When the weather is cold, what could be better than cosying up indoors with a book – or a book-shaped ‘Votes for Women’ Cushion?!
Last year, Glasgow-based curators Panel (Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan) invited me to be a part of their project with the Glasgow Women’s Library.Launching this month to coincide with International Women’s Day, From Glasgow Women’s Library is a collection of six products exclusive to the Glasgow Women’s Library shop. Each one explores the history of women in Glasgow and Scotland through the huge range of material housed within the Glasgow Women’s Library archive.
My knitted ‘Votes for Women’ Cushion was inspired by the library’s many treasures that celebrate the lives and achievements of women. From their lending library of ‘hard to find’ books by, for and about women, to their collections of knitting patterns, recipe books, Suffragette memorabilia and Radical Feminist campaigning materials.
After visiting the library, I went away and sketched ideas for a number of outcomes – including bags, jewellery, and ceramics. I’d been working on a series of knitted cushions shaped like book covers for my AW18 collection and just before a meeting with Catriona and Lucy, the idea of a knitted book cushion designed especially for Library came to me. It was the perfect fit! The title of the book – ‘Votes for Women’ – and the design of a stylised woman wearing a sash are inspired by the women’s suffrage movement and its role in securing the Representation of the People Act (which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time), exactly 100 years ago.
Each ‘Votes for Women’ Cushion has been knitted in Scotland from 100% lambswool, before being hand-finished in my London studio-workshop. I hope that my cushion appeals to the visitors of the Glasgow Women’s Library as a symbol of what it represents, as well as being a comfy, practical product that would fit in anyone’s home. It craftily brings together the inextricably linked ‘personal’ and ‘political’ realms of women’s lives.
Inspiration from the Glasgow Women’s Library archive: Panko or Votes for Women (The Great Card Game Suffragists v. Anti-Suffragists) (2010.76). 48 playing cards, featuring cartoons by E.T. Reed of Punch magazine, c.1910. Photo by Caro Weiss.
‘Votes for Women’ Cushion by Donna Wilson. Photo by Caro Weiss.
‘Votes for Women’ Cushion by Donna Wilson. Photo by Caro Weiss.
Our new Spring / Summer collection is a playful celebration of pattern and colour, exploring new textures and techniques.
We toasted the launch of our new collection at our Pop-Up Shop (alas, no more!) in the company of press and stockists. A big thank you to fiddler Lewis Murray and his musicians who provided a soundtrack of Scottish folk music, to Pickled Plates for their Donna Wilson-inspired nibbles, and to Taran Wilkhu for capturing photos of the evening.
Here’s a quick tour of the collection…
Ceramic plates, jugs and mugs
Our familiar Dove, Tree and Acorn motifs have been added to bone china dinner plates, jugs and mugs to make beautiful tableware with which to dine with friends and family. And in a new direction for 2018, we’ve expanded our ceramics collection to include a series of handmade, shaped plates. Perfectly imperfect, each features a woodland design impressed into the clay, finished with a matte glaze for an earthy, organic touch.
Inspired by childhood nostalgia and children’s birthday parties, this season’s signature shaped cushions take the shape of colourful balloons and bright bonbons – the perfect pillows to give you the sweetest of dreams!
New for 2018, these luxurious, 100% silk scarves complement our existing fashion collection with a pop of colour and pattern. Printed onto silk twill fabric, Donna’s bright and colourful motifs come in three designs, each one in two sizes, with two colourways to choose from.
Lionel and Richie
Not one but two lions join our ever-growing animal gang this season. Knitted from soft 100% lambswool yarn and crowned with felted manes, these friendly cats are fitting kings of the jungle.
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.
Shop our sweater collection here. View the campaign lookbook here.
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.
Donna shares the story of her creature collection, from long-leggy dolls to squirrel fox families – and all the weird and wonderful characters in between.
Once upon a time…
It all started when I was at the Royal College of Art in London, working towards an MA in Mixed Media Textiles. I started working on the knitting machines and really enjoyed the fact that the results were quite instant. I could create patterns and textures and everything as I wanted to, but I wanted to make them into something – a product.
In between my first and second years at the RCA, I started to make my Donna Dolls. Their bodies were made out of recycled jumpers – at first I started out using my own old clothing, then when I ran out I would trawl the local charity shops for knitwear in all different kinds of skin tones. They were quite simple. For the face, I gave them two eyes, leaving the rest up to the imagination, then I’d style their hair and make clothes for each one. I never got bored of making them because each one was so different. Their outfits would vary by season, so in the winter they had hats, scarves and bags, and in the summer they might be wearing bikinis!
