Hanny Newton: The amazing qualities of goldwork
Hanny is a hand embroidery artist specialising in contemporary goldwork. She teaches creative goldwork nationwide, including Embroiderers Guild groups, Ardington School of Crafts and most recently creating goldwork embroidery activities for the British Museum.
In this interview, Hanny describes her artistic journey, from being encouraged to stitch by her Grandma to discovering goldwork embroidery. We learn the potential this metal thread has to offer, how using it has helped Hanny cope with her personal anxieties, and why a phone call from the Britsh Museum has shaped her future endeavours.
Nothing is permanent with embroidery
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? and, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by stitch?
Hanny Newton: I loved the immediacy and accessibility of stitch, anyone can pick up a needle and thread for very little money and you can stitch pretty much anywhere.
I loved the fact that unlike ceramics or woodwork for example, I did not need expensive specialist equipment or a designated space to stitch, I could take my embroidery on the bus, to the park, in the pub, it could travel with me and be a part of my life whenever I wanted to embroider.
I also loved the fact that nothing is permanent with embroidery. If I made a mistake, I could easily unpick and re-do, this was the perfect jump off point for me. It allowed me to explore and play freely.
What or who were your early influences and how has your upbringing influenced your work?
As kids, we were always encouraged to be creative, in quite a freeway. Creating mess whilst playing wasn’t particularly a problem for my parents. I think this gave us quite a lot of freedom to create and imagine.
I remember Mum digging a hole in our garden and filling it in water for us to play in the summer, and spraying an entire can of shaving foam onto the kitchen table and having hours of fun creating. We would have Birthday Party meetings and pick our own theme each year, creating decorations costumes and cakes at home. I suppose there was an understanding that making something yourself was more interesting than just buying a perfect version of it, and buying things and appearance weren’t as important as how much you enjoyed doing something. I know this has been a big influence on my life, I have never felt a pressure from my family to follow any other path than my own…and admittedly though, I am very messy, even if I try not to be!
In terms of discovering textiles, my maternal Grandma was definitely my biggest influence. She has always been a keen embroiderer and would make us clothes, we were always so excited to be given something she had made specially for us.
Once we were old enough she encouraged us to stitch, she even made my sister and I sewing baskets full of everything we would ever need, and I still use the fabric needle book she created for me with my initial on. I remember her studying City and Guilds and how amazed we were with all her creations. It impressed us that she could make what she needed and not rely on buying.
Something just for me
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Art was not something I had considered pursuing in my teens and early 20’s. I studied academic subjects and making was a very as-and-when thing. I always felt that there was something missing, studying felt like watching life happen to others rather than living it for myself.
When I was 23, I was living in a Camphill Community, a school for disabled teenagers based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. It was a fantastic experience but a very intense one. For a year and a half, I worked long hours of voluntary work 6 days a week. It was great but I needed a balance, something just for me, and I started stitching, remembering skills my Grandma had taught me.
Having something just for me, separate from the hectic work environment was amazing, I was hooked. I loved the fact that when you stitch the whole universe shrinks down to the size of your canvas. It was quite a revelation.
I had always loved making with my hands, in my teens this mainly took the form of baking, but I had never pursued anything creative beyond a hobby, by this point I had already spent a year teaching in Thailand, studied a year and a half of Anthropology and Religion at Manchester Uni before realising it wasn’t for me, and worked as an Au Pair in Monaco.
One day, I showed my stitching to my friend Kathleen who had studied art in London, and she pointed out that I could actually study embroidery and that it didn’t just have to be a hobby. An art degree had never even occurred to me! It made total sense. I really owe her a lot for that.
I started to research degrees and found the Royal School of Needlework. I had never heard of it before, but the more I found out about it, and after a visit, I knew it was where I wanted to be, it was the only place I could fully explore hand stitch techniques and learn about the rich heritage of the craft.
I hadn’t studied art since GCSE textiles, so I moved back home to Shropshire and spent a year studying Foundation Art and Design. It was an amazing experience. For the first time, I discovered the magic of seeing something from your head and your heart take form in the world with your own hands.
To my delight, I was accepted into the degree course at the RSN and started there in 2011. I gained a Foundation degree there and then chose to spend my final year at Falmouth University. I wanted to immerse myself in a totally different environment, away from the Traditions of the RSN, and find out how I wanted to use embroidery.
A whole universe of possibilities
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
My main technique is goldwork embroidery. My time at the RSN has given me a great love of this medium. I am fascinated by the way metal threads play with light and the beautiful qualities different types of metal can bring to a piece of work. I really like the fact that metal brings an unexpected hardness to textiles, which is usually seen as quite a soft medium.
