Elisabeth Rutt: Patterns of land & sky

<i>Elisabeth Rutt:</i> Patterns of land & sky

As artists we don’t have to look far for inspiration. Nature in all its resplendent glory – and never far from our door – offers us a wealth of inspiration.

When Elisabeth Rutt goes outdoors, she looks up, around and down, finding all the texture, colour and form she needs to create a unique piece of art. Influenced by the landscape, the ever changing skies and weather, Elisabeth selects from her favourite textile techniques to interpret the shapes and linear patterns she sees.

She applies her individual stamp by developing her own fabrics – especially by dry felting with an embellisher – or by changing fabrics she already has. Elisabeth further manipulates her materials using weaving, melting, shaping, dyeing, printing and painting, before finishing with simple hand stitching, darning and beading. But her skill lies in her command of her materials – and it’s gratifying to see just how well they obey.

Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Chalk, 2023. 32cm x 47cm (12½" x 18½"). Dry felting, screenprint, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, perlé cotton threads. Photo: Peter Rutt.
Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Chalk, 2023. 32cm x 47cm (12½” x 18½”). Dry felting, screenprint, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, perlé cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Chalk (detail), 2023. 32cm x 47cm (12½" x 18½"). Dry felting, screenprint, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, perlé cotton threads. Photo: Peter Rutt.
Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Chalk (detail), 2023. 32cm x 47cm (12½” x 18½”). Dry felting, screenprint, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, perlé cotton threads.

Fine art perspective

Elisabeth Rutt: I am an artist working with textiles, and my work comes from somewhere between my art school training and my lifelong love of textiles and stitch. I approach my work from a fine art perspective rather than being led by a technique.

As long as I can remember the ‘feel’ of cloth has always been important to me. I’ve never stopped loving that sensation and using it for my creative purposes.

Elisabeth Rutt, Textile artist

The driving forces in my work are form, colour and excellence of design, what I can make them do, and what they will do for me in return. I’ve attended many courses over the years to gather a repertoire of textile techniques, but have come to rest on hand stitching. I like to keep it simple, not doing anything too technically difficult or overtly impressive. I want the work and what I want it to say – not the technique – to be predominant. My stitches are drawn marks that record what I’ve observed or am thinking about, and work is usually, but not always, abstract. 

I move between design work and stitching throughout the development of a project, rather than finishing design work and moving on to fabric and thread. This helps me to keep a project alive and I can stay open to new ideas for as long as I want to keep the topic active.

Elisabeth Rutt at her desk. Photo: Peter Rutt
Elisabeth Rutt at her desk

Lifelong love of art

When I was asked as a child ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’, my response was always ‘I am going to be an artist’, which was usually shrugged off as childish fantasy.

My father was a professional artist and illustrator, so I was fortunate to see what this meant as a way of life and I had few illusions. The elderly lady who lived next door taught me to sew from a very early age and I grew up drawing, painting and sewing every minute I could, doing each with equal importance and obsession.

After school, and taking as many art and textile related exams the curriculum would allow, I went on to complete a Bachelor of Humanities honours degree in Art and Dance at Goldsmiths College, University of London. During this study, I continued stitching for relaxation and I also sneaked stitch into my fine art course work as often as I could.

While my two sons were young, I studied for a City and Guilds Embroidery parts 1 and 2. The old syllabus had proper exams in technique, history and a three hour timed design paper… good times! I achieved distinction and highly commended in the medal of excellence scheme. 

I was also a member of the Embroiderers’ Guild and was able to do every workshop they held on Saturdays while my husband babysat. The Guild gave me the opportunity to learn from some of the most renowned textile artists and tutors at the time, for which I’ll always be grateful.

Since then I’ve worked as an interior designer, as a mentor for a textiles masterclass in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and as a manager for Smiths Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds.

My sons are now grown men and I work freelance from my studio at home. I make work for exhibitions, commissions and I run a tutor textile and design workshop at West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds, and others by invitation.

Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Green Hollow, 2018. 41cm x 41cm (16" x 16"). Dry felting, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, perlé cotton threads, vintage OS map.
Elisabeth Rutt, Land Marks, Green Hollow, 2018. 41cm x 41cm (16″ x 16″). Dry felting, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, perlé cotton threads, vintage OS map.
Elisabeth Rutt, Desire Lines (detail), 2017. 31cm x 42cm (12" x 16"). Hand stitching. Cotton threads, 1950s vintage Ordnance Survey map.
Elisabeth Rutt, Desire Lines (detail), 2017. 31cm x 42cm (12″ x 16″). Hand stitching. Cotton threads, 1950s vintage Ordnance Survey map.

