Friday, 22 February 2013

OPEN STUDIO: Helen Foot - The Weaver's Tale

Helen Foot’s studio is behind Philpott’s Sandwich shop on Butcher Row.  I was there last week to interview her for this month’s My Tonight From Shrewsbury Open Studio.  I rang the bell, couldn’t hear if it had worked so pushed on the door and climbed steep stairs. At the top I found myself in a large, well-lit studio with photography equipment at one end [Helen shares a studio with her brother,  photographer Richard Foot] and several massive, computer-operated foot floor looms at the other.

A while back, Helen offered to sell me one of those loom  [I was interested because I weave myself], but reluctantly I’d had to say no.  Weaving is an expensive business.  Now the loom was off to a new home, and Helen was waiting for a bigger, 24-shaft loom to be shipped out to her from the US where it was being built.  

This loom sounded like a real big beast. ‘I never would have been able to afford it without help from Shropshire Council’s Business Enterprise Grant,’ Helen said. ‘It’s great to know that what I’m doing here has their support.’ 

And so she should have their support. The county’s fortunate to have a weaver of Helen’s calibre. She’s the real deal - a hands-on designer/weaver, Royal College of Art graduate, making commercially marketable cloth in a myriad of materials from wool and cotton to fine silks, and doing so right here in the heart of Shrewsbury, tucked away behind Pride Hill. Her original designed and hand-made scarves are beautiful, and she’s currently working with Kate Millbank, a fashion graduate of Central St Martin's, London [with a MSc in Sustainable Design] on their first batch of Shropshire tweed.  

Not only that, but Helen is a home grown talent - one of that generation of young people who left Shrewsbury for university or art college, then spent years plying their skills in big cities like London, only to come back recently, breathing new young life into the town. She attended Meole Brace School, where  GCSE Art enabled her to explore her interest in textiles, including embroidery, batik, printing and stitch. At Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology she developed that interest and later, at Winchester School of Art, she added knitting, printing and weaving to her skills. 

It was exciting and challenging, Helen said, learning about structures, discovering the properties of yarns, trying out endless new techniques.  Exciting too being put forward for national competititons, including Texprint, and graduating top of her class.  All that awaited  Helen at the end of her degree, however, was what she describes as ‘a crappy shop job’. It was down to earth with a bang. 

Not for long, however - though turning things round called for a great deal of perseverance and hard graft. During Helen’s time at college, she’d been lucky enough to intern with Margo Selby,  and after graduation had secured a placement with the Wallace Sewell Studio, which produces innovative textiles for fashion and furnishing exploiting industrial techniques. Both these placements had been great places to learn, and to be inspired.  Helen also secured freelance weaving work for Salt, an interior textiles company based in London and asked for another placement with Wallace Sewell, which she secured, and later, when the position of Studio Manager came up, she got that too.

Helen worked at Wallace Sewell for one year, but then was encouraged by Emma Sewell to take her portfolio to the Royal College of Art, where Emma was a tutor, and apply for a place.  ‘I had nothing to lose,’ Helen said. ‘If I got it, that would be amazing.  If I didn’t, I still had a brilliant job that I loved.’

And Helen did get it - a two years’ Masters degree at the top art college in the country, solely dedicated to post-graduate study, with alumni including Tracey Emin, David Hockney and James Dyson.  There were six weavers in her year, three of whom were international students, so it was a great privilege to be accepted. The first year was spent on what she called ‘outside projects’, working in conjunction with different companies. This was a testing experience, she said, one that took most students out of their comfort zone.  The second year, however, was for students to focus on what they wanted to achieve for themselves, and on the direction they saw themselves taking in their creative lives.

‘It was tough,’ Helen said. ‘This was the Royal College of Arts, and there was always going to be a lot of pressure.  The place was full of strong characters, big ambitions and amazing talent.'  

Helen started out intending to specialize in Jacquard weaving [see this great little video] but ended up doing a lot of hand weaving. The pressure was on all the time, and so was the competition. She narrowly missed a job with the fashion designer, Paul Smith, having already freelanced for his company, but after a final mammoth seven-days-a-week slog, she achieved her Masters degree, and then it was home to mum and dad and Shrewsbury – and what next?

One thing Helen wanted was to work in a mill and get industrial experience.  So when she came across an organic weaving mill on Mull she requested, and secured, a placement.  Creating a business of her own had been a long-term goal, and her Scottish adventure gave her time to reflect on this ambition. She returned from Mull feeling braver and spurred on to give business a go. 

‘What I’ve been working towards ever since,’ Helen said, ‘is a fully-functioning weaving studio with a range of textiles that would be instantly recognisable within the design world.  I want to get into Liberty’s. I want to be known for my designs.’  Some of these designs Helen imagined weaving herself, but other - blankets, for example - she envisaged outsourcing to mills. The Shropshire tweeds she’s been working on with Kate Millbank would be made in a mill rather than by hand.  It was important that weaving time didn’t eat into design time.

