The Craft Renaissance: Meet Sarah Matthews
As a child do you remember making paper doll chains? Crafting, cutting, or in my case hacking at bits of paper until they resembled something more akin to confetti.
When we were young the emphasis was placed on pursuing our hobbies and passions. Craft was a creative vehicle for our seemingly boundless energies, manifest in the creation of paper mache and - depending on our level of talent - artwork that would be considered abstract or woke by modern standards.
As we grow older our time and energy is often directed into less creative tasks, notably pastimes of the life admin persuasion, which is only compounded by the increasingly digital lives that we now lead.
For Sarah Matthews, her childhood was spent making origami penguins and cutting paper chains, but her love of design and dedication to honing her craft has allowed her to carve a successful and enriching career as a Paper Engineer; something she dreamed of fulfilling from a young age.
We recently spoke to the purveyor of paper about her artistic style, her fondness for craft and why more of us are rekindling our offline passions and reclaiming our creativity.
The first question has obviously got to be, why paper?
It wasn’t until I was at university, studying Textile Surface Design, that I fully realised how much I love to experiment with paper. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t really enjoy the fabric ‘end result’ of my projects as much as I enjoyed the ‘paper-based’ sketchbook and paper maquette stage of my projects, but fortunately we were quite free to explore different materials and processes, and I ended up creating a collection of printed and folded paper jewellery for my degree show.
You speak of approaching your craft with fun and playfulness, why is this important for you?
I think my artistic style and personality go hand in hand – clean and graphic, but with a healthy dose of fun and playfulness. I also feel that the most exciting results happen when approaching a project in a playful way. I often get asked how I ‘learned’ to make paper sculptures and the answer is I simply experimented, played, made mistakes and learned from them, honing my skills as I went along.
What is it about paper that you love the most?
It is the most readily available, affordable material I know of, and there are limitless possibilities with it. It is inherently tactile, and I love finding unexpected ways to cut, score, crease, shape and glue to transform an everyday material into something extraordinary and precious, and just think there is something so fascinating about the transformation of a 2D object into a 3D one.
I really do believe that (with enough time), any shape or texture can be recreated in paper form and there is also the added bonus that if it all goes wrong it can just be recycled!
Your portfolio focuses on the areas of cutting and engineering, how does each process work and what inspires this?
When I first began experimenting with paper I used to hand-cut my designs, and still have scars on my hands from a few scalpel accidents, but have since taught myself how to use Illustrator to draw out my designs and upgraded to using a plotter for the majority of my paper cutting. I do however always need to hand-finish the fine cutting with a scalpel as the machine can’t really cope with detail.
For paper engineering (3D pieces), the initial process is the same, drawing out the templates for the cut pieces on illustrator and cutting them using my plotter, before hand-folding, shaping and gluing each piece to create the 3D form. Calculating and drawing out the templates can be quite a puzzle, requiring rather a lot of maths and there will usually also be an experimental stage in the middle, making maquttes to test and refine the design.
The inspiration for my designs comes from nature, architecture and my overactive imagination! I think I’m always gathering inspiration everywhere I go without even realising it.
There is a lot of talk about taking it back to basics in terms of craft and physical products, what do you think has contributed to this renaissance in thought around craftsmanship and tactile arts?
I guess it’s a desire for something meaningful, slow and tactile in a throwaway, fast-paced world where most of us spend a disproportionate amount of time staring at a screen, whether that’s sitting at a computer at work or bingeing something on Netflix and mindlessly scrolling in our spare time.
How do you try to convey your craft online?
I mostly use Instagram to show my work. I’m definitely no professional photographer but I take all of my own photos, trying my best to capture the detail in my designs (which can be tricky!).
A lot of people are turning off their devices and looking to take up hobbies offline again, what can people do with paper in this respect?
Paper craft is such a great hobby to dip into! There is no end of online tutorials for papercraft projects which can be completed in an afternoon with a few basic tools, and readily available materials. I’d suggest a little browse on Pinterest if you’re not sure where to start, or you could look into books and online courses.
Do you have a favourite design that you have created either for yourself or as part of a brief?
I think my favourite piece so far is a flamingo (called Mingo). I was gluing tiny paper feathers onto it’s neck for a good couple of days which I’m not going to lie, at the time was pretty dull, but I was so happy with the result!
Another favourite was a recent one where I deigned and made lots of 3D paper hot air balloons for a shop window display. It required endless days of repetitive gluing but they looked great when they were finished.
Outside of work, what are some of your passions and favourite pastimes?
I’m currently renovating my first home, which I’m very much enjoying and is keeping me busy when I’m not at my desk, but I also love eating good food and spending time outdoors (as long as the weather is being kind).
Can you remember the last article, podcast or book that left an impression on you?
It’s definitely made me realise the importance of rest, which it’s all to easy to neglect.
Do you have any interesting facts about paper?
It’s 2000 years old!
If you didn't work with paper, what would you liked to have been?
After graduating I spent a year dipping my toes into lots of different creative roles with internships and freelance jobs, before working in product development and production at a jewellery company for 4 years, so I think if I were to do anything else it would just be a different creative job (although I did spend my childhood wanting to be a ballerina ha).