Inspiration all around

For the last few years I’ve worked with landscape, skies, patterns and the weather. They are all around me and I can’t escape them!

I’ve been focusing particularly on the patterns of our British landscape, including those of the underlying chalk and how it’s influenced the landscapes that I’ve lived in all my life. The white eroded patterns and lines of pathways, the tractor tracks, ancient buildings and earthworks, and the meanderings of chalk streams across the land has led me to make work about geology, landforms, and the many layers of underlying patterns in the land. I’ve used hand stitch and surface darning on my own dry felted fabrics, with screen printing and a small number of old paper maps to create my own ‘mind’s eye’ textile landscapes.

I’ve moved my work on by looking up at the broad East Anglian skies, making work about the sky, our weather and the colour palettes I see in different weather phenomena. I have called this body of work the Weather series. Constructed ground fabrics and hand darning still feature, but my design emphasis has developed. In this work I’ve been interested in observing, and recording in darned swatches, the colour schemes of different weather phenomena.

Continuing my interest in the weather I’ve also been working intermittently with snow as a starting point for new work. I’ve used beading, with my usual hand stitching, felting, and darning, in this continuing project.

I work within a body of work for a long time and am very concerned about making work in series. I consciously try to take an element from one series of work into the next. This gives me continuity whilst progressing and developing myself, my skills and my work.

Elisabeth Rutt, Grey Day (Weather series), 2022. 44cm x 44cm (17½" x 17½"). Dry felting, surface darning. Mixed fibres, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Grey Day (Weather series), 2022. 44cm x 44cm (17½” x 17½”). Dry felting, surface darning. Mixed fibres, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Promise (Weather series), 2023. 44cm x 44cm (17½" x 17½"). Dry felting, surface darning. Mixed fibres, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Promise (Weather series), 2023. 44cm x 44cm (17½” x 17½”). Dry felting, surface darning. Mixed fibres, cotton threads.

Sketching preparation

The ideas and inspirations that inform my work are very varied. Once I have an idea, I research my subject thoroughly by reading, observing, making visits and using sketchbooks. I may work from detailed drawings and research, or use a piece of particular fabric or thread as an initial starting point. 

I try to draw in ways that will easily move into fabric and thread, often stitching directly into the paper pages alongside other media. Sometimes I stitch into a drawing or sketch, but I also stitch into blank sketchbook pages. When I stitch in this way, I have the same thought process as when I draw with pencil or pens.

Having sampled with drawing media and threads in a sketchbook I move to my fabric, which I’ve usually ‘made’ or changed in some way to make it truly my own before adding stitches.

Elisabeth Rutt, snow sketchbook and stitch sample, 2021. 21cm x 30cm (8" x 12"). Pen drawing, stitching samples on dry felted fabric. Paper, art pens, stitch on original felt.
Elisabeth Rutt, snow sketchbook and stitch sample, 2021. 21cm x 30cm (8″ x 12″). Pen drawing, stitching samples on dry felted fabric. Paper, art pens, stitch on original felt.
Elisabeth Rutt, snow sketch with stitch, 2021. 21cm x 30cm (8" x 12"). Pen drawing and stitch. Paper, art pens, stitch.
Elisabeth Rutt, snow sketch with stitch, 2021. 21cm x 30cm (8″ x 12″). Pen drawing and stitch. Paper, art pens, stitch.

Manipulating materials

I use very ordinary materials, always feeling a bit sceptical about the latest and newest big thing. I use a variety of fabrics, usually in small pieces that I combine to make a larger piece of cloth to work on.

I’m led by what I see, and I allow the work to grow and gain the right visual vocabulary.

Elisabeth Rutt, Textile artist

I work with materials that I’ve woven, melted, shaped, dyed, printed or painted. I rarely use commercial fabrics and am increasingly using my embellisher to make my own original dry felt, to use as my ground fabric for hand stitching; it’s rare that I use my sewing machine for embroidery. I enjoy chance and asymmetry, with a nod to geometry. The more I sew the more I want to simplify the construction of the stitches I use, although areas are often densely stitched.

