The strange universe of Annalisa Middleton


Welcome to the weird and fantastic world of Annalisa Middleton
Text by Annalisa Luciana Middleton, on questions from 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

Wake, work in progress 2020 / Canvas size 60 cm x 90 cm © Annalisa Middleton
Gilt threads and wires, pearl purl, bright check, smooth purl, Japanese gold, silk yarns, pongees Chinese silk dupion, wool felt, kid leather, Swarovski crystal.

My name is Annalisa Luciana Middleton. I was born in Leyton, East London, so forget the lovely Italian pronunciation of my name. When was two years old my mother moved myself and my twelve year old sister to Norwich in Norfolk, so further forget any correct pronunciations of my name.

I grew up at the bottom a very steep hill on the edge of the city. Looming at the top sat the, “Black Tower” part of a large remaining section of medieval wall, that once surrounded the old city. Further down were several capacious houses with huge bay windows, set back by rolling front gardens, a former Victorian school, and the only flat space to ride a bike. Then was our row of Georgian terraced social housing that once housed the factory workers from the Colmans estate. My mother used to say our houses were like rabbit hutches on the wonk growing ever wonkier as they slowly creep down the hill. I describe this scene in detail because even now I’m still visited by Arnold Bocklin-esque dreams of this place. It’s always been the anchor for my unconscious and I suppose where my imagination started to expand and grow.

Wake, work in progress 2020 /Canvas size 60 cm x 90 cm © Annalisa Middleton

Ours was a house of Cats, lots of cats. Therein many books, crystals, clutter, unmatched furniture and an untuned piano seldom abused. My erudite mother had her altars, did the Tarot and consulted the I ching. We would chant on Wednesday night in a room full beautiful voices and on occasion celebrate the solstice or equinox with dancing and ritual. We were vegetarian, we ate curries, we were weird.

As I pick these details from the tapestry of my childhood, it sounds idyllic but there was also a lot of controversy, loneliness and bullying that went on. It’s hard for one person to be everything for their family, especially when their health starts to fail. I won’t focus overly on the negative things because there was so much positivity my upbringing taught me. My mother indulged my artistic nature despite barely being able to draw a stick man herself. There was never any question that I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted to in life and that turned out to be an artist.

Morphosis 2018-19 /Framed size 46 cm x 40 cm x 7 cm © Annalisa Middleton
Materials – Gilt threads and wires, pearl purl, bright check, smooth purl, Japanese gold, spangles, silk yarns, silk dupion, wool felt, kid leather, Swarovski crystal.


Though I used to draw incessantly and read anything i could get my hands on. I wouldn’t say that I showed any particular talent at young age, or even in art school. My interests were typically shallow, my love of Salvador Dali is all but gone. With the exception of Cindy Sherman, Rebecca Horn and Picasso, there’s very little that still resonates with me now but that’s all part of the journey. It’s taken me years to cultivate the visual language I want to communicate. Let alone be able to express it in a medium that feels like an extension of myself. Young people are under so much pressure to perform impeccably, know exactly who they are before they’ve lived and then monetize themselves instantly. Many talented people don’t continue because they’re not allowed to fail. We need to recognise there are artists growing everywhere of all ages and some may not even know it. I was once told that succeeding as an artist is about communicating who you are and what you do better than anyone else. If you have a story worth telling it’s never too late to try or try again.

I have something close to a fetishistic reverence for fabric, especially silk, I’ve always loved clothes and the notion of transformation. Naturally I found myself working as a costumier when I finished university. Prangsta costumiers, the sparkling jewel in a run-down Victorian squatted terrace in New Cross was my first home in London.
The pay wasn’t great but the work was hard, late nights spent finishing beautiful garments, lavish promises delivered within a hair’s breadth of the deadline were a common occurrence. Resplendent queens and shimmering showgirls born of hoarded chaos, cluttered treasure troves of scavenged bounty, Deptford markets’ finest cherry pickings placed at our fingertips for resurrection. These discarded trinkets from the local rag trade were reformed and regurgitated, only to be sold straight back to the clientele who’d once spurned them.
I both loved and hated the events, dragging everything precious on which you’ve worked so hard to a field and just hoping things came back in one piece. If I only had a penny, for every one of our inebriated clowns wearing all the gear, in strong need of a reprimand…

Cuddlefish jacket, 2017 / Size 10 garment © Annalisa Middleton
Materials – Cotton satin, RiRi zip, wool ribbing, gilt threads and wires, wirecheck, glass bugle beads, seed beads, pearl purl, bright check, smooth purl, Japanese gold, spangles, silk yarns, silk dupion, wool felt, kid leather, Swarovski crystal.


