Carol Bartlett is a textile artist and sewing tutor based in the seaside town of Penarth. Only a year ago, she decided to combine her lifelong passion for sewing and history by creating a series of intricate textile collages based on snapshots of Penarth’s past, as well as personal drawings and pictures from her childhood. We met with Carol at her studio and haberdashery, Sew Lovely, to find out more about her journey into the art of embroidery, the inspiration behind her work, her creative process and upcoming projects.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Carol Bartlett? What is your story?
I’m a 51-year-old textile artist and sewing tutor based in the seaside town of Penarth, South Wales. I do most of my work at my studio and haberdashery, Sew Lovely, or at home.
This time last year, I decided to combine my lifelong loves of sewing and history to create a collection of stitched pictures based on snapshots of Penarth’s past, as well as personal pictures from my childhood. I want to tell a story: we live in such a great town, and history is everywhere we go. Together, a style of textile collage and embroidery express what we can still see all around us today.
All of my stitched pictures are based on sketches or photographs. I began working on the series last year, after seeing an old picture of Sew Lovely’s former home on Glebe Street. Back in 1911, a haberdashery sat in that same spot. Most photographs of a bygone Penarth, though, are of course black and white – so getting out and about is essential. Since many historic buildings still stand, sketching is an important step in building a richer interpretation of the landscape. Following great feedback from recent exhibitions at local cafes and the Swansea Festival of Stitch, it seems that my work has resonated with the local community.
Each piece can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to assemble. The process involves finding just the right materials – laying out an assortment of fabrics and selecting those bits and pieces which best echo the fashions and sights of the time. The fabric is my palette, I can add light and shade with thread, and the needle is the paintbrush. Occasionally, Sew Lovely’s tutees leave spare fabrics behind after their workshop has finished up, while other customers gift materials such as tapestries and old garments. These donations are often reworked into the pieces.
I have always loved drawing, but all this started before I took a family holiday to Verona for my 50th birthday, when one of my closest friends Kath gifted me a watercolour sketchbook. Well, I looked at it for a few days and ignored it. In Verona, we went to the Open Arena, which is where the operas are held, and I took out my sketchbook and pen and started to draw. And something happened – hours passed and people started watching me and chatting to me in different languages. It was so lovely because it felt like people were involved in what I was doing. My love for sketching came back to me and I knew I should be doing it all the time. After that, I made it my main leisure pursuit.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
When I was very young, I was given a sewing box by a well-meaning relative. I remember trying to sew with plastic needles. It didn’t work. I soon realised that you need the real thing – not plastic – to be able to sew.
I was also gifted my first sewing machine when I was eight. The vintage Singer which still sits in my studio today. I used it to make dolls clothes most of the time, as well as patchwork quilts on Saturday mornings, when my mum was at work and Jean looked after me. She could make anything – she could crochet, knit, and sew.
How did you get into textiles and embroidery? What or who inspired you to pursue an artistic career?
I had loads of support from both tutors and my family. I went to art college, Howard Gardens, when I was 18. There, the students were encouraged to go outside and draw on location, and really try to capture what we saw from direct observation. I think my work stood out as it was so big and floral, full of colour and pattern. I was a confident drawer, and was directed to go into textile design as I enjoyed sewing. At the time, I honestly didn’t think too much about what I would end up doing, but I did know that I wanted to draw and sew all day. It’s taken me a while to get there!
The ancient art of embroidery seems to have made a resurgence lately, and contemporary textile artists from all over the world continue to come up with innovative ways to reinvent the medium. How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the world of contemporary textile art?
My drawings and stitched pictures are a record of time and place, whether it’s the past or present. I’m not really doing anything new, exactly – I’m drawing things then stitching with hand and machine embroidery. My aim is to make old stuff new again, by adding extra personality to the people and places in the photographs with my own personal style. I suppose that it’s my way of keeping a diary.
What inspires and influences the designs you create for your work?
The period of history between 1890 and 1950 really interests me in particular. It was a time of transition: women’s working lives were changing, tourism was booming, and the coal trade led to lots of building works. I research this era in detail, paying careful attention to the colours and textures of Penarthian’s wardrobes for example. One of my pieces, The Bridge, features an entourage of Victorian local dignitaries complete wearing interesting collars, top hats, and ties. I liked imagining who they were, and really bringing out their personalities. Using free motion embroidery – where you draw with your needle – that really helps to bring them to life. The background architecture and signage also caught my eye. I walk over that bridge every day on my way to work, and I knew I absolutely had to interpret it in stitch.
When creating all of my interpretations of Penarth’s past, I especially like to look for faces and shops. As a child I lived over a grocery shop which my parents managed. My own house was once a corner sweet shop, and I work in a shop!
Architecture is fascinating to look at because patterns are always fun to interpret in stitch. I’m also interested in journeys, and one of my favourite settings is a Victorian or Edwardian railway station. I recently went to see Tracey Emin’s installation at St Pancras station in London, and the surroundings were a challenge I wanted to take on – not just the architecture, but also the business and palpable excitement of going on holiday. I really enjoyed trying to capture it all in my sketchbook.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
I’m influenced by the growth of Penarth as a seaside town and the past lives and occupations of its residents. I love searching for really interesting old photographs of the local area in the town’s library, as well as postcards and articles from times past. I’m also often given fabric by customers and friends who know I collect vintage lace, buttons, and trimmings. Because we live in a really old town, they tend to be vintage. Recently a friend’s mum died; she was a vicar’s wife and had sets of linen embroidery that she’d hand-embroidered herself. I decided to re-use the fabric in my work, and I was inspired to start a whole range of pictures based around that.
