Debbie Siniska, British Textile Artist

Debbie Siniska

by Angie Boyer

Angie: Tell me about the different aspects of your work, Debbie.

Debbie: I’ve made rag rugs and hangings for many years, and I also now make felt clothing, bags and jewellery. I used to do a lot of beadwork, but I stopped it a while ago, mainly because it was just too labour intensive. I always loved making my bead jewellery and miss it in a way � every now and then I meet friends who are wearing one of my pieces and it reminds me how much I loved the process of designing and making. I find that my hands suffer as a felt maker and cutting up tons of old tee shirts and woollies for the schools projects makes my hands and finger tips sore. So gripping super fine beading needles and threading them up became a bit fiddly - I guess my patience has gone! Also, I wanted a new challenge, to do something more tactile, so I just moved on � to textiles. I work to commission with my rag rugs and also sell at shows and through galleries. The work I am doing now is a combination of making textile pieces and teaching ‘Creativity in Schools’ � a project I take into primary schools, that gets children working with old fashioned hand tools, and recycled textiles.

What about the techniques and skills you use � there is some rather quaint and strange terminology associated with rag rug making...

When I’m making rag rugs, my techniques are both primitive and contemporary. I use the shuttle hook, which dates back to the mid 1800’s. It is a two handed tool that pushes a fabric strip into a stretched hessian backing, working from the back to the front. The effect is a looped pile very similar to the pile you get when using a rug hook, that pulls a fabric strip up from the back of the hessian to the front. These rugs are ‘hooky’ rugs.
Another technique is ‘proggy‘, when cut tabs of fabric are prodded into a hessian backing, from the back to the front. I use an old tool called a bodger, and sometimes a dolly peg that has one leg removed and the other whittled down to a point. This is used to push small tabs of fabric into the backing. Such rugs are also called � proddy, proggy, clippie, clipped, pegg’d, poked, clootie � all derivatives of the action you make when working the fabric into the backing.
The contemporary techniques involve the use of more unusual materials such as net packaging, plastic bags, rubber gloves, and fibrous paper. All these materials make interesting textures to the surface pile.

Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?

At the moment I’ve been inspired by the Festival of Britain plant life designs of the 50’s. I’m using the soft muted tones of greens and orange and nut browns. I am always inspired by nature and its quirkiness and never cease to marvel at the wonder of� an oak leaf, the structure of honeysuckle� I see a natural super structure and am immediately inspired!
Felt making has been a more recent obsession for me. I studied it four years ago and have been making and experimenting ever since. Using the sustainable fibres of sheep’s fleece, felt has no warp or weft, and when cut, it does not fray. It’s flame proof and waterproof - it’s nature’s wonder fabric! There are infinite colour possibilities when blending coloured fleece and although felt making is hard work, (there are lots of processes to go through to get the results I want), it has a magical quality and I never really know how something will turn out. Each piece I make is unique. I would love to have the time to purely experiment, but I can’t afford that luxury; the teaching supplements my living as a textile artist.

Rag rug making must be the ultimate in recycling, how important is that aspect of your work for you?

My Mum did lots of recycling, very sensibly, and this has been the ethos of my work. For me, making my rag rugs is the purest form of recycling, it’s an enduring and homely thrift craft. Making something new from something old and using anything you had to hand as a tool - a peg, nail, stick or pencil, even a screw driver, all these things could be used as a proddy tool, to push fabric through a hessian grain sack backing. Sometimes the printed image on a sack would be used as the pattern for the rug, or a charred stick from the fire would be used to mark out a design. Often old worn out clothing would be cut up and put into a big bag, to be worked randomly to create a ‘mixy’ rug. I like the fact that this craft was worked out of necessity and that the whole family would have played a part in the making. Using their worn out clothes, these rugs were functional and full of memories.

There seems to be a revival of interest in rag rug making, especially decorative pieces such as wallhangings. Is your work primarily decorative or functional? And if it’s decorative, does it then become ‘art’, do you think?

