'A Woman's Work' is a LOMIE Q&A series with inspirational women, often mothers, whom I've met throughout the years and have made an impression on me. It's such an honour to be able to share their stories with you. Today we speak with Debbie Smyth, a textile artist who's travelled the world for her work, creating large scale thread art pieces (often live) for the likes of New York Times, Hermes and Instagram, to name but a few.
Debbie and I became acquainted a number of years back when I was director of design for an interior textiles manufacturer, and have since followed each others careers with interest. Debbie's work is incredibly intricate and when I first saw it, it blew my mind. Not only does the final piece make an incredible impact, but it's also the high levels of planning, followed by the execution which is involved that makes her work truly mesmerising. An incredibly talented lady. In this Q&A we learn more about Debbie's craft and career, how her partner joined to support her business and, now as a recent mother, how the two of them share both work and parenting duties for their gorgeous son Rigby.
Hi Debbie! Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to specialise in textile art and, in particular, thread art.
Textiles have always been a passion; I suppose, a second nature. I don't ever remember not being able to sew; it was something I learnt at a very young age. My mother always mended our clothes so I learnt the basics early and I was constantly altering my clothes as a teenager. When deciding what career path to take when leaving school, the two choices I whittled it down to were going to Art College or studying biomedical engineering. I decided to go do an art foundation course to help make my mind up.
It wasn't until I did my foundation course that I really discovered what was achievable through textiles, sewing didn't just have to be functional, and I fell in love with this way of creating art. I then moved to West Wales to study; graduating in 2008 with a BA (Hons) degree in Contemporary Textiles.
Having specialised in textiles, I liked the concept of using the integral materials of the discipline, yet in an unorthodox way. I am textile artist most identifiable by my statement thread drawings. My process is very material led. I look at thread as a drawing medium; how the thread falls or knots, often dictates my next step. Achieving complex shading and tactile surface patterns by pushing the expected scope and application of my chosen materials; I established my studio practice in 2009, and have worked on an extremely diverse range of projects spanning large scale hotel installations, event art, corporate interiors, illustration, gallery installations and smaller bespoke pieces.
My partner Zac has come onboard in more recent years due to the scale and magnitude of some of the projects we have taken on across the globe. Our unusual style and distinctive approach has garnered deserved attention; commissioned by major companies including Ellesse, The New York Times, Sony, Adidas, Instagram, Continental, Four Seasons Hotel group, Mercedes Benz and Hermes to name a few.
You’ve recently become a mother, and are just getting back into creating again. How are you finding balancing your craft with motherhood?
Myself and Zac worked on very physically demanding projects right up until I was 8 months pregnant. By doing so, we saved up, allowing us both to take 4 months maternity/paternity leave together. We eased ourselves back in slowly, sharing the workload & took on our first project as a trio when Rigby was 4 months old; an event in Dublin, producing an interactive live art event piece over the course of a few days. Part of the reason we were willing to take on this project was due to my family being in Ireland. Rigby got to go sightseeing in Dublin with his Granny & Auntie, whilst we cracked on with the job in hand. I took regular breastfeeding breaks and we made it work.
We’ve been selective with the projects we have taken on since being pregnant & having Rigby. In recent years, we’ve been incredibly fortunate that our craft has taken us around the world. However we have had to limit the projects, which involve travel & long hours as it’s not so easy these days. Not only because travelling and working with a baby is tricky but also COVID-19 has stopped us in our tracks recently.
So instead, our focus has been on more studio based work where we can set the schedule and hours in the comfort of our own space; allowing much more flexibility to juggle parenting & business. We have had to adapt how we work; I take care of managing, admin and design & my partner undertakes the majority of the fabrication. It’s a massive balancing act; we juggle caring for Rigby between us so we share the workload. It has taken a bit of fine-tuning to figure out a system, but we are finding a rhythm. We are also currently renovating our house so lots of juggling going on.
We count ourselves very lucky that we both spend precious time with Rigby; both getting to witness those everyday moments and the big milestones. The toothy grin at bedtime or the first steps. This is the real magic that makes the rest of it happen!
