We photographed our AW17 sweater collection in the London home of textile artist Karen Nicol, which she shares with her husband, collage artist Peter Clark. I spoke to Karen to discover more about her beautiful house and her inspirational career.
Firstly, can tell us a little about your home?
We live just up the road from Hampton Court Palace in a place called East Molesey, thirty-five minutes from Waterloo but with meadows and rivers close by to walk the dog. The house is really beautiful, built in 1857 and spaced over four floors; we’ve lived here for twenty-two years.
My husband is a collage artist and now that the kids have left home we use two floors as studios, workshops and showrooms, and the other two floors for living – it’s bliss.
You use colour in a really interesting way in your own home – can you talk a little about this?
The house is all painted white but we really love colour so the refreshing slabs of colour here and there make differences in the character of each room, the light in the house is wonderful so it makes the colours sing.
You have lots of collections of objects – can you tell us a little more about these?
Pete and I are slightly obsessive in our love for car boots and flea markets, finding materials for our work and inspiration in a miscellany of vintage finds. I find materials that, chances are, no one else will be using, like old Belgian black, shiny straw milliner’s fabric or vintage matte white sequins in the shape of wings… I even have a collection of teeth that one day I want to use to replace pearls in a piece inspired by Russian Tsars. There is also the technical inspiration in beautiful traditional embroidery, everything from old fagoted collars to bits of old embroidered cushions. Then there is the pure visual inspiration of things that just look beautiful, like our matte white pots with their multitudes of simple smooth textures. Our house becomes a big white canvas to visually play with all these ‘found’ visual treats. I tend to build little scenarios in my studio – I spend so many hours in here it’s great to have a little grouping of things that make me smile.
How did your career in textiles begin?
My mother was an embroiderer, milliner, upholsterer, painter and dressmaker and flower arranger so I was around it all my childhood, she made my sister and me our own pattern blocks to make our own clothes when we were 13 and we made everything we wore, so it was probably pretty well set from there.
I went to Manchester Metropolitan University to do a BA and at first wanted to do something with a bit more street-cred than embroidery, like fine art, but in the end the diversity of textiles couldn’t be beaten so I did my BA in embroidery.
I then went to the Royal College of Art where, as there was no embroidery/mixed media course at that time, I did my MA in knit and embroidered on it, falling in love with embroidered fashion. Leaving the RCA, I put my work in a suitcase and went off to Paris (to impress a new boyfriend with my courage!) and managed to get some orders for my embroidered knitwear. I put my contact details in the labels and was subsequently approached by a German fashion designer who had bought a piece She flew over to London the next day and we worked together for the next ten years, giving me an amazing opportunity to learn the ropes.
Does your work have a signature style, and how would you describe this?
I’m not sure you can see your own signature style, but I suppose when you look over my fashion, interiors and gallery work you can see they have all the same hand. I hope mine has a light touch and a bit of irreverence.
What inspires you?
Everything! So much inspires me, changing all the time. I carry a notebook and camera everywhere and record anything that I like visually so my archives of images and inspiration are huge and can be anything – a plant, a bit of street style, a bit of wood and of course hundreds of artists.
As a textile artist, you’ve collaborated with so many prestigious brands and artists – do you have any particular favourites?
Collaborations are fantastic. You can be given amazingly comprehensive briefs, or something like ‘I want something funky in silver’, but they constantly push you out of your comfort zone, into the unknown.
These are my favourites:
– When non-embroiderers will unknowingly ask for things which can’t be achieved with normal embroidery techniques and suddenly you have to start being inventive to make it happen. Then you find ways of working you can develop for other jobs and so it goes on…
– Betty Jackson once showed me an image of water droplets running down a window pane, an effect she wanted on blouses… glass beads just didn’t do it so I ended up dripping resin on fabric…and then later I used this technique and trapped photos in the resin for a series of fish I did for a gallery show.
– Clements Ribeiro wanted Mexican-inspired beaded skirts for a ‘Frida Khalo meets Singapore whorehouse’ collection but I had to be able to bead the whole skirt in an hour! I found I could buy sequin film and cut my own sequins and machine them down. I later found I could develop this and shape the film with my iron and create large flowers and feathers for swans.
You can read an extended version of our interview with Karen in the new issue of MYO magazine, Volume 2, available to order now – or subscribe to MYO to have two issues a year delivered straight to your door.