Meet Helen Milen from Studio Milena
Helen Milen from Studio Milena is a textile designer based in North Yorkshire who specialises in contemporary hand weaving. Helen’s practice is intentionally slow, combining traditional weaving techniques with a considered approach to design. She uses responsibly sourced materials, weaving with mill-end yarns or wool that has been spun and dyed locally, and surplus silk left over from the fashion industry. Here Helen talks to fellow Folksy seller Janice MacDougall about her creative journey, her influences and the harm caused by a culture of throwaway fast fashion.
The essence behind my weaving practice is to create beautiful handwoven textiles to be treasured and enjoyed for years to come.Helen Milen, Studio Milena
Hi Helen, lovely to meet you. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, I’m a weaver, textile designer/artist and I specialise in contemporary handwoven textiles. I live in North Yorkshire, having moved back here six years ago, after living and working in London. I design, weave and hand finish all collections in my garden studio with a little help from my design assistant, Dries, a French Bulldog.
How did you become a weaver? Have you always been interested in weaving and textiles?
Before starting Studio Milena, my career was fashion design for British heritage brands. I loved working with beautiful fabrics and developing archive prints and weaves with textile mills. Eventually I made the decision to leave fashion design for a slower, more sustainable creative journey.
Drawing on my passion for woven textiles, I took a four-day weaving workshop, where I learned the basic techniques of creating a warp and threading a loom. Following that, I bought an eight-shaft loom (which I still use) and a pile of weaving books, teaching myself to weave by experimenting, sampling, and making quite a few mistakes!
I’m quite obsessed with textiles and have been since I can remember. I’ve always been fascinated by traditional and vintage textiles, collecting them over the years from flea markets and charity shops. I love how textiles have a story to tell and are often passed down through generations.
This is the essence behind my own weaving practice: to create beautiful handwoven textiles to be treasured and enjoyed for years to come.
Could you explain your creative process and what inspires your weaving patterns and the colours you use?
I’m captivated by architecture and its relationship with nature in rural, urban and coastal landscapes. I’m particularly drawn to the patterns found in slightly imperfect architectural details: from crumbling stone walls, dilapidated farm buildings to elegant Georgian townhouses.
I love the changing light and colours that each season brings. I often explore abstract art and collage in my design process. These influences are entwined into my textiles to create my contemporary interpretation on traditional woven structures.
My design process combines spontaneous creativity with meticulous detail. It’s crucial that my loom is set up and threaded correctly before I can start weaving. This takes time, patience and quite a bit of maths! Once my loom is threaded, I can create my woven length by adding weft yarns to my carefully designed and threaded warp. If I’m weaving textile art panels, my weaving process is quite spontaneous, often designing on-the-loom by adding colours and different yarn types into the weft as I weave.
I aim to stay as local as possible when sourcing my yarns, and my mission is to source more fully traceable local and British fibres.Helen Milen, Studio Milena
I see from your bio that you source your yarns locally. How important is it to you to use natural local fibres?
It came naturally to me to weave with only natural fibres. I take time to thoughtfully select the materials I use for my collections. The yarns I use are from various mills and suppliers, with the emphasis being on Yorkshire, including wool from a small local business, where the yarn is traceable back to the sheep in the fields. I also weave with merino lambswool that is spun, dyed and finished in Yorkshire; mill-end cones of wool and cotton yarns are responsibly sourced from a Yorkshire mill and British wool fleece fills my plump handwoven cushions.
I aim to stay as local as possible when sourcing my yarns, and my mission is to source more fully traceable local and British fibres.
You will also find printed silk fabric (left over from the fashion industry) entwined into my textile artworks. My loom-waste yarns, studio off-cuts and sampling swatches are saved and re-woven into new textile pieces. When I first started weaving, I was fortunate to have yarns donated to me from a textile artist who was closing her studio. I’m still using yarns from that stash today.
There is more awareness regarding the impact of fast fashion on the environment nowadays. Do you think there has been more interest from people wanting to know more about sustainable methods to produce fabric?
It’s fantastic that there’s more awareness of the environmental impact caused by fashion and textile production as a whole – not to mention the environmentally and ethically harmful culture of throwaway fast fashion.
On a positive note, with more designers and makers promoting and using sustainable methods and materials in their work, awareness and understanding will be raised even further.
Here are a few of my favourite organisations promoting and producing low-impact natural fibres and yarns:
- The North West England Fibre Shed launched Homegrown Homespun – Field to Fabric to re-introduce native flax on a community site in Blackburn. The flax seeds were sown, grown, harvested, spun, woven, naturally dyed and made into a pair of jeans. I would love the Government to offer more support to these initiatives across the UK. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
- Wool Circle UK create fully traceable Yorkshire yarn – from fleece to fashion.
- Flaxland UK offers workshops and information for growing your own flax that can be spun and woven into linen cloth.
Hand weaving is a slow, meditative and creative journey. I find it extremely fulfilling.Helen Milen, Studio Milena
Which is your favourite part of the weaving process?
Ooh! I enjoy the entire process. Hand weaving is a slow, meditative and creative journey, taking a single end yarn and transforming it into a woven piece of cloth. I find it extremely fulfilling. I also love the endless creative possibilities weaving offers me as a designer.
Watching the pattern and textures develop on the loom in front of me as I take the shuttle over and under the warp threads is an incredibly enjoyable process, with the finished result not being revealed until the woven length is rolled off my loom. Each part of the creative weaving journey brings me a connection with my textiles; a connection I hope to share with others through my work.
What is a typical day in your studio like?
Goodness! A typical day? If it’s a design research day, I’d have to say it’s quite chaotic. I’m an ‘old school’ designer, so it’s physical mood-boards covered in photos, yarns, scribbles, swatches – building up ideas for colour, structure and texture.
In contrast, the mood in my studio is calm, quiet and methodical when it comes to planning my warp layout, threading sequence and lifting plans. Once again, I’m ‘old-school’ here, planning everything with a pencil on squared paper. As a self-taught weaver this non-digital way of working helps me make sense of how to make the loom create my design.
Once it’s time to weave, I usually go into the studio first thing and weave all day, music playing, forgetting to eat, losing myself in a wonderful world of handwoven textiles.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love visiting galleries and exhibitions. It’s something I really missed during lockdown. I’m looking forward to visiting The Hepworth in Wakefield to see the Sheila Hicks: Off Grid exhibition. I’ve admired her innovative textile art and sculptures for many years. Incredibly inspirational in her use of colour and form.
I also enjoy walking my dog each morning before going into the studio. It really sets me up for the day. I’m very fortunate to live in a village nestled on the edge of the North York Moors surrounded by stunning countryside, woodland, and close to the beautiful North Yorkshire coast. Walking here is a constant source of inspiration for me.
I started growing vegetables about four years ago. The enjoyment this gives me has taken me by surprise. Last year, I had a go at growing natural dye plants, including Japanese Indigo and Madder. That’s a whole new chapter for Studio Milena.
Finally, what does craft mean to you?
Craft for me is a celebration of making and creating by hand, using thoughtfully selected materials. Hand-crafted pieces have character, holding the maker’s story within them.
Craftspeople use their knowledge of materials and skilled processes to create beautiful objects and functional pieces to be valued and treasured.
Craft is the antithesis of mass production.
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this time is artist Janice MacDougall.
Shop Janice MacDougall on Folksy – https://folksy.com/shops/janicemacdougall