Emma Cassi: The art of decoration
They say ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ Apparently, necessity can also birth a textile art vocation.
As a young art student in the 90’s, Emma Cassi fell in love with fashion designer Dries Van Noten’s intricate and colourful embroidered scarves. Her student budget, however, offered no hope of ownership, so Emma decided to try to create her own scarf. You’ll need to read on to hear how that all turned out. But that adventure would set Emma on a textile art journey for years to come.
Emma has a passion for working with what’s on hand, describing it as both an inventive and resourceful approach to making. And she loves the idea of ‘decoration,’ giving that notion its full artistic value. In Emma’s world, if it pleases the eye, then it’s art.
We’re thrilled to introduce you to Emma’s world of talismans, masks, fabric bowls and other exciting textile art experiments. It’s an inspiring reminder of the importance of imagination and craftsmanship.
It started with a scarf…
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Emma Cassi: My love for fabric is tactile and comes from childhood. As we say in French, it is my ‘Madeleine de Proust’: from my grandfather’s thin and soft cotton checkered handkerchiefs to the vintage lacy shirts my father found for his sister’s folk club.
I later discovered Dries Van Noten’s embroideries in art school. I couldn’t afford to buy scarves, so I tried to make them myself. That was the beginning of a long training and relationship with fabric, needles and threads that would keep me in my bubble of creation for 20 years.
The core of my artwork is my love for craftsmanship. I rely upon many years of self-taught training to make the perfect, imperfect object with my hands. Much like the alchemist’s way.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I lived in a small village where my grandfather ran a sawmill, and my father ran a junkyard. I used to spend my free time there, playing with the wooden squares and fragments of glass and scrap metal. It was a fun and free never-ending discovery of treasures.
When I was an art student, I saw Ann Hamilton’s solo exhibition in Lyon (1997). It was a big revelation. A peacock was running free in a room with floating red fabric hung across the ceiling, and big, white textile panels with embroidered poems hung from the ceiling to the floor. It was the first conceptual textile art I had seen. And it touched me because it was poetic, beautiful, and so unusual.
At the same time, Dries Van Noten was using embroidery from India in his designs. Art and fashion were mixing, and it was a very interesting time. Embroidery wasn’t as fashionable in 1996—it was either in museums or grannies’ wardrobes.
So, Van Noten’s use of delicate beadwork, stunning mixes of colors and patterns were exquisite. His designs and collaboration with the best artisans in the world made him one of the best fashion designers.
It was the first time I saw such amazing contemporary embroidery work that could be worn every day as a scarf or skirt.
In terms of family influences, my mum was a fine seamstress during her spare time. And both of my grandmothers were incredible with needles and textiles. One of my grandmothers spent her time crocheting in her armchair, and the other repaired garments and socks to perfection.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
My aunt was an artist, and when I was 10 years old, she taught me how to draw portraits. Then at age 12, I enrolled in an art course in Dijon. But I didn’t work with textiles at that time.
I completed a year of Art History in University and then enrolled in the Beaux Arts in Dijon. I still wasn’t working with textiles for my coursework, but I started embroidering in my spare time.
Embroidery was like a hobby, and I was very bad at it at the beginning. I used to buy silk and beads, and my first embroidery work was a beaded scarf with flowers.
It was so different from what I can do now.
Working with what’s at hand
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
My process changes all the time. When I started embroidery, I had no one to ask for tips or videos to watch. I just looked at textiles and tried to understand how the artisans achieved such perfection.
And because I couldn’t afford Dries Van Noten’s embroidered scarves, I decided to make my own. That is how I discovered embroidery was a discipline I wanted to explore.
It seems that ‘less is more’ for me. I love the idea of creating with things already owned—something that doesn’t involve too much spending. It’s a more resourceful way of working.
The more I want an object, the more I wait to see what the ideal object would look like in my mind, and then I try to make it.
I have lots of notebooks filled with written ideas more than drawings. I take notes from videos and books that help me develop ideas for future projects.
I wanted my embroidery to be something worn, so that is why I made jewelry. It could be shaped around the arm or neck.
And with my masks, I love how the face becomes the frame on which the embroidery is displayed.
I originally used vintage lace for 20 years to make my jewelry. Now I use silk and softer and lighter fabrics to preserve the strength in my fingers. And I love to have the soft touch of the silk.
I also use vintage threads purchased in charity shops. Their colours are more intense, and the bobbins are beautiful objects.
When choosing a keepsake piece of jewelry, I think it’s important to know the fabric’s story and the way it was made. So, during the years I made jewelry, every collection had a theme—a story—about the lace or beads used in their creation. Inspiration came from particular artists, my travels, movies, etc.
