The mindful maker of natural textile art – Ellie Beck of Petalplum interview
The multitalented and passionate creator Ellie Beck uses natural materials to dye, stitch and make wondrous things. Her passion for exploring and incorporating nature in her work shines through strongly and always leaves me with the wish to go out, get some things, and make something with it. Ellie is a huge inspiration for me and her approach to creating mindfully is so needed at this time right now. Please, enjoy reading this newest interview with Ellie from Petalplum.
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links.
Hi Ellie, I’m glad to have you here! Could you give us a short introduction so my readers know who you are?
I’m a textile artist, author and creative teacher living in the rainforest, in Northern NSW, Australia. I work with natural dyes gathered from my garden and surrounds, with loom weaving, stitching and improvisational quilt-making, and various other craft outlets. I don’t really limit myself to one thing, as I allow my curiosity to guide me along a rambly path.
I share through workshops and online courses, offering people a chance to learn a creative skill, while also reminding them to slow down, be more intentional and create time / space for themselves in this busy world.
My book ‘Mindful thoughts for Makers’ was published last year by UK Leaping Hare Press, and can be found at art gallery shops, museums, and many excellent bookshops, as well as the usual online places. It’s a small but perfectly formed series of essays about how our creative works as makers can be a space to bring mindful moments to our days.
I’m a mama to three, who are all creative in their own ways, which makes me happy to watch them grow and evolve. My husband is a woodworking artist and designer, and also helps me problem solve many of my creative ideas. We both work from home, that we built ourselves from recycled materials.
When did you find your passion for making and creating with textiles and natural dyes?
Mostly from my childhood and my upbringing. Both my parents were / are creative and for me it was simply part of life making our own things. My mother was always knitting, sewing, creating pottery work, while my father was a wood craftsman and built the house I grew up in. I suppose I always had a love of beautiful natural fibres and materials, hand stitching, learning to weave, knit or crochet, as well as painting and playing with flowers or plants.
I went to a Steiner school for primary school which deeply encouraged a whole creative lifestyle, as well as the hands on making aspect. And I had amazing art teachers in the regular high school I attended. Though I never thought I would be an artist, I always knew I would like a creative lifestyle.
I remember when my sister and I were young my mother made us fairy costumes for a party out of natural dyes, and we experimented with different things for my school art projects and that sort of thing.
Over the past 12 or so years this has evolved, by living back in the forest where I grew up. I was always conscious of environmental issues; botanical dyes and natural materials is just another way of exploring this. The textiles came about by simply allowing myself to tap into the memories of childhood, of what I loved doing, and taking the leap to quit full time work for someone else and make a life out of being an artist.
You write a lot about creating intentionally and being mindful of what you do. Why is this important to you?
We live in an overwhelming world. Every day we’re bombarded with things we should be doing, haven’t yet done and overdue on. So much technology and the immediateness of it all is quite intense. In my workshops and talking with people I came to realise that not everyone lives the way I do. And so I started slowly to talk about it more, in an online aspect through my writing, my photos, my social media.
I am so privileged to live in the forest, surrounded by birds and nature. While I still have deadlines and appointments and places to be, and children who need me, I also realise how vital it is for our own wellbeing – mental, physical, emotional – to slow down, to create time for our own selves amongst it all.
Women particularly are so good at saying yes to everything the world asks of them, which leaves little or no time for caring for themselves.
My words and photos, as well as my online courses and my (in real life) workshops, are about reminding people to be gentle with themselves, to put time aside to sip their tea, to drink their coffee while it’s still hot, to nourish and nurture their bodies and minds. Being intentional means that we choose what we do, rather than being pulled along with the flow of life. It doesn’t always work like that, but to keep coming back to the idea of intentionally choosing how we spend our time allows us to slow down a little.
You live in a spectacular area of this world. How do your surroundings impact your work and creativity?
Massively. I am so so lucky that I live on my family land, where I grew up. It is immensely beautiful here, and tranquil – but not without it’s own challenges, of course.
