Textile artist Cathy Needham was inspired by South America to bring colour and life to her Edwardian home in York. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
A year spent living in Peru proved life changing for Cathy Needham. The rich colours, bold designs and a culture where weaving and knitting are part of everyday life, inspired her to take her love of craft a stage further.
“I’d always been into sewing and making things but the craft work in Peru made me realise how much I loved it. When we came back to England I enrolled on a City and Guilds course in creative embroidery,” says Cathy, who travelled to South America with husband, David, a scientist, who was working out there.
The Peruvian influence is evident in her work and her home. The Edwardian house in York was painted in neutrals when she bought it but the interiors are now bursting with colour and interest.
“I loved the house as soon as I saw the hallway, which is really big, and has a lovely stained glass window,” says Cathy.
Almost every room is now decorated with her own work and with mementoes from her travels. The kitchen boasts pottery from Majorca, Peru and Argentina, while the sitting room has a South American rug on the wall. In the hallway, she has hung a collection of jewellery on one wall. It was made by villagers in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, from wood and seeds.
To complement the beads, there are Peruvian hats from Cusco on the opposite wall.
She and David love hand-made items and have a passion for ceramics and wooden items. The bowl on the coffee table is in Scottish elm and made by one of their favourite makers, Sidney Taylor. Furniture is a mix of old and new. The chest in the hall was from a charity shop, the rocking chair was inherited and the Art Deco-style sofa was new from Barker and Stonehouse. The unusual octagonal dining table was bought at an antiques shop in London and was crucial in their property search.
“We have had it 20 years so the house had to be able to fit this in and it did. There was a perfect spot for it in the kitchen. The chairs are from Peru and are very special to us. They are based on motifs by Kandinsky. That influence came from a priest who set up a workshop for street children and taught them skills that would help get them jobs,” says Cathy.
The sitting room is dominated by two items, a hybrid hi fi system, based on valves, that they play jazz and classical music on as David searches for the perfect sound, and a fabulous marble fireplace that is home to Cathy’s sea-themed, felted bowls.
Her own work is everywhere and ranges from wall hangings and pictures to exquisite cushions and vessels. And there’s even more of it on display than usual as Cathy gets ready for the York Open Studios, which is on this weekend and next.
Now a fully-fledged textile artist, Cathy has a passion for felting and that means creating your own felt with wool fibres. They are built up in opposing layers to enable the scales on the fibres to interlock. Soap flakes and warm water are sprinkled on top and massaged to create friction and make them shrink together to create a sturdy fabric.
The hanging in the sitting room is an example of how sophisticated the process can be if you add other materials to the mix.
It is a technique called Nuno felting and is made with wet felt and organza. The design was inspired by the contemporary stained glass windows at Beverley Minster, by Helen Whittaker.
“The great thing about felting is that I can incorporate embroidery and other techniques into it. That’s what works for me as it’s very diverse,” says Cathy, whose previous career included a 17-year stint at the Science Museum in London.
She and David met at Leeds University and were keen to make their home in Yorkshire again. They lived in Harrogate before moving to York five years ago to be close to David’s job. The roomy house is perfect for home working. To ensure that she wasn’t too isolated, she joined Diverse Threads, a textile group based in York. The members swap tips and exhibit together once a year.
Cathy is also an Egyptian dance teacher, though she hastens to add, “It’s definitely not belly dancing. It’s very beautiful, traditional dance”.
Her costumes fill the cupboards and add more colour, as do the boxes of dyed wool fibres that include soft merino and, for lots of curl, the coats of Bluefaced Leicesters and Wensleydale sheep.
“The whole house is a big eclectic mix of possessions we have bought over time. David and I have been together for 28 years,” says Cathy. “There is no theme and almost everything has a story, but that’s how we like it.”
Cathy’s work is opening her studio at 38 Chestnut Avenue, Heworth, York, YO31 1BR as part of York Open Studios, which features over 70 artists and makers. It runs today, Saturday, April 5, 10am-6pm; Sunday, April, 6, 11am-5pm; Saturday, April 12, 10am-6pm, and Sunday April 13,am 11-5pm. www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk