A chat with Lynsey Walters

Lynsey Walters is a fellow Scottish designer of whose bold, colourful work I am an enormous fan – and whose necklaces and earrings (I am thrilled to say) we are now stocking in the KDD shop. You may already be aware, of how much I love Lynsey’s work, as I seem to have worn quite a lot of it this year. . . .

Wearing Stronachlachar and my original Lynsey Walters necklace

When you like someone’s work, it’s always nice to find out that, not only is what they do completely brilliant, but they are a lovely person too. That’s certainly been the case with Lynsey, with whom, as a woman similarly running a small design business here in Scotland, I felt an immediate sense of collegiality and solidarity from the moment we first spoke. I recently caught up with Lynsey to talk about her work and her approach to design – I hope you enjoy our chat as much as I did!

Lynsey Walters

Hi Lynsey! As you know, I’m a big fan, and am very excited to stock your work! Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and how you got started in design?

I live and work at home in Scotland with my husband and two children. I grew up in Fife, and have just returned there, after living for the past nineteen years in Edinburgh. I am a textile jewellery designer and I have had my one-woman business since 2000, having started up straight away after graduating from the Royal College of Art that year. Tricia Guild bought a handbag I had created at my graduation show and that gave me the boost of confidence I needed to set up on my own. Two decades later, here I am! I started out with quite a varied textile output, making handbags and scarves as well as cushion covers and blankets. In fact I made everything from peg bags to loo roll covers back then.

Things were very different at the turn of this century, with a less sophisticated and visually-oriented internet, and far less of a focus on digital marketing than there is today. How did you go about establishing your business as a designer just starting out twenty years ago?

While living in London, I was awarded a business set-up grant from the UK Crafts Council, and although I didn’t take up the grant (because I moved back here to Scotland) I did receive a mentoring session before I left which proved to be invaluable. I was advised to look at the American market for my work and received a last minute place with the British group at the NY Now trade show. I did not expect to sell much on my first visit but much to my surprise I received enough orders to sustain my business for a whole year! I continued traveling to America for this show for the next fifteen years, attending both the summer and winter events. During this period, I was lucky enough to take orders from some wonderful stores including the New York Museum of Art and Design, The Museum of American Folk Art and the San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design.

Unfortunately after the financial crisis the American market changed quite radically, so I then ventured into the UK market which was a revelation to me: having somehow got it into my head that what I did was only viable in the US, I couldn’t believe people here were interested in buying my work too! In between, I had my children and also had a few bouts of poor mental health. My anxiety meant I didn’t want to travel so I have focused on selling in the UK for the last few years. I would love to go back to the USA at some point in the future, though. New York is such a wonderful city.

You use a lot of wool felt – both hand-made and industrial – in your work. Can you tell us why you are drawn to wool felt as a medium?

I started working with wool felt having accidentally wandered into a felt-making summer school in Edinburgh just before I moved to London to start at the RCA. I joined in with the class for ten minutes and made my first ever wool felt ball and something clicked. I think I have definitely made thousands since! When I walked into that workshop I had never read anything or been taught anything about felt, or felt-making. I just found my way through a lot of happy accidents. I actually think this has done me a great service, as my approach seems quite different from others in my field so my work is pretty unique. And what’s not to like about wool felt? It is just so tactile and so pliable and surprisingly versatile too. If you don’t follow the rules and just use a bit of common sense there is so much you can do with it. It also holds a real density of colour that I love.

I first came across your work in a small gallery shop full of lovely things, and when I opened the door found myself drawn immediately to one of your necklaces. Your work has a really strong effect on me that I think is emotional as much as it is aesthetic. I wondered if you think about the emotional effect of your pieces when designing them, and if so, how you’d like them to make people feel?

That is a really interesting response. It’s something I’ve not often consciously thought about but I think my colour aesthetic is quite child-like, and I keep quite a few vintage toys and beads around my studio as inspiration. I suppose I hope that without being predictably retro in style my work can evoke positive feelings of nostalgia. As children, we have a playful approach to colour, enjoy touch and texture, and mix bold shades and shapes together freely. Perhaps my work brings some of that playful pleasure back.

