The 8 Ball: Donna Wilson
Weird and whimsical, Donna Wilson's knitted creatures are grounded in a dedication craftsmanship. Donna talks to us from her East London Studio about nurturing curiosity through craft.
How did you begin working with textiles?
My first, informal, introduction to textiles was via my granny. She not only taught me how to draw and paint from an early age, but she also tried to teach me to knit and crochet, but I didn’t have the patience!
I was first introduced to knitting machines when I studied Textiles at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen. It’s a much more instantaneous and gratifying process than hand knitting, and I love the way that I can create a fabric from strands of yarn, in exactly the texture, colour and pattern that I want.
After graduating from Grays, I worked as an assistant knitwear designer for a year, before studying for an MA in Mixed Media Textiles at the Royal College of Art in London. In between my first and second years at the RCA, I started to make my first textile products, my Donna Dolls. They were quite simple. Their bodies were made out of recycled jumpers and for their faces, I gave them two eyes, leaving the rest up to the imagination. I’d style their hair and make clothes for each one. One of my tutors, the textile artist Freddie Robins, was really supportive and encouraged me to approach some stores to see if they would be interested to stock them. My first stockist, Coverture and the Garbstore in London, went on to order twenty dolls a month, which paid my rent through college!
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
JB Blunk I’m finding myself more and more inspired by fine artists and sculptors. I love the work of - it’s the naivety and relationship to materials that appeals to me – and also Alexander Calder. I’m always inspired by knitwear and colour, nature and constantly trying to bring these three elements together.
We love your Creatures. How often do you imagine up a new one? What does that process look like?
Thanks! The creatures were really where it all began for me. Having designed and sold my Donna Dolls while studying at the RCA, the creatures were a kind of logical (or illogical) evolution. I was inspired by how you draw as a child – when it doesn’t really matter how many legs or arms or eyes you draw; it’s just creative and free. The very first creatures I made were amongst my weirdest and most wonderful. Cannibdoll, for example, was inspired by a TV documentary I’d seen about a German cannibal who was looking for someone to eat. I just thought that was the weirdest story ever! Since then they’ve gotten tamer and more animal-like although now I’m seeing a resurgence of the weirder ones again. I still can’t quite believe I have made a business making knitted creatures.
Talk to us about the importance of craftsmanship in your work.
The craftsmanship of my products is very important to me. I try to produce as much of my collection as possible in the UK, in order to promote local manufacturing and help keep British craftsmanship alive. I think the handmade irregularities of so many of my products contribute to their character and personality. For instance when we make our creatures, we use the same process for each one, and yet because they’re made by hand and by different makers, you could never make two exactly the same. What I love about them is that you might see two slightly different Charlie Monkeys in a shop, but one person will be drawn to one, and another person will want the other. People have asked me why I don’t get them mass produced, as it would certainly be less time consuming, but for me I think they would lose their charm, identity, and oddness.
What does your dream space look like?
Was whimsy an integral part of your childhood too?
I think I played a lot on my own and with my sister, making up games. And a lot of input from our Grandma, who had a great imagination too, and was very kind and patient with us. Now that I have two young boys of my own, I try to encourage their own creativity and nurture their own inquisitive natures.
Something you are looking forward to, personally or for your business.
After the last few months, I’m looking forward to being able to travel again! I really miss traveling up to Scotland to visit friends and family. My parents still live on the farm that I grew up on. I also really miss my trips to New York and Paris, where I usually show my new collections at the trade shows every year. It’s always good to get a handle on what people are doing and how trends are changing, even if it’s to know what to avoid doing. Sometimes it’s a catalyst to move my designs on – especially if I see too much of something at the shows – and it helps me to keep evolving. I’d also love to go back to Iceland - it’s somewhere close to my heart, and the rugged landscape is absolutely stunning.
The best advice you can offer to others starting off in the design space.
Take time to work out what you want to say, what you want to offer and your own unique point of difference. You don’t have to appeal to everyone. I think there’s something to be said for staying niche, as it gets harder and harder to compete with the mainstream.