Helen talked about having students and graduates in her studio, coming in on college placements. So far about a dozen had worked for her, but the first this year was due to arrive in the next few days and Helen had been tidying up.  'I gained so much valuable knowledge from the placements I did as a student,' Helen said. 'I hope to provide a similarly inspiring experience for the next generation of graduates.' 

This latest student, who was studying Textiles at Birmingham University, would be a competent weaver capable of helping with  warping [a massive undertaking involving not just getting yarn warped, tied and wound onto the loom, but threaded through as many as sixty heddles to the inch - which for a metre wide piece of cloth, or wider, is a lot of threads] as well as doing admin and generally helping keep the business ticking over.  ‘Nothing too challenging!’ Helen said. 

Helen moved into her studio in March 2011. Now everything looked very well established. ‘I love it here,’ she said.  ‘I love this life. Every day is different. There’s no such thing as run-of-the-mill in a business like mine.’ 

What has Helen been doing since March 2011?  First and foremost, she said, she’d been getting herself known across the country, showing at major national craft fairs, developing relationships with stockists and galleries and developing her profile with help from the Craft Council who selected her for their Hothouse scheme for emerging makers in 2011.  She'd also done some freelance work for Alexander McQueen and she was currently  looking to attract new buyers.  ‘What people want to see,’ she said, ‘is value in the product.’  The process of designing a scarf and weaving it was a slow one, she pointed out. Even designing the new Shropshire tweed, testing it on the loom and then arranging for it to be woven at the mill, was a slow and laborious task.  But a tweed jacket was for life. ‘That’s the value in the product,’ Helen said. 

I wanted to know more about these Shropshire tweeds. Helen and Kate have formed a collaborative partnership to produce them.  It’s called Millbank & Foot.  They’ve been working with a variety of yarns, drawing on the colours of Shropshire’s landscapes and its towns, creating their own 'take' on classic tweed, with herringbones, checks and houndstooth designs revamped in striking colours and utilising Helen's technical skills with the loom.

We went over to one of Helen’s looms and looked at it set up with a range of sample colours.  The process of sampling and testing would carry on until the end of March, Helen said, then she and Kate would decide which colours and blends to go for and they’d make all those difficult decisions about how much tweed to initially produce, which mill to use, how and where to sell their bolts of cloth, and how much all of it would cost. 

Helen said it was important to her to source locally as much as possible, and work ethically. Welsh, Yorkshire and Lancashire mills were high on her 'to contact list' for weaving larger products like blankets.  Her tweed yarn used British Shetland wool, but some  yarns in her collections, she admitted, came from spinners in Italy. 'I'd love it all to be British,' Helen said. 'In fact I'd love it all to come from Shropshire, but that just isn't possible to do one hundred percent of the time. If anyone rears rare breeds of sheep in the county, let me know!'

What about the wider world, I wanted to know. I knew that Helen had been successful in getting her fledgling business noticed on the national scale.  What had that been about?  Helen explained that film makers R & A Collaborations  had shot a video of her weaving in her studio, which had been selected for the Power of Making exhibition curated by Daniel Charny, in association with the Craft Council, for a major Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition highlighting the importance and skill of crafts in this country.  It was the V & A’s highest-attended exhibition in recent years. ‘Each time there was a long queue to get in and the gallery was buzzing.’

I said what a fantastic achievement this was for a small Shrewsbury studio in its first year.  ‘It was a double celebration for Shrewsbury,’ Helen said. ‘You know Natalie Hildegarde Liege, the stained-glass artist with a studio down at the English Bridge? Well a film of her work got in too.’

In 2012, having dabbled in curating as well, Helen was selected to curate Plot 9 of ‘Allotment’, a major exhibition held at mac Birmingham in Cannon Hill Park, where she pulled together a group of Shropshire artists and show-cased their work. Then this summer she’ll be in Devon at the contemporary craft fair at Bovey Tracey, showing her new summer range.  After that, there’ll be a selection of other national craft fairs in the run up to Christmas. Then there’s the new loom to get used to [note to self - I want to be there when it’s unpacked], then there’s the tweed…

On top of all this, Helen teaches.  When we met, she’d just finished eight ‘Introduction to Weaving’ sessions with the first years at Chelsea College of Art, and she's now lecturing one day a week at Hereford College of Arts.  She had a winter collection to plan for too.  ‘I know I sound busy,’ she said, ‘and I know that as much as possible I need to free up my time to be creative, but I love the buzz of teaching and seeing the students grow as designers. It spurs me on with my own work and I come away eager to get back in the studio and behind the loom.  I enjoy the whole weaving process from start to finish - the design, the planning and then the physicality of the actual making.’

I persuaded Helen to sit behind her loom so that I could take some photos.  Surrounded by machinery that looked mind-bogglingly complicated she seemed completely at home. If you want to see her loom at work with her in action, click this link. If you want one of her lovely scarves, go to her website. If you want a very special piece of cloth for curtains or furnishings or to make a garment, go to her website too - Helen's your girl. Or if you'd like to keep up with the news on the Shropshire tweeds, either visit Millbank & Foot on Facebook or Twitter or watch this space. Wherever else they may be shown, My Tonight From Shrewsbury will be shouting about them too.


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