She’s Hardcore About Soft Toys: The Felt Mistress Interview
I met Louise Evans (aka Felt Mistress) a few years ago, and she completely changed my ideas about plush toy art. Previously, I’d regarded plush as something akin to fiber-filled dust collectors. With Felt Mistress’s work, I see character sculptures that just happen to be soft. Her unique style of “stitch kitsch” is inspired by fashion, music and pop culture, and each character–from hipsters with trucker hats to spectacle-wearing professors–has its own distinct personality.
Felt Mistress’s plushes have been shown in art galleries, department stores, music videos and TV shows. I recently interviewed her for the January/February issue of Design Bureau magazine (out now). Here’s our full conversation (including the bits that landed amidst the felt scraps on the cutting room floor…)
JB: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
FM: I grew up in a village called Bradley in North Wales, and I lived in Manchester in my late teens through early twenties. Now I live in North Wales again, but right on the border close to Chester (which is England) and about 45 minutes from Manchester.
Before you became a Felt Mistress, were you a Felt Miss?
Yes, I was very crafty as a youngster. My mum made craft items to sell at various fund raisers for our local school and my grandmother was a very good seamstress and upholsterers. I loved to help.
Did you have any formative experiences with felt? Any particularly influential people or experiences? Did you study art or design at University?
I studied fashion design in University. I met two really influential people there. One was my tutor, Peter, who taught pattern drafting and fabric manipulation. I still use similar techniques when working out how to make a flat fabric into a 3d shape (and clothing is a big part of my characters too). The other [influential person] was an elderly lady called Mrs Payne. I took private millinery lessons with her as my university didn’t teach millinery, and I really wanted to make hats as part of my study. Mrs. Payne was very, very strict and taught me how to hand sew. She hated glue and was disgusted that mass produced “modern hats” would have their trims attached with glue. Even if I had spent hours stitching something, if the stitches weren’t perfect, she would undo them and make me do them again. I have her to thank for my patience when hand sewing (and also my hatred of glued fabric…).
No, that’s not Terry Richardson, and yes, there’s so much more ahead! Things like fashion, music, inspiration, Japan and milk! Click through to read the rest.
Tell us about how you got into making bespoke wedding dresses. Do you still make them?
I applied for a design job with a wedding dress design studio when I first left University, thinking “it will do for now.” I had no interest in weddings and was certainly not a ‘wedding dress kinda girl’. To my surprise, I got the job and I actually enjoyed it. I was only working on one-off bespoke designs, so I would get the more unusual requests. I loved the challenge of pattern cutting for lots of different shapes and sizes, learning about how balance, carefully placed seams and corsetry can make a big difference in how a dress looks and feels on an individual. These skills have also proved useful when making the plush characters: knowing how to make 2d fabric fit a 3d body shape is useful when looking at a 2d drawing and thinking how to turn it to 3d. I’ve been making wedding dresses for about 18 years (yikes!). I still make them but very few carefully selected ones.
When did you make your first plush character ?
I made toys and characters when I was very young. I also made plush superheroes (The Hulk, The Thing) for friends’ birthdays. I suppose the first [original] character I made was a called Simon Creem. Jonathan [Edwards, her partner] had designed him and was writing a comic strip for Tank Girl about him in the mid-90s. He was a pre-Austin Powers, Jason King-inspired, spoof 70s detective. His head was plush, but his body was an old action man’s. The first all-plush character I made was for my friend, Simon Gane. He had written a book about a little girl called PeePee (think Madeline or Zazie Dans Le Metro), and I made him a felt PeePee.
A felt PeePee is definitely a distinct debut! Do you have a way you refer to your work? (My thoughts: “soft sculpture”? “stitch kitsch”?)
I like “creature creator” and “soft sculpture”. I don’t like “plushies” or “softies,” but I don’t mind “plush”. I like your new one: “stitch kitsch”.
When people say “plushies,” I experience an involuntary cringe. It makes me think of people who dress up in mascot uniforms and get together. Speaking of getting together, are you a fan of collaborations?
I like collaborations. I get asked to do a lot and have to choose carefully. I’m a control freak regarding work: I like to be left alone to do my bit. [With Jon Burgerman], I’d had some correspondence with him on Flickr, and then Jonathan met him at a show they were both working at in Munich. Jon saw some display monsters I’d made for Jonathan’s company, and we later met up in Manchester and got talking about a collaboration. Jon had his solo show coming up, and so I made three pieces for that. I count about 40 Feltmistress x Jon Burgerman pieces in existence. I think his work translates brilliantly to felt.
Pete Fowler had seen some of my work on Twitter (I love Twitter!), and he gave me a call about making some puppets for the Clinic video. It was that simple. I love Pete’s work, so it was a no brainer. Since then I’ve made other Puppets with Pete for a show called The Stuffs on Channel Flip.
