Interview Via Zoom

‘Rug dealer’ Ellie is making the fine art world more accessible and inclusive, one parmo and chips rug at time. Growing up in Middlesbrough, she worked with textiles as an anxiety reliever, but it wasn’t until final year of her fine art BA at MSoA that she tried her hand at rug making. Since graduating last year, the 22-year-old has been invited to the Royal College of Art to give a talk on invisible disabilities in the art world and has become the youngest artist (by a mile) awarded a residency at the San Jose Museum of Quilts in California. Sadly, the pandemic meant her residency was cancelled, but you can see her art ­– a nostalgic exploration of class, food and comfort that flips the idea of quaint textiles on its head – at her first solo show at Middlesbrough’s Eston Arts Centre until 31st October. Now based in Whalley Range, Ellie splits her time between labour intensive rug making and pulling pints at Manchester’s The Pilcrow Pub.

Go on then, get your rugs out. Talk us through your style.

My work is so colourful and loud, but my personal style is much more neutral colours and I’m much quieter. I just see stuff on the street and turn it into a rug, like with the Carling can rug, I spotted one floating on an algae covered pond on a walk during lockdown. It’s made of lots of neon greens – my favourite colour – and textured, lumpy wool which gives it that cool, risen texture. I enjoy the making process more than the planning, I find it really therapeutic and I’m really passionate about teaching the craft through workshops.

Why does your work reference food and canned goods so much?

I love branding, logos and supermarkets – that’s my jam. It sounds lame, but during lockdown I found it so stressful not being able to spend lots of time in the supermarket, when we were restricted to once a week. I love walking around supermarkets for hours, going down every aisle. I get such a kick going to one I’ve never been to before and I’m so glad I can go to big Tesco again.

How did lockdown affect your process?

I have a DMZ studio space in New Islington, but had to work from home for a long time which was messy. I made sure to bring a lot of the neon threads home with me because I wanted to make fun, happy pieces. If I’m finding the work dreary and boring, then I tend to not finish it. In times like these, I need work that cheers me up.

Over lockdown, I made a Sims rug using an old coffee sack as the base because I ran out of proper material. I usually use any sort of open weave fabric like hessian or linen, other manufactured rug making fabrics can be so expensive. The process of punch needling is quite a suburban American mum hobby, so it comes with a premium that those kinds of people can afford. As a broke bar tender, I usually just scrap things together – I used a pair of curtains once.

Tell us about how you got into rug making.

At university, I actually spent two and half years making big scale performance work looking at food as inanimate objects, but I wasn’t really enjoying it. I had a phase where I made only things about eggs when I was stalling in third year – completely the wrong time, I know. This huge egg was the worst piece of work I’ve ever made and it took six weeks. It’s made from polystyrene and plastic so I threw it in a skip after because it weighs so much. In the end, I realised it appeals to no one. I had always really enjoyed textiles at home, so decided I should use the last bit of my course to do what I do like.

For my final degree show, I made a toast rug to go with the big egg, and that was the first thing I made with my rug gun. You can see I’ve ripped holes in the canvas because I wasn’t used to working with it, but I had a great time.

As for your techniques, what’s the difference between using a gun and punch needle?

With punch needling, every different punch makes a loop and the rug gun (also known as tufting gun) makes more of a carpet. Instead of a loop, the gun cuts each loop made as it goes through the canvas, it’s faster and louder. The punch needle is my favourite at the moment and I appreciate the therapeutic time it takes. This bean piece was the first I sold outside uni and was made using a rug gun.

It’s pretty taxing using a tufting gun if you don’t have a proper frame set up and my frame just rests against my bedroom wall, so it means I’m crawling against the wall sitting in awkward positions. I can get quite comfy doing punch needle work.

You’ve also made some incredible banners.

Most of my commissions have been banners. I did one for Manchester’s National Football Museum during the Women’s World Cup last year and also did a pride flag for the Manchester Culture Consortium. Both banners were paid opportunities and a stark contrast to how I usually work. I felt professional sending invoices over email, it was the first time I felt like a proper graduate. Within the space of two months I did two workshops with them and I was like, ‘Ha! I’ve really got this graduate life sorted.’ But now I’m more like: ‘Please spare a penny for me! Think of the rug makers!’

How can we commission you for a rug?

Instagram DM or email me and we can have a chat! It’s tricky, because I get asked to make rugs a lot, but are put off by the price. A lot of people don’t understand how long it takes, especially when juggling my bar work. You have to price your work to include that in-between time where you’re gluing it down and sending it off to the post office. To work out the price, I add up the hours it takes to make, pay myself a living wage and then add material costs – usually £20 to £30. The white carrier bag rug would be £180-200 and the Carling can rug roughly £200-250 as I worked on it for three hours a day, two weeks straight. I’d love to do more affordable pieces, but it’s all done by hand and it’s just me.

I always give customers a price range and let them pick what they’d like to pay, that way I don’t feel like I’m forcing a price on anyone. Usually people go slap bang in middle or once I give them a price point they don’t reply. This is common for lot of artists. People love your work and ask if they can commission you, but never reply again. I’m not mad at anyone though, that’s just the way it is. It just means I get to keep them in my flat for longer which makes me happy.

What’s been your experience working in Manchester’s creative scene?

Manchester is pretty welcoming to graduates. There are a lot of organisations like Paradise Works, Castlefield Gallery and Short Supply who are open to working with us and other ‘emerging artists’. There’s a lot going on here and some great opportunities to exhibit straight out of university. I much the online art community rather than the IRL one, I find it a lot more friendly. That’s where I met Georgina and Ashley from Babeworld (@babeworld3000)  and Ellie (@winegums) who invited me to London to do a talk at the Royal College of Art. It was part of their ‘Don’t Worry, I’m Sick and Poor Too’ series which gives space to marginalised artists.

