The Recycle Artist - A chat with Barbara Niglio

Seamstress and artist Barbara Niglio has been playing with textiles and making things ever since she was a child. Over time, Barbara's love of creative play has evolved into an art practice that centres on repurposing recycling, and using whatever materials are available to make clothing and objects. Barbara will be teaching some classes at Opendrawer in the coming months, so we had a chat with her to learn more about how she creates her wonderful pieces from such unexpected materials!

Q. You do so many interesting and varied things! Was sewing your first foray into craft and making?

Yes. I think I’m a born sorter and collector. I just like playing with stuff and the consequence of playing with stuff is that you make things out of it. Tactile and fabric things were the first things I played with, along with buttons and everything out of mum’s cabinet. Sewing was a natural progression from that. I think my sewing and recycling work comes from making things from what’s available. Over time that’s progressed from just sewing, to using all kinds of materials and repurposing them.

Q. Does sewing and making run in your family?

I come from a very capable family. One of my grandmothers was an embroiderer. She did gorgeous, dense Jacobean embroidery with lots of colour. The other grandmother had five children and lots and lots of grandchildren and she knitted all these gorgeous jumpers. They were made from very thick wool and they had pictures of cowboys and zips up the front and typical 1950s things. They were handed down to me from my cousins because of course they were all such good quality that they lasted. I’ve kept a couple of them just because they really are special. And they weren’t just utilitarian things. I think she really enjoyed making them, and I think that passes down. Making is not something you have to do, it’s about developing a love for it, and having a creative outlet.

Q. How did you end up turning your love for sewing and making into a career?

I initially started in architectural drafting. That was back in my clubbing days and I needed clothes to go out in, so I started making things myself. I used to use plastic blankets with bits of gold trim and made some pretty way-out stuff! Eventually I started studying fashion part time, and it was an absolute revelation for me to find out how things were done properly. It was fantastic to learn to make my own patterns and fit and finish things, as well as learning some faster, industry methods of doing things, as opposed to home-dressmaking methods. I think some high school sewing teachers have lots to answer for, for turning people off sewing. They were doing things by the book, and the tacking and the pinning and everything makes it a very slow, arduous process. So in my sewing classes I like to think I can teach people some quicker methods and more manufacturing-style methods when it suits, as well as a few tricks that not everyone knows, so they get things made quicker and very professionally.

After studying, I worked at home doing dressmaking for a time. Most of it was wedding dresses. For one wedding, I did three bridesmaids, the bride, the mother of the bride and the grandmother of the bride! We got quite friendly with them because they came to visit quite often, and my husband and I ended up being invited to the wedding, to which he wore a suit that I’d made in tailoring class, and I wore a dress that I’d made in evening-wear class! So my work was very well represented at that wedding.

Eventually I got job doing alterations, and that’s an amazing learning curve. You get to look inside all sorts of garments and learn all sorts of garment construction methods. You find that sometimes there’s not a lot of difference between a Target garment and a Versace garment. It's just the fabric and the design that's different.

Q. Alongside sewing, you make jewellery out of inner-tubes from bike tires, as well as crocheting with ring-pulls from cans! How did you get started with these unconventional materials?

My favourite thing on the internet is Pinterest, and I’ll give anything a go! I’ve taught myself a lot of those experimental things. Sometimes I just have to learn a technique. I see something and think “how did they do that? I need to know!” And then I’ll try it once, and that’s it, I’m over it. And that’s fine, I’ve satisfied some need that I have. Being a cyclist also means there’s great availability of inner-tubes!

Q. Tell us about your award-winning denim dress creation.

I made if for a competition in which you had to make a wearable art piece. Some people made felted garments, some people made masks and hats and headpieces. It was quite varied. I’d been wanting to make something out of denim for a while. I had a lot of denim pieces that were samples from a jeans company. A lot of them were half pieces, just the right side of the jeans, or they had the zip and not the other leg. I just played with them and sorted them into colours and styles and lengths and tried different configurations until I found a pattern that could be developed into something more.

Q. Do you enjoy the development part of the process, or do you prefer making?

I like the completion best, when all the hard work is done! Something I’ve learned about making art pieces is to take time to walk away from your project and process it. Sometimes you might be having a construction problem, or some other sort of problem, and if you give yourself time to walk away, I think you do a lot of subconscious processing. Then you come back the next day and think “why did I not think of that yesterday, it’s so obvious!” But it’s very difficult to make something on the spot or finish something really quickly. You’ve got to have that ‘off’ time as well.

If you would like to learn to get creative with Barbara, you can book into one of her upcoming workshops! Barbara will be teaching basic dressmaking, sewing for teens, paper creations, inner tube jewellery and more! Click here to head our workshops page to find out more.

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