When I was asked if I would be able to stand in for a booked speaker who had cancelled, at a local Scottish Women’s Institute meeting, I said ‘yes of course’, mainly because I haven’t yet learnt to say no, even though it often gets me in to trouble! This is that talk …
At the risk of sounding like I’m at an AA meeting, Hello I’m Kate MacDonald & I’m a Creative! I think many of you will know me from various places. I used to belong to the Kilmichael SWI, was President for a term & I have done a felt making demonstration for you. Or, you might have been on one or two of my sewing classes or been up to the Studio Barn during Artmap weekend, or maybe through Christ Church, the Scottish Episcopal church in Lochgilphead, where I am a Lay Reader, Peoples Warden and Lay Rep and involved in organising many of the events we run. You may also know, that I have my own business, Needlesmiths, that I am a textile artist & sewing tutor, that I do many other crafts like wet felt making and silverclay work. I enjoy writing, short stories and poems, I have a novel on the go, and on the first of March I published my new quarterly mini magazine. Somewhat less creatively, I’m also a Carer (with a capital C) for my husband and, increasingly, my parents. What you possibly don’t know about me is that I suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.
After 14 years on dialysis, in September last year, my husband Brian had a very unexpected kidney transplant which has been life changing for both of us. An incredible blessing, it hasn’t come without its problems and hitches. One of the unexpected issues has been the emotional fallout for both of us. Because it was so sudden, there wasn’t any preparation time. He went on the list again on the Monday and had a transplant on the Thursday, I didn’t believe it was happening, and still didn’t really until I saw him the day after the operation and there was an 8inch wound on his tummy, so something must have happened! Things got a bit bumpy before Christmas, but I had things to do that helped to distract me from the hospital visits and the worry, commissioned lampshades, stock for events and for the new store in Glasgow that sells my work. Events to organise at church and the Homestyle Argyll Christmas House event, and presents and cards to make for family and friends. It was a time of major creative output, of painting and sewing, of designing and printing, of hospital dashes, and preparations for seasonal visitors. I couldn’t have been happier! Then it was the kerfuffle of Christmas and New Year, I thought I would have a week or two to relax and then off I would go again. Only that didn’t happen. It was as though I had forgotten how to paint or sew. Then Brian went into hospital again for a week, and then dad went into hospital for a month, and I couldn’t work. I tried tidying up, I started two evening classes. No dialysis meant we had more time & I could do these things. Although I could write, I still couldn’t work. I started to walk the dogs further in the afternoons, they didn’t complain, and it meant that I didn’t have to pretend to be working. I started to question what I was going to do. There was a lot of noise in my head and I didn’t know how to shut it up. There was a rising tide of panic in my chest, settling like a stone. I was tired but couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t hungry but picked and ate to try to squash down my feelings, an increasing waistline didn’t help the way I felt. A fear of failure kept me from trying anything. The insidious envy I felt at friend’s successes and holidays ate away at me. I couldn’t read magazines because I would compare my position with others. But to the outside world I was smiley, and all was fine. A health scare didn’t help matters, I had no-one to share my concerns with, so carried the worry it until tests were negative only then did I ‘fess up and that I had fibbed about my whereabouts on one day. But those dog walks, and my two evening classes, where immensely helpful. One class was Creative writing, and the other is Printmaking. Not an area I’m terribly familiar with so it made me think and concentrate on the task in hand.
What I now realise I should have done, was stop properly. Take time out, enjoy doing nothing for a while. But I’m not really made that way, & I didn’t stop to really assess how I was feeling. Now I’m the other side of that wall of mud I can see things much more clearly. In January there is so much flying around about planning for the year ahead, on the radio, television, on social media, in magazines, new resolutions, new beginnings, but at the time everything looked a bit grey and muddy.
I was thinking about my ‘Why’, my ‘What’, and my ‘How’, with regards to my business & our new homelife. It is hard for someone who strives to live with less, (still trying get this through to my clutterbucket, shopaholic husband!), who has been very ‘green’ for much of her life, who hates waste and plastic, to then make products and encourage people to buy them! But who is also unable to live without creating stuff, sewing, painting, making, writing and who also needs make a living as she is pretty much unemployable these days.
I shared a few things on-line and had some lovely responses and messages which really helped me put things into focus. In particular, a comment from someone (who might be in the room…) who had been in one of my early sewing classes 4 years ago or so, about how she is still sewing and upcycling fabric. It made me realise that I didn't have to try to save the world on my own, and that by running workshops I can teach others how to sew and how to reuse fabric thus creating less waste. It was a real lightbulb moment. I was now able to plan the first quarters workshops.
My lampshades made me pause, and gave me a headache, but I was told that they bring people joy & happiness. And I do love making them. After a bit of research, I am delighted to have sourced organic, Fairly Traded calico which I will start to use for my artwork & lampshades and that helps me to feel better about the new fabric I use. I’ve recently been investigating recycled thread made from plastic bottles. I still have mixed feelings about this but am willing to give it a go and see how it behaves. Cotton, although obviously a natural fibre, isn’t very environmentally friendly to produce, I haven’t found a bamboo sewing thread yet although it is made into fabric and knitting type yarns and embroidery silks.
