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In Conversation With Quilting Artisan Allegra Galvin | Artisans Stories

In Conversation With Quilting Artisan Allegra Galvin | Artisans Stories

‘Like the quilts I create, my story is a patchwork’ Allegra Galvin begins on Wildwood, the site where she sells beautifully crafted quilts, made with natural dyes and carefully sourced reclaimed fabrics.

Allegra’s story is indeed a patchwork of places and experiences that have led her from living in California and work as a curator and producer, to Devon where she crafts and is a forrest school teacher today.

Both with her patchworks and in life, Allegra embraces the process and trusts that everything will neatly come together. 

"I try to trust my instincts and not overthink my path. I worked in the cultural sector for 15 years before becoming an artist / maker, and I just needed that time to find my craft and my voice. I didn't stumble upon it growing up, and I have tried lots of other things. I think becoming a parent gave me, ironically, the gift of time because I was at home for the first time in years and able to pick up ideas and projects I was too busy for before. That is when I found quilting.”

Like the natural eco-systems Allegra works with in her forest school, all areas of her work and life seem to link, intertwine and influence each other, proof that the creative practice is enriched when we open ourselves up to the many influences of life around us.

“We moved to Devon looking for a life more rooted in nature, and I decided to do a forest school qualification. Exploring outdoors with my children is when I found natural dying, which I have now incorporated into the forest school I run and all the textile pieces I make. I am trusting that if I follow my instincts, when I look back I will be able to connect the dots.”

To those also looking to start a new craft or become an artisan themselves, Allegra advises trusting your intuition.

“Follow your instincts. I was working full time in another career and bought a book about quilts online just because I liked the idea of making a quilt when I was on maternity leave. I had no idea where it would lead. If you have that little thought at the back of your mind - 'I have always wanted to know how to make a guitar'... buy the book, do the one day course. You never know what you might find out about yourself.

And on a practical level, if like me you are a bit older and have financial commitments, it's really great to have a flexible sideline that you can continue to earn from. I never set out to be a consultant, but it makes sense for me to use my 15 years experience in the cultural sector to support my fledgling creative business. When I quit my job, I planned to spend half my time consulting and half quilting, and built a business plan around that. Maybe that kind of safety net isn't for everyone - and it certainly means I don't get as much time simply making as I would like - but for me it was a must.”

Whether you are starting a new craft or are an established creative, imposter syndrome is extremely common. Feeling that your creative work is a valuable contribution to society isn’t always a natural inclination. In these moments of doubt, Allegra has several pieces of advice from other creatives that she turns to.

“I have always loved the work of 1960's-1980's land artists and architects, combining art, society and ecology. He didn't say it to me personally (would that I had met him!), but I have always been inspired by the work of Joseph Beuys who said 'Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives'. I see this as both permission and a call to action. Permission to be an artist. And a call to participate in society. 

I struggle with feelings of not being the right person to say or make certain things, with not giving myself permission. So I re-read those words when I need to hear them. Also Sister Corita Kent's timeless advice to artists: 'There is no win and no fail. There is only make.' Remember that the next time you feel like something hasn't turned out the way you imagined and just keep making.”

The making process and wonderful uninterrupted days in the studio are Allegra’s favourite parts of running Wildwood.

"Particularly the dyeing days, when the pot is bubbling and some magic happens when the fabric comes out transformed into a golden yellow or indigo blue. I don't think that feeling will ever get old for me, I really feel like a wizard. And then the pottering time when a quilt design is coming together - when I am moving back and forth between the pile of fabric, the growing design and the sewing machine. Shifting around the room and watching the quilt take shape.

The challenges - there have been a few. For me it's mostly to do with time and money. I have my kids to look after, and I do consultancy work in the cultural sector to make sure I am earning enough each month. So making sure that I protect my time for making can be really tough, and progress can feel slow when it's not your only focus. I haven't found the perfect balance yet.”

