I feel closer to my big sister Helen when I create. I feel she’s a part of the process, she is the Big Bird to my Little Bird.
Big Bird Little Bird is the story of two sisters. The older sister Helen was creative, always making, embroidering and sewing. A few years ago, Helen was diagnosed with cancer. As it took hold, Helen found she could no longer sew or knit, and gave her sewing machine to her younger sister Liz. Sadly Helen died in 2011. Gradually Liz picked up the courage to start using the sewing machine and found she felt closer to her sister when she was creative. Liz now designs, makes and sells textile birds and animals, sewn by hand and on Helen’s old machine. We spoke to Liz about what she describes as a collaboration between two sisters – Helen, the Big Bird and her younger sister, the Little Bird.
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
I’m Liz and I live in a village in Kent with my husband, two kids and a dog. I design and create birds and animals mostly, from various textiles both new and vintage, and also wire and clay for finishing touches.
Helen wanted me to have her sewing machine when she died. I was scared to use it for about a year in case I broke it – I hadn’t sewn on a machine since I was at school some 30 years ago.
When and how did you start selling your work?
The first things I created sewing-wise were creatures made from socks, which I did as a fundraiser for a cancer charity after losing my older sister Helen to cancer four years ago. Helen was always sewing, knitting, crocheting or embroidering and she wanted me to have her sewing machine when she died. I was scared to use it for about a year in case I broke it – I hadn’t sewn on a machine since I was at school some 30 years ago. At first I started off with toys, similar to what Helen had done, but became frustrated with the Toy Safety Regulations when it came to expressing my creativity. So at the beginning of last year I decided to veer towards something more artistic, and birds in particular. I opened my Folksy shop in April last year and now rarely sell at fairs.
Do you feel closer to Helen when you create?
Yes definitely. I could imagine her laughing at me when I once sewed a bear’s head on backwards. I feel she’s a part of the process, she is the Big Bird to my Little Bird – those were our family nicknames (along with my twin sister Alison).
Did you have a very creative family life when you were younger?
I had a very active imagination as a child – I get that from my dad who even now at 81 is still a big kid at heart. My mum used to knit and make the most beautiful baby cardigans. My brother loves woodwork, and Alison is a fantastic cook, so I guess we are all creative in our own way! I enjoyed all things arty as a kid, and would far rather be colouring in my timetable and doodling on my exercise books than doing any maths.
How did you learn to sew?
Other than some basics learned in secondary school (which I can’t even recall), I taught myself. I made lots of mistakes, which are a great way to learn. I bought patterns to begin with, but when it came to birds I used a fantastic book by Abigail Patner Glassenberg. It helped give me a sense of form and structure, and gave me confidence to design my own patterns.
I had a very active imagination as a child. I enjoyed all things arty as a kid, and would far rather be colouring in my timetable and doodling on my exercise books than doing any maths.
You used to work as a graphic designer. Does that help you now you have your own creative business?
It helps with logos, business cards and my website. My work as a graphic designer was very corporate, so quite restrictive, whereas my only restriction now is my own imagination. I love that freedom to explore.
Who are your design heroes?
Oh Mister Finch most definitely. Eleanor Bartleman also makes the most wonderful porcelain animal sculptures. And Frederique Morrel’s work is stunning! I do have a passion for history and the Tudor period in particular. I find Hans Holbein fascinating – his work brings the people to life.
I taught myself to sew. I made lots of mistakes, which are a great way to learn. I bought patterns and learned from books to begin with until I gained the confidence to design my own patterns.
Who or what else inspires you?
The countryside and nature. We moved to a village last year and I love being out walking in the woods and country parks. Just doing something that relaxes you helps open up the creative process.
Can you talk us through that creative process?
I usually have a few ideas floating around my head for some time but I am the queen of procrastination when it comes to starting. First I look at some photos of the creature I’m considering and draft some basic patterns based on these images. I currently use Illustrator for this as I can then keep a copy on file. I’ll print out the pattern pieces and may adjust them slightly as I cut them out. Sometimes if I’m not sure how the pattern will work, I’ll do a version in cheaper fabric first.
I’m inspired by the countryside and nature. We moved to a village last year and I love being out walking in the woods and country parks. Just doing something that relaxes you helps open up the creative process.
What’s your favourite part of the making process?
I usually get quite excited as I finish a piece… it’s like I’ve given birth to it because there’s part of me in there. The face is usually the last bit to finish and that’s when the personality pops out. I also name the larger pieces – I feel I get to know them as they take shape.
Can you describe your workspace?
Although we have a spare room that’s supposed to be used as an office, I mostly use that as storage for my fabric and other material. I actually work on the dining room table as it’s the best place for light and I can look out and see the garden.
I usually get quite excited as I finish a piece… it’s like I’ve given birth to it because there’s part of me in there. I also name the larger pieces – personalities seem to emerge as they take shape.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
That you effectively work with your emotions. It’s not surprising it’s used in therapy – it’s a great way to express yourself.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
Make sure you don’t sell yourself short and that you pay yourself a wage. Read up on any legal bits that may affect what you produce. Think about good customer service you’ve received and try and emulate that. Then take a deep breath and do it!
It’s exciting to see so many people being creative and making wonderful items, but frustrating that sometimes I feel it’s not valued or supported by others.
What does craft mean to you?
Many things… from people like my brother doing it for the sheer love of working with their hands, to those trying to make a living and doing their very best to provide quality, individual goods. All of it has a welcome place in today’s world.
How does it feel to be part of the craft scene today?
Exciting and frustrating. Exciting to see so many people being creative and making wonderful items that put a smile on my face and make me go “Wow!” Frustrating because sometimes I feel it’s not valued or supported by others.
Craft means many things… from people doing it for the sheer love of working with their hands, to those doing their very best to provide quality, individual goods. All of it has a welcome place in today’s world.
How would you spend your perfect day?
It would be a summer’s day and it would start with a lie in! I would visit Rochester Cathedral and look at the graffiti left over the centuries and some of the wall paintings that survived Henry VIII’s Reformation. Then I’d pop into Nucleus Arts in Rochester or St Andrews Arts Centre in Gravesend and meet some fellow arty friends for a catch up. Later on my husband would cook dinner on the BBQ, so we’d have friends and family round just chilling out, listening to music. Having this relaxing time helps give me the space to be creative, so I’d jot down some ideas and draft some patterns, and that evening I would finish off a project, which I’d be very happy with.