Caren Garfen: Art that inspires

Caren Garfen: Art that inspires

Since graduating in 2007 from the University of Hertfordshire with a First Class (Hons) degree in the Applied Arts, Caren Garfen has become an acclaimed voice in the textile world. Her interest in gender politics and women’s issues inform her intricate hand stitched creations and installations. Caren is not shy of tackling deep and disturbing topics which often provoke profound and moving reactions in the viewer.

‘Art that inspires’ is a new series for, in which established textile practitioners discuss artists and pieces that have been influential in their own creative journey. In this edition Caren discusses five works of art that are close to her heart.

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979

The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979

Artist: Judy Chicago
Year: 1979
Size of piece: 14.6m x 12.8m x 0.9m
Materials used: Mixed media, ceramics, textiles
Notable exhibitions: On permanent display in the Elizabeth A Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, USA

Caren Garfen: I first became aware of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party in 2005 whilst carrying out research relating to 1970s feminist artists for my degree dissertation. The Dinner Party was a groundbreaking work using ‘low’ art forms of embroidery and ceramics in a fine art setting. Chicago brought women’s handiwork and explicit female imagery into her artwork as an artist rather than as a craftsperson.

It was always my ambition to view this piece in its gallery setting, and in September 2015, during a visit to New York, this was finally realised. This incredible installation was beyond all expectation. It was in pristine condition, the quality of the work was exceptional, and its depiction of women’s achievements and their oppression throughout history compelling and current.

I have worked professionally using textiles for the past twenty-four years, and it was only after discovering pieces such as The Dinner Party that I felt that I could class myself, with confidence, as an artist rather than a craftsperson. There are, however, still debates as to whether those using textiles should be regarded as artists, textile artists or craftspeople.

Elizabethan Hygiene Kit

Elizabethan hygiene kit, Deirdre Nelson, 2005

Elizabethan hygiene kit, Deirdre Nelson, 2005

Artist: Deirdre Nelson
Year: 2005
Material used: Found objects, fabric, threads
Notable exhibitions: The Dangers of Sewing and Knitting at The Hub (now the National Centre for Crafts & Design, Sleaford, Lincolnshire, UK)

Deirdre Nelson is a contemporary textile artist whose work employs ‘a variety of techniques and materials fusing traditional textile skills and contemporary re-interpretation.’*

Elizabethan Hygiene Kit is only one of a great many works which combine Deirdre’s research and her instinctive skill of drawing out relevant histories. In this piece the artist links the past, in the form of a historical method of embroidery, to various present-day objects. She notes that ‘blackwork was employed in order to disguise dirty fabrics and bad hygiene of the Elizabethans.’ The viewer smiles, relates to the dental tools, the perfume spray, etc, and can read into the clever meaning behind the work.

I first met Deirdre Nelson at a symposium held at The Knitting & Stitching Show in Harrogate about twelve years ago where she was a guest speaker. I was enthralled by the talk she gave and her humorous and intelligent commentary on social and textile history, and have followed her ever since. In 2006 I was enrolled in a silkscreen printing workshop in Brixton, and by coincidence Deirdre was also attending. It was from this chance meeting that she offered to mentor me whilst I created a new artwork. It was a valuable experience as I have always had a strange sense of humour, and I then felt confident enough to use it in my own artwork.

*Quotes taken from ‘The dangers of sewing and knitting’, Crawford Arts Centre, 2005

Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

Magna Carta (An Embroidery), Cornelia Parker, 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery), Cornelia Parker, 2015

Artist: Cornelia Parker
Year: 2015
Size of piece: 1.5m x 13m
Materials used: Screen-printing, textiles, threads
Notable exhibitions: The British Library, London, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, and more

Cornelia Parker is a sculptor whose practice encompasses a diverse range of media including the found object, textiles, sculpture, installations and performances.

I have chosen Magna Carta (An Embroidery) as an inspiration as it is a textile piece, but in truth I find all of Parker’s work, and her way of working, compelling. She likes ‘to make work that is easily read on the one hand but also poses a question’, and in the case of Magna Carta it is ‘benign as an embroidery but is also quite a political piece.’*

On the surface Magna Carta appears to be merely a facsimile of a page from Wikipedia as it appeared on 15th June 2014 (the 799th anniversary of The Magna Carta), but it is also a hugely intelligent and multi-layered artwork. It was hand stitched by over 200 people, including 33 long-term prisoners incarcerated in 13 different prisons who were ‘embroidering long sentences’, and various prominent people who stitched words or phrases which were relevant to themselves. Others involved in the project were Fine Cell Work, Hand & Lock, The Royal School of Needlework and The Embroiderers’ Guild.

