can only do that at a certain point — especially with four shafts. But you could have 100 if you had the space for it. Or eight. 

If you had 60, you can do like complex things, things like jacquard. You have carting systems so you can actually weave things like florals and things. But, with the set up that I have, there’s maybe five different structures or more, so I have a kind of framework that I have to work within, unless I want to do one structure the whole time.

That’s what I’ve been doing a bit more of recently but, in the beginning, it was plain. That’s all plain weave, so it’s flat and the colours are all changing and the yarns manipulate the colours a bit. Which I really liked for a long time. I didn’t want to manipulate the structures; I was quite happy working within those parameters. It was when I left Auckland that I figured out to incorporate those structures — this is mohair and linen. 

Shows me a basket weave, a rug weaving technique. 

Jonathan: When you’re incorporating materials back into your work and you’re upcycling or recycling or trying to use threads and fabrics that you’ve already used, do you always know where you’re going to end up with a piece?

Christopher: I let it manifest as part of the process. If I start with this grey mohair, I’m probably thinking, at that stage, that most of it will be that colour. It’s hardly like I’ll start with grey and the last 50 centimetres will end up being red. As much as I say there’s no plan, there’s loose ideas I’ll work within and I know what my aesthetic is.

What I’m doing at the moment is for The Hotel Britomart. Some cushions, in the lobby. There’s no real strict plan, except for the yarns I’m using and the shapes I’m putting into it.

Jonathan: I’m curious about that because it’s different working to commission. How do you find that relationship and how do you find your work tessellates with someone else’s aesthetic?

Christopher: I guess I’m approached because I already have an aesthetic laid out so, if I was busy weaving pink and orange — which I have nothing against but it’s not really what I work — I don’t think these people would’ve contacted me. I know who they are and how they operate, so we’re alike in a lot of ways. We work on a whole series of different swatches in the beginning and narrowed it down to one. It’s like linen and cotton and a bit of gold and cotton embroidery. They’ve collaborated with a lot of different artisans and some ceramicists.

Jonathan: This is a Cheshire Architects project and they’ve had a big impact on the design of Auckland. I’m curious, what do you make of their impact and the changing look of the city?

Christopher: When I first moved to Auckland, I worked at Cafe Hanoi which they designed, so I’ve had a relationship to Britomart for a really long time. I’ve always loved what they did down there; they’re really good at incorporating the old with the new. Which is sort of like what Joe (Joseph Yen) and I liked to do at TÜR Studio when I was there. 

And, Auckland, hmm. Uh, I don’t know. It’s like a teenager at the moment.

Jonathan: It doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Christopher: Or there’s a battle between two different ideals. It’s great that things are moving; we need rail but it’s a big teething process. There’s no point in fighting all that stuff. Yes, everybody is going to be annoyed and people might lose some money from their businesses, or it might be noisy outside your apartment for a while, but these things happen. And if we don’t start putting in proper rail now, it’s just even more of a nightmare 10 years down the line. You go and live in big metropolitan cities and it’s just a reality that they have those sorts of networks. And we can’t all drive everywhere. So people have to wake up from that.

Jonathan: It takes a bit of time.

This project is within your wheelhouse. It’s material that you’re familiar with but I was wondering if there were any materials or fabrics you’ve worked with lately that are challenging? Or whether you set challenges for yourself, in that respect?

Christopher: Not a lot recently. Although I have been working a lot more with colour. In weaving, because you have one and you lay something else through it, colours do quite strange things. So it’s always a bit of an experiment to see how things are going to work. Then, when you see things in tension, they completely change on the loom. Then, when you take it off tension, it’s washed and everything’s melted together.

I just had a bit of a hiatus from colour when I was living in Warkworth. I had this natural and black linen, and that’s practically all I used. I could manage tiny bits of other colour but I was mostly just working on texture and structure. I like to use a lot of different shades of the same colour. Which sometimes you can see in Middle Eastern rugs. I find that really beautiful, rather than having all the colours striking together, just to have a couple that sort of flow between each other. 

