Interview with Julia Neubauer – by Polly Marix Evans – 30 May 2023
There are some people in this world who are simply lovely through and through, like a stick of seaside rock with ‘lovely’ stamped right through to the middle instead of ‘Brighton’ or ‘Clacton’. Julia is one of these people so I was really looking forward to this interview (actually it’s just a nice chat in a café over a cuppa, mum – as my middle child informed me – it’s not really work and it’s not really an interview, you’re just chatting with a friend and drinking tea – she may have a point!).
I ask Julia what she likes to call herself as I’m unsure as to whether she’s a textile artist, knitter, designer? She settles, initially, on hand frame knitter. It’s not hand-knitting, but it’s also not factory style machine-knitting. Possibly she’s a textile designer. She definitely designs her own pieces, and they are truly beautiful as well as practical.
Julia arrives wearing one of her scarves, on a lovely hot day and, when questioned if she’s feeling chilly, she reminds me that wool isn’t only warm, it can be cooling, and protects her neck from the sunshine. Though even summer mornings in Cumbria, and rural Alston, can be chilly.
Alston claims to be the highest market settlement in England, being about 1000 feet above sea level. It’s remote, about 20 miles from the nearest larger town. But it’s also been named as Britain’s first Social Enterprise Town and has a great community spirit. Julia points out that, despite being somewhat isolated, it does have the benefit of sitting on the ridge of the North Pennines, with five ways out of the town giving access not only to Cumbria but the North East too.
Julia lives about a mile outside of Alston, but has a studio in town which she shares, on and off, with other artists and makers. From here they run ‘Maker’s Mornings’ and workshops too. ‘It feels more like work if I’m at the studio than working from home. If I’m at home I faff around and do other things, but in the studio I can get loads done in just a few hours as there are no other distractions, I’m so much more productive here.’
It’s in this studio that she has her 1950s vintage style 200 needles long-bed knitting frame.
Julia’s grandfather bought the knitting machine for her mum. She’s the eldest of six children and grandpa thought it might be handy if mum could knit for the kids, needless to say she didn’t quite have the time, but Julia – aged 19 and a half at the time the sixth sibling was born and the wonderful knitting machine was given – took possession of said machine and developed her skills from here.
She’d studied glass at North Staffordshire Polytechnic, graduating in 1983. We all know Stoke for its link to ceramics, and the emphasis was on ceramics at the Poly, with more studio space and courses based on this, so the glass department of the degree was actually freer and allowed Julia to experiment and ‘be me.’
The Designers Guild bought all her university work and wanted more, but it was expensive and difficult to work with glass independently in the 80s. The glass was window or soda glass, the glazes were mainly produced for ceramics and a lot of them were lead based.
Also, Julia wanted to work with something more tactile. Glass is hot or sharp. She wanted to be able to touch her work more, she wanted ‘stroke-ability.’
So, she worked from her parent’s house in Walton, knitting and designing jumpers just when the trendy designer knitwear craze took off. The 1990s/2000s were tougher though, when everyone wanted to be wearing fleece, and that’s when she moved onto making accessories.
Her textile work is often bold, featuring contrasting colours, or blocks of colour with an accent line.
Her mood, or the season, definitely influences the colours she uses. Winter always seems to bring darker, moodier colourways.
She tells me that when people buy her work, or any artworks, they are buying ‘a little bit of you.’
Her wrist warmers are her ‘bread and butter’ and the items she makes the most of. She doesn’t sell online; she doesn’t need to as her stockists sell all she can produce anyway. And it is most certainly a local business, her outlets including The EVAN Gallery in Penrith, The Woolclip in Caldbeck, Haslam’s of Hallgate in Hexham, as well as shops in Alston and nearby Nenthead too.
A few years back she used to do wholesale orders to the USA and other countries. But an order for 1000 hats to Japan was the one that made her realise she really didn’t enjoy full on mass production. She didn’t want to be like a factory. Not to mention the paperwork, the export codes, the packaging. ‘Who wants to spend a week putting hats in bags and boxes?’
Now Julia makes what she wants to make. And that’s enough.
A lot of galleries still struggle to see textiles as an art form. But, once they see Julia’s work and how professional she is, they often change their minds.
Julia does most of her designing at the machine. She’ll sit and design as she goes, rather than sketching things out first. Inspiration can come from anything – be it nature, or a painting she’s seen in a gallery. Her scarves are her most creative pieces, with each one being different, and they really could be displayed as works of art as her exhibitions and product photographs illustrate so beautifully.
She’s also collaborated with other artists for collections. For example, she based one collection on the colour schemes used by another EVAN textile artist/printmaker, Kirsten Gilder, and knitted hats that would look wonderful with one of Kirsten’s textile brooches on the brim.
JU-MA was a brand she ran with fellow designer Marion Woolcoot for several years. Marion would weave a scarf, and Julia would knit a jacket. They’d use the same yarns to create an outfit. JUMA ran successfully for about four years but came to a natural end: ‘Sometimes it’s nice to move on. I need to keep a creative bent to anything I do, it’s important to maintain a buzz if you’re going to keep going for 40 odd years.’
Recently menswear has been taking off. ‘Nobody ever bothers to make anything interesting for men, it’s all dull colours.’ Not so Julia’s menswear range, featuring reversible wrist warmers with interesting geometric patterns on one side and plain knit on the reverse. ‘You can just turn over the edge if you like so you get the best of both.’
Like any other business there’s way more than just the creative process to think about. Julia reckons it’s about a 50/50 split of creative and admin work. She does have two outworkers who knit for her, she tells them how many of each item in each colourway. But there can be other difficulties or problems to contend with. Raw materials increased in cost by 20% last year. Yarn has to be ordered in bulk, guessing at which colours will be most popular. ‘It’s funny, I do this lovely blue which I always think will sell well, but often it’s the colours that really zing that get the attention and sell first.’
Julia’s adding another string to her bow with a new collection coming this autumn, a sustainable collection using wool only from British sheep, with just fifty miles from farm to factory. Blue Faced Leicester produce the softest wool and, combined with Masham, it becomes more hardwearing. The colour scheme is pastels, as soft in colour as the wool will feel, combined with a deep charcoal grey. So far, she’s only produced plain wrist warmers, but geometric patterns and limited editions are planned too.
Hey, who knew this? The yarn is oiled or waxed when knitted, so it doesn’t look like it will look in the end, when the oil has been washed off. It’s also looser, holier. When Julia washes the knitted pieces, the wool ‘bursts’ to fill the holes. But you mustn’t shock wool, or it will felt. The fibres in wool want to be friends, so they want to join together, hence no harsh temperatures or violent spins in a washing machine. But then again, if you do felt wool you can cut it and shape it and it won’t fall apart, because all the fibres are so friendly they’re holding on tight, and that’s how Julia makes her felted keyrings.
I like to think of Julia and her friendly wool in her friendly studio in her friendly hill-top town full of friendly people. It makes me feel as cosy and glowy as I do when I wear her wrist warmers.’