I work mainly from home, in a domestic setting, rather than in a structured studio, but realise that this is the way that I work best. I was therefore delighted to discover that, while Cornelia Parker has a studio, she doesn’t use it very much, and it is more of a storage space. In fact she says that she makes most of her work from the kitchen table!

*Quotes taken from Brilliant Ideas, S1, Ep.2, A Northern Town Production, Bloomberg, 2015


Staircase - V, Do Ho Suh, 2003

Staircase – V, Do Ho Suh, 2003

Artist: Do Ho Suh
Year: 2003
Materials used: Polyester and stainless steel tubes
Notable exhibitions: Psycho Buildings, Haywood Gallery, London, 2008

I have chosen Do Ho Suh’s Staircase-V in particular as an inspiration as it is the one textile piece of his that I have actually viewed, but all of Suh’s textile works are ethereal, diaphanous, beautifully constructed and clever. He has created full-scale reproductions of his childhood home in Korea which ‘meticulously translate hard surfaces, erect volumes and solid materials into soft screens, drooping planes and fragile forms.’* They resonate with the viewer, an exquisitely remodelled kitchen or bathroom, for example, being transformed with sensitivity and skilled stitching.

I had in mind, for a number of years, the idea of creating a full-size kitchen installation made of textiles to house the many artworks that I had previously created which related to women and dieting. I was waiting for the right moment, and was also concerned about the feasibility of building such a large piece. A visit to the Haywood Gallery in London was a turning point. Seeing Do Ho Suh’s exceptional sculpture, Staircase-V, made of fabric and seemingly almost floating, had a great influence on my undertaking a similarly large work.

*Quote taken from Psycho Buildings, Hayward Publishing, London, 2008, p.147

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Rachel Whiteread, 2000

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Rachel Whiteread, 2000

Artist: Rachel Whiteread
Year: 2000
Size of piece: 10m x 7m x 3.8m
Materials used: Steel and concrete
Notable exhibitions: Vienna, Austria

Rachel Whiteread is a sculptor who takes domestic objects to their limit by creating incredible ‘negative spaces’, casting the area underneath chairs and tables, within wardrobes and inside rooms and houses.

I have been aware of Rachel Whiteread’s work for many years and remember seeing her ‘chairs’ at Tate Modern and thinking how inventive they were. When her sculpture ‘House’ (1993), a three-storey building in London’s East End, which was cast in concrete, was demolished because local people protested against it, I thought it was a terribly short-sighted act.

In July 2015, I was on a tour of Europe which included Vienna. Wandering the streets and coming across the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial was, I found, incredibly moving. The Austrian president at the time of the unveiling called the monument ‘a nameless library – a hermetically-sealed room of books to symbolize the large numbers of victims and the untold stories of their lives – an attempt to describe the indescribable.’* An artist who can create a memorial, ‘a brutally stark inverted library set in concrete, a lifeless form with no sympathetic lines, and doors with no handles or hinges’* with such sensitivity, intelligence and boldness, has, in my opinion, to be classed as one of the greats.

*Quotes taken from The, Closed books and stilled lives, Kate Connolly, 26th October 2000

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Tell us about a work of art that inspires you by leaving a comment below.

Thursday 30th, November 2023 / 10:30

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3 comments on “Caren Garfen: Art that inspires”

  1. cas holmes says:

    A few of my inspiring artists pieces here. Loved Staircase V and Cornelia Parker. Judy Chicago I saw way back in the early eighties. Awe inspiring. Have her book on the project to. Thankyou for sharing Caren.

  2. Cate Fitt says:

    At the time Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party was first exhibited I was a young artist struggling to find my medium. I remember how struck I was that the sewing and embroidery that was as natural to me as handwriting could actually become my means of expression. I have since spent my life following the threas that began more than 20,000 years ago.

  3. Linda Roan says:

    I not only saw The Dinner Party (the exhibition was so well attended we were moved along at excruciatingly rapid rate) but the documentary as well. Awe inspiring how many difficulties they overcame and new techniques they developed. Wish it would tour again. Thank you for this article

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