What did you speak about?

I spoke about invisible disabilities, the importance of inclusivity and recognising them in an academic environment. I never thought I’d be part of something at the RCA, I didn’t think it was for people like me. I’m a neurodivergent person myself, and when I say invisible disabilities this includes Autism, ADHD and many different mental health illnesses. Accessibility and inclusivity is what I focus on a great deal in my artwork. For me, making rugs really helps to calm me down and focus. I didn’t have a lot of support for this at university and would have probably got a more out of the experience if I had. For the talk, I wanted to make sure that anyone listening learns it’s alright to ask for help sometimes. There are systems in place to help you. Sometimes you’ll have to keep going on at the system for hours and weeks, but you’ll get there eventually.

Sometimes artists can be made to feel like being London is the only city to find true creative success, have you ever felt pressure to move to the capital?

I really enjoyed my time in London with my friends, but the travelling and expense was too much for a little northerner like me. I’m such an anxious home bird, Manchester is the most southern city I’ve ever lived. The thought of the London art scene is scary and I’ve never had an interest in moving there. I think going to a northern art school [Northern School of Art, Middlesborough] from such a young age, 16, made me realise how many opportunities and talent there is in the north. Northern pride was instilled in me from a young age and it’s part of my identity and art aesthetic.

How did you find the transition from art school to life as an artist?

It was hard to transition into to the ‘real world’ after graduation. You spend so much time being creative, learning and educating yourself on topics like gender and sexuality, but people who haven’t been to art school will never have been exposed to this way of thinking. You live in a bubble for three years and as soon as you graduate you realise people won’t respond to your work in the same way. It’s no longer just students looking at it, it’s older people who won’t have lived the same experiences. This is what made me move away from making such personal work for a time, because it got exhausting trying to explain the mind of a 19-year-old girl to 55 year old men at exhibitions. But recently, I’ve started creating pieces that make me happy again. I don’t make work for anyone else anymore, I make it for me and if other people like it then great. I also never make work for exhibitions, I look for opportunities based around what I’m interested in. I don’t find any joy in making work about things I don’t like.

Tell us about the residency you were chosen for.

I was awarded a three month residency at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in California, but couldn’t go due to Covid. Most of quarantine has been spent thinking, ‘I should have been booking my Airbnb right now,’ or ‘I should be packing my suitcase’.  They award four artists in residence per year and I was actually the youngest artist ever chosen. It’s hard to wrap my head around, because I get such imposter syndrome, like many artists. It was mindboggling that they’d offer it for someone under 30, let alone me aged 21.

My friend Ashley (@babeworld3000) shared the opportunity, so I applied but never thought anything of it. I left it last minute and had to run around asking tutors for references in a blind panic. I was required to write a long proposal for what I would do there; how I would use the space and what work I’d bring to exhibit. I hope it can be rearranged, but there are so many other factors to contend with now, like the money situation. I was on furlough throughout the summer so haven’t made as much money, which means I might not even be able to afford to go next year.

Tell us about your new exhibition ‘Fingers, Thumbs and the Spaces Inbetween’.

I was contacted by the team at Eston Arts Centre who asked if I wanted to show some work as I'm from the local area. The themes are the same as my usual work; therapeutic nostalgia and providing a space in which people can indulge in more playful kinds of art. I didn't want it to feel serious at all, that’s why I’m encouraging people to break the 'look but don't touch' rule by interacting freely with the pieces. I think you get the full experience of my work by feeling it, it's super soft and has a really interesting texture. If you’re in the area go and check it out, it’s on until 31st October.

Any advice for aspiring artists?

1) Apply to as many opportunities as you can, but don’t just focus on the big galleries or even local ones, look online.  Instagram is great for getting your name out there and meeting people, you never know who will comment on your work and start a conversation. I’ve found so many opportunities through Instagram and relatively grassroots organisations, like Short Supply. I exhibited in their first show and they do a lot of great graduate based exhibitions and support schemes. It was there I met many similar minded, laid back artists.

2) Don’t be afraid to apply for schemes that aren’t solely for graduate artists. Even filling in an application is experience and you can definitely recycle those.

3) You tend to really want a break from work after you finish university, but try and keep making stuff. I stopped for about a month, then didn’t properly start again for six months, which was a lot of lost time. You definitely need some reflective downtime, but you need to keep being creative because your art world bubble will burst, so it’s good to feel still connected. Keep going, even if it seems like you’re not going anywhere.


Three words that define your aesthetic.

  • Neon, tactile and trashy. My work is very different to my personal aesthetic, I’m very minimal and my work is not.

Three words you want your work to make people feel.

  • Happy, intrigued and eager  – meaning eager to learn the process or to have a conversation. I love having conversations about my work.

What is the album you blast for max creativity?

  • As You Please by Citizen.

How do you tackle a creative block?

  • I give myself a break and do something completely different. I don’t think you should ever push yourself to make something, otherwise you’ll end up hating it. Luckily I’m a rug nerd so usually enjoy it all.

What’s your perfect midnight snack?

  • Sesame seed crackers with vegan Violife cream cheese on top.

What’s in your bag at all times?

  • A punch needle or an old ‘to do list’ that’s been washed with my bag and is stuck to the lining.

Strangest work habit?

  • The weirder I’m sat the better I work. My legs are usually twisted in a painful way and I prop my frame against myself to the point it’s almost crushing me, if I’m working with my rug gun.

Who should we be following on Instagram?

  • @robynnichol, Robyn is like my Instagram girlfriend. She makes beautiful embroidery pieces on hoops, inspired by childhood nostalgia like Monster Much packets.

Where’s your favourite thing to do in Manchester?

  • Have a pint in a good old fashioned pub like The Pilcrow Pub or The Castle.