Cassandra's journey from Canada to Oxford has taken a number of twists and turns, encompassing engineering, travelling, having a family and growing her weaving skills and community weaving business.
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Other podcasts cited: Design Trust recommendations
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Weaving is definitely the best combination of my personal skill set. Most of my studies throughout my high school years were focused from sciences, which meant that I didn't have much flexibility to really follow any sort of creative ambitions. I never really felt confident enough to go and follow that direction because I didn't have a portfolio. I thought right, this is my time now. I've decided to find out more about the painters, photographers, writers, print makers, actors, crafters, teachers and more who have found or refound their creativity later in life. This time, I'm talking with textile artist and weaver extraordinare Cassandra Sabo. Cass and I met at her studio in Makespace, a community led workplace in Jericho in central Oxford. As people around us, inside and out, went about their daily business, we chatted about weaving, engineering, travelling, and looking for ways to get back your creative mojo. Hi, Cass. Hi, how are you? I'm good, thank you. Tell me a little about what you do both as Cassandra Sabo designs and as the Oxford Weaving Studio. So the Oxford Weaving Studio is my community based design studio. It's where I welcome students to come and do workshops. It's where I have all my materials, all my products ready for people to come and purchase. It's my community side, it's where I connect with people outside of my own sort of little sphere. Cassandra Sabo designs is actually the part of me that I do for myself. It's my weaving. It's my design work. It's my ideas. It's my research, it really is sort of the embodiment of what I'm trying to get out into the world and share with sort of the creative community. Your timeline is quite higgledy piggledy. So let's start with your experience of the arts as a child and your choice of educational path straight after high school. When I was a kid, it turns out that I was really creative. I was able to do a lot of projects, both within school and outside, extra extracurricular, my mom was really great at encouraging me to do a lot of different creative pursuits. So anything from flower arranging to calligraphy, to just drawing, I tried pretty much everything because my mum was very good at a lot of different creative pursuits. And so when it came time to looking at what I was going to do beyond high school, the strange thing was that even though I was creative, I was also very good at sciences and maths at the time. And I think back in the 80s, in Canada, it was a common thing for young women to be encouraged to do the sciences. And so most of my studies throughout my high school years were focused around the sciences, which meant that I didn't have much flexibility to really learn or follow any of my sort of creative ambitions within the school setting. So at the time that it was, you know, for me to decide what kind of pathway I wanted to follow for university. Even though I dreamt and looked at pages of university brochures where they outlined all the creative degrees you could do, I never really felt confident enough to go and follow that direction. Because I didn't have a portfolio. I had not spent years working towards, you know, building out drawings and, and creative expressions that would have gotten gotten me on to the architecture programme that I wanted to get into. I decided too late. And then I realised, well, I didn't have anything to support that application. So I ended up studying engineering because I liked sciences. And I was good at them to a degree. And I always thought that maybe once I completed my engineering degree that maybe I would go back and do something creative after, because engineering was a university degree. And most of the creative directions I could have gone into, were not university degrees, they were, in Quebec, we have college, or it's called cjf, which is an acronym for something I don't remember anymore. But essentially stands for, you know, they do sort of professional programmes as an alternative to a degree. And I was quite bright, and I studied the sciences because I liked it. And I thought, well, even though I could, I had the choice between going to a university degree, which was the sciences or do an a professional programme, which was creative design, they called it a dec, it was a diploma essentially. And I didn't feel that was the right choice for me at that time. A lot has happened for you between starting to study for an engineering degree in Montreal, to becoming a creative textile artist and opening a weaving studio in Oxford. What were the practical and the emotional triggers that eventually got you to where you are today. So that's quite an involved, involved one. I studied engineering for approximately two and a half years before I realised actually that I hated it. The core courses and classes that I took that I really loved, which strangely were sort of the technical writing and the building engineering elements, I loved it, I excelled at, I did very well. And then the classes such as the electronics and thermodynamics, the very technical classes that I had to take, I really didn't enjoy. So it ended up meaning that after two and a half years, I made the tough decision to stop my degree midway. And this one, this was probably the most difficult