Rachael Matthews has an extraordinary talent that she wears lightly, and people who meet her tend (as I did) to come away with the impression that they too could have a go. Some years ago, as a leader of the Cast Off Knitting Club for Boys and Girls, Rachael would teach complete strangers to knit on Tube trains, then ask them to teach the people sitting beside them. (There’s no better way to learn than to teach.) In short: a sizeable part of Rachael’s artistic talent is bringing out artistry and craftsmanship in others.
Rachael has been a really big influence on me. I first met her, and Louise Harries, when I visited Prick Your Finger a few years ago. I said I wanted to knit a jumper, and they more or less said, ‘Yes, good idea, do it.’ So I did. (As I wrote, in Sew Your Own, about this: sometimes all we need is permission to do what we wanted to do already.)
Visiting Prick Your Finger is always an extraordinary experience. The first time I was there, I found a full-sized woollen bathroom suite in the window. Rachael was spinning “London yarn” (comprising wool from sheep in city farms, and shredded flecks of orange plastic from unwanted Sainsbury carrier bags).
Rachael’s own genius has recently been recognised by the American National Museum of Women in the Arts, as a Woman To Watch, with a show starting in November in Washington DC. And now with a show in London, at Soho’s Riflemaker gallery, where I had the privilege of talking on a panel with Rachael at the opening. (The other two panellists were the brilliant and inspiring Glenn Adamson and Sandy Black, respectively curator at the V&A, and professor at the London College of Fashion.) The room was absolutely crammed with Rachael’s fans, including not a few who knitted throughout.
The centrepiece of a the show is Rachael Matthews’s Shamanic Bed for Creatives.
Though best known as a textile artist, Rachael has always been handy at woodwork. So as well as creating the exquisitely beautiful bed cover, using wool spun from old carpets, she crafted the bed itself, then decorated it using marquetry and carving deeply into the pine.
While she was doing this, she says, she thought about how we all sleep at night, and wondered, “What is wealth?” The bedspread in particular features motifs from money. Knitting it, she meditated on the richness of stitches, and attitudes towards the value of knitting.
The bed will serve for a time as a kind of pop-up version of the East London haberdashery, Prick Your Finger, with visitors able to buy knitting and crochet materials stored in the drawers underneath. (Rachael made those too, cutting panels from doors and fixing them together with yarn, rather than joinery.)
The bed was made entirely out of found materials – five panel doors from a house her father was working on, and items from the streets of Hackney. “Making a bed was a journey of improvisation,” said Rachael, using one of my all-time favourite words.