The Collaborators

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Hole & Corner meets designer Lola Lely, mixed media embroidery designer Aimee Betts and textiles practitioner Tom van Deijnen for a leisurely conversation about working together.
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A creative life can be a singular pursuit: days spent in your own head stitching together concepts, before prototyping, experimenting and producing your work.

When The New Craftsmen asked Tom van Deijnen, Aimee Betts and Lola Lely to host a series of workshops around dyeing and stitching for their Selfridges project Our House: A Home for All, they collectively decided to take a more in-depth approach to the project. So they organised research trips, met for contextual discussions around their making, took some long lunches and brought in Meena Chodha to help with advice and production as well as photographer Carmel King to document the work. 

How has this project differed from the way you would work normally?
Lola: It started off in quite an organic, gentle way. In the beginning, it was quite a specific brief from The New Craftsmen to get together and run some workshops (for their Selfridges space, Our House: A Home for All). But we’ve gone beyond that; building a friendship, as well as learning things from each other and bringing in other collaborators along the way. Like Carmel (the photographer) who's been documenting each step of the way, and Meena Chodha, who’s been working with me to dye the fabrics and make all the quilts for the space.

You can only do some much on your own, and it's nice when you open up and share. Sometimes when you're working alone – day in, day out – you can't see the wood for the trees, so I’ve enjoyed being part a group, picking up on things I wouldn’t have seen. It’s been exciting for me and hopefully for the rest of you too! 

Tom: Yeah, it’s been very similar for me!

Aimee: And the project was not about representing our individual practice but a group collaboration, so you have to let go of those things you think of and define as yours. 

Where did you start your research for the project?

Aimee: Tom planned a day at the Ditchling Museum.

Why the Ditchling Museum?
Tom: Well, I’d heard about it and we are doing a lot of natural dyeing. At the Ditchling they were celebrating the centenary of Ethel Mairet’s Vegetable Dyes book and lots of people were using her recipes and sending in skeins of yarn to the museum.

Had you heard of her before? 
Tom: Ethel Mairet was hugely influential amongst weavers, dyers and textile artists. She was very interested in materials and letting them speak for themselves. She didn’t like synthetic yarns, not because they were synthetic, but because they tried to mimic natural fibres and she felt that was wrong. She thought that if you wanted to use synthetic fibre then let them speak for themselves, they should be something different to natural fibres. When you look at her samples, she might use cellophane in the cloth… She’s just very inspiring and opens your mind to material.

Compared to working on your own, this seems to be so much more fun. Learning from each other, having someone to bounce ideas off and being able to support each other…
Lola: It’s like a research studio: these two are experts in what they do and I dabble in lots of things. I'm not an expert in anything, I'm an amateur really, and it’s nice to be that. Being an amateur is when you don't know what's right and what's wrong – it’s exciting. Seeing what I don't do right or something we haven't done in our practice and having the opportunity to really let go.

Carmel: Seeing them be experimental and playful is something I've witnessed. They kind of make it up as they go along!

Lola: When you're working on something, you don't necessarily have that sense of perspective – but having Carmel capture it and then looking at it afterwards, you get an idea of what it looks like to a viewer. It's interesting to be outside of yourself. As a maker you're in your head a lot of the time and it’s hard to step back and look at the big picture. 

Aimee: Another good thing is it hasn't mattered if something's gone wrong because it is such a big project you can lean on the other people a bit, or move onto the next thing. It feels like you can take a few more risks than if you are at home and you have one metre of fabric and it’s expensive and you've got to get it right.

Do you think it’s the curse of the craftsperson that you spend a lot of time becoming very good at one thing and then people just want that?
Aimee: Part of that is the industry wants to pin you down and you market yourself – 'I’m an expert in this' – but in the end your audience has to give you space, because if they come to keep expecting the same thing from you, that's not healthy either. I think that’s the pressure of the industry.

Carmel: That's why I was initially drawn to Lola's work – I was looking at her website and trying to work out what she was: she works with wood, with textiles… and that was so original and refreshing. 

Lola: It's a personality type thing I think. Some people have a specialist skill and it's brilliant and they hone it, but personally for me I get bored. I wonder what else is going on. I think it's the craft world right now, things just fall out of favour and it's a bit of a shame: one minute you're in, another minute you're not in. 

Someone like Tom for instance, I've been doing this for a long time and I've followed him from the early days – and all of a sudden when a tastemaker or someone picks up on what you do… I guess it's just that you've got to do whatever you're doing and just not worry about it.

Lola [to Carmel]: What do you think about the work?

Carmel: Seeing all the pieces up in Selfridges, I think they are such beautiful objects. I don't think people will realise how much work has gone into the quilts. It was quite darkly lit and they are really gorgeous. Now that I've witnessed and documented the whole process, I’m so impressed. I think that's why it's so important to document it because there are all these different layers that wouldn't be understood if you only saw the end result. 

Lola: Although, it's not the viewers' fault because they only see what they're presented, which is why I think magazines are great, but sometimes online content is better, it’s faster, you can portray things in a different dimension. 

Aimee: I think it's the responsibility of the maker now – to raise awareness of materials. The food industry has done well at this. Whereas, nowadays, people still don't know really what a linen is or a cotton. I teach students and I show them digital embroidery but they’re still not aware that they are wearing it – and that's a textile student! I think it's down to us to represent that side as well. 

And how do you think the collaboration has worked?
Lola: In terms of the collaborative nature of the project, it can be testing because sometimes when you're working on your own it’s faster to do whatever comes in your head, but working together we spent a lot of time discussing why we were doing things and what the intention was. It’s one thing to run a workshop, but why? What are we trying to achieve? What do we want and how do we want to draw the audience in? [To Aimee and Tom] Remember we went to buy some fabric and we then questioned why we bought that particular fabric! 

What was the answer?
Lola: You don't know. There's no way to know what you're going to make until you make these decisions on the 'whys' and the 'hows'. Having gone to art school, dare I say – we're thinkers as well makers, so we’re referencing what's gone on in the past, what is happening right now, or how we see crafts coming together. It was tough, right? Shall we make a blanket or a throw? Why a throw? Why a tablecloth? It's the context that we were looking for that took a long time. 

Tom: It’s like three minds trying to calibrate to be able to do a project. 

Lola: Now we're steaming ahead, but it took us a bit of time to get started. We’re all based in different studios, so we had to work in an efficient way and had to put our egos aside, because in the end we knew our project would be richer together rather than separately. 

Tell us a bit more about the final throw?
Lola: Tom, Aimee and I developed the idea of constructing a communal throw for the exhibition at Selfridges. We assembled the base cloth from linen and dyed it with English tea. 

We then dyed swatches of various fabric using my natural dyes to create all of the coloured patches. During the two day stitching workshops (ran by Tom and Aimee at Selfridges) over 80 members of the public worked on the throw; each person sewing a patch of natural dyed cloth onto the base layer and adding some decorative stitches. The throw for us represents what the project meant to us, an unique and communal process wrapped up in a product.


Aimee Betts
Lola Lely
Tom of Holland

Selfridges x The New Craftsmen Our House: Home for All

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Photographs Carmel King
Interview Julia Jarvis