decision I had to make. And it sent me on a completely different path. I essentially had to find something else that I was good at. It also stems back from when I used to be a competitive swimmer. So I was a competitive swimmer as a kid. And I was very good. I was the best swimmer in Canada at the age of eight years old, which meant that when I stopped swimming at the age of 16, I at least had my my brains to rely upon, which then got me through to my engineering sort of pathway. And then I discovered that after I stopped the engineering, there were two things that I hadn't completed, which really were my identity. So when it came to choosing my career path beyond my university degree, I tried a lot of different things to sort of replace those two things that I used to be known for, and used to be good at. So I kept trying, and experimenting with lots of different creative pursuits, such as I tried watercolours, I tried drawing life drawing, I tried, exploring different things that I hadn't tried before to try and develop that side, that creative side of me. I worked in finance, I worked in accounting, I worked in HR, I, I basically tried to find jobs where I would fit in and that would use, you know, the skills that I had left behind. And ultimately, it meant that I came to London. And I discovered that actually, completing a degree was the first thing I needed to do, which was to get a university degree, I also needed to find my thing. And I know I talked about being bright, well, lots of kids are bright. But swimming was the thing that I was good at when I was a kid. And so when it came to finding the right degree for me, I needed to feel confident in what I was doing. And weaving became that outlet. I found a degree first of all that I didn't know existed. I was lucky that I met my husband just before, just before I decided to go back to university, and he was able to support that. So it meant that I was ready emotionally to find something that I was good at. I had the support network around me, which made it easier for me to actually go to university without financial constraints, and, you know, the worries of not being able to complete my degree. And it also meant that that I had the time and the motivation. So I was at the right place at the right time. I had travelled extensively, finding myself all those years trying to get to where I was. So essentially, it made, sort of the stars aligned, it made it a lot easier for me to work out where I was in sort of my my time my own personal timeline. And I discovered weaving which was the textile degree at university having done lots of short courses in London just in the lead up to that. So I did a foundation and then the degree and and when it came down to choosing which textile pathway weaving was the the right path. It combined my engineering background, so here we are finally connecting the dots between all the different parts of me that I tried to explore for 20 years. And I found that in weaving. You will degree at St. Martin's took slightly longer than normal. Yeah. So I I did a short course in graphic design at St. Martin's and the tutor there decided with me, we said right we're going to try and get me on to the graphic design course and after having prepared for months to to try and apply for degrees. Straight away, I worked out, I needed to do a foundation first. So doing the foundation was the best thing. I did it at St. Martin's. And I knew the tutors who were there, who then encouraged me to do textiles as well. For my degree, the degree was supposed to have taken three years. I got married at the end of my first year, and I fell pregnant at the start, which would have been the start of my third year. So it meant that I had to take some time out at the end of my second year. So I took two years out. One year, I had my son, and we stayed in, we stayed in England, and then my husband had a change, sort of a time in his career where he needed to change and do something different. So we went, we went travelling for a year with my son. And that was fantastic in some ways, because it meant that I had sort of time away from my, from my degree from from textiles, to try and explore other other things in my life, like having children starting a family. Yeah. But during that time, I also managed to focus a little bit more on what it was that I liked and enjoyed about textiles, by doing little projects in Thailand, and in New Zealand, doing basket weaving, trying different techniques to kind of still keep that the idea of being a textile designer sort of fresh. So when I came back to my degree, although I felt like I'd lost a lot of my technical knowledge and my designing of working with sort of more complex structures and weaving, which really was the case. And I would like to blame baby brain. And I can't really say for sure, but it meant that I had something to fall back on. So I used the I used the basket weaving that I done during my travels, and combined that with fibre optics to create a final project, which ultimately was a combination of all my skill set. So it was drawing upon my engineering background. It was you know, I was a little bit adjusting to life as motherhood while doing a degree so that that element meant that I had to keep things simple, I had to create a final product that was much shorter and quicker to deliver. Again, it was a practical nature. So my degree show was not ever really what I intended. But it became a necessity, but was also having all those restrictions forced me to be more creative and find ways to, you know, solutions