Focus on an EVAN artist: Lou Windle

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Interview with Lou Windle ‘The Curious Zebra’ by Polly Marix Evans - December 2023

I’ve been angling for an invitation to Lou’s house ever since I discovered where abouts she was moving to in Penrith. Lou and I sat and chatted at her kitchen table on a snowy morning, cup of tea and biscuits in hand and I tried quite hard not to become green with envy!

Lou Windle

Lou and her husband moved to Cumbria in 2016 after a long-term health condition was exasperated by the birth of their two children, leading to a complete change in lifestyle.

She left her corporate work; her husband changed his job so he wouldn’t have to travel abroad. Lou admits this change was thrust upon them, but she doesn’t seem resentful in any way whatsoever. It was always way more important to her to put her family, her children, and her health ahead of work and financial gain.

Lou has hEDS, a disorder affecting the connective tissues which can cause a lot of pain. She saw a pain management consultant, before she moved to Cumbria, who suggested creativity could well be helpful for managing her condition.

It was suggested that activities such as reading, music, the arts and creative writing might work as a ‘distraction’ for the mind. Creativity disrupts the pain signals; the pain is very real but the brain is sending ‘wrong’ pain signals, so if you can become engrossed in something creative you can distract the brain to a certain extent from sending too many of these pain signals. Lou went straight out and bought a keyboard which, in her own words, she learnt to play quite badly!

She found colouring her kids’ colouring books helped too, though there are limits to the satisfaction or sense of achievement you can feel just doing colouring in.

Then Lou decided she wanted to learn to knit. ‘I’m a really slow knitter, but I enjoy it greatly.’ The former craft shop opposite the church in Penrith came to her aid when she popped in asking about classes, and the owner offered to teach Lou herself before the shop opened on Tuesday mornings.

This led on to other textile projects, and the beginning of what would become The Curious Zebra. Lou wanted to mend a bag and nipped to the fabric shop she frequented in Carlisle. She explained what she wanted to do and the store assistant asked how she was planning to sew this project. With no sewing machine, and a terror of sewing machines brought on by the lousy old machines at school, Lou had been planning to do all her sewing by hand. But, luckily for all of us who now own many of Lou’s textile works, she was encouraged to buy a new-fangled sewing machine which was so easy to use that it was an absolute dream!

Lou Windle

Lou Windle

Lou Windle

Lou Windle

The Curious Zebra was conceived in 2018. I ask Lou about the name, and she says she was sitting in a coffee shop trying to set up her Etsy shop and it got to the part about naming your shop. ‘I have a big cuddly zebra, and the name The Curious Zebra just popped into my head. And it’s stuck. I had no other outlets at the time so I thought I’d just give Etsy a go.’

During COVID lockdown the phone pinged almost incessantly with orders for facemasks. ‘I stopped counting when I got to 2300! I could hardly keep up with the orders. I made 26 sets of scrubs, 100 plus scrubs bags. And all those masks.’

Lou has to pace herself though otherwise there’s not enough of her to go round.

‘It’s great that the kids see me working. It’s good for my self-esteem and sets a good example to my children. I don’t want to just be a housewife or someone with a disability. Every day I do as much as I can. Some days that might only be cooking a meal, doing some knitting and putting on a load of laundry, but at other times I’m able to fulfil my orders, work towards pop-up exhibitions and do my knitting – either for myself or charity. I’m not prepared to be a victim of my condition.’

Lou often shows her work at the pop-up shows in Carlisle, such as St.Art Exhibitions or Naturally Local.

You can find her bespoke gift book bags at Bookends in both Carlisle and Keswick. The Carlisle store also commission toiletry bags, makeup bags and purses from Lou with book print fabric, which she doesn’t sell anywhere else. Small local business supporting another small (teeny!) local business…

Her products are practical. Toiletry bags, tote bags, purses and cutlery rolls. The materials she uses are sourced locally if possible – the fabrics purchased from the very same shop where she was persuaded to buy her sewing machine. The waterproof linings she uses are made from recycled plastic bottles – and here’s where you get to understand how much difference that makes to the price - £18 a metre for a lining made from recycled plastic as opposed to £6.90 a metre for non-recycled waterproof liner. But what price the planet? The cutlery she adds to her cutlery rolls is sustainable bamboo. These things mean a lot to Lou, but certainly have an impact on her materials expenses and, therefore, her profit. Makes you think when you can pick up a sponge bag in a well known cheapy store for £2.99.

I ask what are the best sellers? Which fabrics are her favourites? I’ve bought quite a few of Lou’s bags for various kids, friends, myself, myself again, another kid – and there’s always a perfect fabric for every single person as far as I can see.

Lou says, during lockdown, every time the phone pinged with an Etsy order, her children would say ‘Guinea pig fabric facemask!’ (and they were often right!)

Lou’s favourites? She likes the gothy ones. The dark ones – ah, a woman after my own heart! I leave her house with yet another bag, for my eldest daughter this time. And yes, it’s dark and gothy! And I’m trying really hard not to keep it for myself!