We are directly connected with nature where we live. Our house has lots of doors and windows, and is almost open to the elements. We don’t have airconditioning, or turn the lights on all day long. We live with the seasons, when it rains it affects our daily life immensely, when there’s no rain we have to conserve our water usage as we’re on tank water only. We don’t have rubbish removal, so need to think of every piece of plastic or rubbish we bring into our home.
These small actions make us more conscious of the way we live, the things that I use in my creative practice, as well as the insights I can share with my community and online audience.
The creative aspect of living where we live is immense – to see the light shift through the trees over a day, or the subtle changes in the leaves in our garden reminds me always to look for the small simple details in life. To take great pleasure in seeking not giant fireworks, but often overlooked shadows or bird song or new growth on a plant.
I take this noticing the tiny details into my work, creatively allowing me to go slowly with the small changes of the seasons. Waiting for a plant to flower for my dye pot is a joy, rather than rushing the seasons along I love the anticipation of seeing that colour and being able to add it to my next quilt or weaving; to stitch the seasonal colours into my work is a reminder of appreciating each moment for what it is. Loving one colour and then knowing it’s season is fleeting, but then loving the next colour too.
What is your favorite time and place to create?
Any moment. Right now. When the house is tidy and my family is contentedly doing their own, or happily sitting beside me doing something. Or when they’re all away for the day and I’m home alone. With a cup of tea, a needle, thread and fabric the moment is beautiful anytime.
I love creating quietly on my own for hours on end, and seeing where the muse takes me. But also I so enjoy being surrounded by other creative people (be that my family or my crafty community) all doing our own thing, but sharing the space together.
I often have my stitch work with me, in a portable bag. So I can pull it out when I’m waiting at the doctors or the school pickup, or sitting at the library while the kids read books, or in the car while we’re driving somewhere. Bringing those moments back to my stitch makes the wait not so tedious, and reminds me that there are many small pockets of time where we can be creative and do our work, slowing ourselves down, rather than the angst that happens from scrolling social media during those waiting moments.
Are there any helpers or tools you recommend using that you find have changed your creative life for the better?
A lovely sharp pair of embroidery scissors absolutely helps, as well as fabric scissors. I find I have multiple pairs of these scissors in various bags and baskets so that I can always find them when I need them.
And good sharp sewing needles – I often use Sashiko needles as well as long straws, and blunt-nosed needles for basket weaving or mending and darning. Change your needles (hand or machine sewing) more often than you think. It makes a massive difference to the ease of stitching.
I always and only use natural fibres in my work – linen, silk, wool, cotton, hemp. Upcycled, op-shopped / thrift-stores are a fun place to find threads, linens, fabrics and unusual things to add to my stitch work or weavings.
For my hand stitching I particularly love silk thread, that I dye myself. It is strong and has a beautiful texture. But I just as easily use crochet cottons or regular embroidery thread, and am often looking out for this at local op-shops. Just make sure that it’s still in strong condition, some threads can weaken with age.
A beautiful tea pot and your own special tea cup, with real leaf tea. And a tea tray. The importance of the ritual of making tea to sit down and sip on your own, or share with others is quite an important of my process of creative time.
I have a sweet little wooden swift that my friend found for me from an op-shop (thrift-store), which is vital for winding my yarn.
My husband makes my weaving looms for me, as it was so hard to find exactly what I wanted – can I add him to list of helpers that changed my life. He also makes beautiful wooden weaving needles that I love using, out of broken skateboards.
But mostly I use what I have or what I can find. I do truly believe that it’s a balance of using the best quality tools, materials and equipment you can find / afford with also using what you have and not spending lots of money on buying everything.
Do you have a system or tip on how to store creative materials like fabrics and threads to avoid chaos?
Nope, not really. Alas. I don’t currently have my own studio – so it’s a combination of storing things in plastic tubs that I can put away in a cupboard, and some things in open baskets so I can easily access them on a shelf.
I do try to store things in category order. So that if I want yarn or wool, I know which tub to look into. And I fold all my tiny scraps into one box, making sure they’re ironed and neat, rather than having to pull out crinkly fabrics.
