Laughter ripples through the door of Ruth Waller and Lee Hewett’s spacious Nottinghamshire studio as they stand chatting over a mug of tea. The textile artists known as Waller Hewett are partners in life as well as work, and a sense of humour is essential if they’re to get along.
‘The work we do together couldn’t be done apart – we feed off each other,’ explains Lee. ‘But we can go a whole day without talking to each other!’ Ruth chimes in, with comic timing. ‘If we were in a tiny room it would drive us mental, but in a big space we can lose each other.’
Their ‘big space’ is part of an 18th-century gallop – a horse exercise yard – at the Cavendish family seat, Welbeck Abbey and Estate in north Nottinghamshire, where the charitable Harley Foundation runs a collection of arts and crafts studios in the estate’s outbuildings. Ruth and Lee were accepted into the foundation in 2006, moving to a small village near the studio shortly after.
It’s a set-up that allows them to look after their three-year-old daughter, Poppy, while they work. Poppy has her own play corner, with sofa, TV and lots of toys and books. ‘She’s happy to tootle around,’ says Ruth. ‘She prefers it to home!’
Whether because of Poppy’s lively influence or her parents’ naturally sunny dispositions, a spirit of playfulness has settled over the whitewashed studio. Pop music jangles away as Ruth, Lee and Poppy go about their day; Poppy’s drawings intersperse fabric swatches and designs; and a collection of toy cars and Victorian black and white photographs, found at weekly car-booting expeditions, provides an interesting diversion.
This vivaciousness extends to Ruth and Lee’s textile panels. Surface Tension reflects the idea of microscopic droplets of water forming a shimmering, blue sea. Ruth dyed six shades of turquoise to create the optimistic, seasidey feel, which reminds her of the Med. On the wall, Solar, a circular arrangement of tonal yellow, orange and red felt bobbles, is inspired by a solar flare. Both reflect an interest in the natural world, with an added cheeky quality. To illustrate, Ruth runs her hand over Solar ╨ the bobbles wobble furiously at different speeds, depending on the length of the sprung steel stalk they are mounted on. Everyone, from Poppy upwards, giggles.
‘There’s something inherent in fabric that makes you want to touch it. It’s friendlier than other materials,’ says Ruth, whose fondness for textiles stems back to childhood when she taught herself how to crochet, knit and make lace. In the mid-90s she studied applied arts at the University of Derby, where she met Lee (who was studying photography) before going on to complete an MA in textiles. She honed her eye for colour and detail at Heritage Trimmings in Derby, a passementerie specialist, where she worked for six years as a designer for clients as prestigious as Osborne House and Chatsworth.
‘All these influences feed into our work now,’ explains Ruth, 36, who set up her own business in 2003, funded by a Crafts Council grant, making felt handbags, jewellery, cushions and rugs. The bobbles have always been her trademark: ‘They are solid which is why its nice when you squish them. Felt is a sculptural material and you can play with it.’ In 2004, after taking an MA in product design, Lee joined Ruth in the business, then named Both Textiles, and they began to focus on items for interiors, making hand-sewn felt bobble rugs, cushions and small pieces of wall art.
Their rugs garnered a Sunday Times Design & Sustainability award, and in 2008 they were short-listed for the Wesley-Barrell Craft Awards. ‘We were churning cushions out for the likes of the Conran Shop, while also trying to find the time to make our rugs,’ says Lee. ‘The maths didn’t work out, and the turning point came when we decided to concentrate on one thing, the wall art. Most people were putting the rugs on their walls anyway – they assumed it was wall art and we decided it was too.’
Over the last two years their designs have evolved significantly and now most of the wall art comprises bobbles mounted on sprung steel stalks that are set into composite wood backboards. They are both art and sculpture. Ruth and Lee come up with the inspiration for designs together, then Lee works concepts up on the computer, transferring the finished design as a series of dots onto a handmade backboard ready for decoration with between 600-800, or more, felt bobbles.
‘I’m chief bobble maker,’ exclaims Ruth. ‘I love fiddly, laborious tasks – I get completely absorbed by them, and can sit for hours making things that would drive Lee up the wall.’ She makes the felt bobbles from plain Merino wool yarn, winding it into a tight ball before boil-washing it to transform it into a smooth, solid bobble. ‘We make a huge batch of plain white bobbles, then I don my big white lab coat and gloves and spend all day dyeing them exactly the right colour.’
Once the bobbles have dried out they are ready to be glued onto the sprung steel stalks and inserted into the backboard. Although the colours they use are planned precisely, constructing the pieces is a much more organic process.
‘We have a pot of each coloured bobble – we lay them out and play with them, putting them together like a puzzle,’ explains Ruth. ‘We alter things all the time.’
Consequently no two pieces of wall art are the same, a quality that appeals to collectors. Initially, the duo showed their work at design-orientated shows such as the Chelsea Crafts Fair and Origin, but since concentrating on the wall panels they have graduated into the art market, with prices for a small 40cm x 40cm piece starting at £250, rising to £4,000 for larger or more complicated panels.
‘We’re represented by a number of galleries including Byard Art in Cambridge, which exhibited our work at the London Art Fair and Affordable Art and at shows abroad,’ says Lee. ‘Selling our work this way has worked out better for us. As soon as we complete a piece it’s straight out to the client!’
Ruth and Lee have been working on some new designs. Lee is looking at transferring photographic prints onto fabric, while Ruth is experimenting with fabric-covered buttons and using her beloved sewing machine to come up with ideas. ‘We’re always looking to develop our work in a meaningful way,’ says Lee. We have a feeling that whatever they do, it’ll still make us smile.
Collecting Waller Hewett textile art
Roadshow expert Katherine Higgins commissioned Ruth and Lee to make her a wall panel
‘I first saw Ruth and Lee’s work at 100% Design in autumn 2007. I was on a mission to kit out a flat and I thought their work was really different and creative – and I could stroke it! ‘I never like to spend money unwisely and anything I buy has to have the potential of appreciating as time goes by. Because three-dimensional art is very 21st century and a marker of our times, I commissioned a piece 1.5m long, in retro 1970s colours. It’s one of my most exciting pieces – it moves like a wave and I swish it all the time. I like the textural feel of the felt, and how incredibly difficult it is to get all the heights of the bobbles just right. I’m certain work by Waller Hewett will increase in value over time, even the smallest pieces.’
To commission Waller Hewett call 01909 501881 or go to wallerhewett.co.uk. See their work at the Harley Gallery, Welbeck Estate, Welbeck, Worksop.
FEATURE: Caroline Wheater
PHOTOGRAPHS: Lydia Evans