We interview author, textile artist and teacher Ruth Singer to find out more about her new book, her unique style and her career.
Hi Ruth, could you tell us how your career as a textile artist started? Is it something you have always wanted to do? How did you learn?
I have had a rather curious route to becoming a textile artist and came to it as a second career after working in museums for 8 years. I always fancied making things for a living, but I chose the more academic career route and textiles remained a hobby until 2005. I was taught sewing by my stepmother as a teenager, but my creative textile skills are mostly self-taught. I have always had a love of historic textiles and that is why I went into museum work – so I could work with costume and textile collections. My fascination with the techniques of the past is what got me into making textiles and that, combined with practical dressmaking skills, is what lead me to creative textiles. From 2002-5 I worked in the education team at the Victoria & Albert Museum and that environment, and the artists and makers I met really inspired me to give it a go myself.
What did you do before you went self employed? How scary was it making that jump into pursuing your love of textiles full time? Do you have any advice for others who are considering making that same move?
Sometimes I think perhaps I was naïve when I quit my job as it was a leap in the dark… but in some ways I did know quite a bit as I worked a lot with makers and I also had lots of experience so I could go straight into freelance work, particularly teaching. That said, I made some horrendous mistakes early in my business and I am still learning all the time now. Anyone who is thinking of leaving a job to pursue a career in making should try and talk to as many people as possible who are doing it and making a living at it. If possible do work experience or mentoring with an established maker so you can learn from them. You need to be really good at what you do to survive, so take as much training as you can, in everything around your technique to marketing, public-speaking and even first aid. The more strings you have to your bow the better, but make sure you are focused and know where you want to be in 5-10 years time.
ou have a very unique style in your work, how has your style evolved other the years and what or who are your influences?
I have always been inspired by old textiles; clothes in museum collections such as the V&A are a constant source of ideas and techniques. My early collections (2006-9) were directly from historical dress details such as pleats and ruffles from 18th and 19th century dresses. More recently I have been working on projects or collections which are more conceptual; they are about something and that theme or idea leads the work, rather than being purely technique-driven. Often the work I make is site-specific, in that it is made for or inspired by a particular place, person or period of history. I enjoy making one-off pieces or small collections for exhibition and commission rather than making lots of the same or similar pieces for retail.
I’ve recently won a prize for my pieces Monumental Folly at Unit Twelve Gallery, which were my first, very personal, conceptual pieces.
I work a lot in collaboration, often with schools or community groups to create work and these are usually thematic to tie in with what they are studying. The coat of Suffolk puffs was made by me with contributions from local people at events and workshops this Spring.
Can you tell us about your new book?
Please tell us about your previous books. You’ve also contributed to a few books as well haven’t you?
My first book is Sew it Up, a modern manual of practical and decorative sewing techniques. Kyle Books, 2008.
It covers all the basic sewing skills you need for dressmaking and craft sewing, with a little about curtains and some advanced techniques like bound buttonholes. There are 20 projects that I designed especially for the book including garments, craft projects and home textiles and there is a chapter on fabric manipulation techniques which introduce some of the techniques that appear in my new book. What makes it stand out from the other sewing manuals out there are the technique photos; each step is illustrated with images of my fingers doing the work so they are really clear. Sew it Up has been translated into Russian, Finnish, Norwegian and into a US edition called the Sewing Bible. It has sold well over 30,000 copies worldwide!
Sew Eco; sewing sustainable and re-used materials. A&C Black, 2010.
If you are interested in being green then Sew Eco is the book for you. The first half of the book is an in-depth study of textiles and how they are produced, and how you can easily find ways to make home sewing more sustainable by using natural or organic fabrics, sustainable toy stuffing and re-used materials. There are also 20 sewing and craft projects using some of the different materials I talk about in the book such as peace silk, hemp, upcycled suede and refashioning clothes and household textiles.
I also often write articles or design projects for books and magazines too, both in the UK and the USA.
Your workshops attract students from all over Europe. Do tell us more about that, what do you teach?
I run a whole range of classes from absolute beginners using a sewing machine for the first time to advanced creative techniques. The students from overseas (most recently from Hong Kong!) tend to come to me for the fabric manipulation workshops as these are the most specialist that I do and I am an acknowledged expert in these techniques.
I get a lot of intermediate stitchers looking for creative ideas, and I also welcome textile artists looking to expand their skills and gain inspiration.
How do you find the time to sew, teach, blog, write books and all the other things you do like exhibitions, mentoring etc?
I don’t know! I work pretty hard but I am lucky that my hobby is my work and my work is my hobby. A day off might be visiting an amazing exhibition or attending a creative workshop with another artist. I also have a small team of brilliant people locally whom I employ when things get too busy.
I’ve noticed that you have managed to get a lot of press coverage during your career; do you have any PR tips you can share?
I don’t think I am a great expert but I have a plan & try to stick to it. I work out what my ‘story’ will be each couple of months and send out press releases or emails to key contacts, whom I try and stay in touch with over the years. Sometimes you need to create a story so you have something new to talk about. Good PR takes a lot of research so you know who you are targeting with what and it also takes an awful lot of time.
You have a strong eco friendly ethos can you give some advice on how to craft in an eco friendly manner?
For me it is down to the fabric I use. I don’t buy synthetics at all, and very little cotton, as this is one of the most environmentally-damaging fibres. Organic cotton is a beautiful fabric and there are lots of companies doing gorgeous organic prints. I particularly love wool and try and source English wool whenever I can. Linen is better, environmentally and hemp is a great alternative which can be as soft as the finest linen. Hoarding vintage fabrics is also a good plan, then you have lots of beautiful cloth to work with.
Finally what do you have coming up?
To find out more about Ruth, her classes and books please visit: www.ruthsinger.com