Emma Wigginton: When stitch comes calling
The phrase ‘better late than never’ is a proven fact if you look at textile artist Emma Wigginton’s creative journey. Emma’s initial career path was filled with science, research and nursing. But when a brochure for a postal art course prompted her to sign up for a class, the response from instructors and peers suggested the scientist needed to make room for the artist.
Emma was especially drawn to free machine embroidery, and she has pushed the boundaries since of both machine and stitch in remarkable ways. Colour also plays a pivotal role, and the variety of textures she creates with an embellisher are simply icing on the cake.
We’re confident you’ve not seen embroidery like this before, so we’re thrilled to be able to provide an insider’s look into Emma’s techniques and philosophy. You’ll be especially inspired by her 3-dimensional work that includes corsets, bags, dresses and headwear. The combination of talent and whimsy is delicious.
This is a story of finding one’s passion later in life and running with it. And it promises to inspire both your creativity and your soul.
Emma lives in the countryside of Cumbria in the UK. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Applied Arts in 2003. Her work was selected for the Cumbrian Artist of the Year (2017) and the Textile Association’s exhibition in Norwich (‘Silver Threads,’ 2014). Emma also hosts workshops, has a YouTube channel and was featured in the Be Creative Magazine in 2017.
It all started with a postal course
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Emma Wigginton: Once upon a time, when I was working in Carlisle, I came across a poster for a textile show at the local art college. I went along just to see what it was, and my eyes were opened!
I had no idea this glorious freedom called ‘textile art’ existed until then.
I can still remember being in those empty classrooms just absorbing all the colours and textures of the art on display. And I wanted to know how I, too, could do this thing which made me feel so joyful and excited!
As a child, my mum taught me to sew and to use a sewing machine to make clothes. I am so grateful to her for her patience in teaching me, though I think I was frustrated by dressmaking, as it involved so many rules and lots of tailor tacks. My ability to construct pieces comes from those early days when I gained an understanding of how to assemble layers and piece fabrics together.
Later on, I dabbled in patchwork and quilting, loving the effect of a quilted surface. But it still wasn’t me.
My journey with free machine embroidery began when I borrowed a sewing machine and taught myself from a book on ‘thread painting.’ I took off the presser foot and did some reckless stitching. At last, I had found my creative medium!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
For me, art has been a slow, evolutionary process of discovery—a journey of exploration and personal growth.
As a child, I was always drawing and creating, mainly making things like peg dolls and dolls’ houses from old shoe boxes. I learnt to construct things with very little in the way of materials. A match box or a sponge made tiny furniture or a doll’s bed. And fabrics for dolls or dolls’ clothes came from my mum’s off cuts from her clothes sewing or little rolls of felt bought with my pocket money.
My mother made lots of our clothes, which was quite an undertaking for four children. She was always knitting or sewing.
All the things I learnt to make as a child enables me to now construct my work with ease. I often find myself creating 3-dimensional pieces such as corsets, bags, gloves, etc., as a way to express my experience of life as a woman—especially the hidden or domestic aspects.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I followed a path through the ‘opposite’ of art: science. I pursued a degree in Microbiology with Nursing followed by a short stint as a nurse. I then worked as a researcher in various guises in the National Health Service.
When married and in my 30s, a postal course hosted by the Open College of Arts showed me I had something artistic going on. I received positive responses to my course work, and that led me to pursuing a BTEC (a bit like an A-level) in Art and Design.
With a ‘portfolio’ of work from my BTEC, I was accepted on a degree course at what was then Carlisle College of Art (now Cumbria University) in Contemporary Applied Art. I attended part time while working as a researcher to pay for the course, but then I had a baby during my second year. So, I took two years off, and then returned to lectures with my small daughter, armed with sticker books for her entertainment!
Somehow, I managed to finish my Final Year when my daughter went to school, but it was hard focusing my brain on a Final Year show while helping my daughter manage her major new thing called ‘school.’ It took me eight years to get the degree, but it was worth it!
In 2011, I took part in C-art Open Studios in Cumbria which showed me that people liked my work, I got lovely positive feedback, I taught my first workshops, and just grew in confidence from there.
Everything contributed to my slow discovery of what has now become my life. I realised recently that being an artist isn’t a job – it’s a way of being. Anyone can be an artist, and you don’t need a degree. My degree just helped me to expand my knowledge, to realise the importance of textiles to me, and see that I had a talent.
Falling in love with machine embroidery
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
My work is organic in nature: it grows and changes as I work with the thread, fabric and ideas. I draw, and I create sketchbooks full of samples and jottings to help process my creating.
I am constantly looking at everything around me, observing details and collecting items such as rusty bits and bobs, seed heads and other natural finds which I have around me in the studio.
The real creative process takes place as I start to play with fabrics and allow the ideas to move and change as I cut and place and embellish and stitch. I may have a rough idea in place for a shape or technique to use before I start, but the final piece may end up miles away from those first thoughts and considerations.
I work more and more intuitively, feeling my way into each piece, in a kind of meditative process.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Free-machine embroidery is my passion. My Pfaff Hobbymatic 935 is over 20 years old. It’s very simple, but so lovely to use.
I mainly use fabrics, many of which are upcycled from charity shops. I also occasionally use paper. I use a really wide variety of fabrics—whatever fits the bill as to colour and texture from my large stash!
I usually lay out onto a backing of calico and a stabiliser (I use Stitch and Tear). I’ll also sometimes add a layer of cotton curtain interlining. It’s cheap and makes a nice soft surface to add more surface texture. As I often use my embellisher, the fabrics get altered and meshed together.
In terms of thread, I use what I have. Mainly polyester, nothing special. It’s always the colour that’s important. I’ll also use rayon or metallic to add shine or light to a surface.
