Startup Diaries: Bringing History to Life through Textiles

I graduated in the early 90s in fashion and textiles, but spent nearly the next two decades creating mixed media highly illustrative work. One of my pieces ‘The World Awaited’ won the art of the stitch in 1997 and was chosen for Coats Craft Christmas cards. I was in Wales at the time on a multi school residency creating artwork with school children, and so the extra injection of cash was a godsend and also a nice stroke to continue with my winding career path.

Looking back I cannot believe how quickly time has evaporated, I am only just beginning to feel more settled in every aspect of my life at 42, but really feel every moment has taken me to this stage.

Years of working as arts for health educator working in many areas with art mainly as a form of therapy, has honed my people skills, and ability to work unfazed in most situations. It also afforded me with a more stable lifestyle as a single mum to a young daughter.

I became the arts for health pin up, and worked with children and adults alike with cancer, dementia, emotional and physical problems and many more, using the arts to engage, distract and offer quality time with participants. Through this work I was offered the role as resident artist at Europe’s largest children’s hospital, Alder Hey for several years. My sponsors were the Wallis and Gromit Foundation and Lady Derby, with even Yoko Ono being photographed with work created on the wards.

I loved this work, but the travel was torturous. I would drive the round trip from Derbyshire twice a week to the hospital at Alder Hey. Parking near the hospital was non-existent and the hospital was not set up to leave materials on site. So I became adept at using whatever was at my fingertips to make the trip as easy as possible. A local supermarket lent me a shopping trolley and I would turn up at the wards a bit like supermarket sweep with a trolley laden full of goodies to begin my shift.

This put me in great stead to almost be like a performance artist, my motto was smile whatever; and engage everybody who came into my contact.

Some of my happiest memories are laughing with people at the children’s bedsides, creating pieces of work with as a lasting legacy for their loved ones, especially if the participants are very ill.

To date I still work with groups creating designs and public art and have extended skills to other medium such as mild steel and much needed CAD.

I also published two Creative Textiles books for A & C Black -Creative Textiles Projects for Children & Creative Textile Art: Techniques and Projects. My daughter was one of the models in the children’s book, and on one of the photographs my hand is visibly holding her still dressed modeling one of the dinosaur hats. She still rolls her eyes at the image, but I secretly think she was pleased to be featured.

A recent move to Norfolk, re marriage and change of circumstance means that I am able to resume my design work with a vengeance.

Presently, I am in the process of a new venture called RUGSLUGBEAR- after the 3 dogs in our household. The Rug is Marley the labradoodle, the slug the very special beagle, and the bear the large unruly Alsatian. The name came as the dogs are very much the heart of our family and we wanted to deliver beautiful products each with its own story; which we will build upon under this brand name.

Our first collection is a range of scarves, stoles and throws and the idea for this particular range has been in the pipeline cooking for many months. The designs are based on the mood of the late 18th c and early 19th c with a contemporary perspective.

My initial starting point was the Threads of Feeling Exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, where I was able to view swatches of fabric that were relevant to that period in history. In the mid-18th century thousands of poor women, similarly at the end of their tethers, deposited their newborn babies at the hospital. A sign instructed them to leave some kind of identifying token pinned to the child in the event they were one day in a position to take it home. In years to come the mother's description of that token would be her only way of proving she was the mother of the baby she had given up all those years ago.

To me the swatches of fabric on show served as material metaphors of that fleeting moment of abandonment, when the mother pinned the cloth to the child that they had had to give up. These printed maps of heartache were my starting point.

I then spent many hours sourcing original colour palettes of this period, looking at costume directories, visiting historical costume Museums; perusing pattern books using blogs, and journals on the web.

My aim was to translate my information into contemporary floral prints, which on reflection would tell a story of trust and abandonment, hope and charity.

I also drew women’s and children’s faces, my daughter proved particularly useful, as she was on hand to be my muse. I turned these sketches into woodcuts, machine embroideries and prints to give me more information to work from.

After weeks of drawing flora, differing in shape, size and pattern lay; we experimented with creating the actual flower from the objects that had been selected as representing this period. Once the objects were chosen floral shapes were converted to a computer programme called illustrator so as to maintain easier duplication, colour changes and design lay. This techy bit I left in the very capable hands of my husband, as it is his expertise.

The designs are printed on silks and georgettes and at present we are looking to keep them as limited edition items created in this country. The presentation is also of equal importance, from the hand drawn label to the luxury packaging; we have endeavoured to create much coveted quality objects that the owner can have a relationship with. Each design is imbedded with a narrative that hopefully stirs an emotional response. These are items that are functional but can be heirlooms. We are also working on various sizes from a small silk day scarf, a long item to be draped for day wear and the evening stole.

I am so proud of them, and love the fact that each item comes with its own storybook and collectors logo of Rug, Slug or Bear.

I would like to continue working with referencing historical pattern in each new design added under this label, as my interest is still firmly routed in actively making work that enables me to engage with a variety of processes and experimental outcomes.  It is through the making process that I am able to develop my ideas and ways of thinking, and is not just a means to an end.

RUGSLUGBEAR will be delivered with love by Spring 2013

After graduating in the early 90s in fashion and textiles, Karen Woods became a freelance artist and Arts for Health educator working in many areas with art mainly as a form of therapy. Lecturing and running workshops for the NHS, schools, colleges and centres for children and adults with profound physical and emotional difficulties. Karen is the published author of two textile books for A & C Black Publishers. She is starting a textiles business with the name of RUGSLUGBEAR.

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