Amber Creswell Bell

Today we are THRILLED to welcome a new writer into the fold – please say hello to Amber Creswell Bell, our new Sydney contributor!  Amber is a freelance writer who has previously worked in writing and communications for designers including Jamie Durie and Arent & Pyke.  She now works with a host of Sydney based creatives, helping them to put their work into words. She is also a contributor to The Planthunter and Alphabet Family Journal. Amber will join us once or twice a month with stories about NSW based creatives – please make her feel very welcome! – Lucy x

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Woven tapestries by textile artist Natalie Miller in her Southern Highlands studio. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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Natalie Miller weavings and macrame. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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Wools and materials . Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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Weaving details. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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Natalie at work in her studio. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

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Natalie Miller in her studio. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that change and those that dream of change – and I suspect that this story is seriously going to appeal to those of you reading who might fit into the latter category.

My interview today is with the multi-talented Natalie Miller. If I were to give the short-form synopsis of Natalie it might go like this: busy urban architect sells city-house and up-stumps the family for the greener pastures of the NSW Southern Highlands. Decides to spend less time on architecture and more time honing her preferred crafts of weaving and macramé. Sets up creative space and shop-front with dream studio stable-mate Harriet Goodall while building Grand-designs-esque dream home in the picture perfect countryside with builder-husband. Their children meanwhile play outside, climbing trees and hunting yabbies. Sounds like bliss, right?

I know that I have had more than one conversation over wine in recent years with busy desk-bound friends and associates who dream of peeling their eyeballs away from their computer screens, prioritising their creative hobbies that are currently relegated to ‘spare time’, and hatching grand plans to make them ‘full-time’. But there are few that actually make the leap!

I already know that the dentists, accountants and lawyers amongst you are probably thinking that architecture does sound like a particularly creative and tactile career choice! But as Natalie explains, having practiced architecture for 25 years – recent years have seen a change in the landscape, ‘I found that working in a modern society, my occupation had become very dependent on computers and technology. Drawings are by CAD drafting and presentation by computer 3D renderings. I was losing the sense of creating objects with my hands in the real world. I needed to make things and regain a sense of touch’. And that she has!

Having followed Natalie on Instagram over the last couple of years, I have seen her adventure unfold and it’s been a gorgeous and colourful journey. I would actually defy anyone living in the Southern Highlands to not be creative, it is just so insanely beautiful. This is possibly why the area is such a magnet for so many artists, makers and creatives.

Finding it harder and harder to pry herself away from Robertson, Natalie does teach tapestry-weaving classes in Sydney at Koskela from time to time, so keep your eyes peeled for those classes!

Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?

I grew up in the beachside suburb of Cronulla in Sydney in the ’70s. My mother was a dressmaker and loved macramé. My grandmother an obsessive knitter and was so impressive at crochet. I was surrounded by people who just loved to make things. My childhood was filled with making craft and creating art.

At school I was in love with art and drawing, and was top of the class in technical drawing, which led me into studying architecture straight out of school. I now have been practicing architecture for the last 25 years. In the early parts of my career I was working on creative projects in most facets of architecture, including commercial, hospitality and residential. Endless hours designing on a drafting board, hand rendering perspectives and plans, and making models, but in later years it all became so computer based.

After relocating from Sydney to the Southern highlands, I needed to enrich myself with something creative again. I have always worked with textiles in interiors from carpet design to upholstery and fabric design. I had previously dabbled with weaving, and to my excitement Sturt Art and Craft Centre in the highlands offered tapestry weaving as a course, which I ended up studying for a year. I wanted to explore the different techniques of textiles and fibres. I found myself falling in love again with using my hands, and playing with the textural fibres, techniques and colour.

I am passionate about textiles and craft and am extraordinarily happy about the path that I have been led down. I now do commissions for weavings and macramés, and teach tapestry weaving and macramé in Koskela, Sydney and my studio in Robertson. I have recently started up a little craft supply and handmade shop called Raw Craft. I am put off by the saturation of mass produced products, particular inorganic materials like plastics, and really feel that ‘handmade’ is unique and has personal meaning.

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Incredible weavings by Natalie Miller. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.
Are you still working as an architect in any capacity?

I still work as an architect around 15 – 20 hours a week depending what I can fit in. It is a good stable source of income.

How long had you been dreaming of the tree change before you actually took the plunge?

Whilst living in the inner city we always have had a place in the country to get away for weekends. We had rented properties in Kangaroo Valley over 10 years ago and then Wollombi in the Hunter for many years. We always knew that this was where we wanted to bring up the children; it was just a matter of being the right time and finding the right place with good schools. My kids now yabby hunt, ride motorbikes, climb trees, fish in the dams, get muddy, ride horses and just run. This is something that I’ve always dreamed of for my children.

How would your describe your work and what influences your style?

My work is very colourful and textural. I do try to use a variety of textiles and mediums when creating wall hangings and artworks. My biggest influence is Sheila Hicks, a wonderful American weaver whose sense of colour, design and texture is just amazingly bold and creative.

When creating your work, what processes and materials do you employ, is it an intuitive process or meticulously planned, do you work on more than one piece or project simultaneously, and how long does each piece take to complete?

My work is usually driven by colour and texture. I weave with hand dyed wool, (which I dye myself) and any fabulous fibres that I can get my hands on. I like to use jute, raffia, vintage sari silks and roving. My work is never planned, I start with a selection of colours and materials, and the design evolves as I start the making process.

I have many projects going on simultaneously. I have many different size looms everywhere, at my studio, in my car and in my home. I always travel with a small loom and weave whenever I have a chance.  I try to be as original as possible and experiment with all different fibres.