to my problem, which was to finish my degree do really as best as I could with having a really great outcome. You've mentioned the weaving and fibre optics, which sounds amazing. And you won an award with Cockpit Arts for that project towards the end of your degree. What did that mean? I was really very lucky. I think in many ways it felt like I was at the right place at the right time. Maybe that's not completely fair to myself really. But at the end of my degree, I had actually been sponsored by a company that supplied me with my fibre optics and my equipment. That was the lighting systems that I was able to use for my degree. So at the end of my degree I was really quite lucky and I knew of Cockpit Arts. They're a business incubator based in Holborn originally they were just based in Holborn they now also have a space down in South London. And at the time of my graduation they were just launching a new award, which would enable six different weavers to have access to equipment, looms, and all the winding equipment etc. It was also at the time, I found out that I was pregnant with my second son. So right after my degree, I applied for this award, I was interviewing six months pregnant, so they recognised that I was about to have a baby. But they still awarded me alongside these five other amazing weavers, which enabled me to have a studio space, I could get access to expensive looms that I wouldn't have been able to afford to purchase on my own. It set me up for a period of time that I was able to explore and think about what it was that I wanted to do. I always imagined I was going to be a maker and a creative. And so it was incredibly , they were incredibly supportive of me. And it really made it possible for me to give me the confidence to say, hey, you can actually do this. There are people who like the kind of work that you do, and that I think, ultimately, I was able to use that as a springboard for the future to know that actually, this is what I wanted to do. And I can do it with hopefully the right circumstances going forward. Yet Yeah. With a young family, Cass moved to city where she knew noone, Oxford. She left the London studio and all its connections. I asked her how she refound her weaving mojo. After so many years of trying to make it work and juggling a family, young family and moving to a new city. I found it I honestly found it really hard. I didn't think at the time it was that hard. I think when you're in it, you kind of you keep going, you keep your head above water, you're focusing on you know, your family and the needs, the immediate needs right in front of you. But ultimately, I always had this nagging you know, sort of drive at the back of my mind that I wanted to, I wanted to keep weaving, I wanted to bring my practice to Oxford, I hadn't yet found a way to do that. Because I didn't know anybody. My husband and I didn't have any connections to Oxford, other than from his college days, 20 years ago. And so I was just having to give myself the time and space to try and, and reinvent myself. It was really hard. It wasn't an easy thing at all. Definitely having young babies meant that I was not sleeping well. I was a zombie, I would say for probably the first five years of my first son's life, it meant that really, I just I didn't have the time and headspace to be creative. And it was only really when my kids went back to school that I thought, right, this is my time now. I was finally getting rest. And I was always a person that needed a lot of sleep my whole life. I couldn't, I couldn't juggle, I couldn't have been a doctor staying up and working all through the night. So for me, that was the biggest thing. And it sounds really simple. But actually as a creative you, it's not like you sit at your your desk and you complete paperwork. And it's kind of a functional thing, the creative moment only comes at certain times. And when you, when the creativity is there, you need to work with it. So having a family that demanded your time was really, it really didn't work very well for me. Until they went back to school, at which point then I found structure and I forced myself into setting up my loom, setting aside time where I was just weaving. My work then was not very good. It was not very inspired. But it enabled me to get back into the routine and remember what it was like to actually be at the loom. Again, I talked about that, the inability to sort of come back from maternity leave, essentially, with my first son. With my degree, I lost a lot of the knowledge, felt like a loss of a lot of the knowledge and the technical expertise of being a weaver, which took some time to get back into the swing of things. So by just weaving, and making those mistakes again, and screwing up and getting lots of bad outcomes. Essentially, that enabled me to move forward. So I had to force myself to go through that sort of painful reintroduction to the craft. But which enabled me eventually to, to get to a point where I felt confident enough to keep weaving. And you moved out of the house. Not literally obviously, but you moved your studio out of the house. That's right, that was a pivotal moment. That was the time where I finally thought that I was actually going to take myself seriously. Being at home with my loom was very practical when I was younger when the kids were younger, because it meant I could nip off and maybe spend an hour or even 20 minutes winding some yarn, but it was also the thing that distracted me most. I could go and do some laundry for an hour and then lose my mojo and then, you know, find