Inside The Studio: An Interview With Shannah Warwick

Visiting an artist’s studio is so much more than just viewing a creative workspace. A studio, for many, is another home. It’s where creativity flows the freest, where frustration grows the most intense, and where we, as artists, can fully be submerged in our emotional and physical processes. A studio can be a very private and intimate space. So, being invited into another’s creative world is an honor.

It is with great excitement that I am starting up my “Inside The Studio” interview series again. As The Art Is Not Dead primarily focuses on Philadelphia’s creative landscape, so will these interviews. Inside The Studio will take a glimpse behind the doors of creative spaces and give a little insight on some of the work you see around this city. I am so excited to now introduce you to Shannah Rabado Warwick.

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Shannah is a fashion and textile designer who lives and works in Philly. Her line, BlckBts, is “a blend of high-end fashion and wearable art.” Truly, Shannah’s pieces are art. I got to spend some time in her home studio, asking questions about her process, and seeing pieces in a myriad of stages. It was no surprise to find out that she has a background in printmaking in addition to being educated in textile art. Her entire process is magical, much like pushing and playing with an intaglio or lithography plate. She makes her way through multiple steps after concepts are complete and then works tirelessly until her pieces are ready to be worn.  Her methodical, mysterious, and hypnotic process is mirrored in her studio surroundings.  There is a lot to take in, but all is pleasing to the eye.  Much like Shannah, her space is a combination of intrigue, serenity, and quiet humor.

She opened me up to an entire new genre of art within an hours time. I’m really happy to share a bit of what I learned in the interview below.

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Maria Teicher: Please tell our readers a little bit about you.
Shannah Warwick: I am a fashion and textile designer living and working in Philadelphia. My line, BlckBts (pronounced black boots) is a blend of high-end fashion and wearable art. I use a traditional felting technique, as well as hand dyeing techniques, to create each piece. The felting techniques require minimal to no sewing and instead use a more sculptural approach to fashion design.

MT: What does your creative background look like?
SW: I have a BFA from UArts here in Philadelphia as well as Art Education Certification from Moore College of Art.

Creativity has always been a part of my life. I had a small line of hand dyed accessories about 8 years ago and it sort of fizzled out. I was pushing different dye techniques to create the illusion of texture on silk charmeuse but it was still falling short in my eyes. I went through a bit of a creative slump for a few years before I discovered nuno felting. BlckBts is a culmination of my love of hand dyeing, the texture that felting brings, and a bit of my other loves; hair styling, costume design, and the “magic” moment you feel when your vision becomes realized.

MT: What brought you to Philly?
SW: I came to Philly to finish my Art Degree about 15 years ago. I had moved around a bit after leaving my super rural hometown in NEPA. Philly was a natural and easy next step as it provided the artistic and nightlife I was craving while still keeping “home” accessible.

MT: Do you have any favorite spaces (exhibition, shops, coffee, food, etc)? Favorite parts of the city?
SW: I love my little pocket of South Philly where I live. It’s easy to get to Center City and other areas I frequent like Fishtown. I’m also able to ride my bike to FDR Park and escape a bit. I’ve been really trying to make it a point to visit other artists and designers studios lately. Working from home, I tend to forget about life outside the walls of my studios. But getting out there and seeing what other people doing is so important to creativity and inspiration. I love seeing shows at Arch Enemy Arts. I love walking through Rittenhouse Square and stopping in to check out magazines at the bookstore, seeing the window displays at Anthropology. I also love visiting other clothing boutiques like Delicious Corsets in Fishtown. So much fashion, so much inspiration exists in Philadelphia. Oh and I love the flea markets that have been popping up in Philly, especially the fellow shoppers. I have so much fun thinking about how I can style my line in different ways, using pieces from past eras.

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MT: Explain a bit about your work (past present future or all) and the processes you use to create them with.
SW: BlckBts has been my design name for as long as I can remember. The idea behind it was to create work that can be worn with your favorite black boots. It’s a fairly simple concept that can encompass many different types of fashion. I want to create pieces that my client reaches for when they want to feel their best. My pieces are the ones that are missing from your closet, they can be mixed and matched with the favorite parts of your wardrobe, and liven up your tried and true go to looks.

