Threaded Stories: A Talk with Polly Leonard

Polly Leonard has a visionary mind and an eye, skill and respect for craft and for the beautifully made. She is an expert with an education and background in textiles. She has a passion for fabric, for storytelling and for the way textiles can weave our own lives. But the most extraordinary thing about Polly is that she wraps all her knowledge, and passion, up and shares it to the world. Selvedge, the magazine she founded fifteen years ago, is a one hundred percent independent publication that sets the standard in the design field, standing apart through authentic, high quality content and aesthetic rarely seen today.

Selvedge combines fine art, fashion, decor, travel and history in unique, eye-opening ways. It introduces and advocates true makers and artisanal, hand-made work that inspires textile artists and collectors, but, more than that, it inspires and encourages us all to take the road less travelled and to look at the world differently, and appreciate culture, beauty, tradition and folklore in a wider context. Selvedge inspires us to make the art of textiles part of the art of life. And, last but not least, given my never-fading love for the tangible and for the printed word in a world of electronic everything, Selvedge inspires to intimacy, to human interaction and to a slow-paced, well-lived life.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Walk A Fine Line: A guided walk through a city built on lace, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim-Waters, issue 82

 
I have recently talked to Polly Leonard about what keeps her going, issue after issue, after a decade and a half in the high-end magazine publishing business, about why clothes matter, about Frida Kahlo, and about why her first piece of advice for someone with their own dream is to fail fast.
 
 

“If people knew how cotton was grown,
harvested, spun, knit and sewn,
then they would understand why a T-shirt
should cost more than a cup of coffee.
If you are not paying for your clothes,
then someone else is.”

 
 
If you could capture the essence of Selvedge in one sentence, how would you describe it?
The Fabric of your life.

How did you come up with the name?
The selvedge is the non-fraying edge of a piece of cloth. It holds the cloth together and stops the individual threads from fraying. It is also where a designer would traditionally put their name. It is also a bit obscure, not part of the contemporary lexicon and thus rather specialist, like the magazine.

How did the magazine come to be? What’s the story behind it?
I trained as a textile designer and artist. I have wide ranging interests around material culture and the role of cloth in the evolution of humanity. When I had my son eighteen years ago, I stopped teaching for a while and began writing to fill my time. I was then invited to edit another magazine, which I did for a couple of years. This gave me the idea to put together something a little more sophisticated with a wider remit, but with textiles at its heart.
 
Selvedge magazine issue 82-Classiq

Selvedge magazine, current issue 82

 
 
Have you always been passionate about textiles? Is your work also aiming to preserve the craft and the fine hand skills related to traditional textiles?
I have been passionate about textiles for as long as I can remember. I am of the generation who developed hand-skills during childhood. There is something special and important about hand-made objects, but it is the textile industry and its products that has shaped the contemporary world more than anything else. Ironically, it is the disposal of textile waste that is the biggest preoccupation we have at the moment.

I do believe every small change counts. What do you think is the first thing every individual should do in order to address this issue?
I suggest you try dress-making and recommend Merchant and Mills – they make easy to follow patterns for beginners and sell great fabrics that will inspire you. You will have all of the benefits of a mindful experience and a great garment to wear afterwards. Once you have made something yourself, you will have gained a greater understanding of shape and fit and will no longer tolerate the shoddy construction of high street garments.

Selvedge - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Selvedge - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Top image: Keeping Body and Soul Together; A rare collection of Chinese GeBa,
photographed by Mark Eden schooled, art directed by Nelson Sepulveda, issue 77
Button image: Passion Flower: A passion for petals and insects, by Yoshiko Wada, issue 81

 
 
What has been the most challenging part about launching and running a magazine?
The economics of magazine publishing have always been a struggle, the production costs are huge. I believe Selvedge was the first of a new breed of periodicals, of which there are now many who use the same business model. We have high production values, use good images and much of the content is not time sensitive, so, in a way, it’s more like a book. We rely less on advertising revenue and more on subscription sales, and don’t use the traditional distribution channels where unsold copies are pulped. The most challenging part, now fifteen years on, is keeping each issue as fresh and exciting as the first.

What is it that keeps you going, issue after issue?
I am a perfectionist, I start every issue with a vision and then, because of the constraints of time and money, the final result always turns out a little different. So I try again with the next issue. There is also an endless supply of really interesting stories I want to tell.

