Meet the Maker: Katy Livings
Katy Livings creates treasured textile dolls and rabbits with the finest of details that are destined to become family heirlooms, but her career as a maker came to an abrupt halt in 2004 when she was diagnosed with arthritis and gradually began to lose control of her hands. Now, after a decade of NHS care, she is able to use a needle and thread again and has developed a way of working and a design that doesn’t cause too much of a strain on her hands – although she admits that the level of detail in each doll and outfit probably comes from wanting to ensure enough care and attention has gone into it, in case her hands fail her and this is the last one she ever makes. We spoke to Katy about her dolls, her studio, her dreamy Instagram account, the effect her arthritis has had on her life and her creativity, and the incredible joy she finds in being able to sew and make again.
To have full movement back in my hands and to be able to hold a needle and thread again is incredible. I still wake up each morning and wiggle my fingers just to see if I can move them.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
My name is Katy Livings. I’m a textile designer, originally from Birmingham now living in Melton Mowbray, and I’m mum to two young children. I make heirloom quality dolls, incorporating as many craft techniques as I can into one little outfit – mixing vintage embroideries with Liberty of London fabric, stitching rabbits from cashmere and dolls from linen and ballerinas from tulle and silk, knitting with beautiful yarns and hand punching intricate designs into leather.
I try to create dolls that will appeal to many generations and become treasured family toys. I offer a bespoke service and love making dolls to order, with customers specifying their own preferred details, be it an embroidered name or a favourite fabric/colour that they would like me to work with.
I love making dolls to order – customers can specify their own preferred details, be it an embroidered name or a favourite fabric or colour
Have you always been creative and how did you learn to sew?
I’ve been sewing since the age of five. As a young child I loved making toys and clothes with my grandmother and spent most of my childhood persuading my parents and sister to make things with me at every available opportunity.
Katy Livings in her garden studio
How did you get to where you are now?
After my A Levels I completed a Foundation Course at Bournville Art College in Birmingham before going on to study Textile Design at Nottingham Trent University. I specialised in embroidery for my final year and was sponsored by Madeira Threads who sent me the most wonderful parcels of yarn each term. After graduating I won a Design Excellence award at the New Designers Exhibition in London. Part of the prize was a work placement at Crown Wallcoverings design studios, developing my final year project into printed designs.
New Designers led to lots of freelance work. I spent time in Paris designing embroidered womenswear for a company called Nitya, and worked here in the UK on embroidered home furnishing ranges for Habitat and Debenhams. My next contract was working for Mattel Toys designing and stitching intricate trims for replica dolls’ costumes for their Pleasant Company division. I also worked as a visiting lecturer back at Nottingham Trent University and as a guest speaker for the Embroiderer’s Guild.
Working for such varied companies has been educational but also helped me to clarify where in the market I feel my own products are most suited.
A year after my original degree show I exhibited back at New Designers – One Year On, which led to a commission to make gifts for the G8 Summit. I completed a scholarship for design graduates, receiving business support and studio space in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where I was helped with developing my range of embroidered bags and accessories. Despite my determination, all business advice seemed to suggest I wasn’t going to be able to make a living creating such expensive, labour-intensive products. So I stopped working for myself and spent the next few years working as a buyer and then designer for George at Asda. I worked across menswear, ladieswear and childrenswear, and designed children’s products to accompany new film launches from Disney and licensed characters for nightwear. I desperately missed designing my own products but gained huge amounts of experience working alongside suppliers and manufacturers, developing and designing ranges for a different price point. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit our factories here in the UK and overseas and to have seen manufacturing and production on such a different scale.
I became unwell towards the end of 2004 and was diagnosed with arthritis, putting an end to my design career as I gradually began to lose control of my hands. During this time I worked for Leicester City Council’s Creative Business Depot – a fantastic centre providing studio space and support for creative industries. Almost ten years later and years of NHS care, my hands are working again and I’m doing my best to re-establish myself as a maker. Working for such varied companies has been educational but also helped me to clarify where in the market I feel my own products are most suited.
I became unwell towards the end of 2004 and was diagnosed with arthritis, putting an end to my design career as I gradually began to lose control of my hands.
How are your hands now and how does your arthritis affect your ability to work and your creativity?
I’ve been extremely lucky, my hands are working again and my arthritis is now under control. I owe my consultant, Dr Alison Kinder and the nurses that have cared for me over the past 13 years so much. It’s been a struggle and my family have made huge sacrifices to help with my recovery. My parents moved from Birmingham to live close to us when I was at my poorliest. There were times when I needed help dressing myself or climbing the stairs and days when I was just unable to pick up my daughter or fasten her babygros. To have full movement back and to be able to hold a needle and thread again is incredible. I still wake up each morning and wiggle my fingers just to see if I can move them. The relief of no longer living with the fatigue that accompanies auto-immune diseases is immense.
My next infusion will be in April and hopefully will keep me moving and full of energy for another 6-8 months. The biological treatment I now receive wipes out my immune system, so I know for the first few weeks following treatment I will find it harder to bounce back but I’ve learnt to be flexible and work around energy levels and chest infections. This is usually the time when I rediscover a crochet or knitting project. My dolls are a particular size now because any smaller and my hands would be struggling to turn the small limbs. I’ve learnt to design a product that isn’t going to cause too much of a strain on my hands.
Incorporating seasonal flowers from the garden has played a big part in establishing my Instagram following.
Your Instagram feed is incredible and one of our absolute favourites. How would you say Instagram has helped your craft business?
