In Conversation With Textile Designer and Artist Katie Mawson
Katie Mawson started her successful UK based knitted textiles brand 25 years ago after graduating in textiles design from Camberwell Art School. Originally starting out from a small workspace beneath a railway arch in Brixton, she eventually moved to the Lake District in 2000 where she lives today, working from a studio at the bottom of her garden.
Assisted by a small team of knitters including Katie’s husband Chris, Katie continues to make the knitwear herself. She chooses to keep a “hands on approach” in order to maintain her passion for designer knitwear and ensure the quality and attention to detail of the products. This, she credits as a contributing factor to their success as a brand. In recent years, Katie has run the business while also creating her sustainable art crafted from the cloth of discarded vintage books.
Katie’s ability to lend herself to more than one medium has infused both strands of her work with a reciprocal creative energy. There is a definite synergy between these two parts of Katie’s life, with both knitwear and art incorporating her love of playful colour combinations and tactility. Katie agrees that the two professions have informed each other over the years. “My use of colour has definitely informed my art...albeit in a subconscious way, my knitted collections have always been colourful and I have always used unusual colour combinations together. I use this similar approach in my art work.”
Using a striking and colourful compilation of vintage cloth bound books to create her art means that the surface of the pieces have unique colours and textures, which couldn’t be created using mediums such as paint or paper. It was this material which initially sparked the inspiration for the art.
“When out walking with my dog one day, I discovered a pile of old discarded cloth bound books; the colour and patina...even the musty smell was so lovely, I had to haul them out and take them to my studio. At this point I had no idea what I was going to do with them.”
The cloth from the books is carefully cut, arranged on canvas and sometimes stitched into. There is something nostalgic about the final piece with the faint details of a page number or letter - details which act as a reminder of the material’s previous life as a book. It is wonderful to see these books repurposed and given a new life as a cherished piece of art on a wall.
The colours themselves are beautiful and considered, but could the palette, restricted to the colours of the books Katie discovers, be difficult or inspiring to work with?
“An important element in a lot my work is my use of colour. Having collected hundreds of discarded books over the past three years, I have discovered that old books seem to span the colour spectrum, the only colours that I wish I could find more of are yellows. These are like gold dust! So actually I do not really feel restricted. I never use any books that are in good condition but I have found some lovely books with old colour plates of flowers; these are now on my bookshelf!”
Katie finds these initial stages of designing and arranging the materials one of the most exciting. “My favourite part of the process is when I have a blank piece of board in front of me and book cloths strewn across my table. Then it is time to play. The work is usually unplanned and I can spend hours absorbed in arranging and rearranging colours and shapes until I feel the balance is just right. Sometimes a piece of work will come together really quickly, other times it can take days.”
Despite the work being largely spontaneous, with Katie’s design choices being driven by an emotional response to colour, composition and materials, rather than a formulaic thought process, Katie takes inspiration from her local area and it’s natural beauty.
“My work is inspired by many things, the overall and most recurring inspiration is my local lake, Ullswater. I wild swim in the lake throughout the year. Every single time I go, it is different - the light, the weather, the time of the day, the texture of the water - this all informs my work. I am also inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend, the Bauhaus and in contrast to the fluidity of the lake, I love quite severe, brutalist architecture and urban dereliction.”
When asked what it means to be an artist in today’s society, Katie says “I find it hard to call myself an artist - I sort of feel that I just do stuff. That said, over the past year in the Covid era, I feel art has become all the more important for people’s wellbeing and mental health, and I feel my contribution of work has a valid place.”
It is this need to give back through her art, which led Katie to join Artist Support Pledge when the campaign, started by artist Matthew Burrows MBE, launched in March 2020. The global movement connects artists and is committed to creating ‘an equitable and sustainable economy for artist and makers of all countries, media and ethnicities’. Artists and makers post their images on Instagram using #artistsupportpledge and detail their work and its pricing (no more than £200 or equivalent). Once the artist has made £1,000 in sales through the campaign, they pledge to spend £200 on work from other artists. It is a brilliant initiative, creating an encouraging network of makers and art enthusiasts who provide mutual inspiration and financial support, and helps to sustain makers, artists and art.
While Katie may not think of herself as an artist, her desire to make and create today, which reaches back as far as she can remember, defines her as such. Art is an incredibly valuable form of expression and with so much change and upheaval on a day-to-day basis, Katie’s evocative and colourful collaged canvases provide much-needed uplifting balm.
Looking to the future, and with so much fast-paced transformation and emphasis on technology, Katie sees the importance of maintaining a connection with the work she produces.
“I personally feel that it is important within the world of art to continue to be hands on and get your hands dirty and feel, and touch, and smell. There is room of course for digital art, but I don't want the old traditions of craft and art to die, so I guess that is what it means to me - keeping old traditions alive and kicking, running alongside the digital world.”