Salley with self portrait 2009
Years ago, when my daughter was a toddler I found Salley Mavor’s art, and her flower fairies. I loved acorns and acorn caps Salley was behind my inspiration to do an acorn cap exchange with online friends. I did leave the acorn itself for the squirrels … I still have a huge collection of acorn caps of all sizes from around the U.S. and treasure it, thanks to Salley! There was a time that I was making these little people for every child I met. I also wore them as pins which was delightful to both children and adults. At my daughter’s Kindergarten, when Miss Charlotte was “our” teacher, every child got one from me for Christmas, and when my daughter was old enough to make her own, I would arrange picnics with friends to sit under an oak tree and make them together. Now that I think of it, these 6-7 year olds had so much patience. One day, when I dig up all my own work from various storage containers, I will show you some of our work.
Salley’s book, Felt Wee Folk, is an American classic, and if you love hand-sewing, this book offers many beautiful options in working with felt. The little fairies are just the cherry on top!
Salley has also illustrated children books with her beautiful handwork, the latest is Pocketful of Posies, which was reviewed in the Spring 2011 issue of Living Crafts.
Here’s my interview with her:
When did you first start handwork? What was the “original” craft you started doing and who taught you?
Looking back, I have early memories of sewing and constructing things as a child. I would spend hours sewing outfits and creating scenes for my dolls. Once I figured out how to sew on snaps, a world of possibilities opened up. I was especially interested in all things miniature and coming up with ways to decorate and furnish my doll’s environment. I can remember making a tiny bathroom and looking around the house for shower curtain material. It had to be plastic and water repellant, regular cloth would not do! I took a pair of scissors, went into our bathroom and cut a small piece out of the shower curtain. It took a while for my mother to discover that the corner was cut out, but she was quite open to sacrifice in the name of art. She was an artist herself and created an atmosphere in our home where art and making things with one’s hands was important. In our home, learning how to make things was not only looked upon as fun, but there was also an unspoken high regard for handwork and beauty. Art was not looked upon as an “extra” and my mother instinctively knew the benefits of creative work, that the process can engage the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual parts of oneself.
In a term paper about art education for her master’s degree in 1965, my mother wrote, “The student should be encouraged to find his own way, but this does not mean the void of laissez-faire. Children need a structured exposure to many ways of seeing, doing and thinking. To teach art, the teacher must be an artist. By having confidence in their own abilities, teachers will be able to sensitize children to want to learn and care—not just problem solve. Through intuitive discovery a child will find himself, what he believes and be really free, even in a computer society. By giving students something to do—learn and contemplate what they can understand naturally—will give them the values needed today.”
Anne and Salley with playhouse our parents built and painted
How did you get interested in felt? And hand-stitching?
I’ve used many different types of fabric in my artwork, but it wasn’t until the early 90’s, when my two sons were enrolled in a Waldorf School, that I discovered the joys of real felt. I love how it looks and feels to work with and I now use plant dyed wool felt almost exclusively. I am self-taught in needle work and have learned through trial and error, as well as plenty of practice. I’m not as interested in method as I am communication. I think that in order to best tell a story, my artwork must be executed with skill, so that the medium contributes to the message and doesn’t distract.
Lately, I’ve been describing my work as part of a Slow Art Movement. Yes, its very time consuming and not very practical, but that is part of what attracts me to this way of working. I sew, wrap, embroider, carve and embellish in as many ways as I can think of—all by hand. I can’t really speed it up and machines are no help. Through the repetitive, tactile processes, I find a calm satisfaction that can help lead to effective problem solving. But, stitchery itself is not dynamic enough for me, I like to decorate felt pieces and parts with embroidery and then combine them with other dimensional materials. Each illustration requires figuring out something new, whether it is a way of constructing a driftwood house or making a tiny basket, so I need time to work things out.
How did you start doing those little acorn people?
I was intrigued by the use of natural objects in the handwork projects at our Waldorf School and started making little people and teaching workshops for parents. The idea started with a simple acorn capped fairy and grew into a larger group of fanciful characters. Through teaching, I learned how to break down and explain the process of making the dolls. I made and sold Blossom Fairy Kits for about 10 years and wrote the how-to book, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects.
Tell me about your childhood, your family, and now …
Jimmy, Salley and Anne Mavor 1960
The middle of three children, I lived with my parents, sister and brother in the small village of Woods Hole, Mass. on Cape Cod. Growing up in our household was like living in a busy hive, with art projects, materials and equipment close at hand. My mother had a big influence on my development as an artist. There was always time for art and I never heard her say no to an imaginative scheme. She would help us gather supplies and teach us whatever we needed to make an idea come to life. We lived in a perpetual state of clutter, with the technique du jour in evidence all through the house. One day, Mom had the children clear a path through the living room so that our father could walk through. For Mom, part of the fun of making things was the physical thrill of interacting with the materials. Her batik room was a Jackson Pollack of spattered dye, where she would busily apply hot wax on the fabric and dip it in dye pots. Our world was full of creative possibilities and I’ve dedicated Pocketful of Posies to the memory of my remarkable parents, Mary and Jim Mavor.
I’m on my father’s lap
What is a day of your life like?