So colour has been a bit more of a challenge, and I’m trying to work colour and structure together without it becoming a big gaudy mess or overdesigning things. Stripes have been a big thing for me recently. 

Jonathan: Is there any one thing, or person, or artist or place that you’ve looked at recently that’s impacted your work, particularly in the last six months?

Particularly amid having a steady project that you’ve been working on. Has there been anything that you’ve been trying to funnel in?

Christopher: I did rewatch Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, during lockdown. And all the textiles in that are so beautiful and rich; so many stripes. Lots of old striped coats and dressing gowns and scenes with Tilda Swinton in beautiful Moroccan outfits but, also, when she’s wandering the streets, she’s in a beige leather outfit which is quite cool. I just liked all the combinations of the textures and the stripes. Kind of obsessed with stripes.

I’ve been thinking of this series of scarves I did after lockdown, just a bit of a play of trying to figure out what makes a good stripe. I’ve seen some stripes before where there’s barely any pattern to it. 

Jonathan: How do you mean?

Christopher: Well, it’s not here, it’s at home. I’ve got this old Middle Eastern carpetbag — one side is like a rug and the other side is just stripes, like some sort of old saddlebag scenario. The stripes on the bag are captivating and beautiful but they’re not really in a pattern, more the same single colours changing slightly. So I took that as a starting point and then played with it and changed the colours, then blew it up then made some more.

Jonathan: Because there is not something you think you can do very much with.

Christopher: And stripes is what weaving does best. I think, for a long time, I didn’t want my work to look like weaving. I wanted it to be more painterly but that’s not really what it’s for, then you sort of get into tapestry, which that loom isn’t the best for.

Jonathan: And it’s not really what you do.

Christopher: No and also making shawls as tapestry would just take too long and be way too expensive. The process you have to go to, throwing the shuttle left to right, is enjoyable and creates patterns of its own and it’s okay to enjoy that and weaving is stripes. It took me a long time to think, ‘it’s fine, just do stripes’, instead of trying to remake the entire system. So I’m getting back into that and trying to discover what a stripe is. And what an ugly stripe is. Sometimes the simplest ones are the most beautiful, and that’s okay as well; it doesn’t have to be overly complex.

Jonathan: Is that something that comes with time, as an artist? That you’re able to look at techniques and function and think, ‘oh it’s fine to be simple, oh it’s fine to reduce things to their basics’?

Christopher: Maybe. Maybe it ties into being self-taught and not taking too many shortcuts. Part of what you asked earlier, about setting yourself goals or challenges or knowing what benchmarks there are, what’s good, what’s bad — I constantly wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to slip into some mundane weaving scenario; maybe I thought stripes were mundane, I don’t know. Or they always had to be different or life-changing. 

Jonathan: Striking.

Christopher: Yeah exactly.

Jonathan: What is something that most people misunderstand about weaving?

Christopher: They confuse it with knitting (deadpan)

Jonathan: That’s quite a basic misunderstanding.

Christopher: Or they just confuse the words as though it’s one and they think this is what you do. It’s not the same. I don’t know what you’d liken it to. 

Jonathan: Yeah.

Christopher: I guess it’s still working with yarn. And a lot of textile practitioners do knit and weave and crotchet and all the rest, but I just want to stick with weaving. I tried knitting at university and I hated it. 

Jonathan: It looks tedious, knitting. It looks finicky.

Christopher: It’s quite cool, I guess, when you get really good at it and you could just watch TV. Especially if you’re just doing knitting like ‘knit, purl, knit, purl’ and you’ve just got to count 50 across and then go back again. Weaving, you’ve gotta be all present.

Jonathan: That’s true because, what do you do if things go wrong in the work? Do you make mistakes?

Christopher: What would a mistake be? Oh like 10 centimetres back, I hated a detail I did?

Jonathan: Or like a colour didn’t come out the way you wanted it to. Like it impresses in a different way?

Christopher: This loom shows quite a bit but, with my previous one, that front beam was higher so there was less distance between where you work and where it rolls away, as part of your vision. And so, unlike a painter who can see the canvas the entire time, I have to remember what it will look like with the rest.

