Jan Knibbs – Wearable art
West Country based fashion and textile designer Jan Knibbs creates a variety of wearable art, all of which is embellished with her ‘distinctive signature style of rich hand-worked embroidery, inspired by nature and the changing seasons, incorporating delicate floral designs in appliqué, ribbon embroidery and beadwork, especially Swarovski crystals’. In 2008, she was awarded the Swarovski Prize, her work has been featured in ‘Brides’ magazine and the Western Daily Press magazine and she is currently exhibiting with the Society of Designer Craftsmen at the Mall Galleries in London.
In our interview with Jan, she discusses how her work crosses the boundaries between art, fashion and craft, and how being a hoarder has aided her process.
Knitting, crochet and sewing
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jan Knibbs: I’ve been fascinated by textiles from a very early age and the first creation I can recall was a fabric collage made for a Brownie badge. As a teenager I often made my own clothes, sometimes inspired by my favourite TV programmes such as Black Beauty and The Railway Children and also started collecting and customising vintage clothes before anyone else was really interested in them. I still have a dress made entirely from vintage scarves and even made myself a pair of embroidered canvas boots with plaited rope soles!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Although no-one else in my family was particularly artistic, my Mum had a knitting machine and both she and my Nan taught me the basics of knitting, crochet and sewing. At school, I was good at languages but my creative instincts took priority and I was allowed to follow my dream and attend the local Art College where I spent one year on a Foundation course and another year on a Weave course. I was initially inspired by tapestry weavers such as Archie Brennan and Candace Bahouth. However, I soon realised that I always wanted to embellish everything I made and it became clear that the versatility of embroidery was where my passion lay. I then discovered textile artists including Verina Warren and Lilian Delavoryas who actually lived nearby.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
I was encouraged by my textile teachers to go on to do a degree and as there were only four Colleges in the country offering Embroidery at that time, I chose Loughborough where I studied from 1976-79. I subsequently spent many years in various aspects of textiles including making panels and wallhangings based on poetry which I called “Poembroidery”, working as a Wardrobe Mistress and running my own knitwear business called “Soft Option”, creating whacky mohair picture jumpers in the 1980s. I went on to specialise in embroidered bridal wear in the ’90s when I won the embroidery category in the British Bridal Awards (Jasmine image). We moved to Bath in 2005, where I was hoping to open my own studio/shop. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible as we were unable to sell our house in Herefordshire but I did an MA at Bath Spa University instead so fulfilling another dream.
Re-discovering the passion
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
My chosen medium has always been embroidery and I have built up my knowledge of techniques over the years. At College I was mostly interested in freehand machine embroidery and applique and continued using these techniques for many years, sometimes adding a little beadwork. Whist studying for my MA, I discovered the Hand and Lock Prize for Embroidery and started entering as it provides a huge challenge. Partly because this had to be predominantly hand embroidery I re-discovered my passion for this and now prefer hand embroidery to machine although I would love to purchase an Irish machine which offers so much more than a domestic sewing machine.
I went on to win the Swarovski Prize and have come 2nd twice in the Hand and Lock Prize (Marie Antoinette meets Barbarella and Bluebird images). Last year, as part of my prize, I attended a 3 week workshop at Hand and Lock where I learnt how to do tambour and gold work so now feel I can justly say I specialise in couture embroidery although there are still techniques I need to master.
I think that my strength is that I can combine so many different techniques, both hand and machine and that this is what makes my pieces unique. I am currently enrolled on 4 online courses on Mastered, one taught by Karen Nicol, one by Diana Springall and two by Hand and Lock.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I suppose the category that fits my work best is “wearable art” but I really struggle to know exactly where it fits and I’m not even sure whether I belong in the fashion world, the craft scene or the sphere of contemporary art but rather like the fact that I can cross so many boundaries. However, it does make it very difficult to market my work and to find stockists. For instance, I recently took part in London Fashion Week, I sometimes attend craft fairs and have even done bridal fairs.
In January I am exhibiting at the Mall Galleries in London with the Society of Craftsmen and showing some of my couture pieces as works of art either in frames or domes so hoping to take my work down that route in the future. I suppose, in a way I have come full circle and going back to my roots when I exhibited my panels in galleries. Ultimately I still long for my own atelier where I can both work and sell all my creations so I won’t need to categorise everything. We are moving to Cheltenham next year so hoping to finally fulfil my dream!
Magpie and hoarder
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
At the moment I work from home where I am lucky enough to have an indoor and outside studio so have loads of space for all my bits and pieces. Like most textile artists, I am a complete magpie and hoarder and have been collecting since I was a teenager. I mostly work indoors and often take over the whole house as different processes suit different locations.
Most of my fabric is in the outside studio where I also have a cutting out table so I might start out there then If I’m working on the machine, that’s set up in my inside workroom. Then, when it comes to the hand embellishment and beading I either spread everything out on a large table in the workroom or sometimes prefer to sit in a comfortable chair in the living room where I spread everything around me. My family complain because I tend to leave a trail of pins, needles and bits of thread everywhere I go!
Do you use a sketchbook?
If I’m working towards a competition piece, I always do a sketchbook to submit, to show the progression of ideas but when it’s something for myself or a commission, I’m very lazy about sketchbooks and often just keep all my ideas in my head.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am constantly inspired by nature and the changing seasons and have always loved the Pre-Raphaelites but I’m also inspired by the real couture designers both historic and current, especially the more avant-garde designers such as Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
I have very fond memories of a velvet jacket I made for the Hand and Lock Prize, just after I finished my MA, (which was the first time I came 2nd) (Anomaly image). The overall brief was “Militaria” and the category I chose was “Anomoaly”. I was living in Devon in a small flat at the time with one of my children as they had to attend a very alternative school and I just immersed myself completely into the project, looking at disparate sources of inspiration such as military badges and regalia and the New Romantics, especially Adam and the Ants.
The whole project stretched me as an artist and took me out of my comfort zone but I produced a garment which I am still proud of. It was an added bonus that my old College tutors at Bath Spa were impressed by it and chose to display it at New Designers.
Many different avenues
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I have tried many different avenues and ways of displaying my work but to me, the embroidery always comes first with the form it takes, either as a panel, garment, accessory or piece of statement jewellery, being the vehicle to show this. Ideally, I would like to continue to offer all possibilities and obtain more commissions for whatever the client wants, whether it be an outfit for a special occasion or something amazing to adorn their walls or coffee table. I love the idea of wearable art and as my pieces are quite theatrical, my perfect commission would be to design an outfit for a stage performer such as Paloma Faith or specialise in Embroidery for film and theatre.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Be true to yourself and find your niche.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
Resources, equipment and exhibitions
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I’d hate to live without my Bernina sewing machine but what I really couldn’t live without is a good needle and thread as most of what I do begins and ends with that.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I do occasionally offer workshops at my studio in Herefordshire but hate organising them. If there are a group of at least 3 this can always be arranged. We are turning our house into a big holiday let/vintage party venue so workshops will also be an option with that. All the details will be on my website or one of my Facebook pages.
Where can readers see your work this year?
As I mentioned, I am exhibiting at the SDC exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London 8th-17th January. I am also involved in “Art Couture in Painswick” (a wearable art festival) in July and Cheltenham Fashion Week in December. I am planning a touring exhibition with a sculptor Liz Watts entitled “A Moving Feast”, (venues to be decided) and hoping to open my atelier in Cheltenham in the very near future!
For more information please visit: janknibbs.com
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