Made in Munster: ‘I turned my hobby into a business’

Karen Cunneen-Bilbow Owner, Fabricate Ireland

Karen Cunneen-Bilbow with her work.
Karen Cunneen-Bilbow with her work.

What’s your background?

I am a textile artist and lampshade maker. I am from Limerick. I graduated from the Limerick School of Art and Design in 1997 with a degree in fine-art print-making. Art was always just a hobby, but three years ago, I lost my job and I turned my hobby into the business of Fabricate.

I do textile free-motion embroidery stitching onto lampshades, needle-felting and textile furniture as well.

The response to my business has been brilliant. It’s something totally different. I consider my work as functional art. I do commission pieces, like textile stitching onto lampshades, and they’re going really well.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

I could be working on a new product design or doing commissions, like working on a lampshade or a piece of furniture.

I do workshops as well at the weekends, where you can come and make a lampshade or learn how to needle felt — that’s where you use sheep’s wool that’s been dyed and you paint with it. It’s a really nice and interesting process.

With the workshops, they are a day out for people. They learn something new and go home with a lampshade or a piece of needle felt which is ready to be framed.

I have other artists who are coming in to do collaborations with me, like silk-scarfing. We have totally different workshops coming up over the next few months which is great.

Tell us about a recent project or design you have worked on?

Recently, I got involved with artists and farmers in Kilfinane, Co Limerick for a project. They shaved their own sheep and dyed their own wool, and we carded it and coloured it, and I showed them how to needle felt with it. That was really good and was organised through the Arts Council in Limerick.

We had an exhibition which opened on October 10 and the pieces were put up in the local restaurants and pubs in the area.

Some of the people involved were professional artists, but some had never done anything like that before. It might have been their sheep, or they might have known the farmer who donated the wool.

It was lovely just to bring something back to the local area, and to show the functionality of what else you can do with the wool.

What’s your design style?

I would say it’s very modern. I’m obsessed with textures, whether it’s from the threads I stitch with or the wools that I felt with. My work is also very much colour-based.

What inspires your work?

Nature and animals and landscapes.

What’s your favourite trend?

I tend not to go with trends because like that, they come and go, but I do like the trend there is now towards sustainability and upcycling.

There is an element of that in a lot of my work. If you’re upcycling furniture, you’re giving it a new lease of life. I also use upcycled fabrics, like denim. I will reuse where I can rather than buying.

What’s your most treasured possession?

For me, it’s my family but they’d be more the motivation than the possession part of it. I have the creativity and the ability to make something and that is really like a therapy and an escape for me.

Who is your favourite designer?

We have such good craftsmanship in Ireland and such a good variety of artists that they all inspire me.

What would be a dream project for you to work on?

When someone asks you to do a personal project like a keepsake gift, they trust you to create that, so I they are projects that I enjoy the most.

Have you any design tips?

Don’t be afraid of colour, try something new — especially in interior; the colour can make something pop.

Interview by Aileen Lee

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