Always up for the next challenge, Philippa Naylor takes on anything she needs to do to challenge her skills, grow as an artist and help others to grow, as well. While growing up, Philippa’s entire family made things with their hands, providing a rich creative foundation for her forays into award-winning quilting, traveling instructor and online teaching.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started?
When I was a kid pretty much everyone sewed or knitted. It was a necessity because clothes were expensive. So it was what I saw being done around me – my mum made clothes (albeit very slowly – a dress begun for me would end up going straight to my younger sister!), my grandma was an excellent knitter, my dad could crochet and did tapestries. He was a commercial artist and also architectural modeller and so the house had lots of craft materials in it and always creative projects going on. I guess I just wanted to copy them and began by making hand sewn dolls clothes – Cindy dolls weren’t too fussy if there was a new dress on the way.
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Trained as a clothing designer (4 years at Manchester Poly, now Met), I worked in the UK clothing industry for Courtauld’s Clothing. I trained to design all types of garments including doing men’s tailoring, but my first job was as a lingerie designer. Persuaded to go on a quilting course, I began quilting in 1996. I was somewhat reluctant to do this, but it changed my working life!
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
Gosh, inspiration comes from everywhere, from everything I see. I love to garden, I love colour, I love pattern, I grow lots of flowers and veg, and like to bake and cook and preserve. I’m a big homemaker and always have a plan or a project ongoing, which means I’m looking at fabric and wallpaper and historical and modern interiors. I keep books and magazines by my bedside and look at something beautiful each night before I turn off the light – with the hope this will feed my brain as I sleep….
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Very slow and precise, I am totally absorbed by the engineering process of making something from fabric. I want my ideas to work practically and really enjoy making the thought a reality – in the neatest most precisely sewn way that I can. I am very focused and work at one project at a time and persist until it is done, and am good at doing all the slow repetitive bits without allowing myself to think it is tedious or boring.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
The previous work tends to inform the next. What did the last project suggest and how can I move things forward. My recent series of miniature quilts began with a wholecloth quilt to see how small and detailed I could make the piece. This then led to another wholecloth miniature to try and go even smaller with the design and stitch. A miniature appliqué quilt followed – because I hadn’t tried appliqué in a miniature quilt and wanted to find out what was technically possible. After that came a pieced and appliqué miniature quilt which again was a technical and design-led progression to see if I could take my ideas and skills further.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both. It depends on the work. Some start with a drafted master pattern and some just evolve. They all change and grow and develop because you do not know what you are going to get/like until you see it in fabric.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
A show deadline!
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I try not to view any of it as a challenge. I totally immerse myself in the process and do not ask for input from anyone else. This to make the work ‘true’ to me (I try not to look at lots of quilting books and mags because I find they pull me in too many directions). I’m a solitary craftsperson and prefer my own quiet working space and time.
The social part of my working life comes in the teaching, both classroom and online. This balance works well for me. I just think about the process until it is done. I have learnt not to fight myself for answers, and if I just keep mulling it over the issue will be resolved. Obviously more experience shows you more possibilities. Worst case I miss a show deadline, but there’s always another show. If a work does not turn out so well, I view it as part of the learning – and use this to make the next work a better one.
What was the first quilt prize you ever won? Tell us about the quilt and how you came to make it. Did you know from the beginning that you would enter it into competition?
In 1999 I visited a quilting retreat ‘Quilting by The Lake’ in Upstate NY. I was living in Saudi Arabia at the time. It was a revelation because Saudi was so isolated so I had no idea what the quilting world was, or what was being done in the name of quilting. I then made my first original quilt ‘Rising Stars’ for my husband. It went to an exhibition in Devon and won the only prize which was viewers’ choice. After that it went to the 2000 AQS Paducah KY Spring show and won 2nd place in the Amateur category ($1,000). I didn’t see either show but thought then I might be able to go somewhere with this.
What prompted you to start creating miniatures?
Definitely new challenges and the thought that I could take everything I had learnt and use it really small. Also big quilts are hard to store, travel with and send to shows – so something small was appealing.
Tell us about your on-line teaching venture, “Quilters’ Question Time”. How does it work, and what kinds of topics do you cover?
Oh my, that has transformed my working life again. A friend had mentioned, for a few years, that we should do online classes. I was too busy traveling to teach until 2019 when I blocked some time out at home. We began filming and what a journey, learning so much as we have gone along.
We release a new class every month with 24/7 unlimited viewing for members. Our exclusive Facebook group has lots of input from us and our members, including live Q&A sessions with me. The detailed, fun and wide ranging classes cover all the types of work and techniques I use in my own work. As a trained designer I have a lot of technical info to share, plus the fact that I am continually learning and exploring new ideas myself. I think the online teaching has made me a better classroom teacher because I have had to think further about the best ways to show and explain things – because no one can ask for clarification of a point. I can’t tell you how lucky we were to have this up and running before Covid19 hit us all.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
It’s too full of stuff and needs to be tidy for me to be able to work. I also need blocks of time with a project and cannot dip in and out. I love this time in my own head and then time with my husband and family to balance this necessary solitude.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My Bernina sewing machine and all the various machine feet. Good quality fabric, thread and cutting equipment matter to me but I am not about gadgets and all the stuff we are encouraged to buy. I do love a sharp pencil and paper and am very “old school” as my kids would say.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Lots of pieces of paper to sketch and then to cut and play with templates and arrange these to form compositions.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Intense free-motion requires silence (!), but for other sewing I listen to podcasts, the radio (lots of different channels, mainly spoken word not music), TED talks.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Well before Covid19 I did a lot of travelling to teach and lecture. Five months a year on the road in the UK, Europe and the USA was the norm. That all suddenly stopped and I happily QQT stepped in to this space. I have re-evaluated things and plan not to travel so much (no big desire to get in my car or on a plane, for the sake of the planet as much as anything) and so am focusing all my efforts on our online classes which will soon include a garment making course as well as quiltmaking, so plenty to keep me occupied and creating with all of that.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Oh goodness, I think I will have Lady Butler, Elizabeth Southernden Thompson (3 November 1846 – 2 October 1933). Lady Butler painted incredibly detailed British military battles like the Crimea and Waterloo. She portrayed the artwork brilliantly. I’d like to know how she painted these complex scenes with such skill, why she chose such masculine subjects and how a woman navigated a field that men dominated. I feel sure had she been a man she would have received greater recognition in her day (she came within two votes of becoming the first woman to be elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy) and beyond. ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ and all that!
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
I feel we definitely have a “need” to create or work with our hands. We should encourage and celebrate it, seeing it as vital for all.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
You just have to get on and do it. I think you need to be very focused and maybe even a bit selfish to make the time. There’s a great Chuck Close quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work”. Close, a painter of massive portraits, had a stroke in 1988 and has worked from a wheelchair ever since. After his stroke, he strapped a paintbrush to his wrist, struggled, overcame – and continued to paint his large works. A lesson for us all there. So that said I’m going to do a bit of sewing, a QQT class sample, I think 😀
Interview with Philippa Naylor posted September 2020
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