Moy Mackay: A heartfelt journey

<i>Moy Mackay:</i> A heartfelt journey

Write what you know. It’s a cliché that holds more than a pinch of truth for writers. But what about other creatives? For Moy Mackay, one of our leading textile artists, luckily she’s never had to look far for inspiration.

Living and working in the Scottish Borders, nestled among the spectacular scenery of her native Scotland, the landscapes and vistas of this unique terrain – vast open skies, ever changing seasons, heather-laden hillsides and the solitary bothies and cottages that intervene – are inspiration enough.

Initially trained as a painter, Moy was accustomed to distilling this unique sense of place through her paintbrush. But three decades ago, she started to develop what she describes as felted paintings, answering an urge to create images that resembled a painting but were more than the sum of pigment on canvas.

Painting with merino fibres and stitch, Moy creates vibrantly hued, textured textile landscapes, which resonate with rich colour and vitality in a truly magical way.

Magical because the method of carding and wet felting fleece, whilst forgiving, can be unpredictable. Working with her fibres in this way, a process that borders both spontaneity and control, hints at the untamed wilderness of the natural world around her, bringing her closer to the landscape. As Moy says, she’s no better advice for burgeoning textile artists than to look around yourself for inspiration. Read on to find out why.

In the beginning

Moy Mackay: For as long as I can remember I have been drawing, painting and making things, nurtured by a crafting mother, a creative father and an uncle painter who I observed painting, and was taught by, from a young age.

Through the years I have possibly tried every artform and craft there is, and could have happily made a career out of any of them as long as I am creating.

On leaving school I travelled and worked in various countries. Art school came a few years after travelling. I hadn’t really considered it for some reason but whilst at a family gathering (where I drew someone on a balloon!) my aunt, the late Helen Crummy (a pioneering woman who brought community art to a deprived area of Edinburgh and set up the Craigmillar Festival Society) suggested I should be applying for art school.

Nobody had ever suggested this as an option, and I guess I hadn’t considered it. She planted the seed, and the rest is history.

I studied at Glasgow School of Art. Although painting is my passion really, I felt it would be sensible to learn a trade, so I went on to specialise in printed textiles. There I learned how to create textile designs both for fashion and furnishing textiles, how to create repeat patterns and how to screen print. It was a great time, and I learned a lot being in such a hub of creativity.

On graduating I was offered various jobs in design studios both in Paris and London but instead chose to move to the countryside in the Borders where I became self-employed.

Moy Mackay, Loch Of The Lowes, 2021. 28cm x 22cm (11" x 9"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Loch Of The Lowes, 2021. 28cm x 22cm (11″ x 9″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Glen Winter, 2021. 74cm x 74cm (29" x 29"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Glen Winter, 2021. 74cm x 74cm (29″ x 29″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

All things equal

To start, I worked as a freelance textile designer. This progressed to painting onto wood and furniture, which I did for a few years, and still do very occasionally. This slowly progressed to painting onto other surfaces, and then to using fibres in place of a paint medium. From this, my felted paintings were born.

I think one thing that stuck with me throughout my time at art school, and in the art world in general, was the sense of inequality or sense of snobbery that seemed, or seems, to exist between fine art and craft.

To me all artforms are equally worthy, so that may well have given me the drive to go on to create something that combined both.

In the early days, it was hard to persuade many galleries to show my work as it was fibre and not paint. Those who took the risk did not regret it.

It has been a long slog. I can’t believe I have actually been creating my felted paintings now for over 30 years! But over three decades on, I have managed to make a career of doing what I love doing which I am so appreciative of.

Moy Mackay at work in her studio.
Moy Mackay at work in her studio.

Milestones

A few years back I was commissioned by Search Press to write my first book, Art in Felt & Stitch. This has been published in four languages and is still on their best seller list. Another two books have followed and, to date, I think have sold around 60,000 copies worldwide, which still seems crazy to me.

Due to this, my work has been seen in places I could never have dreamt of and has resulted in offers to teach worldwide. To date, I have been invited to teach and share this fantastic artform in Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which has afforded me some wonderful travels and working holidays.

It has been an honour to share what I have created with so many others and help them along their own creative journey.