Initially, I made just six dolls and took them into college. My tutor, Freddie Robins, suggested I show them to some shops and see if they’d be interested to stock them. My very first customer was the London boutique, Couverture and the Garbstore. Freddie gave me the confidence to approach them – I think before that I’d have probably been too shy. I took my dolls into the store and they asked me to leave them there so they could show them to the boss. I got a phone-call pretty soon after saying, ‘We love them and we’ll take them all!’
It was my first experience of selling to a store and a great learning curve. Couverture went on to buy around twenty dolls a month, which paid my rent through college. People would send me requests for bespoke Donna Dolls. I made giant Donna Dolls, dolls for famous clients – I made one for my friend Thorsten who I interviewed recently for the blog, sporting embroidered stubble and wearing his signature flip-flops.
After the success of the Donna Dolls, I started to think about how I could develop them into a new product. Although they weren’t traditionally ‘pretty’ dolls, they were still quite conventional in form. I was inspired by how you draw as a child – when it doesn’t really matter how many legs or arms or eyes you draw; it’s just creative and free. I liked the spontaneity and freedom to just design a shape, and the idea of making a doll that was all-inclusive – it wasn’t about being perfect, but more about being imperfectly unique.
The very first creatures I made were amongst my weirdest and most wonderful. Cannibdoll, for example, was inspired by a TV documentary I’d seen about a German cannibal who was looking for someone to eat. I just thought that was the weirdest story ever! He was joined by Ed Redhead, Angry Ginger, Peggy Long Legs and Bunny Blue, who were all equally peculiar in their own unique ways.
Making my creatures by hand means that they all imperfect. You could never make two exactly the same. Even now when we make a big batch of Cyril Squirrel Foxes, they will all have a slightly different expression. What I love about them is that you might see two slightly different Charlie Monkeys in a shop, but one person will be drawn to one, and another person will want the other. The amazing thing about the creatures is that they appeal to adults just as much – in fact even more so in some ways – as children. They’re not too cute, but I didn’t want to make them too ugly or scary either. They’re somewhere in between, and that’s what I think has made them so recognisable.
It’s what’s inside that counts
It’s always started with the design, but right from the beginning the creatures’ names and personalities have been very important to me. Each one came with a tag or keyring where I’d write a little about them. It was as much about that as it was about the actual creature. I wanted people to know who they were; what they liked and disliked.
As I embroider their eyes and features, drawing out their personalities with a needle and thread, each creature tells me what type of character they are. The name comes along afterwards. I still look at them and think about their personalities – whether they’re sad or angry… I think that’s why people like the cats, for example, because they’re not cute cats, they’re quite grumpy cats.
I’m not picking favourites but…
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I think Cyril Squirrel Fox is my long-time love. He’s my own interpretation of an animal. I didn’t want to make just a normal squirrel or a normal fox – I wanted to do my own take, so I thought I’d merge the two together and see what came out. Around 2006, Cyril was born. I made him a friend, Rudy Raccoon, then they had babies – Ralf and Rill – who had different characteristics from their parents. In Japan they think Cyril is a girl. It’s all open to interpretation.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Redhead too – he has a giant red head with a tiny brown body. He’s just so weird – and kind of multi-functional in that he’s a creature, but also a cushion.
Handmade with love
We still make the creatures now as we did when I was making each one myself – knitting the panels on a domestic knitting machine out of soft lambswool, which is felted, cut and sewn into shapes and then hand-embroidered and stuffed. That’s a process I never want to change. I think that’s what makes them unique. Any little imperfections make them what they are, and the handmade process imbues each one with a little bit of love. It’s just as important as the finished product.
What has changed, is that today I don’t make them all myself. We have a full-time seamstress in the studio, Lora, who is a one-woman creature factory, and we also employ outworkers in the UK, who make the creatures in their own homes. There are three or four in total, but the longest-standing is Elaine. She lives on Orkney, a small island to the north of Scotland. At last count, she’s made close to 3,000 Cyril Squirrel Foxes, along with many other creatures, which she sends to me at my London studio. I love it when the creatures arrive and jump out of their boxes!
I don’t think I’ll ever stop designing and making my creatures – they’re a huge part of my story, and I love that they are so often the thing that people are first drawn to when they see my collections.