Keeping it Local: Part 3- Deborah Toner
For the third instalment of Keeping it Local I asked Deborah Toner a few questions about her architectural embroidery business. If you have followed me for a while you will have seen me post about her when visiting St. Georges market and more recently at the Linnenopolis pop up store as past of the Linen Biennale.
I’ve actually known Deborah for a few years now and we’ve living parallel lives (mine minus the sewing machine). We both studied architecture (at different universities)and worked in Topshop in Belfast during the dreaded recession, Deborah as a nightowl visual merchandiser and me as a concession manager for a small brand within the store. While she went on to start up her own successful business I eventually found a placement in an architects. We both also have very important men in our lives, who demand and command our attention, our dachshunds.
Deborah designs and makes embroidered home wares ranging from cushions to lampshades with a variety of architectural landmarks. She recently launched her new website showcasing her designs were you can choose your design, your linen colour and thread colour. She also makes bespoke pieces which make excellent wedding presents. I say that because I asked her to embroider the Merchant Hotel for a wedding present complete with the date of my friends wedding!
If you read to the end there also might be a little surprise waiting!Hope you enjoy.
1. You studied architecture, what made you choose to divert in architectural embroidery?
Qualifying in the middle of the last recession was tough. There were very few jobs and peers who had travelled for work the previous year had to come home. I didn’t really want to go away, I didn’t feel ready at that point. I tried REALLY hard to get work as an Architect here in N.I. I went for lots interviews but found I was up against people who had worked in the industry for 30 years who had recently been made redundant from other jobs.
During my Master of Architecture, I chose to write my thesis on City Patterns and factors that effect and change those. As I was born, raised and studied in Belfast it became the focus of my City Pattern research. To go along with my writing, I decided to make a series of maps showing Belfast’s pattern change over time. I have always been creative for as long as I can remember, and have a huge love for making and learning new skills. I also decided to play on the word pattern and concentrate my research on many of the city centre housing patterns which were built to house the mill workers during the huge boom of the industrial revolution. I decided to make the maps using locally made Irish Linen and using digital machine embroidery as my technique. At my degree show in 2010, I was approached by the Ulster Museum who bought the maps for their permanent collection. To this day they are still the most recent acquisition of linen into the museum. After this I built on making my drawings into patterns for embroidery and began to sell my work at St. George’s Market. At that point I didn’t really know what would happen, but 6 years later and nearly 3 years full time this has become my career.
2. What has been your favourite piece to make for a client and what has been your fave price to make in general?
That’s a difficult one! I have been lucky enough to be asked to work on some amazing pieces over the years. I got to make cushions for the founder of a popular budget airline, his house was the most beautiful building and that whole process was quite different as it was all very secretive. I found it quite the challenge to draw the house from very few photos and with little info and fractured correspondence but I got there in the end. I love a good challenge and something which will push the boundaries of what I do. I also got to make a beautiful guest book for a couple who got married near the Poison Glen in Donegal a few years ago. Working with this couple was great, they let me be free with my ideas and we ended up with a really special piece. My favourite piece changes as I am always looking at new techniques and drawing new places. I enjoy having a slightly different idea and working out the parameters and trying to make it work. I recently made a map to submit for an exhibition as part of August Craft Month. I embroidered a 2018 figure ground plan of Belfast City Centre and above it, embroidered on invisible thread were the rivers, mill ponds and mill dams in the same section of the city from 1901.
These represented the lifeblood that once ran through our city to service and run the industry our city was once so famous for. To make this piece was such a challenging process. Certain things may not work so you have to allow yourself to be more experimental and also remember that its ok to fail. You will always learn something from every mistake you make. I think this is my most recent favourite.
4. What are your future plans for Deborah Toner HQ?
When you run a business on your own it’s quite difficult to forward plan. There are so many hats to wear you can become guilty of just getting the here and now dealt with. I find it important to set goals so as you don’t become stuck in a rut. I have really enjoyed my recent project where I have explored making pieces for the body. The response I got for these was so overwhelming. I have enjoyed dipping my toe into fashion, but homeware is where my heart lies. I am enjoying exploring this area though and will continue to develop this further.
I am also collaborating with some interesting people at the moment, looking at adding other homeware products to my range. It’s early days but I think it’s important to explore every idea, you never know what is possible. I am also working with some exciting businesses creating bespoke architectural embroidery to add to their ranges. Watch this space, more will be revealed early next year!!
5. You’ve had a busy year with the Linen Biennale etc is using solely Irish linen something that is really important to you?
Yes! I feel it is so important to know exactly where your product has come from. To be able to offer a genuine product with an honest story is so important to me. The passion here for Irish linen is just amazing. I want to help support and embrace the very essence that we were once so famous for here. The passion of the small team I work with is just so infectious. They care about every aspect of production and I know exactly where it has come from, the journey it has made and the hands that have touched the cloth at each point of its path to me. Linen is not only beautiful, but it’s durable, strong and versatile, what else would I use?
6. Do you have a favourite other local small business and why?
This is a tough question. There are so many amazing local businesses here that are doing such an amazing job. Belfast and N.I is just cram packed full of talent! I adore what Lorraine Cunningham is doing with her brand Grainline Design, she makes the most stunning Irish Linen garments but she also collaborates with other designers and small businesses offering help with all from design, pattern cutting, garment making and finishing. She is an absolute asset to the industry. I also really love Bricolage Quilts. Sinead Black’s quilts and homeware products are stunning. She is influenced by Irish Nature, and the natural qualities of Linen and the plant dyeing process. All her quilts are hand quilted and are just incredible. With her idea of making something which lasts a lifetime, to be handed down to generations below she is a woman after my own heart!
7. You’ve recently refurbished your home, do you have one key price of advice?
I think the best piece of advice I could give is to work together as a team. My husband and I undertook this project while both still working constantly, that was difficult. I think it’s important to keep communicating and working together. There are so many aspects to deal with so you need to divvy up the ‘to do’ list and then you need to come together at the end of each day to make sure you are both on the same page. It is tough to keep on top of budget, organising people, deliveries, things going wrong as well as working to pay for it all. You can drop a ball very easily but to have a partner, friend, family member or anyone there with you even just to go over things with now again can be such a good thing. A problem shared…. It’s also good to take down time. We didn’t really do this and got a bit all consumed. It’s a house at the end of the day, it’ll be here when we aren’t, the process is really stressful but it’s a fantastic thing to be able to do, something you work so hard for so sit back and enjoy the journey too. (Because trust me, after you do it, you will NEVER want to EVER again!!)
8. Are your two work colleagues well behaved ?!
Are you joking? Have you seen my Instagram stories?? Ok…so one of them is an absolute angel. He just sleeps in the corner of my studio all day and asks up on my knee for the occasional cuddle, I can deal with that. The other one is, how can I put it? Energetic! He spends most of the day running up and down the garden, patrolling, barking, looking for escape routes and generally just causing chaos. You couldn’t get two more different dogs. My days are definitely made more interesting by having them there. Its good company though…and sure I’m stuck with them now!!
I’ve teamed up with Deborah to offer one lucky person a chance to win one of her multicoloured Belfast skylines similar to the one below. Keep an eye out on my Instagram to see how to enter! Good luck!