Karen Selk has spent her career researching silk. With camera and journal in hand, each expedition was focused on researching the rich history and heritage of silk production and traditions. A deep respect for the land and people who make the textiles as well as prodding from her friend in India, inspired Karen to lead many textile tours through India and Laos.
Image: In Search of Wild Silk by Karen Selk, 2023. Available from Schiffer Publishing or Amazon. Image above: silk moth.
What is your first memory of a textile?
My grandmother taught me to embroider images on cotton feed sacks when I was four or five years old. We cut the sacks apart, then washed, ironed and hemmed them. It was special to draw designs on the cloth and then embroider anything we liked to make pretty dish towels with my grandma. The memory of the smell and feel of the feed sack cotton, the bright colours of the embroidery threads, laughing and drawing our own designs then learning how to bring those designs to life with needle and thread, remains strong and keeps me connected to my grandmother.
Can you put into words what you love about textiles?
Obviously everything that connects to our senses: the texture, colour, rustle, smell and feel. That connection travels along a lengthy thread. I have been a weaver for well over fifty years. As such, we learn intimately about each fibre we work with. We learn about its characteristics, strengths and weaknesses so we can make the best choices to produce the right fabric for a particular purpose. This leads to understanding how those fibres are grown or raised to provide their special attributes. We continue down the line to appreciate the animals and plants that provide us with these materials and last, but surely not least, the farmers and caretakers that dedicate their lives to raising the raw material that ultimately provides us with cloth and colour for our clothes, furnishings and so much more.
Where is your most inspiring place to create?
My studio is the place I make my finished pieces. It is filled with natural light and looks out onto the garden and trees. Currently my work uses leaves, flowers and bark from the plants in my garden and the forest to release their juices and leave their impression on the cloth. The colours, textures and smells of my indoor and outdoor materials are a constant source of inspiration and stimulation.
What has inspired you recently?
I am always drawn to work using natural materials, they hold an essence of vitality and energy. I have recently been introduced to the work of Kazuhito Takadoi who works with grasses and reeds. His compositions flow with a beautiful combination of quiet, bursting with life.
Image: tasar silk cloth.
What is your most cherished textile, and why?
Malathi was my friend and mentor in India. We travelled together for many years to countless corners of India in search of various unique textile techniques and the creative people that have crafted them for centuries.
While travelling in Kashmir together, I purchased a pashmina shawl made from the finest undercoat of the cashmere goat, which was embellished with the finest stitching. I feel I am wrapped in the warmth of my friend and many fond memories each time I wear the raspberry coloured shawl with delicate embroidery.
Where did you learn to craft?
Being a fibre artist for decades, I have learned numerous textile arts. I learned to embroider from my grandmother at age four or five. Growing up in a rural family without much cash, my mother taught me to sew my own clothes. I first learned to weave from a university friend who taught me backstrap weaving using sticks after her return from an archeology dig in Peru. I pursued weaving by taking many classes and workshops. When one starts working with fibres and textiles, the desire to learn more and more just explodes. Knitting, crochet, felting, braiding, basketry, quilting, natural dyeing, silk fusion, botanical printing and more have all engaged my mind and fingers. I learned some techniques from friends and others from workshops, all enriching not only my repertoire, but my life.
Images courtesy of Karen Selk
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