My favourite thread is cotton perlé, numbers 8 and 12, but I do use other similar threads from my long years of collecting materials. Most have long lost their labels and so I’m no longer sure what they are. Some fabrics and threads are ones I’ve previously dyed myself.

I’ve tried very hard, over the last 10 years or so, to not buy anything new. Like most people who sew, I have an enormous stash of fabrics, threads, beads and haberdashery. I like to use second-hand garment fabrics whenever I can.

Meeting time challenges

My biggest challenge has been finding the time to make work. Anyone who hand stitches knows the enormous amount of time it takes. When my sons were a bit older and at school, however little time I could find to stitch, I always called it ‘mummy’s work’ and never approached what I was doing as a hobby. I think this helped them and me to take what I was doing seriously, and they were always respectful of the time I needed to work and of the artworks I made.

Elisabeth Rutt, The Colour of Snow (detail), 2021. 144cm x 36cm (57" x 14"). Dry felting, hand stitching, beading. Mixed fibres, sheer fabrics, cotton threads, mixed beads.
Elisabeth Rutt, The Colour of Snow (detail), 2021. 144cm x 36cm (57″ x 14″). Dry felting, hand stitching, beading. Mixed fibres, sheer fabrics, cotton threads, mixed beads.

Magnum opus

The piece I would consider my magnum opus to date is Land Cloth from my Landmarks series. Before I began making, I decided that this piece would be designed to lie horizontally, just as a cloth would lie on a table, but raised a little higher so that it doesn’t look like a piece of domestic linen. I wanted it to be viewed as landscape features lie over the earth’s surface rather than hung on a wall in a vertical plane.

I became completely immersed in it, as it took about a year to complete. It’s not quite the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on, but there was certainly the most ‘making’ involved. I made the fabric first with dry felting techniques before I stitched anything, and then felted back into it in a limited way as I stitched.

It felt like a trip through the landscape – through my ‘journey’ making felted cloth I created the different colours and land features I wanted to represent.

Elisabeth Rutt, Textile artist

It was exhibited at the Knitting and Stitching Show but, due to its size and being made to be seen horizontally as the land lies, it proved tricky to exhibit elsewhere. It remains with me safely rolled up, but I do share it occasionally if I’m teaching or talking to students on a relevant topic.

Elisabeth Rutt, Land Cloth, 2018. 233cm x 36cm (91½" x 14"). Dry felting, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, perlé cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Land Cloth, 2018. 233cm x 36cm (91½” x 14″). Dry felting, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, perlé cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, inhale/exhale, 2020. 46cm diameter (18"). Dry felting, screen print, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, inhale/exhale, 2020. 46cm diameter (18″). Dry felting, screen print, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, inhale/exhale (detail), 2020. 46cm diameter (18"). Dry felting, screen print, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, inhale/exhale (detail), 2020. 46cm diameter (18″). Dry felting, screen print, hand stitching, surface darning. Mixed fibres, acrylic paint, textile medium, cotton threads.

A topical diversion

I have a second favourite piece – ‘significant to me’ would be a better way to think of it.

In 2020 I made a piece of work about the impact of coronavirus that was exhibited in the Chaiya Art Awards online exhibition Impact. I called this piece inhale/exhale. It was a one-off piece, a disruption to my then-current body of work. In a small way it was similar to the interruption and pausing of the world brought about by the pandemic. This piece completely absorbed me for a few weeks. It felt appropriate to spend time doing something different before returning to my current work.

I had pangs of guilt in creating this piece, making something to be aesthetically pleasing out of such a terrible world event seemed wrong in some ways, but as I stitched it helped me think through the issues we all had to confront.

Elisabeth Rutt, Textile artist

The artwork focuses on the breath of individuals and the world at that time, about the microscopic virus and the enormous effect it had on the planet. I darned motifs of the virus onto a piece of felt fabric I’d made but not used while I was suffering from whooping cough a few years earlier. It seemed somewhat ironic that it was made while I was struggling with my lungs and breath. I always knew it would come in useful for a piece of work at some time.

I used a circular format for inhale/exhale, which was a new approach for me. Stylised lungs appear within the blue circle, just as continents are seen on a satellite image of the earth. The bronchioles are reminiscent of roots, rivers, roads and communication networks, with the stitched pale patterns in the lungs indicating the presence of Covid-19. I wanted to include some of the new vocabulary that we all became familiar with. The words have a deliberate light touch, giving a corona of colour with a nod to the appearance of infographics in the data we were being presented with. 