Over recent years I’ve stayed within the UK to concentrate on teaching from my own studio in Scotland. I moved to my current studio a few years back with the intention of setting it up as a bit of an arts hub. I’m currently in the process of having a larger one built, complete with a larger workshop and retreat space adjoined to my house.

I am incredibly excited at having such a studio but it’s a lesson in patience for me, as building it’s been a slow process. I am trying to look at it as my biggest art project to date. I am so looking forward to welcoming students here to share it with me in this special space.

Another fun experience was being a contestant in 2016 on Sky Arts’ Landscape Artist of the Year. I had enjoyed watching the series but was aware it was, at that point, mostly including works in paint. I applied as I wanted the opportunity to introduce a textile artform to this art show. It was a great experience and helped introduce other mediums to the viewers. Judge Kathleen Soriano kindly went on to write the foreword for my third book.

The foreword for my first book was written by Kaffe Fasset. That was a bit of a wow for me. He had been an early inspiration to me, along with the late textile designer and painter Bernat Klein. Many years ago, I was delighted to have Bernat sit in on a workshop I was giving. I’d hoped he would have taken part but sadly declined my offer and said he just wanted to watch me work. These are possibly my biggest honours to date.

Creative leanings

As soon as I could hold a pencil, I was off and have never stopped. I can honestly say I have been practising my art pretty much every day of my life. I can’t not!

I studied textiles at art school but, long before that, I always had a penchant for colourful textiles from around the world. I travelled to India and learned the art of making blocks and how to block print.

At Glasgow School of Art, I experimented with all forms of printing and painting onto fibres. I did not actually use felt as a medium then but I did see someone make a felt coat.

I remembered what wonderful colours the fibres were, and that drew me more to using them, rather than the felting process itself.

Currently, I work from a studio within my house. I endeavour to get in my studio pretty much every day however, of late, too much admin and the non-creative parts of running a business seem to have taken over, which is not ideal. I have just taken on an assistant to take over all these tasks for me in the hope I can get back into my studio full time.

Moy Mackay, Althandhu, 2023. 80cm x 78cm (32" x 31"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Althandhu, 2023. 80cm x 78cm (32″ x 31″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, The Gloaming, 2023. 75cm x 69cm (30" x 27"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, The Gloaming, 2023. 75cm x 69cm (30″ x 27″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

Taking on tradition

I love the vibrancy and textures of textiles. Whilst I love painting, it’s textile paintings that bring a depth and warmth that often paint alone cannot.

A felted painting seems to change at different angles and in different lights. They seem more of a living art to me. I particularly like the spontaneity and lack of total control I have while using this medium.

It’s great also that I am using sheep fleece to create something that traditionally would not have been used in artworks. I am surrounded by sheep where I live, so I like the connections.

Moy Mackay, The Green Hut, Assynt, 2022. 76cm x 76cm (30" x 30"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, The Green Hut, Assynt, 2022. 76cm x 76cm (30″ x 30″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Highland Delight, 2023. 60cm x 56cm (24" x 22"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Highland Delight, 2023. 60cm x 56cm (24″ x 22″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

Creative colour

Colour is my passion so whatever I create seems to hold colour combinations to me that evoke a sense of something. What that is, changes in each work.

I am inspired by landscapes foremost. I am lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place, so I don’t have to venture far to find inspiration. Having said that, I do like to travel and, most recently, have ventured to the far north of Scotland for the odd week to work from new landscapes, which is always a refreshing thing to do.

I take photos pretty much daily of anything I see that may, somewhere down the line, appear in a composition.

More recently I have worked on some still life and figurative pieces, which has been a nice change for me. I have so many ideas for future works, but the only problem is finding the time to fit them all in.

To document ideas, keeping a visual diary or sketchbook is a must. Words, scribbles, colour swatches or anything can be added to a page to aid a composition.

Having sketchbooks to refer back to can be a fantastic resource to offer up ideas or jog the memory.

