Creative in the Countryside: Nicky Barfoot
Nicola: I’d love for you to start by telling us about yourself, your business and what drew you to the work you do?
Nicky: Thanks Nicola. My name is Nicky Barfoot. I’m a knitwear and embroidery kit designer, and a knitting workshop tutor, living in the UK. I have been a compulsive maker all my life. I blame it on my amazing, talented Mum and Nanna who taught me to knit when I was very young. It was their sneaky way to keep an active child entertained when the weather was too bad to play outside. I had the best dressed Teddy Bear and Tiny Teddy’s (I was a child of the 1970s) in my street.
I was a teenager in the 1980s when fashion became flamboyant. Knitwear was big, colourful and adventurous. I would buy copies of Vogue Knitting magazine and try to recreate the patterns. Unable to afford the recommended yarn, I’d use anything in the house that could be cut up and strung together. Think sheets, string and assortments of left over yarn knotted together. My sister and her friends described me as having my own unique fashion style!
I didn't start to view my creativity as a potential business until quite recently. One Christmas I decided I needed a challenge. I wasn't competing as seriously in sport and I needed a new focus. I enrolled in a City and Guilds qualification in Hand Knit Design. But I found this qualification challenging. Not so much from the creative point of view, but the implication that there were right and wrong ways to do things. This was news to me as I had been making it up as I had gone along for over 30 years!
I stuck it out and finished it. What I learned during the course has come in handy from a teaching point of view, for my knitting workshops. But it also showed me that I don't enjoy following the rules. I wanted to use my knitting skills in a freer way. The local college was starting a new Foundation Degree in Stitched Textiles. Thinking that art might be the answer I enrolled, having no idea what to expect, and no formal training. I loved every moment of it!
While studying I also rediscovered my childhood love of drawing, printing and painting. Through a recommendation from a friend I happened upon West Dean College. This is an amazing place of art and craft study, based in the middle of the UK's beautiful South Downs. Over two years I completed their Foundation Diploma in Art and Design.
Inspired by all my study I entered the UK Knitted Textile Awards in 2013. I was delighted to win Silver with a series of knitted pictures based on life drawing studies. In 2014 I moved onto my current four legged muses, as well as three-dimensional knitted dog head sculptures based on the art of taxidermy. I wanted to explore whether knitted objects could be viewed as sculpture, rather than a soft toy. I was thrilled that these won the Gold award in that year's UK Knitted Textile Awards.
I began to realise that many people loved my ideas. But rather than buying a finished item the most common question was 'do you sell the pattern'? I started to make my designs available as accessible patterns and kits. I opened an Easy shop. I had many of my knitting patterns published in national magazines. I began to teach knitting workshops. Recently DMC Creative has approached me, and I’m going to be working with them to create four embroidery kit designs for their collection.
Tell us about the process of your work and where you draw your inspiration?
All my designs begin as drawings. Sometimes these are specific ideas that have popped into my head in a light bulb moment. Most often ideas evolve from my daily sketchbook practice. I try to get up early enough in the morning to spend 30 minutes or more drawing something, anything (!) before my day begins. Often the drawings remain in my sketchbook. But sometimes an idea evolves as I am working on it and will then form the start of a design process for stitch.
I also keep a hand written “journal” of ideas. A Moleskine book that goes into my handbag. I bring it out and write down any thoughts that happen while I sitting in coffee shops or on public transport etc.
What story do you want your work to tell? And what do you love most about what you do?
The main aim of my work is to delight. I want to provide my customers with a design that is accessible and enjoyable to make. And that brings a smile to their face as the characters appear. Over the years I have become more interested in the slow meditation of hand making, than in any finished item. In this high speed, high tech world I hope to share some of this simple focus with others. Humour is also very important to me. My designs are often illustrative, inviting a narrative and a chuckle from the viewer.
Animals are obviously your muse. You and I both have a love of dogs in common. And you know your dog is one of my favourite Instagram pups. Can you tell us what it is you love most about our four-legged friends, and what your beautiful dog has taught you most about life?
