Margo Selby’s woven fabrics are characterised by their intricate patterns, strong colours and bold designs. Absolutely visits her in her Whitstable studio
Words Pendle Harte
Meet Margo Selby
Weaving is having a moment. Tate Modern’s recent show of Anni Albers’ work threw weaving, and particularly women weavers, into the spotlight and Margo Selby is one of the UK’s best and most successful weavers. Her work spans large-scale commissions and major licenses as well as an ongoing stream of one-off, hand-woven pieces. She is both a talented maker and a savvy entrepreneur.
Having started her business 15 years ago, straight out of college with a large floor loom taking up a lot of space in her bedroom in Willesden, she now manages a serious business from a studio in Whitstable. She produces designs for companies ranging from Osborne and Little to the Royal Opera House, via the London Transport Museum and Bert Frank, while continuing to weave her own blankets, scarves and lengths of fabric for framing. Her colourful, graphic patterns have a strong signature that’s immediately identifiable, even in the vast variety of her output – and her dedication to the craft is enormous.
I like it to make sense and be ordered and have a structure – I don’t like designs that are too organic.”
She’s also hugely friendly and fun. Welcoming me to her studio, she is clearly loved by her employees, all of whom, she insists, must spend some time on the loom every week. It’s fundamental for her that the business won’t lose sight of its roots in hand weaving. Because it all started with technique. At first, she had a fascination with making fabric, though not specifically woven fabric. She tells me: “My family have always had a tradition of women making textiles at home. My granny taught me crochet, knitting and cross-stitch. I was interested from a young age, so when I found out I could do a degree in textiles I thought that was really exciting.”
Margo wasn’t immediately interested in weaving because of what she assumed would be a restrictive method. “You do have to be very disciplined and follow a lot of rules and I’m not really like that, but somehow that discipline gives me a big sense of security and my work a lot of structure. I’m very mathematical; I like it to make sense and be ordered and have a structure – I don’t like designs that are too organic.”
The loom, she explains, was essentially the first computer. It works to a binary formula; designs are drawn on paper in the form of grids representing different squares of pattern, warp or weft. Working a loom all depends on the complex threading of it, with the warp thread on the loom and the weft thread going through it.
But what is it actually like, sitting at a loom and weaving? “It’s very meditative, rhythmic, you can get lost in it.” Do you have to count? Is it forgiving or are mistakes rectifiable? “There is some counting,” she admits. “But yes, you can unpick it.” She encourages me to have a go and it’s quite physical: first you pull the beater towards you and push it back, then you push the foot pedal and throw the shuttle carrying the weft thread through the warp structure, and then repeat: pull the beater again and so on. It’s a rhythm and I can imagine continuing happily for some time, once you’re in the swing of it.
What I can’t imagine, however, is conceiving of a pattern and working out how to thread the loom to create it. “One of the most difficult things when you’re learning is to have an idea in your head and translate it to the loom. I have found that as long as the vision is really clear then the result is successful. Understanding pattern and graphic design has become an important part of the business.”
Mills can do more complex patterning with jacquard looms, while Selby’s own main loom has 24 shafts that can be lifted differently, to create separate weaves side by side. When working with a mill, she will provide them with a sketch created in Illustrator, and then instruct them to apply certain weaves. “So I can combine my work on the handloom with the industrial. Some people think of manufacturing as a dirty word, but for me, the mills are run by amazing craftspeople with many years of experience in developing techniques.”
“It’s a bit of a dying craft, it’s a slow process and one that’s easy for people to forget so we feel like we’re keeping it alive.”
Margo runs weaving workshops for complete beginners as well as more experienced weavers, not because she needs to fill her weekends with weaving but because she wants to keep the craft alive, and because she just loves it. “It’s a bit of a dying craft, it’s a slow process and one that’s easy for people to forget so we feel like we’re keeping it alive.” She also mentors younger weavers through a Crafts Council scheme.
While Margo Selby fabric has become a staple in the interiors industry, it was accessories that came first for her. In fact, she wasn’t particularly interested in what the fabric would be used for at first – all she cared about was making different fabrics and patterns, experimenting with threading the loom to get different results. “I thought I wasn’t going to worry about the end use, I’d just make pieces,” she says, and though her first pieces did become scarves, that was mostly because of the simplicity of the scarf size and shape.
Today she makes fragments of cloth that are designed to be framed as art pieces; last year she held a solo exhibition of them. “I feel as though I’m painting with yarn, exploring how colours and threads react to one another when I place them together. I’m fascinated by the process of blending yarns on the loom rather than dyeing them.”
When people started asking her to apply her fabrics for interiors, she started with headboards. Soon there were commissions for hotels and bigger projects, and she started to think about making fabrics that were more suited to them. Durability is hugely important for upholstery and interiors fabrics. “We have just made our first rug out of recycled bottles. It’s a wool imitation and it feels nicer than some of our wools,” she says with enthusiasm. That was woven in India, though she uses mills in the UK wherever possible.
How does she approach commissions? Her signature style is so strong, and yet it has been incorporated into pieces by so many different brands. “If you continue to make things yourself, no matter how many things you try, your signature will stay strong. You can’t get away from it really. I like to have texture on texture, pattern on pattern, little stripes on little stripes. I guess I’m a maximalist. I try hard to do neutral, but my neutrals have about 12 colours in them.”
Ultimately, she simply enjoys working with yarn, any construction of yarn. What next for Margo Selby? Predictably, it’s all about the looms. “This year, I want the looms to be working all the time,” she says.