I began sewing as a young child mostly with my grandma, who lived next door. I can remember her patience as I tried alternative methods to sewing my Barbie clothes such, but not limited to, tape, staples, and elmer’s glue. I’ve always worked to do things my own way and by incorporating nuno felting into my body of work, I have beaten the system, aka my grandma.

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My base fabrics are hand dyed all colors except black and ivory. Black is an almost impossible color to replicate during production so its best for me to buy it already dyed. Ivory is the natural color of the silk that I use so no need to hand dye. I use varying dye techniques including shibori, crackle resist, and ice dyeing. The next step is creating my pattern out of plastic sheeting. I often use favorite pieces of clothing from my own wardrobe to draft patterns. I can sort of use different elements of different pieces to figure out what my patterns should look like. Pinterest is a huge help is organizing my thoughts and visions during this step. I can sort of catalog my visual inspiration and then look for garment patterns I can adjust to fit my ideas. I have to sketch out not only the finished look but also the pattern shape. The other factor is that during the felting process, the piece will shrink about 40-50%. So my patterns are pretty huge and space in my studio can certainly be an issue.

Once the pattern is ready I cut out my base fabric and sew a few side seams. This is, for the most part, the only time I sew. Its very minimal and I only do it to save me time during the actual production and replication of pieces. The piece is laid out using the pattern in the middle to keep the two sides from fusing together during felting.

Next, I begin placing tiny wisps of merino wool roving onto the base fabric. Think if you cut about a 3-5 inch long little chunk of your hair off and fanned it out to place onto the fabric. The amount of wool you use is way less then one would think and the act of placing the wool takes a bit of practice to be consistent.

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Once laid out, I wet everything down and roll it up onto a pool noodle between layers of bubble wrap. I tie up the “package” and begin rolling it. Now I have a rolling machine but before I bought that I rolled everything by hand. The package gets rolled about 800 times in each direction in 200 roll increments. It’s really time consuming but you are working to push the wet wool fibers down through the weave of the base fabric.

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After all the rolling, its time to add some heat and aggressive agitation to the piece. Think about what happens to your wool sweater if someone accidentally put it into the dryer. It shrinks, a lot. I unroll the package and take out the resist. I bring it to my sink and run it under warm water. I start throwing it down against the walls of the sink. I “shock” the wool fibers, assuring that they have migrated through the weave of the base fabric. After shocking, I slowly heat up the water and continue to agitate the whole piece by rubbing it against itself. During this step you learn to feel the point when the fibers start to shrink. At that point, you have the most control over the direction in which they shrink. Since I am making something to be worn, I take it out of the water and test the shape on a dress form or on my self. I can feel the point of when shrinking begins and I know how far I can shrink each piece. I know this because I consistently use the same type of wool and have really gotten to know my fibers. Merino wool takes a bit to begin shrinking but once it does, you have a limited amount of time and agitation to work with. Meaning, you need to get your shape solidified in a short span of working or it will be shrunk as far as it can go and you might not get your anticipated shape. Of course the way you’ve cut your pattern and laid your wool is a factor as well. But the actual finishing step is a small window and you really only can understand it by feeling the change in fibers.

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It’s a magic moment, reminiscent of the first time I felt something like this in the darkroom when I was in high school I love these moments. I think I truly live for them and am driven by them. They happen during the dye process when you rinse the fabric and begin to see color come through. You have a bit of control over the moment but not entirely. That is such an amazing feeling to me and it’s been a factor what mediums I choose to work in.

MT: What path did you take to get to this area of expertise?
SW: My need for texture in my solely hand dyed accessories led me to felting. I saw a piece at an exhibit at Moore College of Art that I couldn’t understand how it was made. So I began researching the artist and finally figured out that it was felted wool. But felted wool to me was that stuff you buy at the craft store and use to make bad Christmas decorations. It took a lot of time online to even know what felting meant. I was then able to find a workshop in Philly at the Philadelphia Handweaver’s Guild. The instructor was teaching traditional felting techniques of using just wool on wool to create fabric. She ended up sort of taking me under her wing and teaching me nuno felting. From there, I bought books, I scoured youtube, and I joined facebook groups (which are amazing for learning). I took my background in reading patterns to try to create my own that I could use with felting. I also took a pattern-drafting workshop at Moore to learn about draping and working from a dress form.