it very difficult to get back into that same headspace. So having a physical barrier between what I did for living, or wanted to do for a living, and my home life was crucial. And I was lucky enough to have found a place which was kind of a soft landing. Because I actually had a friend who I had studied with who was here in Oxford in a studio space. He put out a call on Facebook. And I thought, right, this is it. And because I also had someone who I'd studied weaving with, I felt an affinity to having, again, somebody who already knew what I was going through, and who was going to be in the same space with me. Now that space lasted for I think a year before the opportunity to come to Makespace here in Oxford came about and as soon as I could get a bigger space with light and windows and a community around it. Yeah, I knew that was the time to really sort of grow things. And I went from just weaving my own products and working on my own design work, which was the Cassandra Sabo Designs element, to being able to then hopefully have a studio that could be more open to the community and teaching and doing all these, this other side of me that I kind of was starting to develop. Why do you think weaving in particular appeals to you? Weaving is definitely the best combination of my personal skill set. My engineering background, I like how, I like solving problems. I like to understand how things work. And weaving is a very technical, well can be a very technical discipline, it requires working with equipment. So often, you know, if the loom, something breaks, I have to fix it, I have to understand how, but then also the design restrictions. Weaving is very much about solving problems. The types of looms that most people and myself work on, they require you to work around the restrictions that a drawing will allow you to achieve. So a loom is something much more mechanical. And I like being limited because it pushes my creativity, it enables me to be the person who couldn't draw and try to find all these other outlets for my creativity, I couldn't find it anywhere else. But on a loom, I can just sit down and I can design in a way that no other craft enables me to do that. Brilliant. You teach workshops at the studio, ordinarily. Do you see similarities between the people who take the classes and yourself, either past you or present you? Yes, I think in many ways, I do get a lot of people who are exploring new creative pathways, they're taking a workshop so that they can learn something creative, something new. And I think that by giving themselves the opportunity to try something different, and sort of push the boundaries, I think they push the boundaries of what they normally do, because I get many people from sort of academic backgrounds, science backgrounds, and I kind of, of course, I can relate to them. You know, I went through a similar journey, I've tended to think that my journey started maybe a bit sooner, because a lot of the people who come to me are mothers who, whose children are a bit older, they've been in the same career for 20 years, my career was very mixed, and very varied. So despite the fact that I did different things to get here, kind of arriving at the same point. And I like having other people search for something because I can, I feel like I can help guide them. I know not everybody who comes through my doors wants to be a professional weaver. But there is that searching that other women seem to have at this sort of, you know, this period of time, sort of just as their kids are going back to school, or they're a little bit older, where they've graduated from university, they found they've got this newfound freedom and time and motivation to do something for themselves, which a lot of women don't give themselves permission. So I think it's great that when I do meet these people that I can just open their mind a bit to say that it is possible you can find do something different, whatever it is, you might just find a different branch of science, actually, maybe that's what you want to do. There is no clear set path, I think, for the journey that most of us are on. And so when I meet people in the studio, who you know who have that, that mindset, it's great to be able to share my experience. And also to help you know, just give them suggestions on how they can kind of think of things that they might not have done or thought of before. Yeah. What inspires, your weaving designs. My inspiration comes from lots of different areas. It used to be architecture, because I think maybe going back to my engineering days and wanting to be an architect maybe I like that sort of the linear element of it. But more lately, it's been more around the natural world, I think just the imagery that you get from natural world colours. