Karen Collins

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I was born and brought up in Yorkshire on the outskirts of the North Yorkshire Moors. 

It was my grandparent that seeded my love of nature and making things with my hands.

From a young age I’d spend hours walking the moors with my Grandad Cooper (Arthur). On the way I’d pick up bits and bobs that caught my eye, I often ended up with pockets full of wool that I’d picked off the fences. Also heaps of golf balls. My Nana Cooper (Evelyn) was a tall, big busted woman, so she had to make all her own clothes. Being young and inquisitive  I wanted to help her, so she taught me to sew and knit when I was old enough to hold a needle at the right end. After I had learnt to sew by hand, I moved onto Nana’s treadle sewing machine. I remember  sewing straight lines on paper, I was only allowed to sew thread into cloth once I’d proved that I could sew in a dead straight line. First it was simple cloth bags and aprons then clothes for my dolls and finally my Nana’s own clothes.

I had one inspirational teacher in school  Mrs Collins (no relation!) the handwork teacher. She taught me through those crucial teenage years when I was working out what to do with the rest of my life (or certainly the next few years) and it was she who encouraged me to go to art school.

I loved every minute of Jacob Cramer Art College in Leeds. Specialising in fashion design, my days were full with designing, making patterns, pinning out and sewing up. From an idea to a finished garment. All made by my hands, from nothing into something useful. It just made sense to me.

I squeezed in time to experiment with paper making. I loved the process. I would gather bags of leaves, grasses, lichens, bark and other bits from the woods out the back of my house, then at collage mash it to a pulp that, with the right tools, kit and guiding words from my teacher, I could make into a sheet of paper. It seemed like magic!

It was around this time I found myself wondering what other material I could gather from outside and put to good use.

Those walks on the moors with Grandad and my pockets of wool first came to mind. Bradford, my home town, helped too it being a well-known focus of Northern England’s wool production. A few chats to local sheep farmers yielded me some lovely lanolin-heavy Wedneslydale fleeces to play with. It wasn’t long before I’d spun enough wool to knit a jumper.

After college I worked in youth clubs. I had a ball! In those days art rooms had equipment and craft materials aplenty which gave me great freedom to create and transform with the children. I felt very comfortable teaching and seemed to pick it up easily. I was never scared to have a go at anything; from fashion shows to papier-mâché, murals and sewing. It was bloody good fun.

At 22 I became self-employed designing and sewing party and wedding dresses. But being young, after a couple of years, the travel bug got hold and I wanted to see more of the world.

When my wanderlust abated I became keen to put down roots and find a more holistic way of life.

I moved to the Scottish Borders and lived in a community that supported young people with specific needs, both physical and cognitive. I was asked to open a craft workshop.wow! I was in the wonderful position of being able to pick and choose what traditional craft to learn, get trained up, and then really bed the skill in by practicing and teaching  the young people.

When I was 29 my partner of the time Krzysztof and I moved back to Yorkshire and started a family. Janusz came along first, then Helena three years later and Esther three years after her. I enjoyed staying at home raising the family in the countryside. Daytimes I kept my hands busy with growing heaps of veggies and herbs with the children and when the dark came in I made baskets, spun wool and knitted.

As the kids got a little older, Krzysztof and I both got jobs in the Moray Steiner School and we moved the family up to North East Scotland. Though I began in the Steiner school by holding the parent and toddler group, I soon began teaching hand work and craft. I really enjoyed working with the whole age range at the school, from 7 to 17 and taught there for a good 10 years.

Around the time I left the Steiner school, I started care work with the elderly again. I like the intimacy and connection with the old folk, they inspire me with their stories of life. My mum and I cared for Nana in her old age. She became ill with cancer towards the end and I spent some precious days holding her hand and reading her bible to her, until she died. Since then I have supported three people on this profound journey at the end of life. I feel comfortable and at peace with death as a part of the natural cycle of life. The way we leave this world is as important as we arrive, and I feel I have a part to play in supporting people at the end of life.

Four years ago, I decided to venture into business again.

I was living at Marcassie Farm  at the time and being surrounded by sheep, willow and hedgerow materials my hands were getting itchy to make. Four years ago I founded Naturally Useful, My passion for gathering and making grew.

Then one day I saw an advert for a willow coffin making course. PING! I knew I wanted to have a go. I booked myself on a one to one course and was measured up to make my own coffin. I LOVED IT, and found I could do it with ease. So I came home and made another one and then another. Soon people heard what I was doing and I started to sell them.

My Vision for Naturally Useful is to produce useful and beautiful products that will enliven folks’ homes and be pleasing to the soul. I feel it’s so important to keep these traditional craft skills alive. Especially as they have the extra factor of bringing people closer to nature by using the materials that grow a stone’s throw from folk’s back doors. I would very much like others from all walks of life, to experience what I do when I make; tranquility and peace of body, mind and spirit, and to feel the confidence and empowerment of producing a beautiful useful product that can be used and admired.

I’ve been in Moray for 20 years now. I look forward to growing as grey as the seals up here. This is my patch and I love it.