The time for each piece varies on whether it’s a weaving or macramé. A large macramé piece would take on average 3 days as the process is with large knots. Weavings are much more time consuming, a weave around 1m x 1m could take a couple weeks if the weft is relatively thin.

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Natalie at work in her studio. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.
What does a typical day for you usually involve?

My alarm goes off at 6.00am every day, my very first thing is to make a plunger coffee, I usually dream about my morning coffee. I respond to my emails in the first hour and once its 7.00am it time to wake up my three children and get them ready for school. A round trip drive to school drop off is around 70mins as we do live quite remotely for the Southern Highlands.

I usually pick up another coffee from town and head for my studio in Robertson. I will work on a commission, dye some wool or organise what is required for a workshop. Recently with the opening of the shop I love sourcing products that I can stock that I think would be suitable, and styling the displays. I do spend a lot of time dying and winding my own wools for my weavings and workshops. I must say that I am in such a happy place in my life; I truly am lucky to be surrounded by all the colours and textures in my studio and where I am at in my life. Sometimes I can just sit and absorb the surrounds and be inspired by what surrounds me.

My husband and I are building a contemporary house on an amazing rural block in Kangaloon. Off form exposed concrete, timber, local stone and glazing all with hydronic floor heating run by geothermal heat pumps. I go to site daily to check up on progress (my husband is the builder). I’m already planning the woven wall hangings that I plan to fill the house with.

In the evening I will be sitting by an open fire creating something whether it be a small leather woven necklace to a large-scale wall hanging. I don’t watch TV; I couldn’t tell you the last time I did. I prefer to craft and listen to music. My children craft with me at night and just get so enthused and excited. My 10-year-old boy has currently learnt to knit through school and considerably impressive at knitting even on the big needles and big yarn.

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Studio details. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.
Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media you tune in to regularly?

My favourite magazine is Frankie; I do have every issue since day dot and admire the stories, photography and all the craftiness that it is filled with. I love the design inspiration from blogs including textile arts centre in NYC, Frankie blog, TDF blog and anything remotely crafty and creative.

I try to get my hands on weaving and macramé books form the ’60s and ’70s, as the vintage macramé books are incredibly inspirational. I do love Instagram, and when you follow creative people, the amount of imagination and creativeness that is displayed is quite remarkable and inspiring.

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Studio details. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.
Which other local artists, designers, creative people do you admire?

I now live in the rural countryside of Kangaloon and have my studio in the country town of Robertson, surrounded by rolling green hills and fresh air. It seems to be something about this area perhaps the environment, but it attracts a lot of local artists and creative people. The majority of people are creating something, from basket makers, to fibre and textile artists to painters and potters and fine furniture makers. Its endless, it’s a wonderful place to be and to create. I admire everyone that lives in this region; it truly is a little a creative part of the world.

What has been a career highlight for you so far?

Thus far, my highlight has been teaching people the weaving skill that I was taught, and just seeing how happy it makes people learning the weaving techniques, which date back to 3000BC. There is nothing more satisfying than making another one happy and getting people to use their hands again. It’s such a wonderful day surrounded by beautiful textiles and fibres and creating something unique and handmade.

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Natalie’s studio daybed surrounded by her weavings and tapestries. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?

I have just embarked on my dream collaboration. Sculptural basket maker Harriet Goodall and I have collaborated and made the front part of our studios into a small shop named ‘Raw Craft’ that is filled with contemporary materials to create raw handmade crafts. It’s just such a wonderful and inspiring place to be a part of. I am truly happy and content in my country town shop, after all my years in the corporate and commercial world.

We stock weaving, crafting and basketry supplies. Including looms, warps, hand dyed yarns, roving, silks, hand dyed cane, rope, raffia, seagrass, dyes and accessories. We also have over-sized knitting and crochet needles, fabric yarns and hand dyed wools. There are Woven Sculptures, woven lighting, textiles and ceramics. To me it’s like a slice of paradise, it’s my dream creative project!

What are you looking forward to?

I look forward to every day so that I can create something new, exciting and different.

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Natalie at work in her studio. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.

SYDNEY QUESTIONS

How often do you get to Sydney now?

I must say,  I haven’t been to Sydney now in around 3 months except when I am teaching a workshop at Koskela. When we first relocated it was every weekend, but now we have made many friends, and our children’s friends and sports commitments are in the country, so it is much less as time goes by. When I go back now the biggest thing that I do not miss is the traffic, there is no traffic in the highlands.

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

Paddington, as before I did the tree change I lived there for 20 years in six different houses. My children were all born there, went to daycare and primary school there. The combination of European terrace houses and Sydney Harbour site topography creates a unique and beautiful suburb. I still have many friends in Paddington, and my parents live there, so it is like a second home to me.

Where do you shop for the tools of your trade?

I now buy wholesale and preferably locally. I buy my undyed wools and dyes from Australia and stock New Zealand made Ashford products in my shop, Raw Craft. I also stock some amazing products from abroad that I have come across in my travels. Ultimately, I would like to breed and care for sheep and alpaca’s on my property, then spin their raw fleece. Additionally grow natural dyes in the garden to create colour to the spun wool. That is the plan.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

The last meal I had in Sydney was at the Italian bar, Oxford Street, Paddington. The most incredible pizzas ever!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

I do like to run long distances, so I will do a long country run quite early or a bike ride with the kids. Then I will potter a bit in the vegetable garden and hang out with the kids.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

Not sure if I should tell BUT there is the most beautiful tiny beach called Kutti beach, in Watsons Bay. It’s like out of a movie. My eldest child used to sail there for school. It’s just perfect.

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Natalie Miller weavings. Photo – Rachel Kara for The Design Files.