I am constantly pushing the boundaries of stitch and free machine embroidery to create form and structure in new ways. I also use it to change and create surfaces, making marks and decoration.
I use embroidery very simply, but in different ways. For example, I may use it to make lines or marks in a landscape or to change the surface of a fabric. I might alter how the light plays on the surface or to create texture. I also use embroidery for drawing, such as a seed head or other decoration.
I use stitch with soluble fabrics, or embellished surfaces. I make whatever I need to, with whatever technique the piece requires. It could be layers of net and lace embellished and stitched, or a pair of soluble paper shoes as in my bridal collection of work.
Texture is always an important factor, as is colour, whether neutral or white, or more recently, increasingly vibrant and bold.
My embellisher enables me to use a very wide range of fabrics, such as lace, organza, wool, cotton, satins. I can also use yarns and threads which add extra texture and detail. I have a Babylock which has 12 needles. It is a super machine, well-engineered, and very easy to change the needles if I break them!
I love to make beautiful but conceptual work, and I love the form of corsets or a wearable art piece, such as a dress, or a handbag or gloves, instead of a framed wall piece. I love the challenge of construction and as a way of communicating an idea.
Stitch and construction is my way to respond to life experiences, my ideas and concepts.
Readers can see more images on my website. And for more on my techniques, I suggest watching my YouTube videos!
What currently inspires you?
These days, my work has become even more textural and colourful. Recycling is something I feel strongly about, and my embellisher helps me recycle fabrics into glorious surfaces for stitching.
Recent work involved me adding embroidery to pieces of redundant metal and metal tools to give them a new use and value as art.
I basically rescued old rusty tools I found, including a chair and an old metal mop bucket from the skip at the Florence Arts Centre (with permission!). You can see that work in the images ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ and ‘Raking it In.’
The idea was to get people to think about what we throw away—beautiful designed items we think nothing of. So, I used the idea of wabi sabi, making something new and beautiful from something old using embroidery and stitch and fabric.
There was also a set of shears, a hammer and an old rim of a metal barrel. My challenge there was to make THAT into art by creating fabric that looked like rusty metal.! I called it ‘Squaring the Circle.’ I loved the juxtaposition of beautiful embroidery with old rusty objects. I called the body of work ‘Objects of Use’ made in 2017 and on-going.
I am also inspired by nature: the details I see on my daily walk, flowers in my garden, and seed heads in the hedgerow. I’m also inspired by the land I see around me in beautiful Cumbria where I am so grateful to live. And the sea is so inspiring, especially on my holidays to the Scottish Hebridean Islands.
I am inspired by my own life experiences, which influence my more conceptual work.
Ultimately, all my work is an expression of what I see and feel.
Exploring the feminine through stitch
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I was inspired to explore my relationships with my mother and two grandmothers by some letters I found after my mum passed away. Her mother wrote to her at boarding school. She went from the age of eight, as it was deemed safer than being in Newcastle during the war.
The letters were especially poignant, as my grandmother died from breast cancer when my mum was only 15.
I was very close to my other grandmother who was also a great sewer and knitter. I still have and use some of her fabrics and threads—a treasured stash!
I created a body of work in 2019 expressing these very personal and feminine relationships with these three special women through the metaphor of bridal clothing. The works included a wedding dress, pair of paper lace shoes, head dress and bag, together with luggage labels with black and white photos of my parents and grandparents.
It was all created in delicate whites and creamy laciness with silver threads representing the DNA connecting us all.
It was exhibited with Fabricate, a local textile group. We exhibit annually at the Florence Arts Centre, which is a fantastic old iron ore mine near Egremont here in Cumbria.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has always been a mixed bag of creations. Early pieces were very much of the revolutionary and conceptual kind, always seeking to push boundaries in technique, materials and/or subject matter. I realised I wanted to communicate my ideas on life through textiles.
As artist Paul Klee said, ‘Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.’ So, for example, I have always loved making corsets to represent the traditional roles of women and their trials to free themselves from ‘just’ breeding and housework. An early version was a whole ‘glamorous’ dress using domestic cleaning materials!
Nowadays, my practice is very much more about stitch and fabric and the skill I have in manipulating them to create my desired work that embraces both the conceptual and representational.
It took textiles as an art medium a while to find me, but now, being in my fabulous 50s, I’m making up for lost time with passion and enthusiasm. It’s so great to be expanding as an artist at a time when many people think about retiring!
My practice just goes from strength to strength, as I keep learning and growing.
Through my workshops, I love teaching others to trust their own creativity by sharing the pleasure and relaxation to be had from playing with textiles and embroidery.
I have also recently set up a YouTube channel called ‘Stitch and Create’ to share some of my studio musings, free machine embroidery and embellishing tutorials. I just love the creative process of filming and making videos. I love how it connects me with other stitchers around the world, and I have had some fantastic feedback. So far, around seven people have bought themselves an embellisher!
I have also just put my first workshop online, via my website, which is very exciting. I will be doing more over the coming months. I have also created a virtual talk which is available for groups such as Embroiderers Guild until I am able to do talks in person again.
Lockdown for me has been a time of growth and liberation, and I wanted to share with others as a way to give back, as well as it being a new way to work creatively.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
As the American sculptor Jeff Koons says, ‘Art is a journey to discover the self.’ I couldn’t agree more. Textiles are the very fabric of life and a personal way to express yourself. Just begin. Play and allow the creative process to take you on your way and see what emerges.
And it’s never too late to begin your textile Journey!
For more information visit www.emmawigginton.co.uk
Emma started her textile art journey later in life, and hasn’t looked back since. Do you have a similar story? Let us know below.