Meet Carol Barwell from Pooks Studio
Carol Barwell from Pooks Studio is a maker of beautiful, intricately detailed folk art dolls for grown-ups. Based in Lancashire, she has been creating dolls for more than 25 years, inspired by fairytales, folklore and the tragic stories of the Lancashire witches. Here Carol tells fellow Folksy seller Rachael from Pie and Earring about the magic of slow stitching, how each doll has their own character, heart and spirit, and why craft is essential for her wellbeing.
To celebrate being our featured maker, Carol is offering 15% off all her dolls with the code MAKER until 17th July 2022.
I want the experience of holding and possessing one of my dolls to be a little magical.Carol Barwell, Pooks Studio
Hi Carol. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do?
I’m a doll maker who fashions folk art dolls for grown-ups. Each doll is an individual with their own personality and spirit. I carefully select fabric combinations, and use stones and crystals to make their heart, with herbs and petals for a gentle scent. Each face is hand detailed with paint or thread. Each doll involves a lot of slow stitching. I want the experience of holding one and possessing one to be a little magical.
Can you describe your craft in three words?
Totems of Womanhood
Mini Magical Mommets*
Folk Art Dolls
* A ‘mommet’ (or ‘mammet’) is a doll, puppet or figurine, usually dressed up, and sometimes believed to be imbued with the power to form a link with a person.
How and why did start making folk dolls?
I have always loved making dolls, and have made them since childhood. I have High Functioning Autism and cannot always relate to people but, even as a child, dolls were my passion. I really enjoy the collecting, making and sharing of dolls and doll ideas. They are my thing!
I’m drawn to textiles and really like to have an object in my hand, not flat and hidden away behind glass. I love the look and feel of dolls, and making them still gives me such a buzz. The idea of a tiny mommet with spirit and character really appeals to me.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I would say my inspiration mostly from nature, my books and beautiful illustrations. I love hearth and home. Being surrounded by my family, my cats, my garden and my books is really important to me. What I grow, feeding the wildlife and engaging with nature constantly fires my imagination.
I love fabric, thread and buttons. I can get lost in a haberdashery shop or rummaging about in a remnant basket. I only need tiny amounts of fabric, so often find real treasures. Texture, colour and pattern are really important creative inspirations for me. Quite often a fabric or fabric pattern will drive the creation of a particular doll or series of dolls.
I’ve always been intrigued by the tragic story of the Lancashire Witches and I am really proud to have sold several of my witches to the descendants of Alice Nutter’s family on the Isle of Man.Carol Barwell, Pooks Studio
I take great inspiration form the works of Arthur Rackham, Racey Helps, Beatrix Potter, Alison Uttley and Cicely M Barker. I enjoy fairytales and folk culture: The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, and the local folk tales and traditions here in Lancashire. I’ve always been intrigued by the tragic story of the Lancashire Witches and I am really proud to have sold several of my witches to the descendants of Alice Nutter’s family on the Isle of Man.
How do you choose the names for your dolls or do they choose themselves?
I love choosing the name for a doll. It’s so important and forms part of her character. The fabrics I have chosen, the colours used in the doll, even the stones and herbs I have used in their stuffing can lead me to their name.
I think they know their own names and just have to find a way to tell me!
I’m especially drawn to Old English and Anglo-Saxon flower names, as well as Gaelic flower names. What I’m reading also has an influence. I’m a real fan of historical murder mysteries, particularly medieval and Roman stories. At the moment I’m enjoying the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan so everything is medieval and there are some wonderful names to discover. I’m currently loving Sidde, Cyne and Blostma.
Is it important that each doll is made individually rather than in batches? What difference does this make?
It is really important for me to make one at a time or they lose their heart. The selecting of fabric, hair and eye colour, and a stone are part of my doll-making ritual, which I thoroughly enjoy. I need to visualise them before I make them.
My dolls are quite small, so micro variations when painting a face only one inch square add to an individual charm and character. I don’t make two alike and that really appeals to me. Each is a real one of a kind. Early on I did try to make them in batches to speed up the process and it did make it much quicker, but I lost something.
My birds take the longest to make, as there is so much hand embroidery.Carol Barwell, Pooks Studio
How long does it take you to make one of your dolls?
The time taken to make each doll varies. To make a mouse takes three hours, but that is three hours and twenty-five years of experience. I am very quick and that has come with years and years of practice. A witch takes around five hours from cutting to finally stitching her sampler sachet. The birds take the longest, as there is so much hand embroidery.
