Case study: Transforming your textile art
A rich inspirational seed. A seed that was planted when you were taught to sew. A seed that has persisted… but not quite blossomed?
Maybe your love of textiles is stronger than ever, but creatively you still feel you’ve got a long way to go?
Perhaps you struggle to bring your artistic vision to reality?
And whatever you make falls short of your expectations?
Don’t beat yourself up. You sound a lot like another artist I know…
From rags to rags!
Grimsby. North East England. Some time in the late 1950s.
A little girl is playing with the contents of her mum’s button tin – a selection of buttons in various shapes, sizes and colours removed from old clothes. Clothes that were given to the rag-and-bone man in exchange for a goldfish!
A little while later she sits on her mother’s lap learning to sew those same buttons onto her doll’s clothes.
At junior school she struggles with hand embroidery; being left handed she finds it difficult to follow along with the right handed teacher. She finds herself constantly unpicking stitches because she hasn’t managed to make the correct number per inch.
Some five decades later she goes on to become the Chair of arguably the UK’s most influential group of textile artists, the 62 Group. Her work is described as ‘the most thrilling example of innovation in stitch’ by SAQA, and featured in best-selling art magazines, such as Embroidery and Fiber Art Now. She’s invited to be the featured gallery artist at the UK’s biggest textile art event The Knitting and Stitching Show.
This is the story of how that little girl became textile artist Sue Stone.
At the age of 50, Sue was grieving and lost. The last few years had been tough to say the least.
A nationwide recession had claimed the clothing business she’d poured her heart and soul into for nearly three decades. Old age and diseases had claimed four family members, including her own father Fred. And the bright lights of London had claimed her two sons, who’d left home to seek their fortunes!
With so little positivity in her life, Sue turned to the techniques and materials she’d grown up with for comfort. The techniques and materials she’d immersed herself in as a student of Embroidery in the 1970s. The techniques and materials she hadn’t used creatively in nearly 30 years.
With no job or family to care for it should have been simple and yet Sue struggled to make textile art a priority.
Some days she didn’t go near a needle and thread. Other days she would stitch mindlessly; half her attention on her favourite soap opera Coronation Street and the other half on the embroidery in her hand.
She had no focus. No goal. No direction.
And that would have been fine except for the nagging feeling that her potential was going unfulfilled.
So as a means of motivation, Sue summoned all her courage and decided to make a piece to submit to the Embroiderers’ Guild exhibition Art of the Stitch. The subject would be the island of Lanzarote, a place that held fond memories of family holidays.
But Sue’s process was confused and she struggled to make decisions about the best way to interpret her subject matter through stitch. The result felt generic and under-developed. There was no sign of a defining voice or visual identity.
It was rejected by the selection panel.
What went wrong?
Sue had been relying on the ‘hit and miss’ or ‘I hope it works’ method of creativity.
She had no clear plan in place. No guidelines. No focus.
The turning point
Sue couldn’t face the idea of making another piece. Her confidence was on the floor and she was terrified of another failure.
Instead, she started making quick and easy samples back in front of the TV. To begin with, there was no aim other than to enjoy the feeling of needle and thread in hand without the pressure of making something ‘worthwhile’.
But with each new sample, she became more curious. She started to ask ‘what if?’ and try out different variations on basic stitches through trial and error. The discoveries she made gave her the impetus to practice more and more.
And she started hitting upon new and inventive ways to put her own slant on well-worn techniques.
Little did she know it, but this was the rawest version of a system for experimentation that would transform her textile art.
If you’re interested in developing your own system for experimentation with textiles, check out the free PDF we made to go along with this article. It reveals the three pillars of a system for purposeful experimentation. Click on the big yellow button to download it.
Eventually, in 2003, a few of her samples made their way onto Christmas cards that Sue gave to relatives and close friends, one of whom was her ex-drawing tutor at Grimsby School of Art, Alf Ludlam.
Alf saw potential and gave Sue a set of photographs of the medieval Thornton Abbey as a source of inspiration.
The patterns and textures in the images fascinated Sue and she began exploring ways to emulate them in stitch.
This project galvanised Sue’s process and led to a full series of works on the same theme.
Her visual identity was not very distinct yet, but there were early signs of what would become her signature figurative style. And with each new piece her voice strengthened.
By 2006, Sue had made hundreds of experimental stitched samples on which she had developed the ideas for over 50 completed pieces of textile art.
Without consulting Sue, Alf organised for the collection to be exhibited at the local library.
At the private view, Sue was so terrified that she spent the evening hiding around corners trying to avoid people.
But that exhibition marked the start of her journey to becoming one of the most respected textile artists in the UK. It gave her the courage to submit her work to Art of the Stitch once more; this time two pieces were selected. And it spurred her on to apply for membership of the renowned 62 Group, of which she is now Chair!
So what changed?
That exhibition would never have taken place if Sue hadn’t been so productive in her practice. And she would never have produced so much if she didn’t feel a sense of progression within her work that kept her moving forward with focus. And her work would never have progressed in the way it did without a means of developing ideas in a structured yet playful way.
Over several years, Sue has refined and somewhat formalised her system, but it is still very much rooted in the foundations of purposeful experimentation.
She makes small samples to try out ideas and push the boundaries of her chosen techniques within predefined limitations. She takes what she learns from one sample and develops it in the next, and actively seeks to incorporate these discoveries into her textile art, which means there is always a sense of progression.
Reaping the rewards
Manageable bursts of experimentation have encouraged Sue to build a disciplined creative habit. And having a system to fall back on, even when she doesn’t feel inspired, has helped her overcome procrastination because she has a powerful way of getting started every time.
But most importantly, structured, systematic experimentation has allowed Sue to develop a visual identity that cannot be confused for that of any other artist.
And as her signature figurative style has strengthened, Sue has found herself being asked to exhibit more and more. And to share her expertise and passion with others in workshops the world over.
Just a reminder that, if you think your process could benefit from systemisation, there’s a free PDF to go along with this article. Click the big yellow banner below to download your copy of the ‘Three pillars of a system for purposeful experimentation‘.
Sue’s not alone
Here at TextileArtist.org, we’ve interviewed over 500 successful, award winning artists enjoying the fruits of a career dedicated to what they’re passionate about. And the majority of them have some sort of system for experimentation in place.
Member of the Textile Study Group and director of Distant Stitch, Sian Martin believes that it would be impossible to bring her own unique artistic vision to reality without a creative strategy. She told us:
“My father always said you only do one piece of work in your lifetime – just fine tuning and developing it over the years. Through the constant evolution of my sketchbooks and pin boards, I can now see value in the recurring thought. I start a new piece of work by rebuilding, removing, and adding to my pin board wall with a collection that I feel will trigger the first thinking stages of a new piece of work.”
So if you’ve been relying on the ‘hit and miss’ or ‘I hope it works’ method for creativity, maybe it’s time for a change?