Carolyn Barnett is a one woman run enterprise producing hand loomed knitwear and felted artwear of her own designs. She studied fashion at Sheridan College and for many years, Carolyn’s focus was on custom garments, worked around her clients’ tastes, colour preferences and sizing. Her approach is classic simplicity with a lot of fun thrown in, making her own funky buttons, sweater pins and sweater sticks as closures and to complement her garments. She wants For the past few years Carolyn as been exploring new ways of working within her craft, felting wool, surface design… a more creative direction.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, and your background with respect to fashion and becoming a self-proclaimed “wool nut”. How did you come to call Kingston home? What’s kept you here?
To précis my bio, I was born in London and grew up in England where we knit in school when I was a kid. Just as I was taking exams and planning to go the the art college my family emigrated to Canada where I entered LCVI grade 11. Unfortunately I was denied art as I ‘didn’t have grade 10 art’…I was in another country!
Anyway, perusing my passion of sewing I attended Sheridan College for one year but was a bit bored so went to work in retail in Ottawa returning to college for my ECE (Early Childhood Education) diploma. Yes, I knit a lot when the children in my class were having their nap and started knitting for the cook at the nursery school…then others. A few years later while working in a retail art gallery and learning more about the business I started knitting in earnest making my own hand knit designs to sell.
My first juried show was the Ottawa Christmas Craft show in 1982 then I got into more shows including the One Of A Kind show. Working part time for a glass artist I traveled to New York each year and rediscovered the knitting machine which I’ve been using since 1984.
2. You have been running Carolyn M. Barnett Designs for over 30 years. During that time you’ve honed your skills as a fibre artisan, and naturally expanded into making clay buttons, giving workshops as well as designing websites for fellow artists. How do you manage it all? What drives your need to keep learning, sharing and creating?
It’s having my fingers in different pies which keeps me current and engaged. I hit a low after breast cancer which was followed by a recession where I couldn’t seem to sell anything for love nor money but I got an OAC grant and was able to learn wet felting and started making collars then jackets. My buttons & pins came about when, after living in Kingston and having to travel back and forth to Toronto for buttons, I met someone who showed me how to used polymer clay to make my own and I haven’t looked back.
I love sharing what I know with others so I teach (calling on my ECE training perhaps?!) Lots of people want to get into a new craft, hone what they know or just try something once for a giggle…I am fine with all comers.
23 years ago my husband brought home a Mac computer and I sneered and walked in the opposite direction but getting into email (to stay in contact with my Toronto friends), then internet I took over the build of my own web site and found it exciting and satisfied another creative aspect of my work. Starting to help out a couple of colleagues with web sites I realized that it was going to be an interesting business for me as I got older. Good for the brain and I got to sit down (lots of time on my feet felting, pressing, shows). I love learning…my Dad told me you stop learning only when you’re 6 feet under. The world is too full of stuff I don’t know yet…
3. You specialize in creating one of a kind, hand loomed knit wool and cotton-based clothes. Where do you draw your inspiration from when you’re designing a new piece/line. How long does is take you, from sketch to knit, to complete an item? Have you ever created something too good to sell, that you just had to hold on to?
Even as I age I keep doing shows, albeit smaller, as my connecting with other artists, artisans and their work… especially young folk coming up, keeps me inspired. Working on the knitting machine is solitary though I’ve always enjoyed my own company, so I take classes…mostly in felting, but I sometimes attend machine knitting seminars in the US.
I’m inspired by anything…architecture, paintings, fabric…just everywhere. I sometimes see something very exciting and think ‘can I knit that?’ (or felt it, these days). A knit used to be quick if it was a pullover, only four parts (front, back and sleeves) and I can do one in a day and a half or so but my jackets take much longer. More pieces (collars, two fronts, godets, trim and so on). I have to choose my colours and any patterns, plan, though not always sketch. I make a pattern with my computer program which gives me the schematic I plan with and spits out the numbers I need (stitches & rows)..then there are pencil notes all over my patterns as I make changes. When the pieces are worked, pressed and assembled (maybe over three days) I get out my polymer clay stuff and design and make the buttons.