Cuddlefish jacket, 2017 / Size 10 garment © Annalisa Middleton

I always loved costume, but the work began to feel stagnant. After nearly seven years with Prangsta I chose to pursue my own work as an artist.
I knew I wanted to carry on working with textiles, so I began experimenting with quilting, stencilling and embroidery. I bought a copy of Alison Cooks RSN Goldwork techniques, to help plot out the design for my first embroidered garment. The instructions were very clear and I managed to complete a beautiful golden Octopus using a variety of threads, wires and padding techniques.
At the time I was working towards an exhibition of costume and fashion pieces adorned with my own symbols, exploring garments as tools for ritual or a spell for the wearer. I’d been inspired by the work of Austin Osman Spare, the obscure Southwark artist also acknowledged for his sigil craft and automatic drawings. This commune with the spirit world gives his graphic works an otherworldly nature, surreal characters are far beyond that of Aubrey Beardsley who he is most commonly likened to. The sigil is a mark or unique symbol made with the makers intention to create its hidden meaning.

The desire to imbue fabric with meaning is why I was so drawn to Goldwork. For 2000 years it’s been used in holy vestments and military dress, signifying spiritual potency and distinction. Everything I’ve made from it seems hallowed and somehow special. The nature of the raised work itself fascinated me, building contours and foundations on which to lay these sumptuous materials felt like sculpting as much as embroidery and so much lighter on the fingers than the millinery i was used to. It felt significant learning these skills in a way I’d never felt before in any part of my practice.

Cuddlefish Illustration, 2017 / Original artwork by Lauren Young Smith © Lauren Young Smith
Materials – pen and Ink

I made some beautiful Jackets, one of which came first in the fashion open category, for Hand and Lock embroidery prize in 2016. My favourite was made in a collaboration with the artist Lauren Young Smith. The embroidery detail is a close interpretation of one of her drawings, this making process was a turning point in my practice and taught me so much. I worked out how to layer and collage Goldwork, illustrate with silk, leather, and beading. Some things I’d research online, like the bugle and seed bead technique for the cuttlefish frills. Then some things were pure innovation like pattern cutting the skirt to fold back into shape, with all the smooth purls lining up in the right place. The more I examined the details of her drawing the more cunning I became with the use of my materials, if you look closely the figures are actually wearing tulle stockings under their leather shoes.

For the first time I was left with a piece I was wholly satisfied with, each opening of the box was like seeing it for the first gobsmacking time. It seemed almost too precious to be worn as an item of clothing. Designing raised embroidery for garments is always so restrictive, the thought of composing two dimensional artworks began to appeal to me. Telling stories with figures abstracted from folklore, using these luscious, facetted materials to create scenes as vivid and textured as dreams. There was a lot of work to do before even coming close to achieving the line work, I wanted. I sometimes thought I would always be living in the shadow of my last piece, but I kept practicing. I feel embroidery has taught me draw again, though a lot of it was and still is pretty rudimentary, occasionally I get a concept worth working on.

Cuddlefish jacket, 2017 / Size 10 garment © Annalisa Middleton
Swimming squid, 2019 /Size 6 cm x 8 cm © Annalisa Middleton
Materials, Gilt threads and wires, wool felt, kid leather, Swarovski crystal.

I pored over characters from mythology, Japanese Ukiyo E, the illustrations of Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Ernst Haekel, generating ideas for the retelling of stories. I loved reading an interview with Hayao Miyazaki explaining his masterpiece Ponyo, is his representation of Disney’s The little mermaid, a film he’d always adored. Our objective opinions can be so different, there’s something quite unique in what resonates with us individually, in those details we choose to select as important and ultimately what drives us.

