I first came across Christabel Balfour’s work at the beginning of the year, before I launched The Maker Place and immediately fell in love. At the time, there was nothing more to see than a few samples, some images on Instagram, but that was all it took! Christabel’s use of beautiful natural materials, her colour choices and designs which seem to take influences from both global and local, traditional and modern sources have resulted in a really exciting, carefully thought – out debut collection; Handmarks. Each of her rugs really is an individual work of art; tactile, colourful and made to last, they’re modern heirloom pieces and I also love how customisable they are. Just like commissioning your own piece of art, if you place an order for a rug, you can specify which colours you’d like her to use and Christabel works with you to produce a rug in the combination of colour and design which suits your home perfectly. She even emails through photos of your rug in progress as she weaves! I’m so delighted to be selling Christabel’s rugs via our site and I was even more delighted when she launched the collection on our stand at The London Design Fair in September. It was such an exciting event and her collection was very well received indeed! For the full lowdown on the event, you can read my post about it here.
Now that the dust has settled following the event, I’m really pleased to have found some time to find out a bit more about Christabel’s work and how she came to start weaving and what influences lie behind her beautiful pieces.
Hi Christabel – thanks for talking with me! I’m looking forward to finding out more about your work. I’m going to start with a quick one! Which 3 words do you think could be used to best describe your work?
Hi! I’m so pleased to talk to you and tell you more about what I do! I’d say; Intricate, Abstract, Colourful. Intricate, because even my most simple designs are a careful balance of interlocking shapes. Abstract, because the patterns themselves might be purely geometric but they can have many associations. And colourful, because the new collection in particular is driven by colour.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new collection, including the inspiration behind it?
My new rug collection “Handmarks” is made up of 8 core designs. Each one is inspired by a different place, such as the flat fields of Kent, the hills of Pembrokeshire, the river Thames or the palazzos of Venice. They are woven to order in the colour combination of your choice.
The name “Handmarks” is a play on the word “landmark.” Often when I weave I feel as though I am mapping a landscape, even if it is only the landscape of my imagination. I feel as though I am travelling whilst sitting still at the loom, marking out the places I have passed with my hands.
I’m always fascinated to learn why people choose to pursue a particular path with their making. Can you describe the journey you took that led you to specialise in weaving? And what drove you to choose this particular craft above any others?
I started weaving as a child, and have always worked with textiles on and off throughout childhood and my teenage years. At art school I made huge woven installations, and after graduating I turned to tapestry weaving – I wanted to make something which was more accessible (and easier to sell!) I spent a few years just focusing on woven wall-hangings and developing my craft, before getting my rug loom. I now split my time between wall-hung tapestries, rugs and handmade papercuts.
There are so many things I really enjoy about weaving- it’s such a soothing and meditative process. You are working with your hands, which has always been a priority for me. There are limitations, but this encourages you to be inventive and to simplify.
I always think it’s interesting to find out a bit about the physical environment makers create which helps them create their work. Can you tell us a bit about your workspace and how it is set up to suit you?
I split my work between my home in Peckham and my studio in Woolwich, where I keep my rug loom. In both of my working spaces I have a lot of shelf-space. I need to be able to see all the materials I have, so I make use of them all and don’t forget about them! In my studio I have a lot of white empty wall-space, which has a calming effect and helps me focus. I also have a sofa – it takes up a lot of space but weaving can often be very physically taxing, so it’s great to have somewhere to relax and rest!
Your pieces fuse traditional methods of making with modern designs and colour combinations. Can you describe how your work evolved into its current form and what has inspired the direction you’ve taken?
From the beginning, my weaving has always been very geometric. All woven cloth is essentially a grid made up of warp and weft, and I wanted to work with that grid rather than against it. I often work from very rough sketches, but I will plan out in detail how large each shape should be and how they should be spaced. I often use paper cut-outs to help me visualise how a shape will look once its woven.
I try to stick to combinations of 2 or 3 colours, the simpler the better. I often choose colours based on the season- the Handmarks collection is very summery, because it was woven in the summer. The colours for me evoke sun-drenched walls, grasslands and the blue of the sea.
Composition is really important in my work. How do you create an image which balances detail with space? I always want my work to have a feeling of space – to recreate the feeling you have when you look at a distant horizon. So my design process is structured with that goal in mind.
Thank you for sharing that – I think your rugs do evoke that feeling! Now, I wanted to find out bit more about the process of making your rugs. As someone who has never tried weaving, can you describe exactly what it involves? It looks to be quite a time-consuming process. What would you say are the best and worst things about this technique?
All woven cloth is made up of the warp and the weft. The warp is the rigid threads which are stretched tightly over the loom, the weft is the thread which is wound over and under the warp to make the cloth.
The type of weaving I use is called tapestry weaving- I weave each shape or coloured section separately. This is a lot slower than regular weaving, but I really enjoy this process.
On my rug loom, here is how it works. If I am weaving a row of three triangles, I will first prepare seven shuttles – these are tools which carry the weft through the warp. I will wind the weft for the triangles and the weft for the gaps around the triangles onto these shuttles. I will then tie the weft onto the warp at the correct intervals.
My floor loom has big pedals or treadles underneath. I press down on the correct treadles, and this pulls the warp apart, creating a gap called the shed. I thread all the shuttles through this gap, one at a time. Then I press down on the next set of pedals, and take the shuttles the opposite way. This process is then repeated until I have woven the triangles.