With felting I use Merino wool prefelt which I dye, next day I lay that out, cut the pattern for the garment pieces and embellish with wools and silk (some of which I also dye). I wet down and ‘felt’ my pieces, using my hands and rolling for a total of a couple of hours, then the ‘fulling’ – dropping the pieces to shock the fibres into shrinking and firming up…then I go to bed! The next day is pressing, more felting for shape, drying, pressing then sewing and fitting. Then, of course, I make buttons. When I enlighten folk about my processes they understand the prices.
Yes, I made a wonderful vest in a workshop with a felter from Australia which I a)never will sell as I love it so much and b)wouldn’t make to sell because the process took four long, hard days.
4. Your work is primarily for sale in your studio, at select local galleries and online via your Etsy store. As an independent designer, can you give us a sense of both the satisfaction and challenges you’ve encountered selling your items locally? How has your online presence bolstered your reputation and sales?
Well, having been doing this for 35 years I have a name and my work is known. That helps with recommendation and reputation. I have always treated my clients with the respect I would expect but been firm if I feel they are heading down a design path I think either will be wrong for them or I just don’t want to do…not my styling for instance.
There are challenges to getting into the right shows festivals…I’ve done so many over the years, even church bazaars. I long ago decided there was no point in my participating in shows which were not juired and didn’t have high end artisans along side. There is more challenge being amongst amazing and accomplished career artists… a couple of my favourites were a very fine show in Cleveland (I was found at the Toronto Outdoor Art Show) and the One of a Kind Show in Chicago which I did for 8 years.
Fortunately even though I only do one Toronto show now and more local shows and festivals my reach is global due to the internet. (Web site, Facebook, blog etc). These days with travel we get a lot of folk coming to Eastern Ontario so I get to sell to folk from Toronto, Ottawa the US and beyond. I have done custom work for some who have contacted me through my web site and we work via emails and snail mail.
During my time in Toronto and doing TO shows I got to do some great and well paying theatre work (Stratford, Mervish). I did sweaters for ‘Tommy’ both here in Canada and in Germany…very exciting. I got to work with the Broadway costume designer.
In my capacity as a movie extra in Toronto I once had Vanessa Redgrave compliment me on my work as she felt and looked at some piece. Unfortunately she was in costume and filming… like a dope I don’t think I gave her a card.
5. As one of over 150 exhibitors and artisans participating in Artfest Kingston, what attracted you to exhibit your pieces at the festival? What special one of a kind items do you hope to bring along to tempt buyers?
I’m a lot older than I used to be and don’t work as hard so my stock is smaller than, say, 15 years ago but I’m not competing with anyone really…I try to just to my own thing. I participated in Fanfayr for most of it’s 29 years and missed doing a great local show so when Lory brought Artfest to Kingston and I checked it out the first year I wanted to be a part of that! I love the weekend, it always reminds me of an English summer festival with food, music, art, crafts and anything else Lory and her team can squeeze in. I will have my knits, felted jackets and vest and some new Nuno felted silk scarves… along with polymer clay buttons and pins and my hand knit socks. As I don’t have a lot of stock it makes what I do have one of a kind pieces…if you see something you like snap it up. I once had a lady in Cleveland, at the opening gala evening, decide that she’d rather get some caviar and return later for the knit jacket she really liked… even though her husband encouraged her to deal with it ‘now’. She returned for the jacket… and I had sold it!
6. Finally, what are your expectations for this year’s festival? Do you see yourself taking a break, mingling with fellow “wool nuts”, and making the rounds to peruse the works of other artists/makers? If so, what types of exhibitors/performers will likely catch your eye.
If a friend walks by and comes for a chat (someone who isn’t in the show) I’ll grab a trip to the facilities and a food truck but I stay in my booth the whole time. The only time I’ll take a break to wander around is if my husband sits in my booth. He’s a great sales person for my work as he’s been doing it for nearly 30 years! Then he phones me
to return to my booth to personally meet my potential client.
I will stop by my friend’s booths to check on them and see their new work, I might give them a ‘pee’ break if they are alone and my husband is in my booth. I’ll stop in at any new work I find interesting. My husband will often see something he knows I’ll be interested in and I’ll get to check it out and do a bit of shopping. Also, my husband knows a lot of the artists too and will stop in to give bathroom breaks. Once at the One of a Kind show he sold a bracelet while in a friend’s booth…she wanted him to come back and do it again! I usually have a couple of out of town artists staying with me for Artfest and we do a post morem after each day over a glass of wine with our feet up.