One rule of thumb in my process is that the picture’s got to have something extra about it. I’m not really interested in interpreting a landscape on its own; I prefer figures to add some personality and scale! Everything I do has to have a background story, so it’s not just a view. I’m not trying to change the world; I just want to make interesting pictures! I find design to be a bit like stew. If you go to bed with an idea, the next morning it’s usually fully-formed and seasoned.
What would you like a viewer to walk away with from your work?
I’d like them to be interested in the story around the picture. Sometimes I have to be careful with the historical pictures – people notice the small details I get wrong! For example, I included an Irish flag in a picture based on a snapshot from 1899, but the flag isn’t quite the exact design as the one from 1899! There’s also a picture of my dad’s old Austin car; one gentleman pointed out that it wasn’t quite accurate in its shape. I had to explain that I had used artistic license. But I do enjoy chatting with everyone – it’s fun, at the end of the day and I always love talking about my pictures.
Another really nice perk are others glimpsing my memories and they speak about theirs. They’re prompted to talk about their own life when they see mine – bits and pieces that they recognise, like old cars and buildings, always start interesting conversations.
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had related to your art?
Definitely seeing all of my work in one place for the first time. It was all spread across the wall of Waterloo Tea, a Penarth cafe, in last summer’s exhibition. I loved seeing the reaction of all my friends and family. It was just amazing! No one had seen anything properly, only snippets on Instagram, and it all suddenly came together in one go. I could see the progression in my work from the first to the tenth picture myself.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My little portable watercolour set, which I’ve had forever. It’s stayed with me so long because you can replace the colour pans. I did drop one of them in the water by accident recently, and I replaced it by finding a lovely little art shop in Venice. It was a good excuse to search for an art shop on holiday.
You also teach sewing classes to a variety of age groups and to various skills levels. What do you love the most about running these classes?
What I really love is seeing the lightbulb moment. You can tell when people have managed to get the hang of using the machines and that they know a door has opened for them. I love that look on people’s faces when they get a bit of confidence and realise they can start searching for something they want to make! They get really excited about what they’re doing, and often former tutees will bring things they’ve made into the shop to show me. I also love telling people to try and that they have permission to go wrong, as long as they’ve enjoyed the process. I’ve been doing this for five years now and I’ve probably passed on my skills to a lot of people.
In 2019, I’m starting my first class for teenagers in dress-making, which is something I would have loved at that age.
Tell us a bit about your shop, Sew Lovely. What is the ethos behind it and what makes it a must-visit destination for sewing enthusiasts?
Sew Lovely’s ethos is to give as many as people as possible the opportunity to make something through sewing. I want everyone to join in and see how great sewing can be.
We teach anyone over the age of eight, with a huge range of classes – from beginner to advanced – to cater to the town. We try to make the classes really encouraging, inviting, and friendly, with inspiring and quirky projects. I really want people to be able to follow their own interests and I think it’s important for people to get away from their phones, their family, their work, and have a couple of hours set aside for complete absorption in creativity.
You live and work in the seaside town of Penarth. What do you do or where do you go to unwind or get inspired?
With many distinctive Penarth landmarks still standing and interesting figures captured on film, inspiration never runs dry. All I have to do is walk to the top of our street, where there’s an amazing view of Cardiff Bay. One day I sat on a bench and sketched the view, and a local neighbour brought me a cup of tea and a biscuit as she sat down to chat.
It’s been drawn hundreds of times, but if you go to Penarth Pier on a sunny day, all sorts of people chat to you and it’s just lovely. They’re always interested in what you’re doing and there’s so much to get down on paper! There are the cafes and dogs being walked, and of course the old buildings and the cliff tops. Whenever I’m there, I always think about the past and what it was like once for people on days out.
I also like taking a trip to one of Penarth’s many local cafes. I’m very skilled at meeting friends for coffee and cake. Since we have a shop, we know so many people and it’s nice to chat with people outside of the workplace. I also love trawling the charity shops for a gorgeous piece of linen or something. It’s always a lovely piece of treasure. All I’ve got to do is go out and about and draw people in cafes – and that’s that, I’ve got my inspiration.
What’s the the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Just ask. I’m really new to exhibiting and promoting myself as a textile artist. For the last five years, I’ve built up my business as a teacher and I’ve only just started to make art of my own after a long, long break. I’ve had to learn how to promote myself and the best piece of advice I was given was to just ask for some help. Amazingly enough, almost everyone I’ve asked to promote me has said yes. I asked Creative Magazine to include me in their spreads, for example – which they did. I’ve realised that the chances are someone will like your work. It’s OK to be niche and different!
What are you currently working on?
On a summer holiday to Verona last year, I took my little watercolour sketchbook with me and drew every day. Now, I’m translating those drawings into stitch. I’m going to make twelve pictures in A4 size out of vintage linens – tea trays, napkins, whatever I fancy really. I’m also then going to turn the stitched pictures into a calendar!
Where can we see your work in 2019?
In March, I will be at the Contemporary Textiles Fair at Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington, London. Anyone is also welcome to come to the Penarth studio and see my work – it’s always there!
And finally, what are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
I would like to spend quite a lot of time drawing on location. The sewing part of the process is the end result, and it doesn’t quite excite me as much as drawing. I’d like to get better at that.
I’d also love to make more and better stitches pictures of course, and exhibit extensively. I’d even like to make my own book one day, which follows the journey of my working process. That’s the kind of book I’d like to buy and read.
Thank you, Carol the lovely company and wonderful insight into your world.