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Tranquil Topsham: an interview with local designer Karen Walshe

PUBLISHED: 16:30 12 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:44 12 November 2015

"I would describe my style as slightly quirky, naïve and distinctly coastal."

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With her signature free-motion stitching, designer Karen Walshe captures the essence of the elegant wading birds and tranquil scenery of the River Exe. We posed 10 questions to find out more about her coastal-inspired textiles and a deep seated love for the South West

"I love the interplay between the white birds, their blue wings, red beaks, and the sandy background."

How did the business come about?

It all started a few years ago when I had a burning desire to design and make a fabric seagull. I don’t know where it came from, but that creative spark kept niggling at me until I dusted down my sewing machine and set to work. I ended up with a basket full of lightly stuffed (one legged) fabric seagulls, which were snapped up by Mary Poole of Panorma Gallery, Topsham, who consequently framed and sold them. Since then, prompted by a move to Topsham three years ago, my work has changed significantly. It’s hard not to be inspired by the beautiful estuary and its elegant wading birds, which have become central motifs in all my work. As soon as the autumn turns we await the arrival of the Avocets. They are such an important part of this town that even the local train line is named after them. Even the sandy red and dusky blue/grey colours of the estuary have found their way into my work.

"I started out appliquéing cushion covers and before long, branched out into designing tea towels and napkins. "

How would you describe your style?

I would describe my style as slightly quirky, naïve and distinctly coastal. When studying at Falmouth College of Arts some years ago, I was struck by the work of artists like Alfred Wallis. I loved the seeming simplicity of their paintings and the way they caught the feel of their subjects in line and colour. It’s this naivety of design that I aspire to. I think that’s why I’m drawn to free motion stitching as it allows me to use my sewing machine to create lines that look like loosely drawn pencil sketches.

Karen uses free machine embroidery to create her designs.Karen uses free machine embroidery to create her designs.

Can you describe your average working day?

I tend to work best using a production line approach, which means that I could spend a whole day or evening just cutting out fabric or appliquéing front covers. This means of course that I have absolutely no idea of precisely how long it would take me to complete one cushion from start to finish.

"I become so absorbed in what I’m doing that I lose all sense of time."

Where do your designs begin, and how do you develop them through to the finished product?

My designs usually exist in my head for quite a while before they find their way onto paper and then onto fabric. I find myself ‘testing them out’ as I walk along the estuary and watch the birds on the muddy wetlands. I look at the way they walk; the way they hold themselves; and the way they search for food in the shallow water. Key features become exaggerated in my mind and so my Avocets, for instance, end up with elongated slender legs…. and my Lapwings, proudly display their wispy top feathers.

"My designs usually exist in my head for quite a while before they find their way onto paper and then onto fabric."

How do you select your materials?

Finding just the right fabric for each bird can take some time. My Avocets needed a mixture of delicate blue and white florals and stripes. These were pretty easy to find. But it took me ages to source the fabric for my Lapwing’s wing. I wanted something that felt watery and eventually stumbled across the perfect design. I knew it was right the moment I saw it. Once I have the design for each bird, I then play around with how they sit on the cushion cover until the picture I create begins to feel like an abstracted snapshot of an everyday scene on the Exe estuary. Moving the angle of a head, beak or wing even slightly, can make all the difference.

"I could spend a whole day or evening just cutting out fabric or appliquéing front covers."

What is your favourite design in the range and why?

As I create each design it tends to become my new favourite. But if pushed, I would have to say that I probably have two favourites: my Avocets, as they were my first, and have become my signature design; closely followed by my Oystercatchers as I love the interplay between the white birds, their blue wings, red beaks, and the sandy background.

Karen at home in Topsham, Devon.Karen at home in Topsham, Devon.

You’ve said that you listen to audio books as you work – do you have a favourite book?

I think that by now I probably know every line of my Jane Austen audio books by heart. I love them all and rather than have a favourite book, I would say that I have favourite readers: Emma, read by Fiona Shaw; Mansfield Park, read by Juliet Stevenson; and Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice read by Joanna Lumley. Their voices, and the stories written by Jane Austen, help me to switch off from the world outside. I become so absorbed in what I’m doing that I lose all sense of time and it’s only when I start to feel hungry that I realise I had better stop sewing and think about getting dinner.

"Even the sandy red and dusky blue-grey colours of the estuary have found their way into my work."

Do you have a philosophy that you follow?

Rather than try to faithfully represent my subjects on fabric, my aim is to capture something of their essence and how they make me feel. My Avocets, for instance, are not black and white as they should be, but have soft dusky blue bodies with upward sweeping beaks and long slender legs, which for me, says something about the spirit of these elegant gentle wading birds. My Lapwing, on the other hand, stands proudly, if not a little cheekily, showing off his lovely head of hair and designer wing.

"Finding just the right fabric for each bird can take some time."

Who inspires you?

I originally fell in love with sewing some twenty years ago, inspired by my mum who made all my dresses when I was a child and my gran who was a seamstress. It has taken me a while to discover who I am as a sewer but I feel I have found my niche as a designer and maker of coastal inspired textile products for the home. I am a huge admirer of the very creative Poppy Treffry who built her business from the humble beginnings of a small bedroom in her father’s house near St Ives. I particularly like the fact that all her products are handmade in Cornwall. This commitment to the South West and to keeping production local is something that is important to me.

"Commitment to the South West and to keeping production local is something that is important to me."

Where do you see your brand in the future?

Next stop – John Lewis…. well, at least that’s my aspirational goal. I was delighted to have been short-listed as a finalist in this year’s Country Homes and Interiors ‘My Country Business Awards’. This gave me the encouragement I needed to keep growing my business, step by step. I started out appliquéing cushion covers and before long, branched out into designing tea towels and napkins. More recently, I have expanded my kitchenware range to include Avocet and Oystercatchers Aprons. These are currently being screen-printed and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

Available online at: www.greatbritishlife.co.uk

Stockists include:

Panorama Gallery, Topsham

Darts Farm, Topsham

Westcountry Arts, Crafts & Curios, Woolacombe

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