MT: How important is your studio space to your creative practice?
SW: My studio space is currently in my home. I use my long, narrow basement as a dye lab and felting space. I also use a spare bedroom as my drying and finishing room. I dream of growing out of my basement and having more room for my tables so its sort of a love/hate relationship with that space. My finishing room is a more creative area as I also have my ever-growing best parts of my wardrobe in it. I post looks of the day pictures on social media and I style my pieces with pieces I’ve collected from other designers. I also look at other pieces I have in the space to figure out some of my inspiration and pattern making.

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MT: Do you listen to the radio or music while creating? If so, what are your favorites?
SW: I always have something playing in the studio. It might music, radio talk shows, a movie, or TV series. It definitely changes with my mood and where I’m at in the creative cycle. For instance, I tend to only listen to music that’s not intrusive and can sort of be swam in while I’m figuring out patterns. I need something in the background but it can’t interfere with my thoughts and ways I have to envision how my pattern will work 3 dimensionally or on the body.

When I’m laying everything out and begin adding wool, I’ll put on movies or a TV series. I love fashion documentaries and learning about different artists and designers. I guess it sort of keeps me feeling like I’m part of a community instead of hidden away in my basement studio, lol.

During the final fulling or shrinking step, I like to listen to heavier music or something I can sing to. Fulling takes more physical energy and I like my music to match that and I might even break out into an uncontrollable dance party for a few minutes.

In contrast, I tend to listen to radio talk shows when I’m in production. It helps me stay motivated to create multiples of the same style if I’m sort of distracted by conversation.

MT: Is there anything you keep in your studio for luck or inspiration?
SW: Well I have a huge cardboard replica of Elvira in my felting/dye studio. I call her my studio mate and I suppose she’s become my good luck charm. My finishing studio is filled with all of my favorite clothes and headpieces. I do a lot of costuming for myself and friends and I like to keep interesting pieces around. I find myself thinking of certain aspects of particular garments and integrating them into my own pieces. The headpieces and wigs make my studio feel more like a dressing room.

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MT: Any favorite tools or tricks of the trade that have helped move your work forward?
SW: My favorite tool is by far my Ms. Felty McFelterson aka my felt rolling machine. Before she came into my life I would roll all of my felt by hand. You generally need to roll your pieces appx 800 xs in each direction in 200 roll increments. If you do the math and factor in that I’m almost 6ft tall and need to partially bend over during this process, it equals a lot of backache and an even longer time to produce each piece. My machine does all of the rolling for me. I still need to keep an eye on it, adjust, un-roll, and re-roll. But this machine is amazing and totally changed and increased my production.

Another trick of the trade is getting to know your materials and monitoring the consistency of them. I use natural fibers and you can’t have complete control over the quality of the materials. You can buy from companies you trust and this might mean a higher ticket price. I want my wool to come from a mill that has high ethical standards. I pay very close attention to the fiber quality and how well the wool has been cleaned. Lastly, I watch how the wool reacts to water and if it continues to bleed out any residual dye. This is really important, as I don’t want the dye to transfer to the fabric or end up on the skin of the person who eventually wears it. It’s all about quality control and I refuse to sell a subpar product.

 

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MT: Do you work on several projects at a time or just one?
SW: I’m slowly learning to adopt the industry guidelines of working in collections. I currently offer a spring/summer and a fall/winter collection. I also won’t limit myself if I think of a few supplemental pieces that I just have to make. Working this way is relatively new to my creative process and I’m still working on my fashion calendar. My inner annual calendar is really in tune with the seasons and a traditional school schedule. This has made working on collections a bit challenging because that means I have to work ahead of the seasons. I really tend to react to my environment and get a lot of inspiration from street fashion and what I see in seasonal fashion publications. I’m slowly breaking my self a bit of these habits in order to be more in line with how my wholesale clients buy.