Thank you. Instagram has completely enabled me to start selling my work again. Having a creative community at hand offering support and encouragement has been amazing. I’ve met such enthusiastic, motivated and talented people and they have restored my confidence and made it possible for me to start making again. It’s an incredible opportunity to have a worldwide audience and being able to reach customers at all hours of the day in all corners of the world. My dolls now have homes in Australia, America, Canada, France and China.
I try to create timeless pieces that won’t go in or out of fashion but will last and be passed on to future generations.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I have a lovely collection of vintage books and toy making patterns that are the foundation for a lot of my designs. My rabbits have been inspired by my own favourite childhood toy bunny. The beautiful illustrations by Molly Brett, Racey Helps and the Little Grey Rabbit illustrations by Margaret Tempest have all influenced my work. Having a design background means that I’m aware of childrenswear and interior trends and know that these should be reflected in my work or styling. I try to create timeless pieces that won’t go in or out of fashion but will last and be passed on to future generations. Living so close to fields and beautiful countryside I’m more aware of the changing seasons and like my packaging and product details to change throughout the year to reflect this. Incorporating seasonal flowers from the garden has played a big part in establishing my Instagram following.
Each doll takes about three days to complete and I always worry that each one will be my last and my hands may stop working.
How do you start a piece?
Most projects start with me falling in love with a beautiful fabric. I am a fabric hoarder, and can’t resist a Liberty print or a vintage beaded trim. Behind every finished doll are two or three versions that didn’t make it into my Folksy shop. I usually have an idea for a new doll before finishing the last one and have a ridiculous number of unfinished toys on the go at any one time, waiting for clothes or eyes or needing their arms to be repositioned. I keep a sketch book with me at all times and make notes on a daily basis as ideas come to me.
A miniature toy rabbit in a bag – just one of the details Katy Livings adds to her dolls
You squeeze so many details into your pieces. How long do your pieces take to make and how important is it that they all have that fine level of detailing?
Each doll takes about three days to complete and I always worry that each one will be my last and my hands may stop working. I think the detail is a result of me trying to make sure that enough care and attention has gone in to it in case it is the last. I find it hard to finish a project, I can always think of another five hours of stitching that could be added.
You have a really strong brand identity. How did that develop?
It has evolved gradually over many years but I’ve always preferred to work with a muted classic colour palette and include a lot of detail in my designs.
My studio is a wooden summerhouse transformed into a sewing room and filled to the rafters with fabric, threads, toy stuffing and patterns.
Tell us about your studio – where is it, what does it look like and what’s in it?
I have a studio at the bottom of the garden. It’s a wooden summerhouse transformed into a sewing room and filled to the rafters with fabric, threads, toy stuffing and patterns. Having a dedicated workspace has really helped me to focus and get the business off the ground. I have a lovely desk that used to belong in a florist’s shop and a vintage table that my sister Jenny and I used as our play-doh/pastry-making table as children. I’ve collected display shelves over the years which are great for storing threads and vintage bobbins and pretty ribbons. Having had studio spaces in the past I am lucky to have two of everything, I have a sewing machine, overlocker, ironing board and plenty of scissors and pins in my studio and a second sewing machine and ironing board permanently set up in a corner of our dining room. Being able to work indoors if I have the children at home or in the evenings if I have an order to finish makes working much easier. I prepare and wrap all my dolls for posting on our dining room table. It does appear that I’ve taken over the inside and outside of our home with a trail of threads between the two and a well trodden path down the middle of the garden.
What does craft mean to you?
I use craft as a way of showing how much I care. Once I recognised that my children could no longer fit any more handmade toys or crochet blankets in their bedrooms and we had run out of friends and relatives who could receive handmade gifts, I knew I had to find an outlet for my creativity.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
I’m grateful that working from home enables me to do the school run each morning and afternoon although 3pm comes around far too quickly! I start each morning by answering emails and placing fabric orders, most of which are essential. I try to get into my workshop by 10am. I prepare the day’s sewing the night before, so all pattern pieces are cut out and ready for me to overlock first thing in the morning. I aim to do as much sewing, photography and product development as I can before the children come home from school. Designing and drafting patterns takes me hours and I rework dolls several times before I’m happy with a finished design. I save the hand-stitching, toy stuffing and packaging for evenings once the children are in bed and then finally prepare fabric pieces for the following day. Somehow we squeeze in after school activities, homework and housework.
What’s been your biggest achievement so far?
As a new graduate I was invited to take part in a competition run by The Foreign Office and Tony and Cherie Blair to design and make gifts for the G8 Summit. Our brief was to design a product and packaging that represented British design. I had to produce 10 embroidered scarves for the wives of the Heads of State attending including Hilary Clinton and Mme Chirac. I attended a reception at 10 Downing Street to meet with the then Prime Minister and his wife and members of the Design Trust who had supported us throughout the project.
Several years later with my design career behind me l was in hospital having just had my son. I was moved to a recovery ward to find that the curtains surrounding my bed were made from a design I had produced for an interiors company not long after graduating. My arthritis treatment takes place in a different hospital in the same city but it also has the same curtains! I spend all day in hospital feeling amused that I can’t escape them and frustrated because the colours and repeat have been changed!
Have you got any exciting plans for this year?
I’m working on a couple of exciting projects at the moment. I’m thrilled that my ballerinas will be featuring in Fiona Humberstone’s new book, Brand Brilliance, a follow-up to her amazing book How to Style your Brand. It’s due for release on 8th May and looks stunning. I’m equally delighted to be working with Amy Sinibaldi, creating dolls from her new fabric collections for ART Gallery Fabrics. The collections are called Les Petites and Charleston and complement each other perfectly. I’m loving working with so many pretty prints.
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