Every piece was carefully crafted, and the embroidery work itself turned the jewelry into talismans of sorts. It was like the act of transmutation in Alchemy.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
At the moment, I am working on my fabric bowls with my sewing machine using the potter technique of coiling. I decided to learn pottery two years ago, but Covid happened in the middle of my workshop, and it closed.
I tried to continue at making pottery at home, but trying to fire my pieces in my garden’s fire pit didn’t work out.
I wanted to make sure my hands would get used to the movement of coiling, so I decided to work instead with the only thing I had available that could be manipulated: fabric.
I cut strips of fabric and slowly built them up with a spiral movement into fabric ‘pottery’ bowls. I now want to create an exhibition to showcase all the bowls together on a white background. They would create a beautiful cosmic landscape
I am also still making hand embroidery portraits inspired by my trip to Kenya. It is a slow process. I love tribal beading, and while in Kenya, I saw so many interesting animals, armchairs and wall hangings with beads.
I started the portraits three years ago, and I have made seven so far. I am doing this in between other projects like a ‘breathing space’ before starting a new big embroidery or series of pots or painting.
The stitches I use depend upon the projects I work on. For example, for my herbalism pieces, I only used French knots. For the ‘Landscapes’ silk panels, I used a wider variety of stitching, including running, back stitch, herringbone, and more.
I like the fact my creations can be worn or used every day. For me, decoration is more than a display of beautiful objects. It is an art of living.
What currently inspires you?
Many things inspire me: my walks in Great park to see ancient oaks trees, my discovery of specimens of plants with herbalism, gardening and my dreams.
In terms of textile art, Hilma Af Klint’s paintings called ‘Seeing the Invisible’ inspired my embroidered masks. I tried to reproduce the flowers and psychedelic shapes using crochet and lace for the base of the embroidery. I then chose vintage sequins, beads and threads that I meticulously added to insure each side of the face had the same amount.
Emma Kunz was also influential. She was a therapist who created a way to heal patients by drawing ‘mandalas’ shapes. At first, her art was made for healing and not like that displayed in galleries. So, I often used that concept of ‘healing’ when making my Herbalism piece.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
The embroidery project ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ in Spring, 2020. I embroidered seeds and leaves (including tansy, chamomile, gingko and catalpa) to create different flags. The flags were to protest…to spread seeds. I wanted to find a garden in which to display them, but I eventually realized my own garden was the best place.
While learning herbalism, I was inspired by The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner. It helped me create a deeper understanding and connection with nature and plants.
Thanks to that book, I realised I could learn herbalism on my own, and my experiences with the natural world have been mind blowing.
It also prompted me to make the radical choice to stop my jewellery business and learn my own form of herbalism, even if it would take a lifetime. Self-teaching is the way to know myself, and I feel very happy I made that choice to be able to go further in herbalism.
During my nature walks, I gather plants for herbal teas or to make herbariums to learn to recognize the plants. I have also used plants like turmeric, hibiscus and indigo to dye my silks.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I see my everyday life is intertwined with my creative life: the place where I live, the way I approach life.
When I was living in London in a small flat, my art was smaller, strong and very embellished with lots of beads and sequins on vintage lace. They were like talismans to be happy and fulfilled in a busy life.
But when I moved to the countryside, my embroidery was transformed. The fabric I used was bigger and lighter—mostly silk. I used thread embroidery, and my art became soft and intuitive.
On holidays, I create art in a totally different way. I don’t bring a project to create with me. Instead, I’m just with nature and I create in response to what I encounter.
For example, one year we were sleeping near a river, and beautiful green algae was moving like long hair in the stream. It was so stunning and inspired me to create a wool ball like the algae that I displayed on the stream bed’s stones. It was such a moving experience to create in nature knowing it would be gone a few days later.
I would love to experience that a bit more and co-create.
I have been working alone too long, sitting on a chair. I want to travel and exchange textile stories with women from all around the world. This is why I did a project with Textile Seekers.
- Only working with materials at hand can lead to greater invention and creativity
- Don’t be afraid to try making something you admire but can’t afford
- Experiment with a variety of textile art techniques. You don’t have to stick with just one
About the artist:
Emma Cassi is a French artist who expresses her creativity in several practices. She was a jewelry designer (HP France in Japan, Anthropologie in UK and US), and Designers Guild in London. She was also an interior stylist for many years. Emma experiments with fiber art through her embroidery (Hand and Lock prize), weaving, latch hook and natural dyes.
Emma seeks to only create with what’s at hand. How have you used this principle in your own work? Let us know below