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On Temperamental Tufting and Working Smaller, with Sarah Savoy of ‘Softside Workshop’


All photos by Rebecca Scherman.

The abundance of creativity and energy belonging to local artist and proprietor of Main Street’s Much & Little boutique, Sarah Savoy, is enviable. Her latest project, Softside Workshop, is an exploration of textiles – from vibrant, abstract area rugs to playful and moss-like wall hangings – and a serious Scout Mag infatuation.

Savoy will be showing her Softside Workshop pieces at Bespoke Market in Squamish, from April 28th through 30th. We definitely recommend a trip to check out Softside – along with dozens upon dozens of other talented local artists and makers – at this Spring event, if you can swing it. Until then, get to know a little more about the textural and colourful world of Savoy’s creation by delving into our new interview with her below:

First of all, tell me about your first rug tufting experience: What put the idea of pursuing it as a hobby/creative outlet into your head? What inspired you to eventually pick up ‘Bubba’, your pneumatic tufting gun, and take it to the next level?

I saw an article in Dwell magazine about it that immediately sparked something inside me – I knew I had to explore it. It seemed to combine multiple interests of mine: textiles, drawing, colour, texture, and working with my hands. After doing a bunch of online research, I purchased a starter set and some wool, and then it was off to the races! Rug tufting is done with a needle that shoots yarn through a backing fabric with a high speed electric tufting gun. I eventually got my pneumatic gun because I wanted to scale up the texture on some of my wall hangings. The other tufting guns are limited to shorter pile heights – which are great for rugs, but I really wanted to make pieces that were highly textural, kind of fluffy and gnarly, so I got the pneumatic gun and named him Bubba.

Although your completed pieces seem somewhat random, intuitive and visceral, obviously there is also quite a bit of conceptualization, planning and work that goes into each one. Please tell me about your process, from start (inspiration) to finish, and how your time is divided between each step.

Just being a visual person out and about in the world I feel there is no lack of things to inspire me. Nature is always a huge inspiration. I also love mid-century design and architecture. I’m constantly snapping photos with my phone to document colours, textures, shapes and shadows. A design always starts with a doodle on my iPad; I’ll refine it and then start playing with colours, blocking them in and trying to match them with my yarn colours. Once I’m happy with a design, I project the image onto the fabric that’s been stretched across my frame and trace it. Now comes the actual tufting part that can be quite straightforward (for example, if I am doing a rug that only has one pile height), or quite involved (a wall piece that has a lot of varying textures and pile heights, like my West Coast Series). After the piece is tufted, I glue the back with a carpet adhesive and let it dry for at least 24 hours. Then I can cut it off the frame, finish the edges, and apply backing/mounting hardware, as needed.

Now that you’ve been doing this for a little while, how long does it take you to complete a piece?

The time it takes to create a piece varies hugely. If it’s a rug with a relatively simple design, it might take about six hours for the tufting portion. If it’s a shaggy wall piece that I added hand-stitching to, it could take me 15+ hours, as I am also designing and creating textures as I go. My biggest piece took about 40 hours as there was so much detail and I kept adding/editing.

Where/how do you find/make the time for Soft Side Workshop, while still running a successful Main Street boutique (Much & Little)? What’s your secret?

I like to stay busy and I love making the rugs, so I somehow manage to create time. I tend to tuft like crazy for several days after dinner and on the weekends, and then take some time off. Having a teenage kid who is older and quite independent has opened up a lot of flexibility for me; if my son was still little and needing a lot of structure, it would be more challenging. Honestly though, to fit it all in, something else usually has to slide…My house is pretty messy.

Regardless of how much time you actually spend on an individual project, each of your pieces seem to have a unique personality/narrative that you’ve imagined for them. Which are you particularly attached to and what’s their story?

Yeah, I feel like I don’t really have a “signature” style, except for the fact that everything is abstract. I basically design on an impromptu, visceral level. Some days, it’s about graphic colour and clean lines; other days it’s more about building texture with more nuanced colour shifts. Then I’ll jump back and forth between the two – it must be the Gemini in me. I feel quite attached to the rugs with abstract blobs and linework in them, and the shaggy, fringed wall hangings. Maybe because they emerged from a more personal, vulnerable place, and drawing them was very automatic and instinctual. They’re a bit unusual and off-beat, a little like misunderstood beings… underdogs in a way. I always root for the underdogs.