Once I’ve finished, I can’t unweave 10 centimetres and reweave it again. Or you could. With severe difficulty to yourself.

Jonathan: Not an easy or pleasant task.

Christopher: No, you’d have to do it with a needle. It would be crazy. I’d sooner remove it all and hemstitch it and have a negative area. Mistakes… I’m pretty loose with stuff like that. Mistakes. You just know not to do it again. Some things are risky, then you take it off, wash it and it’s way better than you thought it would be; that’s always cool. Sometimes it can be shocking. 

Jonathan: How do you find when you’re working on a collaborative commission like with Cheshire Architects? How do you juggle being your own business person with being an artist? It’s an interesting tension.

Christopher: You mean, like, in terms of negotiating?

Jonathan: All of that, I suppose.

Christopher: Like admin… I really don’t like admin stuff but it’s a necessary evil. With Cheshire, I’m working with Emily Priest — she’s awesome, just really fantastic. We’d pretty much decided what we were going to do, then lockdown happened. Half of our conversations at that point were just, how are you, how’s your family? What are you doing?

Or passing on health advice — ‘I’ll drop this off to you but you shouldn’t look at it for two days in case I’ve got Covid’.

Jonathan: What did lockdown do for you on a professional or personal level?

Christopher: I lost some business but that’s fine. It was a shop in the States but the owner’s since bought more work off me. I set up a loom in my flat, just weaving and played on some techniques that I’d been working on for a while.

Jonathan: We were talking a bit about Auckland. Did you grow up here?

Christopher: No, Napier.

Jonathan: What were your biggest influences growing up? What was the portrait of the artist as a young man? What were you into?

Christopher: I liked playing outside… I didn’t know what I wanted to be at the time. I went through many phases — a vet and a diplomat. I was into languages. I did an exchange when I was 16 and lived in Switzerland for a year and learned German. I was really into social sciences and learning about the world.

I wasn’t really that interested in weaving. Quite into clothing and fashion. But, back then in Napier, a guy being really into all that sort of thing was just considered really, like, faggy, and so I kind of avoided it.

Jonathan: With intensity.

Christopher: I teetered on the edge of… pretending. So I guess that changed when I moved to Wellington. I played computer games. I was really social. I liked going out and spending time with friends. 

Jonathan: That’s a portrait.

Christopher: I worked a lot, saved lots so I could go overseas. Did well at school.

Jonathan: What do you like about working in this area? Do you think that being in Karangahape Road or in the CBD shifts your psychology at all? Is it a big impact or just a convenience?

Christopher: People keep asking me because I’ve just moved into the city from Ponsonby. For me, if I’m going to be in the country, I want to be in the bush or on the land. Nothing against small towns; people are actually really beautiful and caring but if I’m going be out there, near nature, I need to be immersed. Then, in the city, I don’t really wanna be in suburbs, I want to be near everything that’s happening.

Jonathan: I relate to that.

Christopher: That medium ground doesn’t… maybe, because I grew up in the suburbs, I don’t really care for the sleepiness of it all. I don’t find there’s that much community between people. I enjoyed my time in Warkworth being on the land. I was there for almost two years. Karangahape Road was great for bringing a light to me and Joe’s practices, and what we wanted to show but, after four years of living and working in that space, that busy noisy space, I needed a break so, I guess, I kind of flip flop from extremes.

Jonathan: And now?

Christopher: Now that I’ve spent a bit of time here. Lockdown kind of skews it. It’s quite nice and quiet. No one can call in on me. Whereas on Karangahape Road, I was constantly interrupted and that would drive me nuts. And then, in Warkworth, I was so far from people that I would get lonely sometimes. 

I think I’ll know… I definitely like being in areas like Karangahape Road or downtown, where there’s definitely more of a collection of different people than like Ponsonby. 

Jonathan: What are you working on next?

Christopher: Joe and I have the show in Dunedin; he’s showing some clothes, I’m making shawls. I would like to start making rugs soon, so I will try and make some space and time for that. I sell work in Belgium and the States, so maybe I’ll make some more work for them. So I’m busy. It’s good. It’s amazing to even sell work, given the state of the world.

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