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from anything from flowing rivers to bark on a tree. And the other thing that I find with my design work is that I have never really been good at drawing. That was the reason probably that I didn't do a creative degree back in university, I really struggled. So I design on the loom, I go directly from an idea and sort of photographs that I take, I might do some sketch work. But really, that's not my process, I go straight to the loom, I look at materials that I think reflect the research that I've done, the photographs, the mood I'm trying to achieve. And then I weave. And from that, I then take it off the loom. Experiment with sort of finishing processes to see what it'll look like. And then I go back to actually trying to identify what was the trigger and what was the starting point because at university, they were very clear, you started with primary research, then you did secondary research, then you sort of put your ideas in this sketchbook in this order and then you came out with a great piece of weaving. I don't work like that and I never have and I don't want to ever have to apologise for not working in a linear fashion. I very much go from the start to the finish back to the somewhere in the middle, come up with something better. So the finish then changes a bit and go back to looking at at the beginning. It really is sort of a an evolved process and because I like to try different materials so my work is very much about exploring one, the techniques that I use. So using different craft disciplines, like macrame or felting, or needlework, and then thinking about how you can actually do that on the loom, which is incredibly hard to do that. So I get lots of happy accidents, things don't happen the way I intend or set out to, the outcome, in my mind almost rarely ends up being what I weave. But that's great, because it means then I can keep that fluid design process going and not have to feel like where I started and where I finished was wrong, I can just do what I like, because I'm older now, I've decided I don't need to, you know, get a pat on the back from anybody. And it's my process. And that's how, you know, that's how I work. Yeah. Brilliant. Do you manage to retain your enjoyment of your own weaving while also managing and growing the Oxford Weaving Studio as a business? Absolutely, I think I have to try and do some weaving at some point during the day or something related to what I set out to do all those years ago, because that is essentially what drives me. I love running the weaving studio, because it's my way of helping people in the community to, to share what I love. And you know, by teaching the workshops and giving them a space where they can do that. But ultimately, I need to keep weaving even some days where it might be a little something that I jot down in a notebook or it might be winding a yarn that I sort of have at the back of my mind that I'd like to use, because it helps me to think about how I might use this material in the future. All of these little things that I do throughout the day is what keeps me going in the days where I have to do endless website updates or lots of admin. So yeah, I mean, I try I try my best, you know, to keep keep my hand and into weaving and actually sitting at the loom. The balance at the moment is definitely skewed in running a small business. Again, it's not what I set out to do, but it's what I'm doing. And I love doing it. So the learning curve is really steep. And it takes a lot of time to learn all these new skills. But I think I'm at the point where I really want to open up the studio so that other people can work with me, which enables me to have a bit more free time to carve out that creative headspace again, much like when you're, when you have young kids, it enables me to then sit at the loom uninterrupted and just focus on you know, the design at hand. I met Cass the day before we all went into the second national COVID lockdown. Nevertheless, I asked her about her plans for the future. So what I'd love to do in the future is have a buzzing community studio where lots of people are coming to use my looms, to weave, to take workshops, I'm working alongside a bunch of other young people who either have an interest in weaving themselves or come from a creative background. And for them to help facilitate doing a lot of the background tasks that a small business requires. So that it would give me enough time to sit at the loom and continue to be creative. I have so many ideas that I just can't seem to get out quickly enough. There is so much work that I would love to weave and do. So in the near future I want to be weaving as much as I can while supporting others. And I think that it's really been difficult to try and find that balance. But I think now more than ever, that's what I think I need to do to kind of keep my head above water and feel like I'm still living a normal life and doing normal things. So I'm definitely going to be yeah, sitting at the loom and trying to be as creative as much as I can. There are many, many podcasts out there, it's difficult to know where to start. So for each episode, I asked my guests for their recommendations. You're welcome. So I listen to a number of different podcasts from the Design Trust. I'm part of their business club and in their business club, they get a lot of different experts from different areas of the creative sector, which sometimes touches on business but also sort of well being and you know, general life sort of skillsets from creatives. So for me the Design Trust is really where I like to find yeah, some motivational and interesting things to listen to when weaving. Brilliant. Finally, how can people connect with you? So you can find me here in my studio. I'm almost always here at Makespace in Oxford. But on ocial media, I'm on Instagram, 'm on Facebook. I'm on Pine est, Twitter. So I try and be a active as I can on social medi , but also, but also my own webs te. So I have two websites. One s Oxfordweavingstudio com. And that will have all my workshops and materials and lo ms and tools and kits that p ople can buy. And then my design products are all at Cassan rasabo.co.uk. So you can reach e at either of those. And email e, I'm always here and happy o answer any questions you ha e. Brilliant, thank you so much. Thank you.