Does ethics and sustainability come into play at all with what you do?
Sustainability is something we would like to address further within our practice as one can always do more however when working to clients brief it is sometimes hard to implement our own values. We use recycled/sustainable thread ranges by Gutermann & Coats when possible. If we create work that is fabricated for an event, and could potentially only have a short life span, we make suggestions to give the piece more longevity. Usually by designing it in such a way that following the event it can be transported to a new home to be displayed permanently.
We love working on sustainability-centered projects. For example, last year we created a series of artworks for Coats using and celebrating their Ecoverde thread, which is made from recycled plastic bottles.
Tell me about a particular highlight you’ve had with your work? What are you most proud of?
This is a really difficult question. I suppose an aspect I find very satisfying is the final unveil of a piece that has been years in the making. So much work goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realise; months of back and forth between ourselves and the clients, countless presentations, numerous rejected designs, amending and tweaking compositions, laborious hours of planning and prep work, multiple site visits and inspections and long hours installing on site. Months and months and months of work that finally leads to what we had all this time been working towards, a monumental artwork and a happy client. This elated feeling was had when we completed a ‘Fleeting’, a 10m x 2.5m piece now permanently installed at 10 Fleet Place, London. Inwardly and outwardly the reflections and distortions of the curved glass façade mirror and echo the motion of the life of 10 Fleet Place; distorting the perception of the city and blurring lines of brilliant light streaks; echoing nuances of it’s environment whilst capturing ‘a fleeting moment’ of a city constantly in flux.
A very contrasting highlight was a very special art residency we undertook at Folio Daan, Taipei from Oct – Dec 2017. Over the course of 3 months, we worked at a much slower pace allowing ourselves to be completely immersed in the Taiwanese culture, we documented our journey through the people we met. Each character in the FOLIO X FUBON series represents a significant aspect of our Taipei impression. From the language barrier and what we learnt to the everyday customs and weather. Expressing how we adapted to a new culture, and absorbed the environment. These 3 works are now permanently installed at Folio Daan Hotel, Taipei.
Has COVID-19 impacted on your business or your way of working at all?
We didn’t have any projects which involved intensive travel lined up, so luckily, that aspect of our practice was not affected. Our focus has been on more studio based projects since having Rigby which fortunately has swung in our favour as it has meant we have been able to continue to work in isolation at our studio during lockdown.
We quoted on quite a few projects at the beginning of the year which have been postponed or cancelled. Although we have not been massively immediately impacted, I think this is only the beginning.... The sector we work in will have a tough few years ahead, I’m sure.
As a mother, what do you look for in baby and children’s clothing? What other brands would you recommend for new mothers.
Longevity is a big thing for me; I often buy clothes that are too big, and roll up the sleeves or cuffs... they grow so fast & I love a baggy-chic baba!
I go for pre-loved if I can; I buy a lot from charity shops & a local second hand kids shop, in particular – KIDS STUFF @stroudkidsstuff.
If I do buy new, I try to but from small independent makers & shops...
Aside from LOMIE, here’s a few brands and shops I have made some recent baby purchases from...
@marmalade_sky @hapsnordic @aciubaba @thelittlewoodenpeg @we.are.pop @magnusmakesthree @wornbylittles @cissywears @lilyandfred @wemightbetiny
What’s one piece of advice that you’d give for other mothers who are considering starting their own business?
Take care of yourself...if you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of your family or run a business. It’s very easy to burn yourself out by putting too much pressure on yourself.
After settling into mama hood, I found a rhythm to our days & was able to schedule in set times to focus on business. I try to make sure that I am fully present during the time I am with my baby; this allows me to be in a more focused state when working, rather than trying to juggle several tasks at once, which really stresses me out. Focus is something I have really struggled with getting back since becoming a mama so I try to be really strict with my time, which helps.
It helps that my partner and I share parenting and business, meaning that neither of us gets too fed up.... that often!?!