Something that is particularly cool about what you do with your “toy art” is that it gets through to fans in other art and culture areas beyond our little toy geek ghetto. To what do you attribute the breakout ability of your work?
To be perfectly honest I’m not sure. I get very little coverage on toy sites/blogs/mags, not sure why that is either. I suppose working with Brix [Smith] on her London fashion week window opened up the doors to a lot of fashion fans.
I know that Brix Smith found you through Twitter! Tell us about how that came about and what it was like designing a range of work for Start London?
I was chatting on Twitter to a friend about The Fall (I love the Fall), and I was telling her that I was thinking about making plush versions of Mark E Smith and Brix. The next thing I know, I’m being messaged by Brix saying “I would love that”! I message back with a link to my website saying “this is what I do,” and she then messages back with “DM me your phone number, I NEED to talk to you”! We then chatted on the phone, and she told me about her love of plush and the idea she had for her store window for fashion week. She was brilliant. The brief was basically that the plush creatures had taken over the store and were to be causing mischief, so I just had to make as many creatures as I could and send them to the store. They were arranged around the store and window, stealing jewelry, pulling mannequins’ hair, trying on clothes, etc. Brix got a big FM vinyl sticker made for the window and made some short videos showing the set up. It was during this time that one of the team from Selfridges saw my work and went into the store to ask for my contact details. So that then led to the Selfridges Christmas campaign and window…
Before we talk about Selfridges, you also created characters for an Osaka-based fashion designer. Tell us about that, as well as your general love for Japan.
Japan is amazing, and getting to spend 5 weeks there was brilliant. We went over to be resident artists at Headspace gallery. They were having their annual art and music festival, so they asked us to headline it and the theme of monsters was picked in our honour. The guys from Headspace had worked with Kyoko Amano (the fashion designer) and her team at other events and thought we would work well together. Introductions to each other’s work was done before we arrived in Japan, and I had produced a naked monster and posted it over to Japan as inspiration for Kyoko. We got to meet Kyoko and team on our second day in Japan and discussions started. Jonathan had produced sketches of Osaka’s iconic Suntower sculpture, and these were turned into a fabric print by graphic designer Tamotsu Shimada. This was then used to make kimonos for both the lady monster plush and a fashion model who had been styled to reference the monster plush. Make-up artist Hario and photographer Kozo did amazing work. The results were blown up to huge wall hangings, DJ booth decorations and door vinyls for the event night. Projectors were set up and photographs of my back catalogue was projected onto the windows and could be viewed both inside and outside the venue. It was a really incredible experience. I went outside for some fresh air to have a look, and I had a little cry.
Back to Selfridges. Those windows were AMAZING. How did that come about, and what was it like putting a display of that scale/scope together?
Selfridges was another emotional moment. We thought we’d be setting up with a team when we arrived, but we were lead to our window, where the frame of the large house had been built and all the plush were lined up ready to be arranged. They asked us what tools we needed and then left us to it. At first it was a bit daunting, but we soon got into and thinking back now, I wouldn’t have had it any other way (me being a control freak). Vinyls cover the windows during set up and are peeled off late at night to unveil the windows, so it’s really strange to be on busy Oxford street, setting up the window. You can hear all the people passing by, but they can’t seen in. Once it was revealed, it was brilliant seeing people’s reactions and children having their pictures taken next to the window.
I know a bit about your music taste from talking to you, but just for the sake of completeness, please tell us some of what plays in the studio while you’re working…
Jonathan has a large music collection, and we listen to all sorts. Favourites with include, Miss Kittin, Le Tigre, The Fall, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Crystal Castles, Beastie Boys… I like to dance, but sometimes I have to play calmer music when Jonathan is inking as it shakes his desk. This includes Sufjan Stevens, Serge Gainsbourg, Elliot Smith, This Mortal Coil, Amy Mann…so much music I could go on and on. Oh yes: and when we have a dance break, which we do frequently, we like to play “She Wolf” by Shakira.* Let me tell you, we got the moves!
I don’t doubt it. The Pete Fowler/Clinic video was epic on all accounts. How did you get involved in this, and what was it like to do as a project?
The Clinic video was great to work on. The puppets were members of “The Starlake Cosmic Sun Owl Commune,” and Pete wanted a sort of 70s childrens TV feel to it. He said “the type of video that the members of the cult may have made to educate their children about what a vision quest is”. I think I got just over a week to produce the four puppets. I had already decided that to get the fabric pattern for the cult member’s habits to look “Fowlerised” (this is a new word we are using now), I would have to produce the pattern in felt rather than source an already printed patterned fabric. Of course this made a lot more work for me, but that’s how I roll. I worked around the clock on those but loved every minute of it. One of the puppets was a cosmic owl. I wasn’t there to see Pete’s face when he opened them, but I did get to see photos and his reaction made it all worth it. It was great to see the finished video too.