When did you decide to “cut the cord” and begin selling your pieces? Is it difficult to let them go? How do you know that they are going to the “right” home (if that’s even a consideration for you) and begin their next life phase away from their creator?

I decided to sell them once I had a few that I was happy with aesthetically – there was A LOT of trial and error. Now I can’t stop making them and they need to go somewhere. It can be a little difficult letting them go, because I put a lot of heart into them, so I prefer that they end up with someone who feels a connection with them. I suppose that’s how art works anyway. I don’t want to make them sound precious, but it’s always nice to know that something you put lots of time and thought into is ending up in a home where it will be appreciated, as opposed to a set stylist who is using it as a prop. But in general, I think letting go of things and your perceived outcome is probably a good life skill.

What excites you about the Squamish Bespoke Market? Why should people get out and see your handmade creations (and others’) in-person for themselves?

I’m really excited about the upcoming market. I feel Bespoke works hard at creating community amongst vendors and shoppers. I’ve done very few markets, but I like what they’re about and that it’s a curated event. Because you’re buying straight from the source, markets are a great way to deepen the connection between buyer and maker, as opposed to an anonymous shopping experience where you can’t ask questions about the product or process.

Why should someone invest in fibre art, in particular?

Why invest in fibre art? Why not?! Having something textual and tactile on your wall is a good way to vary your art collection, and add interest and character to a space.

“…the growth comes from knowing that I can speak more than one language in terms of rug tufting, and I can pivot between the dialects depending on my mood and proficiency.”

What is the most mentally or creatively challenging and/or rewarding aspect of Softside Workshop?

Because I’m working with yarn, it’s challenging finding the exact colours I want. Unlike paint, I can’t mix my own colours, so I create different shades and hues by combining textures and fibres. It’s a lot of sourcing and experimenting, but sometimes the outcome is better than what I envisioned.

How about the most physically demanding one?

Physically, I still find working with my pneumatic gun very tricky. It’s tempermental and relies on an air compressor, so if something goes wrong there isn’t a lot of (if any) technical support out there, and it’s a waste of yarn. But the result is so good that I’m willing to put up with it!

What is one thing about tufting that you wish you’d known about beforehand (that would have potentially saved you a lot of time/frustration/money)?

I would have sourced and experimented with inexpensive acrylic yarn, instead of diving in with wool. But I’m impatient, and wanted to do everything right away with the best quality materials.

Tell me one limitation you’ve recently discovered about yourself, either creatively or technically. How do you envision yourself growing from this realization?

I feel at this point I’m not yet skilled enough to execute the elaborate ideas I have in my head. I have dreams of creating some rather dramatic wall hangings, but I have yet to master pneumatic Bubba, and I feel that is holding me back. However, it’s also forced me to work in different ways. Instead of working larger and with more texture, I started making more area rugs (Bubba is not involved with those) and I found I really love creating those too. They are graphic and bold, and really satisfying to make, as the result is so much more immediate. So the growth comes from knowing that I can speak more than one language in terms of rug tufting, and I can pivot between the dialects depending on my mood and proficiency.

When and how do you suppose you will make the turning point to match your aspirations to abilities, and how will that affect your overall process, as a result? Is there such a thing as having learnt ‘enough’, and does that defeat the purpose if you ever get there?

I’ve only been doing this since January of last year, so by no means am I an expert, and as with doing something over and over, there is bound to be technical progress. I don’t know if my abilities will ever match my aspirations, but I also don’t think that you can ever learn enough, and I like pushing and challenging myself. I have so many sketches and drawings that I have yet to bring to life, so I think I’ll be on this path for a while.

So far, your inspiration has varied from architecture to BC’s natural environment – and, of course, colour! What was your most recent and unexpected source of inspiration? What else is on your brain these days, that we might eventually see come out in a future Soft Side Workshop series?

A recent source of inspiration was actually wondering what to do with all the excess fabric in the corners of my frame, and all the leftover half-spools of wool, etc. Trying to maximize my costs and reduce waste! So instead of working larger, I’m exploring how I can work smaller. I’m experimenting with lampshades. I have a bunch of used shades that are partially stained or dented, but still functional, and I’m going to try to give them a makeover. Wish me luck!

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