‘Sew’ different! Meet the artist behind the felt-filled CornerShop
We heard about an interesting felted art installation happening in East London, so we sent Jenni and Faith along to investigate…
All stitched up: There’s a new kind of corner shop in Bethnal Green, London this month! If you pop in expecting to buy yourself a packet of crisps, you may find you have been well and truly stitched-up! Just like the standard corner shop, it sells all the basic essentials, from magazines to McCoy chips, and bananas to baked beans, except there is a big difference – every single product has been sewn together by felt fanatic, Lucy Sparrow.
The Cornershop is stocked with up to 4,000 home sewn products taking seven months of fearless felting, over 300 square meters of felt and more than a quarter of a million stiches. Phew, we’re impressed!
Myself and some of the LoveKnitting team made our way over to ogle over the goods in store and catch up with Lucy to find out the inspiration behind the project, her protest knitting past and her top tips for felting.
So, how did it all begin?
I started producing art around the time I was a toddler. My mum and dad used to supply me with crayons, paper and other materials and would just let me play for hours. My dad says he remembers me producing a collage that was good enough to display when I was about four. Creating things and sewing has been in my blood for as long as I remember. My grandmother owned a clothing business and I used to spend holidays stitching and playing with materials in her workroom. It was a toss-up whether I would be a writer or an artist. I became an artist and that’s really what I’ve been doing since leaving art college.
Where did the inspiration for making these products come from?
I suppose it all really began when I was still as school and I took up my first job working at my local corner shop at the weekends. That’s where I got the idea. I’ve noticed for some time that corner shops were disappearing from our communities and when the one closed down that I used to work in, I was aware that soon we wouldn’t have any more corner shops. I think the campaign by Mary Portas to revitalise local high streets also made me aware. It was then I had the idea of creating a complete art installation that was so big and encompassing, the public could walk into it and experience my felt sculptures. I decided to make everything from felt and turn everyday articles into art.
How did you go about getting the funding?
I originally decided to raise £2000 on Kickstarter to pay for materials. That was hopelessly naïve as the amount was nowhere near enough. Fortunately, my Kickstarter campaign when past £2000 in a few hours and I ended up raising £10,500. Part of the deal was people got a piece of my art in return for their cash so I then had to make hundreds of items to pay my lovely backers.
Next I set about applying to The Arts Council for funding so I could run workshops for socially disadvantaged people in this area of London who don’t normally get included in art projects. I was particularly aiming then at people with autism who I thought might appreciate the colours and textures of my work. Luckily, the Arts Council agreed and I got enough money from them to provide materials to teach children to sew some of my items and to learn about felting. Finally, the local council Tower Hamlets also pitched in with a bit of money to involve the local community. It really has been a community project. In fact, it’s everything a corner shop should be.
How long did it take you from starting to felt the first product to setting up shop?
I have been sewing almost night and day, with a little help from an assistant, for eight months. It’s been a slog. My mum has also helped with cutting out and organising, so it’s been a bit of a family affair, much like a corner shop.
What made you start felting?
I’ve used felt as my preferred medium for 14 years now; ever since I began to produce art. It’s a primary material and something most of us first experience when we go to school and make things out of felt in craft lessons. Felt is such an nonthreatening material and comes in vibrant colours that it can soften the most violent of objects. For example, I’ve stitched all kinds of things from felt, which has turned hard, violent and threatening things like AK47’s, grenades and tanks into cuddly, approachable and harmless items. It’s a transformational material.
Which were the easiest and most complex to sew?
The easiest items are probably the cigarettes or Rizla papers as they’re simple shapes. The pieces made from Lycra are the hardest. Lycra stretches and is so hard to hand stitch. The other items that present challenges are bottles or odd shaped products. The long jelly-snake sweets are quite hard to stuff and stitch.
Which are your favourite items and what are the best-sellers so far?
I love them all but I think I have a soft spot for the McCain Oven Chips. I always loved eating oven chips as a kid and I just love the size of the bag, its squeezability and its colour. That said, I really enjoy making them all and love thinking up new products to make. The newspapers and magazines are fun to make as I enjoy making up silly headlines and stories to go in them, although they can take hours to produce. The soup cans and Marmite jar have been very successful. Beer cans and cigarettes have also sold well. Different people tend to like different things so demand has been good. The prices aren’t expensive as part of the project was to give everyone a chance to own a piece of The Cornershop. This wasn’t an installation designed to make a profit. I’ll probably break even if I’m lucky, much like many corner shops.
We’re all so impressed by your hard work and perseverance! It takes some of us months to knit one project! So what gave you the drive to do it?
I wanted to bring attention to the plight of corner shops and I also wanted to produce an installation that was serious art but that was approachable and accessible. My inspirations have been the Chapman Brothers, Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin and I think I’m carrying on their approach to art by creating a large and obsessive project.
Did you use any other materials aside from felt?
I also used Lycra, clear plastic, fabric paint, glitter, wool and that’s about it. That covered most of the material I need. I’d say about 90% of the material is felt and thread.
Are you a knitter?
I am a knitter and have always knitted. I wouldn’t say I’m an accomplished knitter able to do collars, socks, gloves or Fair Isle, but I do enjoy knitting and crochet. I have a knitting machine for some of my larger pieces. I used that to create a fabric tar sands lake for an environmental protest outside Canada House last year. The organisers asked me to create a scene involving knitted wolf and seal heads that protestors could wear to bring attention to the issue surrounding tar sand oil extraction in Canada.
So, are there any future felt plans?
I do have plenty of plans in the future but I like to keep them under wraps until I’ve worked out the details. I try to plan things in some detail before I announce them. I’m considering a project based in Soho next… that’s all I’m saying for now.
Last but not least, any advice for budding felters out there?
Just do and make the things that really excite you. Felt is such a versatile material you can do almost anything with it. There’s virtually no limit to what you can create if you let your imagination run wild.
The CornerShop is open until the end of the month, where all the products are up for sale by reservation, with prices starting at £1 and are also available to reserve at www.cornershoponline.com.
Fancy getting your felt on too? Check out this handy tutorial on how to felt your knitting projects.
What do you think of the felted corner shop? What item would you like to own?
Last updated: August 9th, 2014.