One day I will have a studio where everything will have a special shelf and space to go. One of the downfalls of living in the forest, in our humid climate, is that textiles can go mouldy if not properly stored. Which means I do really to put them into sealed tubs, rather than leaving them looking pretty on a shelf. I have wool and yarns and weaving looms, as well as fabrics, needles, threads and sewing machines. To add another creative outlet to all this, in our small home, would be too much. So I try and stick with just these for the time being. When I’m ready to move on to a new outlet – basket weaving with raffia or crochet or painting – then I need to pack away one thing to make space.
Saying no to myself can be hard, but it’s one of the important lessons I’ve learnt over the past years in order to refine and pull back on ALL the things I could do.
What is your favorite part of the creative process from start to finish and which do you like the least?
Hmmmm… Wow. This is a hard one. I’m not the best at finishing, to be honest. I do have a lot of WIPS (work in progress), and sometimes just put them away out of sight. That’s ok, as some things are about being a “sketchbook” for the next project. But it’s also really satisfying completing projects.
I love the doing, the process. The auditioning of the fabrics and the colours. Thinking of what it will be. Sometimes while I am doing one thing, it does spark ideas for the next piece. I love the way that happens.
Each project sort of brings something new. Some are quick and done easily – like a basket top I mended the other day that was enjoyable while I was doing it, but brings immense joy looking at the finished piece, and knowing I can use it now.
Since diving headfirst into making quilts I love the fact that these are usable items. Things that have a finish stage. It helps to bring in all the little pieces of fabric and to stitch them up and the use them.
But I also love the process of unpicking vintage Kimonos and taking the slow time thinking about the person who made it, or wore it, who mended it. I love collecting the plants from my garden and starting a dye pot, and getting the fabric ready to colour.
Tidying up isn’t my forte. I leave a lot of little messes around.
Which project was the most challenging one you have ever done?
Probably building our house. Which is still an ongoing process. Making a garden and the ongoing work of that – it’s either too wet or too dry, or the animals dig it all up.
Parenting, for sure.
I’ve taught myself to make my own websites – which I enjoy a lot, but is also an ongoing challenge of making sure I’m doing it right. The business side of having my own business is a constant changing evolving thing I need to learn, and keep learning. These have probably been more challenging than any actual creative crafty project.
There are so many techniques and materials out there. What would you love to try out one day that you haven’t done yet?
You know what – I’m not sure. I’ve done and tried a lot of different things. I can’t think of anything right now that I want to desperately try. Usually when I see something, I give it a go. I try my own version of it.
I would like to continue to learn to make clothes for myself, and teach my children to make their own. I think this is my big thing over the next few years that I really want to dive deeper into.
Are you interested in trying out hand-dyeing fabric with natural materials? I have attended one of Ellie’s courses myself and highly recommend them. She encourages you to try things out and experiment a bit using what you have at hand. Here are my favorites:
Printing on fabric: instinctual mark making, screen printing, and stencil printing
This is the course I attended myself. It includes lots of videos on multiple printing techniques on fabric. They are all very focused on using natural materials in the process.
Slow Stitching: make a wrap-up pouch
This free course is a lesson in creating slowly and enjoying the process of doing something with your hands and needle. If you need a time of peace and mindfulness, I highly encourage you to join this lovely course.
Natural & Botanical Dye – course
While using plain fabrics in embroidery is a lot of fun, too, having that extra special fabric adds a whole new level to your projects. If you would love to try out to hand-dye fabrics, Ellie’s course covers multiple techniques like solar-dyeing, pounding, hot-dyeing, and bundle-dyeing.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self who has just started creating that you wish you had known back then?
Dedicate to being consistent. Do what you’re doing, but keep doing it more regularly. Such as blogging and Pinterest, and having a daily practice of things. Know that your journey will be wonky, bumpy, but it will be ok too.
I would say choose one or two things to ‘specialise’ in, in a business and online sense, but in a creative sense that would never work for me anyway. So… that’s a hard thing I work through now. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone to limit their creative selves, but in a sense of putting yourself out there for business aspect it is sometimes easier to be one thing, rather than multiple lots of things.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! Where can we find you to see more of your work?
I also love sending my regular Love Letters newsletter, which you can sign up for via my website. Where I say many tips, ideas, thoughts, writings that I don’t share anywhere else.
If you enjoyed this interview, you might also like the other interviews with people from the textile/embroidery world.