Anne Biss interview: Straightforward stitching
Anne Biss is an embroiderer, maker and designer who seeks inspiration from the Earth seen from a geographer’s viewpoint; this has taken many different forms in Anne’s work but she often uses ideas taken from maps. The narrative journey of people in a place and time gives her embroidered pieces another, deeper dimension, which is what we found so interesting when we saw Anne’s work at an exhibition by The Society of Designer Craftsmen.
Here Anne tells us how her love of hand embroidery began and why she doesn’t necessarily consider herself to be a textile artist per se.
Working with fabrics was second nature
What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
I have always enjoyed making things. I was encouraged to make by my grandfather and uncle. They made mostly models out of wood or put together Airfix kits. My Uncle suffered from TB as a young man and could not work and my Grandfather encouraged him to fill his time with these sorts of activities.
From wood and plastic it is easy to go to fabric and stitch. This was the Fifties remember and nothing was thrown away. My Mother made clothes for me and most clothes were mended and often reworked. Just using your hands and making became natural.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
As I said I spent a lot of my school holidays with my Uncle and Grandfather, just making things. Then when I was a little older I would go to work with my Grandmother who worked in the stitching and repair room at Sketchley the dry cleaning company. She repaired the sequin patterns on evening dresses. The sequins would sometimes melt in the cleaning process. My Grandmother would take me into Central London where there were many tiny outlets supplying items to the fashion trade. The journey was to find sequins of exactly the same colour and size so that she could replicate the patterns and designs on the dresses.
My mother had been trained as a dressmaker during the war, and had worked for a couture house for a short time. I then went on to take GCE A Level Dressmaking at school. I’m not sure that such a course exists any more. I doubt it.
I suppose I was brought up amongst fabric and so using it was second nature to me.
An embroiderer…not an artist
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I am not sure that I would call myself an artist but always an embroiderer! But having trained as a teacher I met a colleague who was also interested in embroidery. We both joined the London branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild. From there a fascination started. I was hooked. I took City and Guilds Embroidery Part 1 and 2, over a number of years and whilst I worked full time at teaching. I then taught City and Guilds for a few years. School teaching however became more demanding on ones time with the onset of the National Curriculum. I had little or no time for stitching. But the pull must have been strong because I stumbled across the Embroidered Textiles degree course run by Opus School of Textile Arts (now sadly closed). I left my full time job, took up supply teaching for a while and worked on the degree, part time, over six years. I finally finished in 2005.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Having studied City and Guilds when the course demanded that you try many different techniques and having completed the degree course where one was encouraged to stretch ideas, designs and imagination, I decided by the end that despite everything I wanted to make things by hand. In many ways I suppose I had come back to my roots of making things.
So I use mostly straightforward stitches – running stitch, split stitch, french knots, and I hand embroider. I am afraid that despite taking dressmaking at A Level my machine skills are fairly basic but this is mainly because machines and I are not good together.
Mapping out a new piece
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I would basically say that my work is pretty straightforward. I take my inspiration from something I love – maps and geography. Maps have been interpreted in stitch for hundreds of years. People know what they are and seem fascinated by them. My work seems to attract a lot of men, which is unusual for embroidery, but they like the maps. They know what they are and they seem to appreciate the skill that goes into making them.
I usually make up my own maps, perhaps having a starting point form somewhere I have been but once I start stitching they seem to take on a life of their own. If however, people want to place a commission for a particular place I am happy to do that, although of course it can never be absolutley accurate, but will give a ‘flavour’ of the place.
I am not sure that I would call my work contemporary at all. I use hand embroidery, I use an old idea and I use my skill.
Tell use a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
If I am working on a piece for an exhibition I will think about a place I have visited or a place which has a family connection. I will then usually buy either an OS Map or find a street atlas showing the place. I will study these for quite some time and ‘read’ the map like a book. I think about the people who have lived there in the past, about the houses and roads, place names etc. I just get a feeling for the place. Then I will decide on the size I will work to and how the piece will be presented i.e. free hanging, stretched on a frame etc.
The first thing I do will be to stitch the grid lines if there are any. I do use a machine for this. Then I will start with natural features on the map – rivers, contour lines etc. I will then progress to roads and paths but it is then that the map can take over itself and tells me where the houses are, the railways, the forests etc. One can get lost in the map as one works.
I am usually listening to audio books or music when I stitch and try to do most of it in my workroom at home. Being hand-stitch it is usually easy to work on a smallish frame even though the work may be large.
Elegance, tailoring, beautiful fabrics and embroidery
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Lots of things inspire me. It might be something I see in the garden or on television. I am unable to travel far or see many exhibitions at the moment due to being a carer for my elderly father, but I try to keep up with ideas in magazines and articles on the internet.
I think that I admire the artisans more than any one artist. I admire the skill and precision of their work. Perhaps I admire the work of the couturier most of all if you can call them artists. The beautiful clothes seen on the catwalk. I love to see elegance combined with tailoring, beautiful fabrics and embroidery of course. This harks back to being brought up on the films of Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers (my mother’s favourites). Part of my degree was looking at fashion and I love the work of McQueen, Westwood and Gaultier. However, these are the artists and behind them are the artisans putting their ideas into practice.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Probably the first thing I made in dress making class at secondary school. Like most girls of my era we had to make a cookery apron with our names embroidered on the front. We were not allowed to progress on to anything else until this was complete. It has to have various techniques in it, for example french seams, and it had to be made very precisely.
I was fond of it because I was ever thankful that I had a short name and that I was reasonably good at making and had a knack for hand embroidery. My apron was completed and I had moved onto a nightdress and a skirt, whilst some of my classmates were still unpicking their very long names, for about the fifth time! A strange sense of fondness perhaps but it has always stuck in my mind. I kept that apron for years afterwards. Perhaps as a lesson.
Developing an idea fully
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I think that since I took the degree course my work has become more focused. I used to try this and that technique, but now I know what I enjoy doing and will stick to those techniques.
I am also happy to work at more than one idea in a theme rather than constantly jump about. I will often not put a piece of work into an exhibition if I feel that I can not work to the title. This is usually because I do not have the time to develop my ideas as fully as I would like. Hand stitch takes a long time, and my work is usually very detailed. I like to develop an idea fully and know that I can execute the work to a very high standard. I am unhappy with a piece of work if I feel it is not as good as I can make it.
I hope to continue to make my work as professional as I can. I am willing to look at any ideas that I think will work for me and the techniques I use. At the moment I am looking a lot at lettering and text. I want to see if I can develop some ideas using hand stitch, which other people might like to look at and own for themselves. I enjoy taking commissions. People always throw you a challenge.
Do you give talks and workshops?
Unfortunately I have had to stop these because of my caring duties. Maybe in the future I will start again.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I am lucky enough to be long to some long established groups. The Prism group, which exhibits each year at the Mall Galleries in London. The Society of Designer Craftsmen, with whom I have exhibited both in Central London and locally. I like this group because of the variety of disciplines ones work is displayed alongside. It gives all of the work a context I feel.
I also belong to a local group Phoenix Contemporary Textiles, who exhibit about every two years. We work to a theme but everyone really works independently.
I really enjoy having a stand with my work on and for that reason I sometimes take part at Landmark Textile Fair in Teddington. I like the feedback I get from visitors and to see their reaction to my work. Once more at the moment I am restricted as to how far I can travel but this may change in the future.
You can find out more about Anne and her work at www.annebiss.co.uk.