I went to Sweden last week, as a guest of Gudrun, with Polly Leonard, founder of everyone’s favourite textile magazine Selvedge. She was very good company and gamely agreed to a quick on-the-hoof interview for TWR while we sat drinking tea and eating delicious blueberry tarts (OK, only I was scoffing pastries) in Kulturen’s pretty tea house.
Polly, how long ago did you start Selvedge?
“The process of having the idea to having the first issue took about a year, so we never quite know when to celebrate the birthday but it’s been about ten years.
Why did you want to start a textile magazine?
Because I’m completely, wholly passionate about textiles and ten years ago, there was nothing. There were several amateur publications that were very self congratulatory, didn’t have professional photography, didn’t have professional writing and didn’t really do justice to what I felt was the wonderfulness of textiles.
What’s your background?
I did embroidery and weaving, so I don’t know anything about journalism at all (Actually Polly, we think you do….) After I graduated I went to the USA to do a masters degree in fibres, as they call it, which was fabulous, because in the US, there was a whole infrastructure around textiles. There were galleries where you could just see textile art and magazines that you could read about textiles, it was fabulous.
This was back in the early 90s, there was nothing like that here (in the UK), we had the V&A for historical pieces but that was about it, there was no structure around contemporary textiles. When I graduated, I think there’s a whole generation of talented artists that never got off the ground, there just wasn’t the respect or the infrastructure that there is today.
Why or what do you think has changed?
The internet. I suppose because the audience is geographically widely spread, maybe we had to wait for the internet to get enough people interested. Now you can make things and very quickly and put them on Etsy. Right from the beginning, Selvedge had subscribers as far spread as Japan and the West coast of the US. The news wouldn’t have spread so fast without the internet and that helped the economics of magazine publishing to work for us.
Textiles is seen as a female art and is often less respected, but I sense that is changing, would you agree?
Yes and no, when you see the word ‘craft fair’ it almost send a shiver down your spine, you’ve got to be very careful about craft because it can be from a doily to something fabulous. Maybe there ought to be a wider vocabulary to describe that whole range of skills. I don’t want to be at all derogatory about people who love making things as I think that has a great value all of its own. What I think is an issue is that those people without any training who make things and think its art, when clearly it is something else. Perhaps if we had a better vocabulary around the whole subject.
I think you’re right, we need a new vocabulary around the word craft…it’s too simplified. Tell us what’s the best thing about your job?
Still it’s the textiles. Last week, I went to the Boro exhibition and it was just divinely, utterly beautiful.
And the worst thing?
I offend people a lot! I don’t publish things people think I should. I get lots of emails that start with ‘I make so and so and Selvedge would love this’ and for me that’s kind of an instant ‘I probably wont. I don’t think all things deserve merit, it’s unfortunate, but there we are.
I love the idea of you being controversial, is it more that you are applying a high quality standard?
Yes I think so, eventually that will, of course, have people falling by the way side. it’s a shame. I have an issue with Etsy too. It is fabulous, of course, that someone now can make something wonderful and put it on Etsy. But then you look at the prices, and they don’t do any favours to women, to handwork or to the people who are trying to make their living from it.
You mean they aren’t charging enough for it?
Yes, We featured someone a while ago who was very talented, great at drawing and her craftsmanship was beautiful, but she ended up selling things that I knew would have taken a day to make for twenty pounds. Now, that’s no help.
In UK fashion colleges, there’s been a move towards commercializing the design student so they are better at business when they graduate, is that needed in textiles?
That certainly doesn’t happen in textiles. What does happen is there are 1500 new graduates each year launching careers, all know how to weave, or make a surface print, but have no idea what to do after that, so they make cushions, or ipod cases, or scarves… the world is drowning in cushions. They need to team up with a product designer to make relevant product.
Finally, how do you keep yourself inspired?
I used to look at blogs, then somehow there are too many now, the curation has stopped. So I moved onto Pinterest, now that’s too much too! I just live, breath and eat textiles, so from whatever source, it filters in.”
Selvedge is holding one of its fabulous fairs this weekend in Bath, where it’s bringing a handpicked selection of 25 fashion designers to the historic Octogan Chapel in Bath. Just for the day (Saturday 10th May) the Grade II listed chapel, which was built in 1767 and regularly visited by Jane Austen, will be filled with fine fashion and beautiful accessories. It’s part of the quite marvellous sounding Bath In Fashion week, details here. You’ve got to go if you’re close.