• Tatiana Collier

A stitch in time

Throughout her life, Debra Howlett has been making and creating, letting her hands guide the way. With her collection of hand stitched textile treasures, Debra is finding ways to bring new life back to rich Australian fabrics.

Debra Howlett spent much of her childhood with her grandmother – a classic, Australian country lady who seemed to do it all.

“My grandmother was a fine upholsterer, a tailor, a seamstress. She knitted, embroidered, and crocheted; made papier-mâché trays, oil

paintings, and took photos and developed them in the laundry, and this was in the 1920s.

“She’d be up early every morning to do the essential work, such as cooking and bottling, washing and so on, and then her afternoons were spent at the sewing machine or painting or creating something.

“It always amazed me.”

Like it was second nature, Debra adopted her grandmother’s skills, learning through trial and error, and turning sections of her own home into vignettes of creativity.

“When I moved into my own place at 18, I would create things like dried flower arrangements, and set up a corner of the room to be this beautiful, neat, pretty space. Meanwhile the rest of the place would be explosive.

“I guess what my grandmother showed me was that I could try anything. We can all make something if we want to.”

Having tried several different crafts, including scrapbooking at one point, Debra found her true passion in working with textiles. Like many home creators, she participated in stitching groups and attended art forums, including Ballarat’s Fibre Arts events, to hone her skills.

“I began by making tote bags, and I put a big, floral adornment on it as a bag charm. I did a range of dogs too, but nothing was really selling. I thought it was all fabulous but when it comes to your own craft, it’s difficult to be objective.

“I soon realised that people don’t buy on a whimsey. They’re either buying a gift or it needs to be functional. So, I reduced my animal range to just one dog – Bitey Dog - and one cat, and I started making tea cosies. I moved the flowers off the bags and placed them on large kilt pins to use as brooches, and that seemed to work well.”

In 2015, Bitey Dog, which was based on a real-life pet, became the name for Debra’s brand and online store. It also became Debra’s signature creation and while she has much affection and appreciation for the little character, Debra is now looking to take her work in a different direction.

“A friend gave me a big bag of Australian wool blanket scraps, and I threw them into a hot wash. They came out so soft and the colours were vibrant. I started cutting into them and they really appealed to my hands.

“I began stitching pieces together and little leaves started to appear. I was soon creating Australian flowers, such as wattle and gum, and using them to decorate different items. It was coming together beautifully, almost on its own.

“I can feel what works in my hands. That’s how I know that it’s my thing. If it doesn’t feel right, there’s no amount of coaxing that will make it work.”

Since receiving the bag of blanket scraps, Debra’s affection for woollen textiles has grown. She now sources and collects samples from wherever they can be found, seeking out colours and patterns. In particular, she looks for blankets made in the Australian wool mills years ago.

“I love repurposing textiles. If I see something that catches my eye, I just have to nab it. Especially if it’s a colour I don’t have. I get it home and start chopping into it and things start evolving.

“People remember wool blankets and their patterns from childhood, and they love it. It gets them where they live; it speaks to their heart. That is a big part of the appeal of my work.

“I even make sure I use the blanket labels, to pay tribute to an industry that at one point, employed thousands of people in our country, particularly women.”

Now retired from working life in Melbourne, and living in the regional town of Kyneton, Debra is confident her textile work will never stop, because there are so many benefits to be found in making and creating.

“I really want to do new things. I’ll continue to do the dogs and cats – you never knock what’s popular – but I want to do things that are a bit more sculptural, and art-piece orientated.

“I’m working on a large bag right now, which is a lovely platform for the applique and the Australian flowers. Maybe I’ll look at making textile pieces for wall hangings. I’m very wary that items should have a purpose, but I’m still going to try it.

“I’ll never stop doing this because it will keep me active no matter my age. You’re never redundant if you have a skill to make something. And it’s so good for the body and the soul, because it’s about being in the moment. It forces me to slow down, be mindful, be present.

“Anybody can be creative, even people who don’t believe they can. I know so many people have a fabulous education behind them these days, learning fine art or studying their craft, but there are just as many that are self-taught.

“There are so many people in central Victoria who do amazing things.”

Debra’s work can be viewed by finding Bitey Dog on Instagram and Facebook. You can also find some of her pieces to purchase at the Art Gallery of Ballarat shop, and the Kyneton Community House Marketplace online Christmas market.

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