Children’s clothes and taxidermy might not appear to have much in common, but Laura Cartledge finds all is not what it seems in Firle.
Carola van Dyke’s art has taken her from dolls houses to House of Fraser.
On route there’s been a bakery in the garden, a chance meeting with Mary Portas and a whole lot of fabric.
“As a child I would cut up fabric to make clothes for my Barbies and would wrap the chairs and tables from my dolls’ house in material,” she recalls. “Now, somehow, I have made that into a job.”
The Firle creative was born in the Netherlands where she pursed her passion to study textile and fashion illustration before coming to England ‘around 22 years ago’.
“I worked as an illustrator for many magazines and then my first child was born at some point along the line,” she smiles.
It was then that Carola realised children’s clothes here were not as colourful as the ones she had grown up with.
“I couldn’t find the pieces I wanted and I thought that is silly, I can make it.”
Her eye-catching creations would see her getting stopped in the street.
“People would ask me where I had got items from,” Carola confesses.
Then living in Brighton, she would open her living room on a Friday morning to sell items.
“Then word got round and I started selling to shops. It never became massive, massive, but big enough, we had shops here and in America.”
However, experimenting with the pieces of leftover fabric would see Carola pioneer a very distinctive technique.
“I am not so keen on the word patchwork, I see that as more traditional and my work is more of a collage, a fabric collage,” she explains. “It has the textures, the colours and the contrasts, which is why I don’t print them, you might have a rough linen with a silk.”
The use of layers has seen Carola’s work compared to painting, only with fabric, and she soon applied the designs to cushions.
“I did a big show in London and at the last minute threw some of the cushions in the car,” she recalls.
“Then Mary Portas came along and I think she bought about 400 of them.
“The joke was at the time I didn’t know who she was, it was before she did all the programmes, she looked familiar but I had kind of forgotten.”
Portas had just opened her shop at House of Fraser and had decided she wanted to add a homewares ranges.
“At that point I still made everything myself. Each cushion takes two, to two and a half, hours. I had to make 80 to begin with, then she ordered 300 or 400 more,” she says.
“It was heaven and hell at the same time. I thought ‘this is cool’ but I was worried it might all slip through my fingers.
“I hadn’t set it up as a business, I had set it up as a creative thing. Suddenly I had all these cushions to make for all these shops.”
Thankfully, in Carola’s words, she had ‘two lucky things happen’. The first was her husband deciding to give up the long hours of his accountancy job and pursue a very different passion.
“He’d always wanted to be a baker,” she recalls. “We set up Firle Bakery in our garden which meant he was around during the day.”
This meant, while waiting for the bread to rise, he could take over the cutting out of the shapes for the cushions and his financial experience came in useful too.
“The second lucky thing is we live in a creative village,” Carola adds, explaining she is proud to be able to offer employment to local people. After the initial design sketches, Carola says she ‘draws with a pair of scissors’ before raiding her fabric stores.
“I pull them off the shelves and it is a case of ‘that looks nice’, ‘that looks nicer’, that is why it takes a while – there are endless possibilities,” she explains. “Then I make the sample up, we tend to make 50 of each, and my husband draws around all the shapes.
“We have two mums in the village with young kids who cut them out and I have some of the girls from Glyndebourne, who make the costumes, who help with the sewing.”
So where does Carola source her fabric?
“I do have an idea of what colours I want to use and I pick up bits and pieces of fabric everywhere,” she replies.
A year on from the encounter with Mary Portas, Carola would, almost accidentally, bring an extra dimension to her work with a crafty take on taxidermy.
“It can be busy at shows and you need to do something to catch people’s eye,” she reveals.
“I’ve always wrapped things in fabric and the taxidermy was a chance to make something new. I’ve always wanted to do something like taxidermy and I thought this is my chance.”
Carola has also collaborated with the likes of Liberty.
“They gave me this massive, stunning, piece of silk, it was absolutely beautiful, and I had to make one of the standing deers from it,” she reveals.
“I like being able to mix it up. The good thing with the cushions is it is the first one with the design I really enjoy, then I can give it to someone else.
“The taxidermy stuff doesn’t get any easier, it always takes the same amount of time and previsions, so I still do it all myself.”
Last year Carola’s work took on another new form, ceramics, and this month a new collection featuring dogs is going to be launched both here and across the pond.
“Sometimes people say to me ‘do you regret that it is all happening now, did you not want it to happen earlier?’ but it has been perfect,” she grins. “My children are 17 and 13 now and don’t need me as much.
“I’ve never had a nine to five job, even when I worked for film and TV it wasn’t,” she adds. “My favourite thing is that time is my time. If I want to go for lunch with a friend I can, it just means I will have to work a bit longer that night.
“It’s a case of keeping your eyes open all the time.”
To find out more about Carola’s work, visit www.carolavandyke.co.uk