With the off cuts of calico, I make hand-painted cards. The card stock is made in the UK from recycled paper. I don’t put the cards into single use cellophane sleeves but use a paper wrap to keep envelope and card together and to have somewhere to put the price label. So, I’m happy with the way I produce these.
All of my fabric waste and thread snips I send to Mary’s Meals as they can get money for scrap fabric by weight.
Subsequently I’ve found that I can marry my passion and the necessity for sewing & creating with treading more lightly on the earth. That I can sell my products in good conscience knowing that they give pleasure and happiness alongside sound environmental & ethical practice.
And that includes silverclay believe it or not.
Silverclay, and copper, bronze, and gold clays are produced by recycling the metals from computers, mobile phones and so on, combined with recycled fabric and paper fibres then mixed with a non-toxic organic oil.
I have been obsessed with textiles since forever. As a baby I was put down to sleep (& keep out of mischief) in a large wicker costume hamper at the Birmingham Rep theatre. My parents worked in the Props and Costume departments and I think that that early contact with fabric rubbed off on me, literally. Playing in dad's workshop with trims and ribbons, hiding in the fabric store with bolts of material standing in corners, shelves stacked with folded textiles, tins of buttons and strings of beads. But it took me a while to be able to create textile art, even though textiles have been at the centre of everything I’ve ever done creatively. For my A levels I screen printed fabric and sewed it into a pair of curtains & a matching laundry bag to fit in with a ‘bedroom’ scene that I had created and that included designing and making a futon style sofa bed with storage – Parts of which still exist 30 years on. I soaked fabric in clay slip so that it ‘fossilised’ when I was on my foundation course. I presented an exhibition design stitched onto hessian during my degree course, which wasn’t really appreciated and probably contributed to me leaving before completing my degree! After a few years in the wilderness that is the Sky megacorporation in Fife & West Lothian, my increasing interest in green issues and galloping disinterest and disinclination for working in a bullying office environment and a chance read of a tiny advert in a Sunday paper for casein (milk based paint) lead me to work for a building conservation charity. There I introduced weekend workshops and lead my first workshops introducing homeowners and professional decorators to chemical free paint. Then Brian & I moved west, and I started my first business selling natural building and decorating materials. This was about 17 years ago, and I was well ahead of the curve and fashion. Then Brian & I open M.A.C.K. & M.A.G.S. (Mercantile Arts Centre Kintyre & Mid Argyll Green Shop) some of you may remember, in Tarbert. Again, we were ahead of the game, doing gluten free, dairy free, vegan, food & drinks and eco products in the shop. Brian became ill & I couldn’t manage a 7 day a week business, a husb who at that point could barely walk, and although we don’t have children, we had three dogs and five cats and it’s not so easy to get a babysitter for those with four feet!
Throughout the time Brian was ill, learning to dialyse, sitting at hospital beds I often had a creative project on the go. Something I didn’t really need to think about that my hands could do by themselves. Designing my own tapestries was a good one. Easy to pick up and put down, no counting or dropping of stitches, no forgetting which way the crosses went. Just enough concentration to let the mind settle and get off the hamster wheel.
This was now 14 or 15 years ago, but it wasn’t really until very recently that I realised just how much creativity, making and doing was tied into how well I felt or didn’t feel.
About three years ago I went on a creative weekend away in Cambridgeshire. I was terrified. Just getting there was going to be for me, an epic journey, drive to Glasgow, hotel overnight, then three trains to Cambridge where I was going to be picked up by my kindly B&B owner. By the time I arrived down there everyone at the workshop were going to be monsters. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I was in a different country! Even if it was the one I grew up in! In the end of course, it was a fabulous weekend, everyone was lovely, and I made some really good friends who I am still in touch with. The lady who ran the weekend, Emma Mitchell, known on line as Silverpebble, has suffered from severe depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder for many years. She has found that making things, being creative and walking, in all weathers, deliberately observing what is going on around, not just plodding head down minding the rain and avoiding the puddles, really helps to boost her mental health. A scientist by training she has read the research that backs this up and explains how studies have shown that interacting with the natural world can influence the serotonin levels in the brain.
She wrote her first book about crafting her way through the dark days and her second book is a diary of her year in and out of depression alongside the months and seasons and how she feels. They are both very lovely books and I highly recommend them.
(At this point I gave a demonstration & made some silverclay mussel shells)
If you’re feeling blue then doing a workshop, being creative or going for a walk, will really lift your spirits. Obviously, I run a variety of courses and creative days, in a number of different skills, but also locally Love Dove Studio – opposite the Square Peg next to the Sweetie Jar in Lochgilphead - are doing evening & weekend workshops on floral displays and painting. Lochgilphead college does evening classes, in pottery, printmaking, photography & creative writing, and the MS Centre has craft afternoons.
So, this, in a roundabout way with many a side-track and tangent is my story and how I manage my mental health and how out of something that looks a little bit muddy some silver will appear!
Talk given to the ladies of Lochgilphead SWI in March 2019
Fabric hoarder & sewing stuff accumulator; Tea drinker & cake eater; Artist; & Carer; Teacher of things made with needles ...