“To be an artist is in large part to follow a path of the path of making and seeking some sort of truthful expression.”
Photos – © Hanny Newton – photos protected by copyright – thank you
Interview – Claire de Pourtalès
The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire
What is your history with embroidery?
Embroidery found me when I was least expecting it. After dropping out of a very academic degree course that just didn’t feel like the right fit, I was in the middle of several gap years, living and working in a community alongside SEN teenagers. It was really rewarding, but very intense work, and embroidery was the perfect balance to a very full, rather hectic life. I found it so grounding to embroider, making time for myself and my thoughts, and it was a real revelation to feel what it means to create something – feeling my ideas come to life through my fingers. It just felt right. A friend who had studied art pointed out that it didn’t just need to be a hobby, I could take my passion further and go and study it. This was a real light bulb moment! It’s hard to imagine now, but back then in 2009 it was not something I had considered, and I actually didn’t know many people who had taken an artistic or creative path yet. I was so excited when I found that the Royal School of Needlework existed, and really set my sights there, moving back to my family in Shropshire and getting the relevant qualifications to be able to be accepted. The degree course was three years old when I started there, and it was a great fit for me at the time – a blend of traditional craft skills balanced with the space to each find our own artistic voice. It was very formative for me.
Why this medium?
I love how intimate and immediate hand stitch is – the tools are beautifully simple – just a fine piece of metal, and your own hands. There is something really grounding about the act of embroidery – the small, repetitious up-and-down action of needle and thread slowly bringing your imagination to reality – it’s something you can’t really rush, and I find it very grounding to have to slow myself to this pace (although I would be lying if I said there weren’t times where I wished I could see my ideas form quicker than they do!). It feels so much like a collaboration between me, my chosen medium, and the metal threads, which themselves have their own innate characteristics. I love the way each metal thread has its own personality – the way each metal catches the light, interacts with different fabrics and the subtle differences in the way metal threads move due to slight variations in tension. All the threads I use are hand spun by the last remaining British metal thread manufacturers, which really adds to the preciousness for me.
Your studies – what impact have they had on you?
My two years at the Royal School of Needlework was the most formative experience for me in terms of my art. I studied on their Foundation Degree programme in Hand Embroidery (which has since become a full BA degree), starting in 2011. The course was a brilliant mix of learning hard technical skills with space and encouragement for your own creative approach. It opened my eyes to the exquisite high end of the craft – traditional goldwork (among other techniques) was really brought to life for us in our technical embroidery classes where we learned so much about becoming highly skilled crafts people who could carry on the rich heritage of embroidery. This was partnered with the more conceptual approach of our degree tutors who really gave us permission to question and push how and why we used stitch, and find our own voices, rather than feeling constrained by doing it ‘right’. It continues to influence me a decade on – it’s really important to me to create work that is well crafted but uses stitch in a way that feels true to me and what I want to say through my work. This balance of tradition and innovation from my time at the RSN is still very important to me.
Can you spend a day without a needle?
The more my business has developed, the more I have had to learn to balance stitch with other areas of my practice, so not every day can be about stitch specifically. But I am someone who always has to keep their fingers moving – if I’m not stitching, I’m probably fiddling with something (actually, while I write this, I have been playing with a square of paper, folding and unfolding it to create different patterns – I find it really helps me focus). I think space for stitching is also important to the creative process – giving my brain and fingers a rest seems to allow ideas to emerge somehow!
How / where do you work? Are you a tidy mouse or a chaotic bird?
My studio is a real haven – at the start of the pandemic I moved to my family home in the country on the Shropshire/Wales border in the UK (actually, the border is the river that runs through our garden!). It has worked so well that I’m still here – I work in a two-room outhouse in our garden. Sometimes I am joined by my partner who is doing a PhD – we are both pretty hard workers and spur each other on! I love working to podcasts and audiobooks to keep me focused and try to make time each day for something that keeps me learning as well as my favourite, more relaxing podcasts. I really enjoy the fact that my art form allows me to multitask, and I can learn something new while I stitch, whether for my own personal growth or to learn more about growing my business. I find it so much easier to work when things are tidy (this is not to say that tidiness is a natural state for me, though – it’s definitely a muscle I have to keep training!).
What is your definition of an Artist?
Someone who feels compelled to make ideas in their mind manifest in the world via whichever medium resonates with them.
What is your creative process?
For me, each piece feels like a steppingstone to the next – there is always more to learn, and each piece teaches me something new about composition, and brings me a step closer to what I’m trying to say with my work. Although drawing allows me to get ideas out my head and start to visualize how a piece will look, it’s only through actually stitching that it becomes clear what works and what doesn’t – so the act of making, of committing to each piece and allowing its successes and failures to influence my next piece is a big part of my process.
How do you incorporate time in your vision, as embroidery is such a time-consuming media?
I do my best work when I forget about how long things take and where I am in the grand scheme of things, and instead just focus on where I am right now, and what the very next stitch or step is. However, I also work with designers, and when I am working on commissions, I have to become a lot more aware of how long things take, and how to commodify my stitch to some extent. I love that working on external projects pushes me to think in ways I wouldn’t with my own work.
You have evolved a lot during the last years – how does that make you feel? Do you know where you are heading, or do you prefer to be surprised?
I am always looking forward – thinking about where I want to be heading, and what I really want to be saying with my art. I suppose this question is a good reminder to enjoy how far I’ve come! I am really proud of what I’ve achieved so far and have so much more I want to achieve. Even though I have some image of the work I want to make in future, I feel like the process of each piece emerging stitch by stitch is such an important part of my practice that I myself evolve stitch by stitch, and I trust that this process will lead me to where I want to be.
Do you use other media?
Drawing is such a great companion to stitch – it allows me to get ideas out of my head so much quicker than I can with embroidery. I can visualize possibilities for line and movement quicker than I can with stitch – it’s one thing to imagine how something may look but seeing it in pen or pencil really helps. There have been times when starting new bodies of work when I have filled sketchbooks, getting what I am trying to say with line out of my head and onto the page. I don’t always do it though, it’s something I dip in and out of. I have never felt so far that a drawing alone says what I want – there’s something about stitch and metal threads that always draws me back to it!
You work with “the line” and the idea of making one thing out of many. Do you feel your recent works are a true expression of your thoughts?
Authenticity is something I think about a lot – there have been times in my life where I’ve felt like I have been performing to some extent a version of what I think I and/or other people expect of me. Truthfully, I feel with my work at the moment it’s a process of figuring out what feels true stitch by stitch, piece by piece, and allowing that to be a process. That’s a big part of being an artist for me – the path of making and seeking some sort of truthful expression.
Why do you teach? Do you work on your art differently because of your teaching experience?
I am so thankful to be able to teach as part of my creative business. Over the years I have developed my own creative approach to goldwork classes, and I love that teaching allows me to share with others the empowerment I feel from giving myself permission to make my own rules, and to find techniques that work for each individual. Teaching really helps me to keep questioning and pushing – this year I have started teaching my own workshops via my website, and coming up with exercises, ways of breaking down technique and putting myself in the shoes of someone encountering goldwork for the first time have been really interesting. It’s all such a great reminder for me to break things down, and always question how and why I use goldwork.
Any artists you admire, embroidery accounts you’d like to share?
Clémentine Brandibas really excites me – her beautiful, delicate use of stitch and feathers to capture movement is really inspiring!
Simone Pheulpin’s incredible sculptures created from intricate folds of fabric really blew me away when I first discovered them. I love the way she really pushes one technique to create something beautiful and really unique. (…the fact the above are both French is pure coincidence – I just happen to think they are both amazing! )