You have been doing this for 25 years now. How have your designs evolved during that time?
My designs have radically changed over time. My dolls way back were huge – two or three feet tall. Wild textures, wild fabrics and even wilder hair but still cloth, even then I was drawn to cloth. In 25 years, I have tried and made just about every type of cloth doll, from extremely complicated joints and needle-sculpted faces to prim dolls I buried in the garden for several months! I loved every minute of it. I very quickly realised they were not economically viable and worked hard at my patterns and practice to create a working business. Over the years my dolls have become smaller and smaller – my mice are only seven inches tall!
I have been working with the patterns I use now for around 10 years and I still refine technique and designs, creating new designs sporadically or when the muse takes me. I love fiddly things and greatly enjoy how tight the working has become.
There have been huge changes in the craft sector over the last 25 years… I think the accessibility of the online craft world has really helped to inform the general public and has raised the profile of craft.Carol Barwell, Pooks Studio
Have you also seen any changes in the craft sector since you first started?
There have been huge changes in the craft sector. When I first began, selling online was in its infancy. Back then I sold to independent shops and galleries but that meant being hit with big commission rates, and I struggle with face-to-face communication. I used to do lots of craft fairs and art events too, but people came for a bargain and were not always prepared to pay fair prices for beautiful work.
Having an online presence has changed how craft is now viewed. People are better informed and come to you with their own ideas and are willing to engage artisans about their practice. I think the accessibility of the online craft world has really helped to inform the general public and has raised the profile of craft. Having an online presence has given me access to people in places that I would never have had before. I sell all over the world and that’s thrilling.
Promoting myself on social media is now part of my routine. My daughter is my photographer – as a porcelain sculptor and illustrator, she has a fabulous eye for a shot. I style the set and she gets the most out of my set. I always publish as a routine every week, so that my followers know when I will show new work and then I don’t have to worry about it. I can obsess really easily and, at first, I found it daunting and was checking back every 10 minutes, but I schooled myself to lose the self-imposed tyranny and just enjoy.
For me, online selling and social media has been wonderful. I really am part of a worldwide community and that’s lovely.
We often talk about the link between craft and wellbeing. Could you tell us a little about your own experience?
As a creative soul, if I am not making, I am not complete. As a person on the Autistic Spectrum, the ability to control the routine of making is essential for my wellbeing. But balance is really important.
A little while ago I started to struggle to paint the tiny faces on my dolls because of a growing tremor in my hands. It was really, really scary to suddenly find that an essential part of my craft was becoming impossible for me. I initially adjusted my practice to reflect this problem, but it was still getting worse, so my family finally got me to my doctor. I’m so glad I sought help and I’m very grateful to my doctor and my team of physios. If you are having these kinds of symptoms there are things that can be done.
Quite simply I had been working too much with far too many repetitive actions. I love my job and I have a real problem refusing a request for a doll. I was told quite bluntly that I had to do less or eventually would not be able to do anything. Arthritis coupled with an acute repetitive strain injury left me with a real problem. This is where balance became important. I had to stop working flat out and use my hand in differing ways. So now I garden more and I’ve starting baking again, much to the delight of my husband and daughter. These differing actions, kneading bread dough or making muffins, reset my hands and relaxed them. Pummelling dough is very cathartic.
I now do a six-hour day, not a twelve-hour day, and take regular breaks. I very nearly stopped myself from doing something I love, so balance is really important.
What does craft mean to you?
Craft is my way of life. Being ‘on the spectrum’ always meant that working within the conventional workplace was almost impossible for me. Craft has given me a lifeline, an income and a way to be both happy and successful on my own terms.
Craft is a way of pursuing an interest dear to me and sharing that with my customers and other artists: both doll makers and artists from other disciplines. My craft gives purpose and structure to my day and a fulfilling occupation that I love.
I think expressing yourself creatively is a most human thing to do, whatever form that takes. If you can bring joy to someone else with your work, then that is a wonderful thing.
Use code MAKER for 15% off Pooks Studio – valid until 17 July 2022.
Meet the interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is Racheal Stothard from Pie and Earring – a jeweller originally from Sheffield now based in Leeds who makes sustainable earrings from recycled polymer clay.
Read our Meet the Maker interview with Racheal here: Meet the Maker – Pie and Earring.