You are obviously incredibly passionate about what you do and you would probably do it again if you were to start over. Do you have any word of advice for someone with their own idea or dream?
My advice would be to fail fast. I mentor a lot of young designers who have an idea for a business or a product or whatever. They spend large amouts of money and time perfecting a business plan and preparing for a launch. Then, when they finally pluck up the courage to take it to market, it fails in an afternoon. My advice would be to get your idea out there as quickly and inexpensively as possible, so when you realise plan A doesn’t work you have enough resouces and energy to push through with plan B and C, etc. Remember the designer James Dyson spent 15 years and produced 5,127 prototypes, before his bag-free vacuum cleaner was a success.

Selvedge The Fabric of your life - Classiq

Left: White Out: Cloth from the snow country, by Sophie Vent, issue 81
Right: Grass Roots: The making of Indigo Dye by Rowland Rickets, issue 82

Selvedge The Fabric of your life - Classiq

Threadbear: The social history of Japanese Boro, by Jim Austin, issue 82

 
 
In this fast-fashion, fast-living world, there seems to be an increased interest in the hand-made, in craftsmanship, in locally-made products, in mindful shopping, in things with true value. Do you think things are starting to change?
I do agree with all you have said, but it is a drop in the ocean. It will take mass action to curb our addiction to cheap clothing and to cure the embarrassing bulge in our wardrobes.

Do clothes matter? Does image matter? Should we get attached to our clothes?
I think clothes do matter, they physically and metaphorically provide a connection between oneself and the rest of the world. They communicate all kinds of conscious and unconscious messages. I am currently working on issue 83 in which we have an article about the Frida Kahlo clothes and personal effects which are to be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in June for the first time. These objects make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. They bring home to the viewer the physical pain Frida endured and how dressing herself in glorious textiles and make-up enabled her to survive and thrive through adversity. They make you fall in love with her.

Selvedge - The Fabric of your life - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Left: Sleep Tight: The engineering behind a good night’s sleep, issue 79
Right: Grass Roots: The making of Indigo Dye by Rowland Rickets, issue 82

 
 
Who and what inspires you? Do you have any unexpected sources of inspiration?
I am inspired by stories, I enjoy a good book and have a subscription to Persephone books, a publisher that specialises in reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Of course I am also inspired by textiles and the stories of how and why they are made.

Would you care to share a favourite book title and also a favourite textile book?
There are many, but Brother of the More Famous Jack, by Barbara Trapido, is a joy and the protagonist is a knitter. As for textile books, Undiscovered Minimalism: Gelims from Northern Iran, by Parviz Tanavoli, will lift the soul. I have just bought Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, by Paola Manfredi. I am eager to see if it lives up to my expectations.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Building Bridges: The legacy of an empire built on torsion, issue 68

 
 
What does style mean to you?
For me, style is about protocol, it is about doing things in a certain way that makes experiences more pleasant for people. That may include taking time to present a meal in an attractive way for a guest, dressing appropriately if you are accepting an invitation, or simply acting courteously.

You live in London. How has living in London influenced you creatively?
I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I love to be surrounded by the grandeur of the architecture. I love that I walk past the giraffes in the zoo when I drop my daughter off at the park for her Lacrosse practice. I love that that I encounter something inspiring every day.

What is your one favourite thing to do in London and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
I would miss the ability to be spontaneous. There is always something new to discover in London, whether that be a new shop or an exhibition. I love that I can find something interesting on the internet and be there in an hour. Last week I visited Horace Walpole Strawberry Hill in Twickenham and then stopped off at the Royal Airforce museum to look at the linen covered aircraft from the First World War on the way home.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Hat Tricks: Sandy Black takes her hat off to Bolivian Knittin in the Round, issue 68

 
 
One thing you cannot start the day without:
I listen to the radio while I eat breakfast, I like to know what is happening in the world, and to listen to some music before I start my day.

Where would we find you when not working?
I work long hours, so you would probably have to look hard, but you may find me on Hampstead Heath walking my dog. I also spend a month on Cape Cod in the summer and love the Atlantic beaches and the dunes — this is my happy place.

You wish people appreciated more:
Why it’s worth spending £60 on a hand-woven tea towel.

I’m with you. How could we do that?
That has got to be the role of the media. We have to educate the public about textiles, in order to re-connect with our clothes. Over the last two generations, the knowledge of how clothes are made has been lost from the collective consciousness. If people knew how cotton was grown, harvested, spun, knit and sewn, then they would understand why a T-shirt should cost more than a cup of coffee. And, that if it does not, then someone somewhere in the production chain is being exploited and paying the price. If you are not paying for your clothes, then someone else is.
 

selvedge.com | Facebook: @SelvedgeMag
Twitter: @SelvedgeMag | Instagram: selvedgemagazine

 
images: courtesy of Selvedge magazine | published with permission

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