Karen Spurgin interview: Straddling craft & art

Karen Spurgin interview: Straddling craft & art

Karen Spurgin has worked as a textile designer for over 20 years. Her innovative designs and use of fine art embroidery techniques have earned her an international reputation. Her work has been diverse and wide-reaching covering fashion and interiors, as well as designs for stage and screen; she was responsible for the intricate appliqué for Deborah Milner’s Rousseau Dress and the embroidery of the lavish kimonos for Mike Leigh’s film Topsy Turvy.

Karen has a wealth of other experience, including being a tutor at the Royal College Of Art on the Mixed Media Constructed Textiles Course. In our interview with her, she tells us about her journey and her future aspirations.

Intricate embroidery for fashion by textile designer and fine artists Karen Spurgin

Intricate fashion embroidery by Karen Spurgin

The journey to fine art embroidery

TextileArist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?

Karen Spurgin: I trained as a fine artist at Goldsmiths College on their amazing textiles course.  This inspired me and opened up my eyes to fine art embroidery and how textiles could be used in design.

What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?

My mother is a brilliant painter, but during the time she was raising children, found herself more and more frustrated by not being able to paint.  This lead her to develop her work with both embroidery – she is a wizard – and with appliqué. I began embroidery when I was about 5.  I was also very inspired by Constance Howard.  After leaving Goldsmiths I was her technician; for over two years I worked on the large hanging she was commissioned to do for Northampton.  It was an amazing experience and during my time with her I learnt to work professionally.

What was your route to becoming an artist?

I had four years at Goldsmiths and over two years as the technician on Constance Howard’s hanging for Northampton, sewing the buildings of Northamptonshire.  My experience was very similar to being an apprentice, as every day was filled with information and technical training.

Karen Spurgin uses fine art embroidery techniques to create collages

Karen Spurgin – Collage shown at the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica, Bologna, Italy, 2008

Old fashioned hand work

What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques ?

I love to work with fine art embroidery using quite old-fashioned hand-work.  I am also increasingly interested in patchwork/collage.  Lately I have been creating little books that use combinations of stitch, paint and drawing.

How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?

Most of my professional work has been textile design-based for fashion and interiors.  I have been involved in collaborations with Christina Kim.  Most of theses pieces were for installations in public settings. It has only been lately that I have started to re-look at my own practice and develop it on a more intimate scale.  The small books I am making are really like sketching for me, a way of developing ideas. At the moment I would say it straddles craft and art.

Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?

I work quite instinctively, usually surrounded by threads, paper, fabric and glue.

Textile inspiration and fond memories

What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?

I am constantly inspired by trips to galleries and museums to see artists work. I recently saw collages by Kurt Schwitters at the Tate Britain, which were amazing.  There is an exhibition on at the Whitechapel Gallery until September by Guiseppe Penone, which is elegant and simple.

I have always loved the work of Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman.

Tell us about a piece of fine art embroidery work you have fond memories of and why? 

One of the most extraordinary experiences of my life was to be asked to participate in creating a curtain for the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The piece was commissioned by the Berlinale Film Festival to celebrate their 60th anniversary and future sustainability.  The piece was made using patch-worked recycled film posters.  It was a collaboration with Christina Kim.

Textile designer Karen Spurgin created a banner for a retrospective of Christina work exploring sustainability in 2008

Karen Spurgin – Banner


Finding time to ‘play’

How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?

My work has been quite commercial and I feel I haven’t given myself much time to ‘play’.  I see this as the way I will be going over the next few years.

How do you go about choosing where to show your work?

Often, my work is in collaboration with Christina Kim and showing is usually something she organises.

What are your top five textile resources?

  1. The V and A is a constant source of inspiration.
  2. I enjoy looking at Selvedge Magazine to keep a view on the textiles.
  3. I work with Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company and they have an extensive archive, which invites exploration.
  4. I regularly go to Los Angeles to work with Christina Kim.  Her sensibility, creativity and showing space nevers fails to inspire.
  5. Landscapes such as Joshua Tree, in the desert outside LA and Cornish beaches.

Where can readers see your work this year ?

I have work scheduled for a joint show with Christina Kim at Santa Monica Museum of Art in Santa Monica. Los Angeles, CA, USA. This starts 12 July 2013 and runs for a month.

For more information about Karen visit Spurgin.co.uk.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, let us know by leaving a comment below.

Sunday 24th, September 2023 / 00:02

About the author

Joseph Pitcher is the son of textile artist Sue Stone. He is an actor and voice-over artist and has worked at the RSC, the National Theatre, West End theatres and several other leading regional venues across the UK. Find Joe on Google

View all articles by Joe



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