There are downsides to this technique – it can be harder to keep an even tension in the warp between the detailed tapestry sections and the sections which are blocks of colour. It can also be really slow! But I personally enjoy the challenge of fitting each shape together and building a structure.
Wow – that sounds like it’s very complicated. I’ve seen you weave on a handloom and you make it look easy but I know it’s not! I also wanted to ask you about the other projects you are involved with. I know you also run weaving workshops with Bezalel Workshops. Can you tell us a bit about that side of your work and how you manage to find a balance between teaching and developing your own work?
Bezalel is an arts collective set up by several friends of mine in 2013. In 2015 I came on board to help set up Bezalel Workshops, which is a new branch of the collective. I’ve been running workshops with Bezalel Workshops since April. I also help run the calligraphy, ceramics and food workshops that we do, and teach papercutting!
I personally find it really helpful to have another job which takes me out of the studio and sets limits on my time. As a maker its very easy to devote the entirety of your time to your craft and lose all structure. Teaching also helps me view my craft from a different angle and gives me a chance to enjoy the process in a new way. Plus its so fun to see people fall in love with weaving themselves!
What advice would you give to people just starting out or interested in pursuing their ambitions to become designers or makers?
When I started out, I interned with a homeware designer for 18 months. I would really recommend seeking out an internship, apprenticeship or assistant role with a designer maker to check that it’s really for you. You have to be very self-motivated AND really love what you do. It’s okay to love something and not want to make money out of it!
The second thing I would advise is – figure out a structure that works for you. What time of day do you work best, what makes you feel motivated? Look at what other makers do but also try out what works for you. Some people find a lack of structure to be very freeing, some people really need clear boundaries with their time.
Thirdly – keep records! Pay attention to how long it takes you to make things, keep track of your income and expenditure. You need to know where your time and money is going.
Are there any craftsmen or designers who have particularly inspired or influenced you or your work?
I draw inspiration from so many sources – the natural landscape, modernist architecture, the weavings of the Navajo and Igbo, Bauhaus textiles and painters such as Agnes Martin and Paul Klee.
I’ve been really inspired by makers who I have come across on Instagram- Studio Herron , Wooden & Woven, Jono Smart, Florian Gadsby, Ariel Alasko, MINNA, LRNCE and so many more. Anyone who is making a living from what they make with their hands is an encouragement to me.
Now, many makers see this as a really tricky question – perhaps rightly so! Can I ask, what is your favourite artwork?
So difficult to choose! But the pieces I always come back to are Magdalena Abakanowicz’ weaving installations, particularly the “Abakans” and “Bois-Le-Duc” installations.
And what is your favourite piece of design?
The architecture of Shigeru Ban and Tadao Ando is probably my favourite. If I had to choose it would either by Shigeru Ban’s Naked House or Tadao Ando’s Water Church.
What style of home décor do you find the most exciting at the moment/what style are you drawn to when decorating your own home?
I’m hugely influenced by a lot of home décor coming out of America right now, particularly on the West Coast. I love the look of Homestead Seattle’s home, which doubles as an AirBNB and Serena Mitnik-Miller’s home in Topanga, which she posts about on Instagram.
In my own design choices, I’m looking for a British version of that. I go for white walls and dark furniture. In the furniture I want bare floors for all of my rugs! I have a lot of carefully chosen ornaments – most of them are china figurines I loved as a child and inherited from my grandmother.
Please can you share one image with us that you find inspirational?
I love the below photo by Mike Seehagel of the Alberta prairie. When I think of a horizon, this is it.
I also keep a moodboard on my tumblr
Finally, what’s next for Christabel Balfour?
Bezalel Workshops are going to be partnering with Craft Central in their winter Made in Clerkenwell event in November. We’ll be offering calligraphy, ceramics, weaving and papercutting classes! You can find out more and book classes here.
In the meantime, I’m going to be busy with rug commissions! I’m also working on some collaborations with my favourite photographers, and refining the visual look of my brand and I’m excited to be launching a new collection of paper cuts in November.
I’m definitely going to try and make it to Made in Clerkenwell and if you go then I’d definitely recommend trying one of Christabel’s workshops! If you’re interested in commissioning a rug you can order the design of your choice below and specify the colourway you’d like – then wait for your first work in progress update from Christabel!
We’re also currently offering 10% off all of Christabel’s rugs, when you enter the code Welcome10 at the checkout.
SHOP THE HANDMARKS COLLECTION
HOMEWARE, RugsThe beautifully made, handwoven Thanet rug is inspired by the fields and marshes around Margate in Kent, and by the movement of the wind and sea.£150.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Autumn Mists rug is inspired by early morning fog over the river Thames.£190.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Shell Bay rug takes its inspiration from childhood summers at the beach, collecting sea shells and watching the sun set over the ocean.£160.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Pine Forest rug is inspired by the forests of Scotland and the north of England. It is laid out like a map, with rivers and roads running through the trees.£200.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Otmoor rug takes its inspiration from the landscape of Oxfordshire, the flat and marshy fields full of birds and wild creatures, and the rivers running through it.£200.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Peninsula rug is inspired by late night and early morning walks along the river Thames, where the deep colours of night are growing and fading over the water.£190.00–£1,100.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Venezia rug is inspired by the architecture and colours of the city of Venice, and the archways and windows of the ornate palazzos lining the canals.£225.00–£1,200.00
HOMEWARE, RugsThe Abergwaun rug takes its inspiration from the wild hills of Pembrokeshire, in south western Wales. The design is laid out almost like a map, with geometric shapes evoking footsteps, dwellings, or distant hills.£150.00–£1,200.00