Another challenge is sourcing the sustainable fabrics which are key to the ethical values of Wildwood Studio.

“This has been a big challenge. For some people quilting is synonymous with shopping. People go absolutely crazy for fabric, and I understand that. I have found the constraint of making sustainable fabric choices has pushed my creativity. I can't just go out and buy the 'perfect' piece of fabric to create particular effects. I have had to be more responsive to availability, season and the vagaries of the dye pot. I think it makes me a more improvisational quilter. I source my GOTS organic base fabrics from Greenfibres.

I am lucky to have an ethical textile supplier in my local area, so I can go in and feel the fabrics before committing to larger orders.  I have some great independent clothing makers working in my area who are kind enough to give me offcuts that they won't be using, and I often incorporate these as accents. Finally, I always check through the bed linen section in charity shops! If it's pure cotton, it's worth taking a look at as cotton has the potential for a very long life. Ultimately cotton is a high impact fabric, so I am moving more towards using EU manufactured organic linen, and only using cotton that has already had a previous life.”

Once the fabric is sourced, Allegra can start on the natural dying process.

“I start with the plants or plant dyes I have available to me. Maybe I have a pile of silver birch bark, I stumbled across a cache of alder cones or my friend's walnut tree has shed all its husks. People leave me little bags of things at the studio now - like all their red onion skins. My local supplier of plant dyes had a sale, so I currently have a good quantity of ethically sourced indigo to work with. I am still developing my own dye garden, but in future I hope to have woad, madder and weld to use from my own patch. 

Once I have a pile of dyed fabric, I start to think about the combinations of colours and incorporating found fabrics. My Spring 2024 collection includes one pair of curtains I bought at a market stall and used across multiple pieces - so hints of the same floral pattern appear. I usually have one or two specific quilts or quilt motifs in mind as inspiration. In the autumn it was a classic quilt motif called 'flying geese'. I often start with a 'log cabin' shape as the base, and then improvise. For commissions I work a little differently. I send them a questionnaire and from that I create a watercolour sketch. We use this as a visual prompt for a conversation about the (many, many) options you have when designing a quilt.”

Allegra’s first ever quilt, which started this strand of her creative journey, was for her daughter.

“Even though it's too small now it is still on her bed. It's a simple 'stripy' quilt made from old pillowcases and a shirt. As soon as it was finished I was hooked. I have always enjoyed crafting as a form of meditation or stress relief alongside work. I learnt embroidery, crochet and knitting from Youtube. I spent many hours watching and re-watching shows in the theatre, so I learnt to knit in the dark! But it was only when I started quilting that I really felt like I had found an art form that I could grow into, and the potential to express ideas and tell a story.

Quilting has a profound social history, and the possibilities are endless. I love that as a craft it has so many infinite options that it's impossible to say what makes a quilt good or not good until you are standing in front of it. A technically perfect quilt can be a pretty bad quilt, an imperfect one can somehow grab you. And even if it is a pretty bad quilt - you still have a blanket. And I have made a few of those."

We started by talking about how Allegra’s life is like a patchwork. So if Allegra was to create a quilt which told the story of her life, what would it look like? 

“One way to make a story quilt is to use clothing that people recognise as belonging to that person. But I can rarely stand to cut clothes up unless they are really beyond use. If I were to make a quilt which told the story of my life, I would think about how fabric, colour and pattern all work together to tell a story. I grew up on a ranch in California, so I might want to include an old denim. I studied architecture and later architectural draughtsmanship, so I might include some of my love of geometric shapes in the pattern: rectangles, triangles and on point squares.

I live on a re-wilded smallholding in Devon now, so I would definitely want to incorporate fabric dyed with the plants around me: hawthorn, nettle, alder, oak and walnut. I might ask my children to add some of their own stitches into the quilting, so I could touch them and know whose hands had made them. Now I want to make this quilt…”

Find out more about Allegra's work on her website Wildwood Studio.

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