Traditionally made with a contemporary feel, I think this craft is definitely seeing revival. A bespoke textile art piece will bring a blank wall, corridor, library area, or hospital waiting room to life. People like to have these tactile colourful mats and cushions in their homes, and favourite pets, or sayings and symbols can be worked into any rug, using textiles that perhaps have some special memory attached to them. Gran’s old cardi, Dad’s old jacket, baby’s vest etc. Rag rugs can play an important part in the daily rituals of life. Story telling rugs, hearth rugs, bedside and back door mats. Commemorative rugs, for weddings or funerals. ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Bless This House’, ‘Welcome’, were all words worked into traditionally made doormats. The rugs and banners I make are always meant to be functional and as they spring to life on the rug frame, they are art also. So yes, I would say the pieces I make do ‘become’ art - useful art!

What about pricing? I imagine that this is time consuming work, but on the other hand there is little perceived value in the materials you use...

As an artist I’ve always found it difficult to put a price on my work, after all, the textiles I use are recycled. I could never charge an hourly rate (unless I was doing a repair), I search out lovely old textiles and often work velvets, silks and pure lambs wool into my rugs. I believe a fair price should be paid for someone’s artistic expertise, skill and placement of colour. The unique piece that is made in a unique way counts for a lot, and often the people commissioning me will pay me the greatest compliment by telling me they trust my judgement having seen my work! That way I can relax and do my best work for them and their space.

Have you been working on any special commissions recently?

A lot of my commissions are Bloomsbury inspired and many are wall hangings, for example the Tinners Hares, which now hangs in a beautiful entrance hallway to a house in East Sussex, (but it would work just as well on the floor). More recently I have followed themes such as the Green Man, the Hare and one of my favourites, the Ox Eye Daisy, that grows in my garden. I recently did a medieval hare doormat for Lord Wakehurst, and have also had work in the National Trust shop at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, home of Vita Sackville-West. I was commissioned by Charleston Farmhouse, home of the Bloomsbury literary and art group of the 20’s, to make a reproduction of a Bloomsbury rug for the house that is open to the public. In 2000, I was also commissioned by the Tate Gallery in London to make 8 rag rugs in the Bloomsbury style for their shop, to accompany an important exhibition of Bloomsbury art to celebrate the millennium. I have made large pieces for London interior design companies and had a 12’ frame specially built in my studio.

Tell me about the schools project, it sounds both challenging and rewarding!

‘Creativity in Schools’ evolved from my work with my local council’s Waste Management team. I had an assistant and we would go along to primary and secondary schools in Kent armed with hessian, a box of tools and bags of recycled textiles, already cut into strips. We encouraged kids to bring in an old tee shirt of their own to cut up and use in their piece of work, or add to the rag bag. We heard lots of funny stories about Mum’s old party frock and Dad’s dodgy shirt. Teachers were amazed that normally disruptive children were loving it and that the less academic were also producing great work. Ofsted saw the project and were glad to see the issues of recycling and climate change being addressed in a fun way that children could relate to. The project ticks a lot of boxes and fits in well with art and technology and humanities. It gets children working dextrously with their hands. We have constructed lots of banners that have been hung in schools, giving the children a pride in their work. While we work we discuss the importance of recycling, most kids say they and their families recycle, and as recycling is a hot topic at the moment, it’s a good thing for them to see a primitive thrift craft, that still makes perfect ethical sense today.

You teach adults as well as children, do you need any qualifications for this?

I trained on a City and Guilds course to teach adults, and have been doing this for 20 years. I have taught MA students, and art students have used their work on this project as part of their GCSE art folios. I have taught young offenders, and at Women’s Refuge, as well as at schools and colleges. To go into schools you need to get a Police CRB Check by the local authority to the school.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about taking up this craft professionally?

I’d say it’s a lot of hard work! Your hands will suffer and there will be dust and bits everywhere. But, there’s tremendous satisfaction in expressing your artistic side in this way, and each piece you create will be unique.

Debbie Siniska


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