The work was exhibited and sold during The Broderers’ Exhibition at Bankside Gallery, London in 2022.

Books to inspire

For inspiration, I think any textile artist would benefit by reading anything by Constance Howard or Kathleen Whyte, also Machine Stitch and Hand Stitch, both by Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating.

It’s also worth looking at Uppercase magazine, an independently published Canadian magazine about all things design, colour, and illustration. It’s a joy to read and look at, and, miraculously, is the work of Janine Vangool alone, who is the owner, editor, designer and publisher. It’s published every three months and although not a dedicated textile magazine, I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in any area of the arts and crafts – it’s a visual feast.

Elisabeth Rutt, Measureless, 2023. 26cm x 26cm (10" x 10"). Original transfer printed design, surface darning. Cotton, cotton organdie, perlé cotton threads.
Elisabeth Rutt, Measureless, 2023. 26cm x 26cm (10″ x 10″). Original transfer printed design, surface darning. Cotton, cotton organdie, perlé cotton threads.

A recognisable style

I’d advise any aspiring textile artist to focus on developing work that will set you apart and give you a recognisable style. Instead of asking ‘How have they done that?’, ask ‘Why and what have they done in that piece of work?’. I would advise looking at and soaking up design in many other disciplines. Good design is the core of successful work, whether it is furniture, architecture or jewellery. 

I would also recommend finding a group of peer artists to bounce ideas off of and critique each other’s work. Such a group gives great support and you will learn much from each other.

Plus, go to as many exhibitions as you can get to… (sadly I don’t get to enough!).

Key takeaways

Elisabeth offers us some fascinating pointers as to how she creates a piece of stunning textile art. Let’s take a look at how we can learn from her work and experience.

  1. Education and learning drove Elisabeth in a direction that gave her the skills to develop a career as a textile artist. Are there courses, either online or locally, that can help you develop your skills and ideas?
  2. The landscape, skies and weather are Elisabeth’s inspiration. She also created a topical piece of art during the pandemic. Look around for what inspires you – use all your senses to identify subjects you’d like to represent in textiles.
  3. Elisabeth developed her own personal style from the materials she enjoys working with, which included dry felting her own fabric with her embellishing machine and changing fabrics to make them her own. Consider what you can do to manipulate fabrics to create your own unique stamp on them.

Elisabeth Rutt works from her home studio in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

She gained a Bachelor of Humanities honours degree in Fine Art and Dance from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1982, and later gained City and Guilds Certificates in Embroidery, being awarded distinction for part 1 and highly commended for part 2, which was also entered into the medal of excellence scheme. Alongside her own practice, Elisabeth tutors and mentors design and textile students in schools and adult education. In 2022 she was accepted as a member of the Society of Designer Craftsmen.

Photos in this story by Peter Rutt.

Artist Website: elisabethrutt.co.uk
Facebook: @elisabethruttstitchedtextiles
Instagram: @elisabeth.rutt

If Elisabeth’s love of landscapes caught your eye, take a look at five artists who stitch the great outdoors, or the work of Bridget Steele-Jessop who uses textiles to create unique aerial maps.

Have Elisabeth’s techniques inspired you to create? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday 22nd, July 2024 / 02:33

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4 comments on “Elisabeth Rutt: Patterns of land & sky”

  1. Heather Phillips says:

    Elizabeth Rutt’s work is very unusual and quite unique…loved it. But can someone tell me what an “embellishment machine” is please?

    • Hi Heather, thank you for your kind comments about my work I am glad you enjoyed it.
      An Embellisher is a machine that is used to make dry felt. It has tiny barbed needles where the needle would be on a domestic sewing machine. An embellisher looks like a sewing machine but no thread is involved in making the felted surface.
      I use a Pfaff machine which I have had for 11 years so there may be more sophisticated machines available now!
      I hope that is some help,
      Elisabeth

  2. I found this article so inspiring, and I love your work, Elizabeth! I’m not a textile artist at all, I’m a printmaker — but I love looking at work in other mediums and seeing how artists approach design and content in their own materials. Thanks so much for sharing some of your thoughts about process and the development of a body of work. And also for the mention of Uppercase magazine, which I hadn’t known about!

    • Elisabeth says:

      Hi Kathleen, thank you for your very kind comments.
      I too like looking at other art and craft practitioners, there is so much to learn from each other!

      Elisabeth

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