If you don’t know Sally Muir by name, we are guessing you have seen her work.
First making waves when Princess Diana wore her iconic black sheep sweater, the award-winning creative has since made her mark in the world of fashion and art, including featuring our beloved four-legged friend. Her dog portraits are regularly featured in galleries and she has created dishes, pillows, wallpaper, and tea towels for Anthropologie.
In addition to her contributions as an artist, Muir is also the author of A Dog A Day, Old Dogs, among several knitwear books including Knit Your Own Dog: Easy-to-Follow Patterns for 25 Pedigree Pooches, Best in Show: Knit Your Own Cat and Pet Projects: The Animal Knits Bible.
We caught up with Muir to talk about that Princess Diana moment, her move into the dog world, and what is next.
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How a Sweater Became Royally Iconic
Muir’s unbounded creativity led to her co-founding a knitwear brand alongside friend and business partner Joanna Osborne named Warm & Wonderful.
In 1981, just two years after starting their business, Princess Diana (then Lady Diana Spencer) was photographed sporting a Muir & Osborne black sheep jumper in red.
“We didn’t know anything about it until we saw a photograph of Lady Diana wearing it at a polo match,” Muir tells This Dog’s Life. “Then, there was no social media or anything. We just sort of went, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ We didn’t really know how to capitalize on it. We did a catalog as fast as we could; we did kind of [capitalize on it], but still, most people didn’t really know it was ours for ages.”
Muir and Osborne made the sweaters for years, selling them all over the world. But after some time, they stopped making them. That is, until they were asked to bring back their famous black sheep design.
Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers asked Muir and Osborne if they would be interested in a collaboration on both the design and publicity surrounding its revival. The black sheep design made its reappearance in fall 2020.
Not only did it return in its original sweater form, but it also appeared on belts, pajamas, hats, vests, and tote bags. When Muir and Osborne saw everything for the first time, she says it was very exciting.
“With it coming back now, it seems to be much bigger than it was the first time,” she says.
In addition to the famous design, Muir and Osborne also have a line of dogs on sweaters featuring a variety of breeds, knitted animals, and other apparel.
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From Sheep Sweaters to a Force in the Dog Art World
After years of being in the knitwear business, Muir decided to also attend Bath School of Art and Design in the late ‘90s as a mature student and mother.
“I always wanted to go [to art school]. In fact, I applied for the same art school when I was 17 and got rejected,” Muir says. “So, I finally got to that art school because I happened to be living here.”
Her time there began with her painting her children, but despite doing it over and over again, it didn’t go well.
Her final piece for school was an entire wall of portraits that captured various moments in her children’s childhood, including pieces where their dogs would make an appearance.
“Dogs kind of got included occasionally, and then I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’ And actually, I think one of my tutors said, ‘Yeah, you know that portrait’s quite good, but the dog is really good.’”
After doing a few dog portraits and falling in love with it, she then shifted her focus from two-legged beings to four-legged beings, including her two muses Lily and Peggy.
“You get a huge amount of variety with dogs. I love fur. I like painting a hairy dog more than a smooth dog in lots of ways. There’s lots of scope for doing different things with dogs,” Muir says. “I felt much more constrained by humans. I used to have real trouble getting across your cheeks with humans; it seemed to be a lot of just skin. With a dog, everything is sort of broken up.”
A Dog A Day
In 2013, Muir began a personal passion project on Facebook where she portrayed dogs of all breeds, shapes, and sizes in an artistic fashion and shared it to her page for 365 days.
Her Facebook page became filled with darling dogs in the form of sketches, lithographs, prints, oil paintings, and charcoal paintings — and filled with unending support from dog lovers across the world.
The project became so popular that it was turned into a book by the same name in 2017. Along with each portrait was a brief anecdote that told tales of the dogs’ lovable, unique personalities.
“To have all my work in one book is just wonderful. That’s what I thought when they put A Dog A Day together. They’ve done it so beautifully, too. I love the way it’s been produced,” Muir says. “And then they said, ‘Do you want to do another one?’”
Inspired by Muir’s long-time canine companion, Lily, the book Old Dogs celebrates senior dogs and the sweet, precious moments we share with them.
“Once you’ve got your own, you become very interested in old dogs.”
Published in 2021, Old Dogs focuses on the traits that make each senior dog who they are.
“Lots of people sent me pictures of their old dogs. A Dog A Day, I did as a project for myself. I just did a different dog every day and put it on Facebook,” Muir says. “But Old Dogs was more of a collaborative thing — people sending me stories about their dogs, very touching stories.”
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Muir’s Creative Approach
Muir has a rigid system in her day-to-day life. She spends every morning doing admin work or running errands. Then from the afternoon until the evening, she works on her art and takes Zoom calls, with Lily and Peggy always nearby.
“I sort of come in and out on weekends, but I don’t get up in the middle of the night and paint or anything,” she says with a laugh.
While Muir has every day planned out, she embraces the fact that she doesn’t “tend to have much of a plan” when it comes to her art.
Surely, this approach is what makes Muir’s unmistakable style. The amount of time it takes Muir to capture a dog’s personality and put it on paper varies. Some work out quickly. But if a portrait isn’t connecting, she’s not afraid to do several or rework it so she can get the “right” one.
“It’s very easy to overwork things. I think it’s better to stop it too early, and then you can kind of fiddle about with it,” Muir says. “Often, the things that work really well are the ones that have got much less on them.”
What’s Next for Muir
For the past few years, Muir has done charitable work with Galgos Del Sol, a Spain-based non-profit organization that rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes Spanish sighthounds known as galgos and podencos. Every year, tens of thousands of galgos and podencos are used for the hunting season then abandoned or killed once the season is over. Galgos Del Sol founder, Tina Solera, and Muir have worked together through collaborations to raise awareness.
Considering her involvement in the charity and the reception to A Dog A Day and Old Dogs, Muir has decided to celebrate rescue dogs in her next book. “There are some amazing dogs, and there’s some amazing stories that come with the dogs, too,” she says. “I’m hoping to have a bit more writing in this one with the stories that people have sent in.”
She expects the book to be released in spring 2023. “I’m very excited,” Muir says. “I can’t believe there’s going to be another one.”
In the meantime, Muir is keeping busy with a few exhibitions. One in particular is for The Dog Show, which will take place in May and is hosted by her business partner, Osborne, who also creates dog-centric art.
As Muir reflects on her journey, she recalls being known for the now famous sheep jumper and how it’s “come back with an absolute vengeance” in the fashion world. But when it comes to what she wants to be known for, she says it’s her paintings she’s done over the years.
With all that she’s accomplished, the life Muir lives now is not one she ever expected to have.
“I worked in publishing, and I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like working for somebody else. All I ever wanted was to be self-employed. It didn’t really matter what I did, but I didn’t want to work for anybody else. I was really not happy working for somebody else … but I didn’t realize that this is what I’d be doing,” Muir says with Lily, Peggy and her dog portraits in the background.