Aww thank you! (although I won’t tell her as she has a big enough head already and can be a bit of a Diva). We were brought up with pets in our house as children. There were rabbits, gerbils, Springer Spaniels, ponies (not in the house I hasten to add), a lizard and a few budgies. This love of animals, and particularly dogs, has stayed with me in adult hood. I currently have a 10-year young Weimaraner called Sas, and a 13-year old Jack Russell called Nelly. Sas is my second Weim. They are photogenic dogs and make brilliant models. I think it's the strange mixture of disdain and clown that they are so good at projecting. A beautiful, noble looking dog that will let you dress them in a wig and sunglasses. What’s not to like?
While Nelly has anxiety issues Sas is quite the opposite. This despite us being her second home when her first one didn’t work out. I have learnt so much from spending time with my big beige best friend and observing how she approaches life. She is enthusiastic about everything, including sleeping, and embraces every opportunity. Equally she isn’t averse to taking herself off to the garden. She is happy to lie in the warm grass and watch the bees buzzing and listen to the birds. The only thing that causes her any stress is the hour leading up to dinner in case we forget! She has no concept of embarrassment or of “can’t win won’t play”. We don't always see eye to eye but she doesn’t hold a grudge. She always greets me like my arrival is the best thing to have happened to her that day (even if I was only gone for 30mins). If you want to learn how to not sweat the small stuff, and how to appreciate what matters, I recommend spending time with a Weimadog.
Being active is also important to you and I know you love running in nature. Why is it so important to you to stay active and healthy? And how does this help you in your everyday life and work?
I have always needed daily fresh air and if I don’t get outside for a run it makes me miserable (just ask my husband!). This is one of the reasons behind my choice of dog breed, as Weims make the best training partner a girl could ask for. When I run with Sas I make the effort to go off road. I’m lucky to live near country parks and wooded enclosures. And I’m also within a short drive of the New Forest and the south coast of England. I find that being immersed in the simplicity of nature is good for the soul. When we are constantly bombarded with bad news stories, we need to remind ourselves how amazing our world is. Nature does this for me.
While working from home definitely has its benefits it also has its downsides. One I’ve found is an inability to switch off when there is no clear distinction between work and home space. Getting outside for a run helps provide this separation for me. Even if it’s only for an hour. It gives me permission to switch off from work so I can enjoy the moment. I can hear the birds, smell the air, feel the breeze (or rain) on my skin, and enjoy the scenery without interruption.
I also find that most of my best creative ideas come to me when I’m out running. These can be light bulb moments if I have a specific problem to solve. Or wider inspiration from the natural colour schemes and structures I see. And not to forget some of the doggy social interactions we become part of. I often come home with a phone full of photos. These either end up as a drawing somewhere in my sketchbook, or posted on Instagram.
If one of our readers were interested in taking up a hobby like knitting or embroidery, where would you suggest they start?
There are lots of brilliant online classes available these days. I've used Craftsy and Creativebug, and would recommend them as a starting point. There are also lots of free tutorials and blogs available, especially for knitting. As well as a good selection of magazines.
While these are great places to start, nothing beats actual classes with a tutor. They can see what you are doing and offer hints, tips and advice on how to improve. I have a lovely group of regulars who come to my monthly knitting workshops. They often remark on how much they learn from each other, as well as from me. Which is another added benefit.
No matter how someone chooses to start, the most important thing is to practice. Learning a new skill takes time and making mistakes is an essential part of this process. I would also recommend using the best materials you can afford. Often when people start out they have a low expectation of the outcome, so spend as little as possible. But I think it's important the process is enjoyable, even if you aren't going to be creating a masterpiece. Lovely yarns and materials make the experience of creating rewarding. Even if the scarf is wonky, or has holes in it, if it feels lovely around your neck then chances are you will still wear it. So all those hours of learning and making are not wasted!
More about my work can be found on my blog, nickybarfoot.wordpress.com and on my Facebook page. I love taking photographs and regularly post pictures that excite and inspire me (and lots of pictures of Sas) on Instagram as @nickybarfoot. My kits and pattern downloads can be purchased from my Etsy shop.