That’s certainly part of the pleasure for me! But then I also think your work has some very grown up, pared-back qualities – it’s so bold, graphic and precise. I wonder if you find these qualities inspiring in other aesthetic contexts? How would you describe your design influences?

I’m really happy that you find my work precise. I often imagine that when I tell people I work with felt I can picture what they are imagining. Fuzzy edges and sludgy colours! This kind of felt making is of course completely valid and can certainly be very beautiful – it’s just not my taste or how I want to work. I like pattern a lot, my degree at Edinburgh College of Art was in Printed Textiles, so yes I love stripes and spots and checks. I have quite a collection of mid century enamel kitchenware, the bold colours and designs of Catherineholm enamel for example or 1950’s Barbantia enamel or Carltonware ceramics. I really feel design inspiration can come from anywhere and for me a lot of it is found in the kitchen!

If you could take any artist, designer or creator, alive or dead, out for a cup of tea (or coffee) and a chat, who would choose?

Well that is hard to choose! The first person that springs to mind is Orla Kiely. So many questions about so many things. Business and design.

You make each one of your pieces. The handmade aspect of your work is really important, and is one of the many things I love about it. Can you describe your process when designing and producing a finished piece?

My hands are there from start to finish – and I generally always design through hands-on experimentation with the material. Either handmade felt or industrial felt. If I make a drawing it’s a very quick and simple sketch of an idea on my desk pad just so I don’t forget the thought. Although I used to love drawing when I was at college it’s something I rarely do now. I honestly think my design brain is at its best when working with three dimensions so the feedback from my hands, and the material I’m working with is very important. So it’s a case of continually experimenting, fiddling around with materials and colour combinations until I feel happy with a finished design.

I’ve enjoyed discovering weaving this year – and have found the process of returning to learn a new skill from scratch as a complete beginner really refreshing. Are there other creative activities you enjoy that don’t involve designing and creating jewellery?

I really love to cook and to decorate my home, those are my main creative outlets outside of my work. Fortunately my family enjoy my cooking and they pretty much give me free rein with interior design at home. Although my daughter has her own views now and has decided she would like to become an interior designer! I’m really looking forward to being able to have friends round again to cook for. And we have just moved from a Georgian flat to a 1970’s house so my mind is a-whirl with decorating and interior design ideas. When things are back to normal I would like to try ceramics – it’s something I have wanted to do for a long time. When I was ten or eleven I used to go and have classes with a potter in the next small town to mine. Her studio was so wonderful and inspiring and she was so encouraging – she used to tell me my creations showed an interesting sense of humour! I don’t think I really understood that as a child but I do now and it is something I feel retrospectively flattered by.

Ah yes, I’d really love to try ceramics too but suspect it is a medium in which I might make make an unacceptable amount of mess! Whatever medium you work with, however your work is situated, I think that 2020 has been very strange for most creative business people. How has life and work changed for you this year?

Life and work changed pretty much overnight for me in 2020, when the first lockdown hit. My husband began working from home, which led to a huge (and improved) change to the family dynamic. And my own work completely transformed too. The main focus of my business has always been wholesale — selling to retailers, who are often bricks-and-mortar shops. But the orders that I’d received at January’s trade show were all either cancelled or indefinitely delayed in the space of about a week. At first I panicked – how on earth was my business going to survive? Fortunately the year before I had set up my own online shop and I began to promote this as much as I could on social media. The orders began to come in. Then a huge boost came to my business when you mentioned my website on your blog! I distinctly remember looking at my site one Friday afternoon just after I’d sent my new weekly newsletter and all of a sudden there were loads of visitors – I look back and laugh when I remember that I thought “wow! you must have done really well with your newsletter this week!” It wasn’t until the Saturday morning that I realised what was actually happening. And so Kate I will be forever grateful to you for wearing and mentioning my work on your wonderful blog! Thank you!

Lynsey, the pleasure is all mine! Thanks so much for joining us here on the blog today and I’m really happy to be stocking your wonderful work in the KDD shop!