Textile artist Leah Creaven has a yarn to us about her beautiful hand-tufted rugs and her love of wool
By day, Irish-born Leah Creaven is managing the marketing, admin and photography for Drummond Farm – a Martinborough vineyard owned and run by her partner Alex Drummond. By night, or more accurately, in the in-between times, Leah is a textile artist, tufting beautiful large-scale rugs and running punch needle workshops in the surrounding communities. “I’ve always believed art to be an integral part of the home,” she says. “It’s my aim to create something that’s not only functional but is viewed as art too. Art isn’t always hung up on the walls.”
What were you doing before you started making tufted rugs? Before I left Ireland, I studied a degree in Textile and Surface Design in Dublin. But it wasn’t until I came to New Zealand that I started working in the creative industry. I started off managing a wool shop in Wellington, then managed a gallery in Martinborough and finally worked for a cotton textile company before going out on my own.
How do you split your time between Drummond Farm and textile making? A very big wall calendar. I do all the marketing, photography and emails for Drummond Farm in the morning and leave the rest of the day for getting stuck into the studio. Up until recently, I also worked a day job so there was a lot more juggling than there is now.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with textile making? What did you love about it? My first encounter with rug making was about two years ago, when I purchased a punch needle. I’m a pretty impatient person so I loved the immediacy of it and the overall texture. I tried my hand at knitting before this, but again my impatience got the better of me and it didn’t last long.
What inspires your patterns? And how do you go about mapping out a design? I’m inspired by a lot of things, mostly my surroundings. I’m a city girl at heart living in the countryside so I take inspiration from the shapes of the Wairarapa landscape. I also love experimenting with colour and composition, and I try to find interesting ways of combining the two.
How long does it take to make one rug? The process is pretty lengthy but probably not as lengthy as people think (I probably shouldn’t admit that). Most of my time is spent designing the piece. I design all my work on Illustrator or Photoshop, and then begin the process of choosing colours, tufting samples, stretching the fabric, transferring the design and then tufting followed by the finishings. There’s some extra time thrown in for the odd change of mind and the pulling out of yarn. But in total it could take up to 20 or 30 hours, on and off, for a large rug.
What was making your first large-scale rug like? It felt pretty fulfilling. Also, it was pretty good going for my biceps – I learnt that using a counterweight for my tufting gun would have been useful. I loved the impact of the large-scale art and it made sense to me to continue creating large scale rugs from then on.
What is the hardest thing about doing rug tufting? It can be strenuous work. My arms and wrists start aching if I’m working for too long and I have to take breaks.
What’s the best thing? Being able to use a renewable and sustainable material to create art. I love that I’m playing a tiny part in helping the wool industry here. I also really love the processes involved in rug tufting – all the way from the initial design work on my laptop, to choosing colours and wool, to eventually finishing the product. Seeing it in a home is super rewarding too.
What happens when something goes wrong in your rug tufting? Things go wrong as often as things go right. There’s been plenty of times where I’m halfway through a piece and realise I hate it, and have to pull it out and start again. There have also been cables that have come loose, fingers jammed in the tufting gun and screws flying out into the universe, never to be found again. You just deal with them as they come. I once oiled my tufting gun, then spilled it all over a white piece and ruined it. So, I got up, quietly shut the studio and was finished for the evening.
What is the difference between a cut gun and a loop gun, and which do you work with? I work with both. My first tufting gun was a pneumatic tufting gun with interchangeable cut and loop pile heads. I then purchased the cut and loop pile guns separately so I could chop and change quickly. I keep changing my mind on which one I prefer. I’ll make a cut pile rug and feel, yes – I prefer cut pile. And vice versa. Right now, I’m digging the loop pile.
What type of wool do you use and why? I choose to work exclusively with wool because it’s a renewable and biodegradable fibre. I also love the feel, texture and smell. I use coarse wool for my floor rugs because of its durability. Floor rugs need to be strong for the feet that are going to be dancing on them.
What’s it like being a textile artist? What are the things no one tells you? No one really tells you about the expenses until you and your Visa card are experiencing them. It’s not a cheap practice and I’ve learnt the hard way how to manage that. I guess it can be said in every industry, but going out on your own also teaches you a lot about being in business. Like keep all your blimmin’ receipts!
Tell us about your punch needling workshops. I host punch needle workshops every few months in a few locations in the Wairarapa, soon to be further afield. It’s a fantastic way of meeting other wool enthusiasts and bouncing ideas off each other. I’ve come away from most of them having learnt something new about wool and the wool industry here. I also love sharing the craft with people and getting them hooked (rug hooking pun!).
What are the best and worst things about being a creative working in this country? One of the best things is the creative New Zealand community. This might not be the case everywhere, but since coming to the Wairarapa I’ve felt so supported by the creatives here. Something I’ve found quite challenging is the availability of materials for rug tufting. I’m in a country that is known to be one of the best producers of wool, yet I’ve found myself having to source New Zealand wool from overseas most of the time. Rug wool companies normally sell wool in massive quantities that are too large for little ol’ me, so I’ve had to broaden my search and frequently import wool.
Do you have any exciting future projects coming up? I have a few exhibitions this year, which I’m really excited about. Some other exciting things I’m working on would include rug tufting workshops at the end of the year when my studio isn’t so uninviting, and I’m also working on some 3D tufted rug ideas.
What do you love about living in Martinborough? It’s really quite beautiful. It’s your quintessential vineyard town wrapped in rolling hills and farmland. What I love most is the location. It’s only an hour from the ocean, where you can go diving and fishing, and an hour from Wellington city. I’m someone who enjoys living in the countryside and darting away for a city break, rather than the other way round. It’s the perfect place to live out my best life.
Interview by Bea Taylor. Photography by Anna Briggs.