Moy Mackay, Ochre Glen, 2022. 80cm x 88cm (32" x 35"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Ochre Glen, 2022. 80cm x 88cm (32″ x 35″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Loch Sunart, 2022. 40cm x 40cm (16" x 16"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Loch Sunart, 2022. 40cm x 40cm (16″ x 16″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

Breaking it down

When starting out on a new piece of work I will firstly, when possible, visit the place, take photos from many angles, and do a few sketches if time prevails.

Due to the nature of this medium, it is near impossible to work outside in Scotland, sadly, so I return to my studio to work. I don’t sketch the design out but work directly onto the merino base I make, from my reference images – be that sketches or photos – or sometimes just from my imagination.

Firstly, I lay my base using merino tops. I then build up the composition using pre-coloured merino fibres very similar to the way you might approach a painting, except laying on fibres rather than paint. As the piece progresses, I start to add finer detail using a variety of techniques and additional fibres including coloured silks.

Once I’m happy with the overall composition it is covered with mesh, and then soap and hot water are applied. This is the magic part for me.

With agitation and rubbing with a tool I developed to help speed this up, it quickly matts the fibres together and within a relatively short time it becomes a durable piece that I can start to embellish with a variety of methods.

These include needle felting to add shading, finer detail and to fix anything that may have migrated. Thirdly I use free motion machine stitching (stitching without a foot) to add fine lines.

The final of the four processes is hand stitching, embroidery – or mark making as I like to call it.

Moy Mackay working on a new composition using pre-coloured merino tops.
Moy Mackay working on a new composition using pre-coloured merino tops.
Moy Mackay working on a new composition using pre-coloured merino tops.
Moy Mackay working on a new composition using pre-coloured merino tops.
Moy likes to tweak her composition after the first felting stage.
Moy likes to tweak her composition after the first felting stage.
Using soap and hot water to felt the merino tops by hand into a textile composition.
Using soap and hot water to felt the merino tops by hand into a textile composition.

Rainbow walls

For the last few years, my studio has been a room adjoined to my home. The walls are a rainbow of colour, with every shade of merino tops hanging along them, which I find uplifting and inspiring.  

With an abundance of different materials, I have resorted to having sealed plastic storage boxes stacked ceiling-high to avoid any moth issues. I usually have some of my framed originals on the wall, along with some of my products. My studio doubles up as my workshop space and retreat studio space, so I need to keep it relatively tidy when it’s workshop time.

It is not the lightest or warmest room in the house. This led me to take steps to have a studio built in my garden. This has been a huge undertaking as I was quite adventurous with my plans. Patience has been a lesson in this build, but it is going to be well worth the wait. It will house a large airy and light workshop space, which would easily host around 20 students.

The second part to it is glass-fronted with spectacular views down the Tweed Valley and will be where I will work.

As a location I plan to work for as long as I can, I figured out it is important to create in a space that has a good outlook, is warm and with north-facing light.

I am sure it is going to be a great hit with anyone who attends my workshops.

Moy Mackay in her studio surrounded by colourful materials.
Moy Mackay in her studio surrounded by colourful materials.

Textile heritage

As well as having an appreciation for textiles and texture, I like the idea of working with a material that is not utilised to its full potential. Surrounded by sheep farms in the Scottish Borders, it is sad to think that the actual fleeces are often not used.

The Scottish Borders was home to a buoyant textile industry in the past, so I like the feeling that I am continuing that tradition in my own small way.

Working in textiles and developing an artform, which was something quite unique when I first started over 30 years ago, has allowed me to introduce a traditional craft with a painterly application to some art lovers that may have previously not appreciated work made with fibres as credible fine art.

Moy Mackay, Kilmory Pines, 2023. 48cm x 44cm (19" x 17"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Kilmory Pines, 2023. 48cm x 44cm (19″ x 17″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Drying Day At Shepherd’s Cottage, 2022. 86cm x 86cm (34" x 34"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Drying Day At Shepherd’s Cottage, 2022. 86cm x 86cm (34″ x 34″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

Growing a gallery

In 2012 I was given the opportunity to take over the rental of a gallery in Peebles. It had not been my intention, but it seemed like it was meant to be. Stupidly I thought I could run a gallery and do my work in it at the same time. Very quickly I realised that could not happen: I needed to be in the zone and immersed in my work fully. I found interruptions really stopped my creative flow. 

