Anne Honeyman Interview: Fragility, fluidity & structure
Yorkshire based artist Anne Honeyman’s multi-disciplined technique specialises in free machine embroidery. She also draws upon a wide range of other skills including paper making, felting, hand embroidery, dyeing and metalwork. Themes explored within Anne’s work include the natural environment and man’s impact on it.
In this interview Anne talks about her influences, her working environment and delves deeper into her unique approach to textile art.
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Anne Honeyman: Paintings and drawings never really excited me, but when I first came across world class textile art it was a total revelation. The 62 Group and Embroiderers’ Guild ‘Art of the Stitch’ exhibitions showed me a whole new world with infinite possibilities – texture and depth, transparency and fragility, fluidity and structure – qualities I hadn’t found in other forms of art.
They opened my eyes to the potential of embroidery as an expressive medium with no rules that can’t be broken. This was art I could fully engage with and maybe even create for myself.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work ?
As a child I learned needlecrafts from my mum and granny, both highly skilled and enthusiastic needlewomen. I was fascinated by all types of craft work, but the embroidery I came across at that time didn’t appeal – it was all counted work or transfers, and too ‘pretty’ for my tastes.
At school I chose music over art, and then an academic path to university. I ended up with a BSc in Geography (with geology) and then a PhD in Palaeo-ecology. I spent several years studying pollen grains under a microscope to work out how the vegetation of Wensleydale had changed since the last Ice Age, and how much of that was due to human influence. Although I didn’t continue in that field, later working in IT and university planning, I’ve retained a passion for the natural environment which now informs my textile art.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
I started with books, teaching myself free machine embroidery. But it was a City and Guilds Creative Embroidery course at Craven College, Skipton, that widened my knowledge of design and technique. The four year course allowed me to develop my own style and gave me the confidence to start exhibiting and selling my work.
Push the sewing machine to its limits
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
My main technique is free machine embroidery, most often using dissolvable fabric. Watching the background fabric vanish is magical, it still gives me a thrill! I also use synthetic fabrics, especially non-wovens, which I can make disappear by applying heat.
I push the sewing machine to its limits to get the effects I want, from stitching with wire to embroidering on plastic and paper, and I’ve developed my own methods for making three dimensional art and vessels. I get a real kick from coaxing threads to do unusual things.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Textile art is the term I use, it’s a very inclusive field and I appreciate the freedom that offers. I’m happy to straddle the contentious boundary between art and craft, making both purely decorative and more conceptual wall art as well as textile jewellery and bowls.
The ultimate achievement for me would be to create textile art with both beauty and integrity – environmental issues, presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. It’s also very satisfying when a stitched piece is appreciated, or even bought, by someone who would never have thought they’d like embroidery or textiles.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
Every piece begins with research – reading, gathering source material, considering colour palettes. Then I’ll experiment with stitched samples to see what materials and techniques will work best.
Often I use Paint Shop Pro to try different compositions quickly. I’m a bit obsessive about not wasting my materials, so I want to know that the idea’s going to work before I start stitching.
Some of my favourite recent pieces consist of multiple tiny shapes suspended above the background on wires, so that they cast intriguing shadows that add an extra dimension. I like to create the little motifs and then play with them, scattering them about in search of a happy accident, an arrangement I wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise.
I’m lucky to have a ‘room of my own’ to work in, looking out on a wildlife garden with a pond, mature trees and a towering dry stone wall. On one side of the room my sewing machine is always set up, with hundreds of reels of thread (sorted by colour and matt/shiny) to hand. It’s never idle long enough to go in its case. On the opposite side is a wall crammed with inspiring books, over the table I use for design and preparation. The third wall is devoted to fabrics, hand embroidery threads, and tools. Everything I need is in this room, apart from the kitchen sink – which is vital for dissolving fabric!
The natural world
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes, but it’s purely practical, not a thing of beauty in itself – packed with thumbnail sketches and jotted reminders of ideas. When I’m out and about I’m usually in a hurry so I rely on photos and notes. Later I develop ideas with very minimal drawing and a lot of tiny writing that nobody else can read.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
The natural world is my passion and it’s such a huge subject I can’t imagine ever needing another. Plants, geology, birds, environmental issues – my work celebrates the wonders of nature from microscopic life forms to awe-inspiring glaciers. I especially want to highlight aspects that often go unnoticed, perhaps because of scale or inaccessibility, and help people appreciate the wonders of our planet and its fragility.
In textile art I admire Jan Beaney both for her rich embroidered pieces and for her huge role in developing the use of free machine embroidery and dissolvable fabrics. I also love Barbara Lee Smith‘s abstracted landscapes, the way broad sweeps of moody colours reveal complex layers of patterns and shapes as you approach.
Kurt Jackson is one painter whose work I find utterly compelling. His environmental awareness shines through in powerful canvases that convey the essence of wild places.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
‘Sea Ice’ was made for a group challenge, to transform something from a charity shop. I was really stumped for ages, as I usually work with dissolvable fabrics. But I’d recently visited Antarctica, and finally hit on the idea of smashing some white china to represent sea ice. I trapped the shards between two layers of organza and free-machined closely around them. I don’t think my Bernina has ever forgiven me! It did get a bit scratched but apart from that the only damage was the occasional broken needle. When I’d finished embroidering round the china and added ‘bubbles’ around it, I burned away the organza with a soldering iron so the piece ended up quite open and lacy. I’m really pleased with how it resembles chunks of ice floating on the freezing Southern Ocean.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
It’s evolved from layering things on, to taking nearly everything away! During my City & Guilds course I enjoyed building up textures, combining techniques and experimenting with unconventional materials. Since then I’ve focused more exclusively on machine embroidery and reduced all other elements – today most of my work consists almost entirely of thread and space, even fabric is minimised. I’m thinking about freeing it from the frame next…
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
If there aren’t any suitable courses you can attend, don’t let that stop you – you can find everything you need in books and on the Internet, just get stuck in! Find artists you admire and have a go at your own version, with practise your own individual style will emerge.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
The ones that originally fired me up look a little dated now, I’m afraid. ‘Celebrating the Stitch‘ (Barbara Lee Smith), the ‘Fiberarts Design Books‘, and the Telos ‘Art Textiles of the World’ series… these opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities of textile art.
For embroidery specifically, anything by Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn – ‘Stitch Magic‘ is one that still reveals something new every time I open it. And for a great introduction to free machining, I’d recommend Carol Shinn‘s ‘Freestyle Machine Embroidery‘.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
‘Embroidery’ magazine is essential for keeping up with textile artists, as not everyone has an online presence. But these days Facebook is probably the best resource for leading me to exciting new work from all over the world.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My Bernina sewing machine – it does everything I ask of it, though (understandably) it does sometimes groan a bit. I’m addicted to the needle threader and knee lift, they make it much quicker to change threads and stitch little bits here and there.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
No I don’t at the moment.
Texture and depth
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
There are huge advantages to showing online, as you get access to a global audience. For selling small items it’s ideal, as you can also ensure the work is fully explained and properly packaged. But for art work ultimately there’s no substitute for seeing it in person – the extra dimensions that make textile art stand out, like texture and depth, are lost on a screen.
So there’s still a role for real world galleries and fairs. Personally I prefer ‘contemporary craft’ galleries, where designer-makers are understood and appreciated and my work looks its best with white walls and proper lighting.
I avoid galleries or gift shops which sell imported crafts, and anywhere that uses the term ‘homemade’ rather than ‘handmade’!
Where can readers see your work this year ?
I have a few framed pieces plus brooches and bookmarks in ‘Winter in the Valley’, at the Platform Gallery, Clitheroe, until January.
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