MT: Are you organized or messy?
SW: I know I’m a bit scattered so I try to over compensate by giving myself to do lists. Then I get overwhelmed and literally cut the list into pieces so I can tackle each thing one at a time. This translates into an organized mess. If I’m in the midst of a collection or production, my space reflects that aka it’s a hot mess. Yet before I go onto the next project, I need to clean it up and start in a fresh and somewhat clean environment. I never realize what a mess I’ve created until someone else sees the space.

MT: How long does a piece take you to complete?
SW: I would say the average time it takes to complete a piece is around 6-8 hours. That includes a bit of time for pattern development and any dye work. Once I have that all figured out, I could up my production to making 2-4 pieces at a time in that same allotted 6-8 hours.

 

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MT: Why have you chosen to pursue becoming an artist?  
SW: I didn’t have a choice to pursue becoming an artist. It’s just the cards I was dealt. I did have the choice to follow my heart and seek artistic guidance and education. I do choose to go into my studio on a regular basis and work. I found a medium that resonates with me and I choose to perfect my skills and expand my knowledge through any means necessary. I explore and research and really work on paying attention to what’s going on in my artist community, in the fashion world, and in the felting world. I choose to follow my passion and do whatever I have to do to continue this way of life. I work a consistent part time job outside my artistic profession to help me financially as well as working other random odd jobs. A few of my friends who are artists have a running joke of telling each other all of the ridiculous side jobs we take so that we can survive. I’ll list a few, some of which were mine and some that were my friends; bacon jam salesman, wedding officiate, Elvis impersonator, nude model, and television focus group participant. Being an artist is about being creative in other aspects of your life as well. It’s a constant hustle to find ways to not only fund projects but also to simply pay your bills. It’s not a choice so much as just the way you were born and what you have to do to feel fulfillment in your life.

MT: Where does your drive to create come from?
SW: I honestly have no idea and it certainly has been a sort of demon to wrestle with at times. I just have this thing inside me that reacts to an input of inspiration. It’s certainly a creative cycle and I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can be kind to myself and ride the waves. I also know I need to put in the time and effort to feed this “elusive creative genius” as Elizabeth Gilbert named it in her incredible TedTalk. I’m working on sort of trying to fine tune my drive or cycle so that it better aligns with the ever demanding fashion calendar set by fashion gods in Paris or wherever.

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MT: Any advice for young artists?
SW: Explore everything you can get your hands on. Look for new mediums and just play with them. Take workshops or classes in mediums even if you think you aren’t really into it. Soak up as much knowledge as you can and visit artist studios, galleries, museums, etc. Watch how other people work and learn new skills. You never know what will end up being your “ thing” or “things.” Give yourself the freedom and openness to do whatever feels the best to you. Dedicate your self to your studio time even if your studio is your bathtub and kitchen table. Keep exploring and keep working.

MT: What do you have on the table coming up?  Where can we see your work in person?
SW: I recently finished my Spring/Summer ’15 Line. It’s a sort of waking up collection reminiscent of an ice queen’s spring wardrobe. I used all white on white fabric, which gives it a really special, almost bridal feel. I’m really proud of how it came together and I think the photo-shoot really captures my vision. It can be viewed and is available for purchase through my website and my instagram.

I’m currently in the inspiration gathering stage for my Fall/Winter ’15 Collection. I’ve been talking about adding leather details to my work and I think that’s finally coming together for this collection. I’ve been looking at a lot of strong accessories that kind of mimic a woman’s skeletal structure. I’ve also been listening to classic rock and some glam rock and thinking about my roots. I’ll be interested to see how these thoughts all sort of translate into a fashion collection. I’m really excited and think what I’m coming up with is really going to take me to the next level of my business. We’ll see!!

My work can be seen in Philadelphia at Arch Enemy Gallery, Joan Shepp, and Toile Atelier. I’m really proud of these locations and think each brings it’s own voice to the fashion and art scene.

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If you are in Philadelphia or find yourself here soon, do not miss out on seeing Shannah’s pieces in person.

A huge thank you to her for allowing me into her space, sharing her artistry, and being an incredible part of this city’s creative landscape.

 

Shannah’s Website
Shannah’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest
Toile’s Website
Joan Shepp’s Website
Arch Enemy Art’s Website