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Fabrications: Interview with Barley Massey

Fabrications has been a staple in Hackney, London's Broadway Market for years, showcasing the best in contemporary eco textile designs. Read about founder Barley Massey's journey in sewing and sustainability and the inspiring creative projects she's undertaken in her corner of Hackney.

Learn to sew, darn, knit and embroider with Barley's online courses and kits, available on Yodomo.

Sewing denim with a sewing machine

How did you get into making things and sewing?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t make things! I am so grateful to my grandmothers who got me started on my textile journey. They taught me some basic knitting and sewing skills and gave me some scraps of fabric, threads and wool from their stash to experiment with and I was off! From a young age I also knew that I wanted to live a creative life, even if I didn’t know what that would look like. Later, after attending an art foundation course at my local technical college in Bangor, which gave a taste of a broad range of crafts and artistic disciplines, it became apparent that my flair and heart was in textiles. I applied to art schools and managed to get a place on the prestigious and conceptual textiles course at Goldsmiths College in South London. Quite a contrast to my upbringing in the sticks! After graduating I was fortunate to be able to use my skills in costume for film and television and worked on numerous productions before and whilst establishing my own textile studio in a disused shop on Broadway Market, East London.

Barley Massey in front of her sewing machine, sewing textiles together

What is the favourite project that you have worked on to date?

I think my ongoing service “Remember Me” through which people bring me their cherished clothes and textiles that hold sentimental value is my favourite. Often these items are stored away in lofts and wardrobes, unloved but unable to be parted with, varied in their history, embracing the full cycle of life from birth (baby grows) to death (lost loved one’s clothes). An important part of the service are conversations with the client whilst looking through the items to decide which pieces to reuse and what finished objects to create. Memories and stories are invoked, it is a great privilege to bear witness and be entrusted with the task of transforming them into something new – perhaps an artwork, a quilt, cushions, an accessory or wearable item that is truly unique and personal.

Fluffing the edges of a cushion cover

How do you source your materials and decide on your designs?

When I’m not working on a “Remember Me” commission, I source my materials from a few places – a textile recycling factory in East London, local charity shops and from time to time from local business waste streams. Designs usually emerge from a time of hands on, creative play in the studio. The ideas seem to magically appear as I handle different materials, observing shapes, original details and the cause and effects of “happy accidents” or having no fixed ideas on the end result. This knowledge is then incorporated into the products on sale at Fabrications or that I have sold through other galleries and boutiques. Ideas are also put to good use in my commissioned work. The upcycling approach requires an understanding of how different materials behave, what might be possible and an inventive attitude. 

two cushions styled on a wooden chair

How does your practice centre on sustainability?

Sustainability has been a guiding consideration from the outset of setting up my studio / shop ‘Fabrications’ in 2000. I was brought up in nature with a simple low impact lifestyle so it seemed obvious to establish my business on this ground. In early 2000, I also made my first visit to the textile recycling factory I work with. It was such an eye opener to our wasteful culture and seeing the volume of clothing and textile waste coming in by the truck load and being processed in the short time that I was there. Not just the expected ‘old’ clothes but also unworn items still with their tags on! I made a conscious choice to work with waste materials as a maker and to find creative and inspiring ways of re-using 'unwanted' items. I also started to investigate the why’s, which led me to offering workshops and producing a range of kits to “Rethink Rubbish” in waste awareness and teaching skills in sewing and making, to empower others towards different choices through being able to make their own clothes or repair and remake what they already have.

Fabric on a table

What is some advice you have for aspiring makers?

1) When your practice becomes a business, learning commences in understanding how business works and the different roles required in running a business, which in my experience does not always come naturally to creatives. It has taken me a long time to realise that I need to put on different hats and embody each role for the task and separate my creativity from my business side.

2) It is challenging to do everything ourselves, and not necessarily the best use of our time and resources. I would encourage the power of skill swapping and collaboration. This could be with tasks needed for your business (such as building a website or help with accounting) or in generating opportunities (such as sharing a stall to be able to participate in a craft fair or a joint marketing campaign). It is surprising what can spin off from joining forces with others!

3) As the business grows, keep aside time for your own creative play and personal development - look after your roots!

Make something beautiful with textiles and see the courses on offer by Barley Massey.