Dee Thomas: Capturing a fleeting moment in time
It was with reluctance that Dee Thomas, who had always professed to disliking stitch, accompanied a friend to a meeting of the Embroiderer’s Guild. Up until then, Dee had only been familiar with traditional embroidery and it was a wonderful surprise to discover at this meeting that there was such a thing as modern embroidery. Dee was hooked immediately. At last she had found an outlet for her love of textures and colour.
Dee returned to college to take the HE diploma in Stitched Textiles and became a licentiate of the Society of Designer Craftsmen.
In this interview Dee tells us how, in her work, she uses mark making, colour and texture to capture fleeting moments in time, reflecting a sense of place and emotion.
I was always the student with twisted, knotted threads and being told to unpick stitches.
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by stitch?
Dee Thomas: I was always interested in design and the feel of fabrics. As a teenager I would make my own clothes, as it was the only way to achieve the style I wanted in my desired fabric. I didn’t use a pattern and the results, although wearable, were often badly put together.
I hated embroidery at school, I was always the student with twisted, knotted threads and being told to unpick stitches. It was a great surprise to me to discover modern embroidery and realize that I didn’t have to follow the rules! However, I do believe that you need to know how a stitch is formed, before adapting it to make your own shape.
As soon as I understood that stitch was just a form of mark making and that, unlike paint, I could mix colours without producing mud, I was addicted.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Unlike many textile artists, I do not come from a background where sewing and making was a family occupation. I was a solitary child that loved drawing and reading. Occasionally my grandmother would take me to galleries in London, where I would collect postcards and make drawings; ‘The Little Dancer’ by Degas was a favourite.
A pivotal moment was seeing a shop window full of sarees in brilliant colours, glittering jewellery and incense burners. This was the beginning of an enduring fascination with Indian culture. It was thirty years before I travelled to India and it did not disappoint.
My travel to India coincided with studying City and Guilds Embroidery. The influence is very evident in the bright colours of the images I made for my final show. On leaving college I had the opportunity to exhibit in the graduate gallery at the Knitting and Stitching show, which was a great boost in enabling me to think professionally about my work.
After art school I had worked as a studio artist in the audio visual industry, a career that has left me with an inclination to be very literal in interpreting themes, and I am constantly trying to overcome this trait.
At last I had found an outlet where my love of textures and colour was an advantage
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I originally decided to study Fashion after my pre-dip year at art school, not a sensible choice for someone who professed to disliking stitch! I did learn a great deal in that first year, but really only enjoyed the textile design days, so swapped courses and colleges and studied printed surface design at Chelsea. Many years later, a friend tried to entice me to an Embroiderers’ Guild meeting, something I was reluctant to do as my knowledge of embroidery was limited to rather traditional work (I can now appreciate this work!). The speaker at this first meeting was Jean Littlejohn; such a wonderful introduction to modern embroidery, I was hooked immediately. Encouraged by the Guild, I enrolled on a City and Guilds course at Windsor, where Jean Littlejohn and Jan Beaney were teaching, I never looked back; at last I had found an outlet where my love of textures and colour was an advantage. I later returned to college to take the HE diploma in stitched textiles, an inspiring course that covered drawing and art history as well as stitch. When I left, I became a licentiate of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and also exhibited with a group of fellow students.
I never feel restricted about using any particular medium or technique
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques. How do you use these techniques in conjunction with fabric stitching?
Each piece is informed by visual research, which then evolves through a process of fragmentation and reconstruction. Printing, patching and layering of fabrics forms a background for stitch; this style of work reflects my interest in collage. I aim to use materials that are appropriate to my theme. For example, in aiming to represent the sun glinting off the sea, I have used silk which I distressed, so the light would bounce off the material in a similar manner. I like the emotional draw of hand stitching and am attracted to imperfections, the darned and mended, which adds a human touch to an item. Because I have an art background rather than embroidery, I never feel restricted about using any particular medium or technique and will willingly combine paint and stitch or whatever medium seems appropriate to the piece.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Perhaps it is decorative, a damming term in the art world, but I would rather people liked it for what they see and what they think about it, rather than as a concept that needs explaining.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I think of my sketchbook as a continuation of the thought process. It contains notes, photographs and any items I have gathered, linked to my theme. Fabric swatches and stitch samples are also kept with the relevant drawings.
When working with an exhibiting group, there is often a set theme. I will research the subject to find an area that interests me and then, using the information collected in my sketch book, I will make sample pieces. I often work on more than one piece at the same time and never feel that my work is too precious to cut into, rearrange or print over. I like a degree of randomness to introduce a feeling of vibrancy to the work.
What environment do you like to work in?
I’m lucky enough to have a room in the house that is converted into my workroom, although I do spill out into the other rooms. It looks messy, but I usually know where to find things. I colour code my threads and fabrics rather than sorting by material type, so I have large containers of blue/green, red/purple, yellow/orange and one that has patterned fabrics. I also have a box of white fabrics and one of various fibres. The other half of the room is for my large collection of sketchbooks and art materials.
Those who introduced me to embroidery and gave me encouragement have been the greatest influence
What currently inspires you?
Colour, either subtle or bright, always excites me. I care very much about finding the desired shade or tone. My current work is an intuitive response to landscape, either the subtle hues of the coastline or the dark and coppery colours found in the woodland near my home. I am also drawn to detail and worn surfaces; I have a large collection of photographs showing imperfections in surfaces, such as areas of rust on metal.
There are many textile artists who I admire and many painters whose work thrills me, such as Kurt Jackson and John Piper. But those who introduced me to embroidery and gave me encouragement have been the greatest influence, Jan Beaney, Jean Littlejohn, Joan Archer and Louise Baldwin.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has become smaller, due to the fact that I now have a smaller area in which to work and I do more hand stitching. I have also begun to manipulate my pieces and venture into three-dimensional. It is possible that I might continue working in this way. I have just finished making a rag book in which I distressed and blended a diverse selection of fabrics.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Draw! To research your theme, drawing is really the only way to learn about your subject and you can be surprised by the shapes and patterns that can emerge when studying details.
Can you recommend three or four books for textile artists?
I was recently given the book ‘Punk’ by Japanese artist Junko Oki, who has long been one of my favourite embroiderers. Not only is each page illustrated with her stitching, the paper and binding of the book are a delight to handle.
Another book for those interested in hand stitch is ‘Slow Stitch’ by Claire Wellesley-Smith; again it is beautifully illustrated.
The Diana Springall book ‘Inspired to Stitch’ is a wonderful collection showing the work of contemporary textile artists. It is illustrated with sketchbook pages, biographies and many photographs.
I would also encourage those interested to collect exhibition brochures.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I enjoy visiting museums and galleries. I also research on the internet. Pinterest is fascinating, but I find it can be a distraction.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I love my embellisher, a Babylock 7 needle machine. I use it to create collaged backgrounds by blending fabrics and I can introduce subtle hints of colour or add texture.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I no longer run workshops.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I exhibit with the group Prism and occasionally submit work to galleries or for competitions.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I am currently exhibiting at the New Ashgate Gallery, Farnham, Surrey (21 November 2015 to 9 January 2016) as part of their Contemporary Textiles show.
For more information about Dee please visit her website www.deethomas.co.uk
Let us know what your favourite aspect of Dee’s work is by leaving a comment below!