Helen Greensmith is an incredibly talented designer and the founder of Helen Ruth Scarves. We caught up with Helen for the latest in our Made in Scotland series to find out about her creative process, her passion for using locally produced materials and how she is inspired by the outdoors.
Please can you tell us a bit about how you developed your passion for
illustration and how this led to you starting your own business?
I've always enjoyed drawing as long as I can remember, for me it is a way to capture the world around me and tell stories. I studied textiles at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen and it was here that I developed my love of print and using my illustrations to create patterns.
As I was finishing university I entered a competition to design an illustrated scarf that reflected Grays and I won! So after that I got the idea that this was something I wanted to develop and see if I could make a business from.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I'm sure most creative folks don't really have a typical day! As well as running my own business I also work for a bridal wear designer in Aberdeenshire so I'm very lucky that a lot of my days are spent working with beautiful couture fabrics and meeting lovely customers.
When I am in my studio though, I generally spend the morning catching up with any emails, website/social media updates etc and any planning for events coming up. I do a lot of the hand finishing on the scarves myself so if I have any orders I'll spend time on the finishing on those.
My favourite thing to do is spend time drawing and working on new designs so I try to leave the most part of the day for that.
You have mentioned that one of your core values is to keep production
local. Please can you tell us about why this is important to you?
Scotland has a long tradition of textile production and, although my process is not a traditional one, it still builds on that long history and continues to develop it for today's discerning customer.
So much of our clothing these days is mass produced in countries far away, we have lost the connection of where our clothing is coming from, and when I tell my customers that everything I make has been printed and hand finished in Scotland I think they really value that.
What is the process of designing a scarf from start to finish? What are
the aspects of this that you like and dislike?
Thoughts that have been circling my mind will spark my imagination to start the collection. Conversations with friends and family, walking in the woods, seeing familiar objects in new lights - these are all triggering points for me to research and work up new ideas and start drawing the images I will use in my scarves.
I don't draw in full the whole layout of the design, but rather draw the motifs that I will use. Once I've created a big library of images I scan them on to my computer and get to work adding colour and developing them further.
Creating the designs is my favourite part. Think of it as creating a digital collage where I repeat, mirror image etc to bring the design together. I like to add hidden details that the wearer can discover and little sinister motifs to add an element of surprise! It is difficult to finalise the colouring, that is always what takes me the longest as I could go on tweaking that for days.
Sometimes a colour combination just works straight away but other times it can take a bit of work until I am totally happy with it.
Why do you think there are so many talented Scottish creators? Are there
any typical characteristics?
I'm not sure, maybe it is the freedom and space to develop your own style? There is a long history of independent creativity and free thinking in Scotland. Perhaps we are fortunate in our teaching here, I had very encouraging art teachers from an early age who really supported me and recognised and nurtured artistic creativity.
How does the wild Scottish landscape inspire you to create and what are
your favourite parts of Scotland?
I grew up in rural Aberdeenshire, and that has been a constant source of inspiration to me. The changing colours through the year, the rhythm of the landscape, the unseen lives of creatures that move through the landscape, they are all a delight to me.
When we were young my Grandad used to take us on treasure hunts and make up fairy tales that included our surroundings so I think I have always seen the landscape as having a bit of magic about it. I love Aberdeenshire, but recently went on a weekend to Skye and was absolutely blown away by how beautiful it was, I can't wait to go back! Maybe will have to go back for some more research for a new collection!
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
I run my whole business myself, so I think finding time to do everything it takes to run a small independent brand is very challenging. When I first started I found the accounts side of things so boring! That's certainly been a challenge to make myself keep on top of that.
Please can you tell us about some other Scottish designers and creators
that you particularly love?
There are loads of fab Scottish scarf designers and I can't resist a good print! I love Karen Mabon and Vicki Murdoch of Silken Favours. They have both done so well and are such an inspiration to me. Their designs both have that narrative thread but also a lot of whimsical humour, and great colour!
Which of your scarves are you most proud of and why?
Very tricky to pick a favourite... but I think one that I am most proud of is my 'Two Sisters' scarf from the most recent collection. It was inspired by a traditional Scottish folk tale that my friend and folk singer Jenny Sturgeon introduced me to; it's a melancholy tale of two sisters, a fair and kind one and a dark and bitter one.
The dark sister is jealous of her fair sister, and so takes her to the seashore and sings to her while plaiting her hair into seaweed. As the fair sister falls asleep the sea comes in and washes over her. As she disappears beneath the waves a seal emerges. The dark sister realising what she has done is so distraught that she goes to the top of a cliff and throws herself into the sea, but as she falls she turns into a cormorant - and so the legend goes that this is why seals and cormorants can never be friends.
Off topic one (but important!)...What is your favourite Scottish dish
Has to be porridge! My dad always cooks it for me in the morning when I'm at home, sets you up right for the day!
What advice would you give to somebody aiming to make a career in a
creative industry in Scotland?
Take every opportunity that comes along. There may not be an obvious directly successful outcome from everything you try, but good things will turn up unexpectedly.
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