I moved my work to a separate studio space and employed staff to work in the gallery. Over the years I have worked in the gallery but never full time. As the business has grown and expanded to an online gallery too, it has impacted on my own work and the time I can be in my studio, which at times has been frustrating.

I now have an assistant who is taking over all my administrative roles in the hope of freeing up more time for me to get back to putting all my energies into creative development. The prospect of getting into my new studio full time to give my art my full attention is more than exciting. I cannot wait!

What inspires me to keep making is that I am passionate about it and love what I do. I have so many ideas I still want to explore that I think I need to live till I am 300!

Moy Mackay, Snow Berries, 2022. 32cm x 24cm (13" x 10"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, Snow Berries, 2022. 32cm x 24cm (13″ x 10″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, The Blue Jug, 2018. 24cm x 36cm (10" x 14"). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.
Moy Mackay, The Blue Jug, 2018. 24cm x 36cm (10″ x 14″). Felt, stitch. Merino fibres, thread.

Still learning

I have learned many lessons on my creative journey, always learning and developing my work, and I hope to continue to push my own boundaries and challenge myself with new ideas along the way to keep my work fresh and relevant.

I think a big lesson I’ve learned is the importance of the business aspect of working as an artist. To create art as a livelihood requires a good understanding of how business works. It’s essential to succeed, I would say, yet often an aspect that is overlooked for many creatives. 

If I had some advice to offer others who are starting out, I would urge anyone to work hard to develop their own unique style, to think out of the box, and look at what’s around you for inspiration.

Key takeaways

Moy has worked with wet felting for over three decades, truly making the medium her own, and we can also learn from her inspirations and strategies.

  • Colour is what lights up Moy’s imagination, and her palette is made of the pre-dyed merino tops, which she uses to suggest a sense of place. How might you capture an emotion, a memory, or a place you love in a work mainly focussing on colour?
  • Moy doesn’t like to pre-plan her compositions but she does rely on sketchbooks as a treasury for collating ideas. Try carrying a notebook or sketchbook with you, or using a box file to keep a collection of anything that inspires you.
  • The weather can be unkind in Scotland so Moy relies on her camera to record places. Why not take a field trip to take photos of details and scenes that spark your imagination?
  • Or practise the art of limiting factors. Look around your home or through your window – what might make for an interesting composition, or for a series of playful studies?

Moy Mackay was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. She graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1990 and has lived and worked in the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders since then. Moy has exhibited widely and opened The Moy Mackay Gallery in 2012 in Peebles, Scotland, which presents seasonal exhibitions, showing her own work and alongside that of international artists. She has taught around the world and offers online courses, as well as workshops and retreats from her studio. Moy is the author of three books: Art in Felt & Stitch (2012), Flowers in Felt & Stitch (2014), and The Art of Moy MacKay (2018) each published by Search Press. In 2016 Moy was shortlisted in Sky Arts’ Landscape Artist of the Year.

Artist website: moymackay.com

Instagram: @moymackay

Facebook: facebook.com/moymackayartist

If you enjoyed our delve into Moy’s work, check out these contemporary felt artists, or the work of five more textile artists with a unique take on landscapes in their work.

Which aspect of Moy’s work most resonates with you? Tell us more in the comments below.

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Monday 22nd, July 2024 / 13:20

About the author

View all articles by Jo Hall

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6 comments on “Moy Mackay: A heartfelt journey”

  1. Donna Kurtz says:

    Your felted images are breathtaking. Do you dye your wool yourself? It is a great pleasurer to become acquainted with you work. Thank you Textile Artists for publishing this interview.

  2. Mary Baxter says:

    Beautiful and inspiring ❤️

  3. Donna Kurtz says:

    Your felted images are breathtaking. Do you dye you wool yourself? It’s a great pleasure to become acquainted with your work. Thank you Textile Artists for publishing this wonderful interview.

  4. Patricia says:

    Love your felted paintings of Scotland. So beautifully done. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Marilyn P Waite says:

    I really enjoyed becoming acquainted with Moy Mackay work. Particularly enchanted with the Flower still life’s!

    Thank you

  6. Jack Sayre says:

    Fantastic!!

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