I began to develop, Morphosis as a mixed media artwork. It was planned as a landscape containing a concept that could be part of a science fiction novel. Inspired by my musings on organic technologies, made for the purpose of transporting and collecting information from across the universe, a tool for surveillance and also a seed. With the notion that larger bodies of the cosmos can echo the tiniest cells, its scale can be interpreted as microscopic or as a titan, rising or in decent. I’ve been told it looks Egyptian, viral and God like which I’d consider a success. My plan was always to build a collection around this piece, little snippets from its imagined reality, containing inspiration from extra-terrestrials in fiction and studies of Bismuth crystals.

I was thrilled and to have Morphosis accepted in the Goldsmiths exhibition for London craft week 2020, which is normally mostly jewellery. Of course, it was cancelled but I’m hoping next year the show will be rescheduled as I’d love to see the work in that setting.

Subconsciously, I think I did summon up some humour for the in progress project I’ve been working on over lockdown. First of all, it’s huge 60 cm x 100 cm, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s a large space to fill, so jokes already on me. It’s basically a procession or festival of spirits and in part a funeral march. The two large figures have elements of characters from the Peking Opera and the Noh plays. My phallic ghosts, also coined, ‘the dick parade’, are a playful symbol of fertility carrying a shroud to the afterlife. With everything so dark I thought I’d make a celebration beauty colour and festivities. I looked at folk art and embroidery from the Ukraine and Poland when choosing the bright green and orange to acidify the rest of my colour palette, with patterned rays beaming from a blood red sun. There are 16 beautiful shades of Pongees silk dupion used for the appliqués mostly stitched over felt padding. I’ve used Goldwork techniques like highlights mostly in cutwork and Pearl purl wire with tiny amounts of beading, silk satin stitch and some miniature draping/pattern cutting. Most likely it will be finished in the new year.

Wake, work in progress 2020 /Canvas size 60 cm x 90 cm © Annalisa Middleton
Morphosis 2018-19 /Framed size 46 cm x 40 cm x 7 cm © Annalisa Middleton

When it comes to starting a brand, I now know it won’t happen in the way that I thought. Making my embroidery into a commodity never seems to go well. I hate to repeat myself; the embroidery process can be very boring and takes such a long time. I want to be pushing the boundaries as much as I can when making something new, in case that stagnant feeling becomes all too familiar. It’s frustratingly slow realising my projects. I get cramps in my hands, and I often have more ideas than I can physically deal with but it’s worth the effort. For me it’s not about popularity or making money. Sometimes I feel like these pieces want and need to be made, I’m compelled to keep going because I can. If I make a piece, I want it to be incredible, when I look back, I want to question if it’s really possible that I made it. There’s something that happens when I’m in the process of interpreting one of my drawings. The work seems to flow naturally from me, as if I’m guided by something. I never have the full plan of how things will be at the start of a piece, it just develops step by step and decisions are made as sections come together.

For now, I’m quite happy to hold on to these pieces, perhaps someone will want to buy them someday. Creating a market for work like this seems unrealistic as the product output is so minimal but that’s slow textiles for you. I just want to imagine and make beautiful things.

This isn’t to say branding won’t work for me in some way, at the start of the year I managed to build a partition studio to myself in Bethnal Green with the hope of running a teaching and workshop space. I love engaging with people interested in embroidery, it’s so important to have others around for breaks in the solitude. I hope this avenue will sit in better harmony with the rest of my practice and comfortably facilitate the artwork I want to make. I’m not planning on teaching anything too advanced, or technique based, at least not at first. My workshops will be a space to make a gorgeous project and better understand my creative design process when mixing appliqué beading and Goldwork techniques. Dependent on restrictions I hope to see students by Halloween, but we’ll see. If you’re interested, please send me an email, or wait for announcements on my website and social media.

Wake, work in progress 2020 /Canvas size 60 cm x 90 cm © Annalisa Middleton


Origami crane/workshop process, 2019 © Annalisa Middleton
Materials, cotton yarns, seed beads, goldwork threads and wires