On a seemingly random note, you and J. Edwards collaborated on a Swedish campaign for milk dispensing machines. I’m sure that was the most awesome brief on earth, and the result was wonderful. Please explain.
The art director on that project, Jakob Westman, had see our work before and had been wanting to work with us on something for a while. The Arla project brief came in just before we left for Japan, so all the design work was done while we were there: lots of emails and Skype calls to Sweden while sitting in our temporary studio in Japan. We felt very international! Jakob and Arla were a joy to work with. They totally “got us”. At first I was worried they would just want a straight forward farmer and farm animals, but [instead] they wanted us to do “our thing”. The only thing they stressed was it had to be bright and trippy. I did the sewing when I got back from Japan, and because of the deadline I had to hit the ground running. Imagine stitching bright trippy characters while jet lagged! We wanted to fly out and see the photo shoot but it just wasn’t possible. Jakob kindly sent us photos all through the process so we could see what was going on. The photographer, Daniel Lundkvist, did a fantastic job. Jonathan had done some 2d props for the shoot (trees, a house and clouds), and we decided it would be nice to leave a few of the wires from the clouds on show post production, rather than clean it all up. We thought this helped add to the handmade quality.
I liked that poster campaign so much because it would have been easy for them to simply ask Jon to draw the characters and go from there, but they kind of went “analog,” and Jon sketched, you sewed, they photographed…I love all the PROCESS. This is going to be a “heavy” question, but I wonder if you could talk a little about the importance of process and quality? It seems like these days, there is a lot of instant gratification and on-demand. Are you…”old-fashioned”?
I am so old skool with regards to artwork, sewing and quality. It feels “honest” to me. I think that maybe because the process is as important as the finished product, when making something, I enjoy the process, every last stitch. Lots of people ask me if I glue the smaller pieces on. Glue!? That’s a four letter word to me! I love sewing. I am a seamstress, a stitcher, not a gluer or a gluestress! Why would I glue when sewing is so enjoyable? That’s not to say that sometimes glueing would not be suitable for some of the pieces I’ve made, It may have worked perfectly well, but it’s not for me: it feels wrong. (Refer back to my elderly millinery tutor…) I think the key thing is when I’m producing a piece it’s not just about having something at the end, but the enjoyment of practicing your craft and filling your day doing something you love.
What is a typical day in the life of Felt Mistress?
Tea in bed checking and answering emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc., breakfast with another cuppa… Then to the studio with Jonathan to start work. I normally have to tidy my work area first as I worked late the night before and made a mess. Once that’s done I can get on with sewing or pattern making for whatever I’m working on. I have my iPad next to me so I email friends and chat on Twitter in between stitches. Mid-morning we sometimes have a bit of a dance to “She Wolf” by Shakira* or “Decepticon” by Le Tigre. We always forget the time and end up getting lunch at around 3PM. Sometimes we pop out for coffee and cake with friends mid-afternoon. Our studio is at home so we work till late most nights.
What is your process like when designing a plush character? How do you come up with the great names?
Sometimes they start as a sketch, and sometimes they go straight into 3d without any sketches. The characters we make are normally inspired by people we see out and about. The names just happen really; we look at them and see what suits them. We sometimes hear a name and make a note of it for future reference. Every character has a back story. I feel strongly about this. I have to know about them to know what type of clothes they would wear. You can tell a lot about people by what they wear.
What things and which people inspire you?
Ooh that’s a tricky one. Travelling is always inspiring… nature, people, busy streets, fashion street photography like Face Hunter and the Satorialist. I’m lucky to have some very talented artist friends who all inspire me. It’s so nice to have their support and feedback; I’m not going to mention names, they know who they are. Anyone making a living doing their thing is inspiring, as it’s no easy task. But to name a few other artists: Christian Dior, Christobal Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood, Phillip Treacy, John Galliano (his work not his behaviour), Alexander Mcqueen, Madeleine Vionnet, Andre Courrege, Gareth Pugh, AJ Fossik, Bue The Warrior, Tove Jansson, Jim Henson, Dick Bruna, Jamie Hewlett, Craig Mcracken, Genndy Tartakovsky, Parra, Miroslav Sasek, Ryohei Yanagihara, Takashi Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki, Rodney Allan Greenblatt…
What’s coming up next???
More puppets with Pete Fowler for The Stuffs. Hopefully a solo gallery show next year. I also plan to turn the tables on the artists I have collaborated with in the past. They’ll do 2d interpretations of my 3d pieces, rather than the other way round, and then these will be shown next to each other. And more travelling…
I hope she (and Jonathan E) visits California soon! Since you made it to the end of the interview, you deserve to know the truth:
* Felt Mistress is not a Shakira fan but she does “have a soft spot” for “She Wolf”.
Check out Felt Mistress on Flickr and Twitter.