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Article: Nicola Gates - Hand Weaver


Nicola Gates - Hand Weaver

Handweaving on a traditional Irish loom

  • What do you make?

I create a range of functional and decorative products made from my own handwoven woollen cloth. At the moment, this is mainly cushions and small zipped bags, but I'm currently working on a couple of scarf designs for winter. I'm really excited about these because I love the idea of creating something that people can wrap themselves up in and use to keep warm! I also sometimes weave larger pieces like wall hangings and rugs for exhibitions.

  • Could you tell us a little bit about your studio? Favourite thing about the space and how do you get into the mindset of making?

My studio is in north Belfast, in an area nick-named 'Little America' because of the many American street names. It's a part of the city that I didn't know at all before, but I love it now - there's a gorgeous park called the Waterworks very close to our building with so many birds, and we have a lovely view of Cavehill.

I share the building with the architectural practice Oscar & Oscar, who saw its potential a few years ago and as well as using it as their own base, decided to let the other spaces out to artists and makers. It's a lovely light-filled office building from the 60's, and I don't think much has been changed since then, which gives it lots of character! We also have a couple of bakers who make sourdough bread and other delights for sale in the local area.

I do most of my computer-based work at home, so when I get into the studio I have few distractions to take away from designing and making time. That definitely helps! Of course, smartphones can ruin this a little so I keep my phone on silent a lot of the time and try only to check it for a few minutes at break-times - easier said than done.

  • What is your favourite tool and why?

Hm, that's tricky as I have quite a few but I'd have to say the warping board that my brother made for me when I first started to weave at home many years ago. It's basically a long piece of MDF with short dowelling pegs, mounted on the wall. I wrap long lengths of yarn around it to make my warps - this is the first practical step (after the technical design) to weaving cloth so it always feels very positive. It could be quite a monotonous task (depending on the width of the cloth and structure I might have to wrap up to 800 ends), but I often listen to music at the same time so that it becomes a repetitive rhythmic movement.

You can get much more sophisticated equipment for warping but it's expensive, and I love the simplicity of my warping board. I travelled to Peru and Bolivia many years ago to see their woven textiles and one of my most vivid memories is seeing an indigenous lady warping outdoors on top of a hill in Cuzco - she had two sticks stuck in the ground and was wrapping her yarn around them. They can weave amazing cloth, using the most basic tools and keeping everything in their head, so it made me realise that you don't need complex equipment to create.

  • Can you describe the making process and inspiration behind your Newgrange clutch?

I actually first came up with the idea for the cloth way back when I was at college in NCAD, probably 2004! I had visited the passage grave at Newgrange in Co. Meath for a project and was intrigued by the geometric stone carvings and the mystery of their significance. Perhaps they contained messages, or maybe they were purely decorative like doodles on a page. One of the carvings had a design with interlocking diamonds and zig-zags. I played around with this a little and realised that it worked perfectly with the symmetry of simple reflective threading techniques in weaving. When I started up Olla Nua in 2015 after several years working in other fields, it was the first design I wanted to weave, so it had really stayed with me.

  • What led you to choosing this craft as a profession? What do you love most about it?

Sometimes I'm not sure if I chose it or it chose me! I've always been a very indecisive person, and tend to think too much before making decisions, so I had many different ideas of what I should do for a living...but somehow I kept thinking about textiles. My mum taught me to sew and knit from a very young age, and we had an attic full of fabric - I'm sure that had something to do with it!
I love being hands-on with natural materials, right through from initial design to finished cloth, and I enjoy finding satisfaction in the process and repetitive tasks. Weaving is quite a structured craft and I think that suits my personality. I'm also very thankful for the support of my family - it simply would have been impossible for me to get my business started without their support and encouragement.

The photographs featured in this maker story are by Simon Mills. The Olla Nua clutch bag is available to purchase here







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