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Her Majesty Margo Duke

By Carolyn Males

Stepping over the threshold of Her Majesty Margo’s Bluffton studio, I’m hit by a blaze of color, patterns and textures that rocks me back on my heels. There, artfully massed on the long work table sits a tableau of her textile creations that lures me in for a closer look. As we talk, master felter Margo Duke dips into its hills and valleys, pulling out vests, scarves, shawls and purses, along with a sampling of designs she’ll incorporate into garments or wall hangings.

Each piece encompasses hours of work, as she wet- and machine-needles felts, wools and silks and then stitches or hand sculpts them into swirls and flowers. Some even sport shiborri features, vertically embedded Japanese resist-dyed patterned ribbons fashioned into birds and blooms. I run my fingers across all these raised details. Not only are they beautiful, but they are a tactile feast.

Taking note of my delight, Duke says, “It’s my rainbow.”

When I finally pry my gaze from this sensory banquet to check out the rest of her studio, I discover a wall of cubbyholes organized by color, some brimming with yarn, others with fabric she’s recycled from thrift stores. Over by the window a mannequin sports a hand-crafted coat, while another wears an indigo apron made from a deconstructed man’s shirt and adorned with lace, old earrings, embroidery, and found materials. Another wall displays her botanical hangings on leather, imprinted with blossoms and leaves sourced from her garden and on Lowcountry treks.

The artist, elegant with short blonde hair, has dressed in all black, a perfect background for each scarf, poncho or shawl she models for me. What’s more, so many of these pieces are light and airy, perfect for a Southern night.

When I comment on the sumptuousness of it all, she smiles. “I’m all about fancy things. I think in my last life I was a member of the royal court because I always liked more elaborate things.”

“Is that where Her Majesty Margo, the name of your company, comes from?” I ask.

Shooting me a sly grin, she explains that it partially comes from the fact that she spent her first twelve years in Scotland where “I sort of grew up with Prince Charles. But,” she adds, “It was actually that Princess Margaret’s nickname was Margo. So I figured if ‘Her Majesty’ is good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.”

“So,” I venture, “the roots of your craft go back to your childhood in Glasgow.”

“My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was six or seven. It was right after the World War II, when everything was gray and drab, but my mother had a knitting bee and would give us the colorful ends of yarn,” she replies. “I was never athletic, so while some kids would be out there on the school playground standing on their heads, my friend and I would sit in a corner and crochet. We’d make crazy squares and sew them together.”

She points out that textile art runs even deeper in her DNA. Her nana’s family, natives of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, were Harris Tweed weavers. On a visit there in 2003 she and her mother found that those elderly relatives still lived in the croft where they kept their loom, and they still had a flock of sheep roaming the hills.

So how does Duke create her textile magic today?

It begins with felting or interlocking fibers to create a matted material. Duke likes to work with merino wool, which she hand-dyes and combines with silks, cottons and other materials. To felt, she uses different processes — some wet, some dry. To illustrate the latter, she takes me over to her needle felting machine, which resembles a regular sewing machine but instead of a single needle with thread, it has twelve barbed needles (and no thread) that pierce and mesh fibers from one fabric to another.

For wet felting she works soapy water into fine layers of wool, manipulating them until the fibers stay together. “I like to do mostly Nuno felting, which is when you fuse silk with wool using cold water. Once the fibers go through the silk, you can switch to warm water. Now the wool shrinks, but the silk doesn’t, so it creates a shriveled-up, lovely texture.”

Next she offers a sensory lesson. From a bank of plastic drawers she takes out a silk hanky. It should be noted this is not the kind of hanky one would blow one’s nose into, but a layered block of thin silk fibers that have been pulled from a silkworm cocoon. She draws apart the gossamer layers and gives me an end. “Don’t be afraid to stretch it. Silk is very strong,” she says. We pull it between us until it looks like a spider’s web. “You can make it as thin as you want, and you can knit, spin or do whatever you want with it.”

From yet another bin she grabs a fistful of silk carrier rods, hard Tootsie Roll-sized silk tubes that still have sericin or natural gums in them. “I discovered that I can make great flowers from these.” She hands me one, and we both tease their layers apart with our fingers, split them and shape them into petals for her trademark pinwheel roses.

Any and all of these can be used to embellish whatever piece she’s working on. She’ll also add lace, jewelry and buttons from vintage garments she’s picked up at thrift stores. “I’m a recycler,” she declares.

Her pieces evolve organically. That means she doesn’t pre-sketch her design. Instead she starts with a color in mind and then combs through her stash looking for other colors to pair up with it. She’ll also give it a jolt with what she calls “a poison” or unexpected color. Then like a collage artist she continues on, picking from the cornucopia of her collected and created swatches and incorporating them into whatever path (apparel or art piece) the fabric leads her on.

She does her dry work –– machine needle felting, sewing, applique –– in her studio while classical music fills the air. Evenings she sits in front of the television and does hand-stitching. The messier parts of the projects, like wet felting and dying, take place in a tent out in her yard. Meanwhile, her botanical prints take life in a big heat press on the screened porch.

Before I leave, she fans out a selection of those hand-made papers, sometimes water-colored but always imprinted with petals and leaves. While they are perfect for journal covers, we both agree the patterns would make beautiful wallpapers. And they are certainly fit for a royal invitation.

See More:
Look for her work at The Maye River Gallery in Bluffton or at a pop-up show December 4 at the Blair Center for the Arts in Mt. Pleasant.