Suzy Shackleton - Rainow's felt artist
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 April 2014
A Rainow-based felt artist welcomes walkers into her historic studio for a piece of textile history
When Suzy Shackleton left her job as director of a Manchester-based advertising agency to start a family, she dreamed of a career that enabled her to combine family life with working from home.
Now, 20 years on, Suzy has fulfilled her dream, having turned her passion for felt into a home-business based in the picturesque village of Rainow, near Macclesfield, next to the sprawling moorlands and hills of the Peak District National Park.
But her idyllic lifestyle didn’t happen easily. Suzy said: ‘After establishing a successful mail order gift business, I decided to return to college to study art part-time. I had always wanted to do this since school, but it was never considered a serious option. My parents and family were so supportive and with their help, I managed to run a business and study at the same time.
‘While I was on the course, a tutor showed us how to make a simple piece of felt and I was hooked from the start. I loved the rich colours of the wool, its tactile qualities and the whole process of rolling and creating the felt. There’s quite a therapeutic feelgood factor about it that almost links you with its history.’
Felt soon became Suzy’s passion and after years of making vibrant wall hangings – either to order or to sell in galleries and exhibitions – her hobby soon began to turn into a career. Juggling her full time mail-order business with a family and a blossoming art career was becoming increasingly challenging and in 2009 the mum-of-three sold her gift business and became a full time felt artist.
‘I think I was destined to be a felt artist,’ she added. ‘Not only was my grandma a milliner making felt hats for the very wealthy, but I was born in Stockport, which used to be the main felting region in the country with more than 30 factories churning out felt hats, trying to meet demand.’
Suzy, 50, now works from her home-based studio/gallery, where the stunning views provide her with daily inspiration to create contemporary designs using traditional felt making techniques. Each piece of work is intricately hand rolled and wet felted using inlays and mosaics. It is then embellished with needle felting. Layering the fine merino wool to gradually build up depth and tone, she then combines traditional with modern by using ancient felt-making techniques to create contemporary illustrative designs.
‘I regard my felts as paintings with the wool fibres representing my pallet,’ she said. ‘I love the exciting textures, bold designs and quirky compositions, but most of all it’s colour that inspires me.’
Commissions both for private individuals and corporate institutions have become increasingly popular for Suzy, while her unique pieces lend themselves beautifully to interior design, leading her to develop an individual service where colours and designs can be matched to interior decor. In addition, she runs half-day beginners’ workshops where guests learn the traditional felt-making techniques.
As well as being an award-winning artist, Suzy is also an active member of Peak District Artisans, an association of fine artists and artisans and the 62 Group with whom she exhibits internationally. While the majority of her work is sold at exhibitions, galleries and online, her location has now inspired her to welcome visitors to view her felt making in the studio.
Dating back to the 15th century, The Tower House – where Suzy and her family have lived since 2003 – was originally known as Towerhill Farm. ‘Interestingly, although Towerhill’s main purpose was farming, in the early 1600s it was thought that it was also producing textiles on a commercial basis,’ Suzy added. ‘Evidence for this lay in appraisers of the time noting that the farm had large quantities of wool stock, spinning wheels, linen yarn and flax.’
The unusual tower in front of house is a folly of more recent construction and the area was known as Tower Hill long before it was built.
‘When we moved in, the barn was in a dilapidated state, but we spent the next few years working with an award-winning local builder to gradually renovate and convert it into a studio/gallery,’ she said. ‘We wanted to retain where possible the original stone and features of the barn – the result is a dream come true for me.
‘Looking back now, I realise that the renovation was a big project, but it was worth it. To be able to do a job that you love, in a place that you love and welcome visitors on a daily basis – I am incredibly fortunate.’
One of the oldest houses in Rainow, The Tower House is located on The Gritstone Trail which covers over 35 miles of Cheshire countryside, from Lyme Park through wild moorlands and distinctive landscapes to Mow Cop in Kidsgrove.
‘I have opened my studio to the public because it’s a unique place to visit while enjoying the walk,’ Suzy added. ‘People come and spend time viewing my latest collections while learning about felt making and watching me at work. I love the fact that people combine their visits to this beautiful part of the country with a walk to the White Nancy and return for a brew in the studio.’
Suzy is in her studio most days and welcomes visitors but a call beforehand is advised.