Since my work is so sedentary, I try to start the day with some form of exercise; dance aerobics, yoga, bicycling, etc. Then I usually catch up on e-mails, write blog posts or interviews like this one. I try to stitch for several hours a day and work on design related problems the rest of the time. I break for dinner and then resume working in my studio. I got in the habit of stitching in the evening when my sons were young, because that was the only time I could sit peacefully. My husband, Rob says that when I’m not eating or sleeping, I’m working in my studio. Of course, this is not entirely accurate, but it’s close to the truth. I admit to being obsessed with making things, as I believe are most artists. Holding a threaded needle is my default position.
Salley sewing 2010
What advice can you give our readers, who are so eager to have their own handwork businesses and books of their own?
Fine handwork skills are essential, but good design is the most important element in making something to sell. If your product stands out and is beautifully made, then you may be able to charge enough o make it worth your time. You have to be content with working on the same item, over and over again and building a reputation for quality. Working by hand is no way to make a lot of money, so do it because you get some satisfaction from the process.
Books are a lot of work, so be sure that you are ready before making a proposal and embarking on a publishing project. How-to publishers are looking for unique, teachable ideas that are not so complicated that the reader becomes frustrated. You have to be the type of person who doesn’t mind explaining every minute detail of directions, a trait that often does not come with a creative personality.
How do you go about designing and creating?
Just like other illustrators who work in more traditional ways, I draw a layout of the book, making sketches of each page that show the general positioning of the subjects in the picture, leaving space for the type. I find the design phase to be the hardest and most cerebral part of the process. I’m glad when it’s done, because then I can get down to the more intuitive and enjoyable business of making. It’s thrilling to hold the materials and let my hands start forming the pictures.
I find that welcoming found objects into my work can become a trap. Some very interesting looking things can seduce me into thinking they belong in a picture. Later, if it doesn’t contribute to the story, I’ll have to make the painful decision to kick it out. That’s hard, especially when I really like the object. Writer friends tell me that they encounter something similar in their writing. They have to get rid of clever characters, witty dialog or funny situations that seemed perfect earlier. We agree that it’s all part of the creative process, but you have to be willing to see the imposter for what it is.
What do you want to tell us about the meaning of life, and anything else that pleases you.
It took five years for Pocketful of Posies to go from early sketches to the final production stage.
For three of those years, I stitched and assembled the 51 nursery rhyme illustrations. What kept me going was the challenge and excitement of bringing so many stories and characters to life. I could concentrate a lot of energy into each picture and make bold design decisions. I was determined that every rhyme would have the love and attention it deserved. Adults comment on my detailed, labor intensive technique, but children are not impressed by how long it takes or how perfect my stitches are.
No matter what technique I use, or how many days it takes, my goal is to stimulate the imagination and have children emotionally connect with my art. Right now, I’m taking a break from illustrating and will be spending the next few years making pieces for art shows. I’m not even sure what I’ll be making, but I feel like I have something to contribute outside of the children’s book world.
Recently C+T Publishing published Salley’s article about the connection betwaeen her books, and they have generously allowed us to publish it on this blog as follows:
Stitches tie books together
When my new children’s book, Pocketful of Posies came out last fall, many people were introduced to my work for the first time. I’ve been illustrating with fabric, embroidery and found objects for 20 years and I’m delighted to report that this book has taken off like nothing I’ve done before. Pocketful of Posies has attracted a lot of unexpected attention, but the biggest surprise is that it has been given the Golden Kite Award for picture book illustration from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. To my knowledge, this is the first time this honor has been given to fabric or dimensional illustrations of any kind.
In the months since Pocketful of Posies was released, there has been a renewed interest in my how-to book, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects , published by C&T in 2003. Many people who see the fabric relief artwork in my children’s books want to learn how to make dolls and scenes of their own. So, I’m glad to have an instructional book already on the market. There are projects to suit all skill levels, from simply constructed dolls to finely made figures with intricately embroidered felt clothing. In Felt Wee Folk, I teach how to make little dolls, which are basically made the same as way as the characters in Pocketful of Posies. The wee folk appear in both books, with their painted wooden bead heads donning acorn caps and wearing similarly stitched outfits.
The two books seem to compliment each other, with Pocketful of Posies spurring the imagination and showing possibilities of what can be made with the techniques demonstrated in Felt Wee Folk. Not only do I hope to inspire creativity in children, but I want to encourage people of all ages to try their hand at making their own miniature worlds with a needle and thread.
It’s been 8 years since Felt Wee Folk was first published and I’ve been asked if I will write another instructional book. It’s satisfying to hear that my book has created a thirst for more, but I probably will not write another. So, what are my plans? I’ve been feeling the urge to experiment with my fabric relief techniques and make more personal one-of-a-kind artwork. I’ll still work in 3-dimentions and stitch like crazy, but lately my muse has been calling and urging me to try a new approach. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but I figure that if I’m going to expand my horizons, now is the time. I have truly enjoyed sharing my stitched world through the nursery rhymes in Pocketful of Posies as well as the photos, directions and patterns in Felt Wee Folk. I hope that both of these books will remain available for years to come. Links to learn more about Salley and her work: Blog: http://weefolk.wordpress.com/ Web Site: www.weefolkstudio.com
You may also be interested in reading an interview Salley did with the children’s book blog, Seven Impossible Things.
Salley’s Two-Book Giveaway
Today, we are giving away two of Salley’s books: Wee Folk Felt, published by C+T Publishing, and Pocketful of Posies, by Houghton Mifflin. To enter the drawing, please leave a comment here by 8 p.m. EST Sunday, April 17th. The winner will be announced Monday.
And the winner is…