Couching is one of my absolute favourite techniques. I love the simplicity of using one thread to hold another down onto the canvas. This simplicity frees up a whole universe of possibilities – materials, patterns, shading, colours and effects can be varied and explored to create some amazing effects.
Goldwork is an area of embroidery which is sometimes perceived to be somewhat traditional and has many rules. To me, a rule of how something must be worked was at some point a new invention itself, and that excites me and keeps me inspired to explore what metal threads can do, without worrying if I am doing it ‘right’.
I am always trying to balance my technical accuracy with exploration. My aim is not to be confined to the rules of technique but to harness the amazing qualities of goldwork to express myself on the canvas.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
My works at present (who knows what may come) are wall based pieces, all hand embroidered, mostly with metal threads including gold, silver and copper.
My work is mostly abstract and has a lot of personal meaning behind it. I like to use flow and direction of stitch to describe my emotions. Over the last year or so, this has dealt a lot with how it feels to suffer with anxiety and the battle to tame my emotions. This body of work is entitled Paresthesia, the scientific term for pins and needles, which comes from the Greek ‘Disordered Perception’.
I mainly work on grey fabric. I love to explore shades of grey and different qualities of fabric and find interesting combinations with metal threads. Grey gives a great platform for metal thread to shine, and I love how I can vary mood with different tones and shades of grey.
Where I fit into contemporary art is something I think about a lot. My current view on this is that I would like to be considered as a contemporary artist who uses hand embroidery as her medium. I am proud of the techniques I choose and the heritage of the art of embroidery, but I feel that there is still a divide between fine art and textile art.
My hope is that my art can be seen on a par with painting for example. I would love people to be drawn to explore my work further without necessarily being aware it is embroidery, but because it intrigues or pleases them, and then when they explore a piece up close, they discover how it is made, and this hopefully adds another level to the piece.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
Over the last year or so I have realised the role of a regular drawing practice alongside my embroidery. I love the speed at which I can get ideas out of my head and record them far quicker than stitch. This isn’t strictly preparatory work but feeds into my stitch and my stitch feeds into what I draw. I still feel more comfortable with a needle than a pen and so the challenge of drawing helps me to keep exploring and developing my work.
I have found it really interesting to have a body of drawing to look over and take ideas from for stitch, it has definitely helped to keep my work moving forward.
Maybe in the future I will look back at my sketchbooks and wish I had recorded my thoughts in words as well, perhaps I should start doing that more.
A feeling of ambiguity
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
A lot of my pieces start with a ‘what happens if…’.
A notion comes into my head and I try to delve as deeply into it as possible, I find that if I simplify my work down to one type of stitch or one idea, it actually gives me more freedom to explore than if I had a world of possibilities, that would be quite overwhelming.
Once I have an idea, I tend to become quite obsessed with it. I have an image fixed in my mind and feel compelled to get that image out of my head and onto a canvas.
For example, with my recent body of work, a series of gold circular pieces in fine Japanese thread, I came across the idea whilst drawing linear circles. I was just letting my mind and pen wander, and it suddenly struck me that groups of lines in metal thread would capture the light in different ways depending on direction.
I loved the idea of exploring this, breaking down goldwork to the simplicity of light and gold. Once the idea was fixed in my head, I chose a gold Japanese thread, matched it with a dark grey fabric that pleased me, framed up my canvas and transferred a large circle onto this as an outline which I could later remove, and then just let my thread wander, just as I did with the pen and paper.
I like to work directly onto the final piece without too much experimentation and test my ideas as I go along, knowing that I can always unpick, nothing is concrete! I like to start with a concept but allow it to shift and change as the piece evolves, seeing where it takes me in the moment.
As I stitched, I realised how varying the density of stitches gave a feeling of ambiguity, is this breaking apart or coming together? It struck me that this is how anxiety makes me feel, and I followed this thought as I stitched, framing up new pieces and swapping between three canvasses, playing with different approaches to the initial concept of lines of gold changing direction, creating a triptych.
I find that a lot of my ideas for new pieces come while I am stitching, the meditative act of stitching allows my mind to explore more ideas. I like to have other pieces of work on view as I am stitching, and switch between them as I fancy so that I can act on ideas as they come to me. My pieces usually feed into each other, rather than a finite process for each piece.
The small miracles around us
What environment do you like to work in?
A year and a half ago I took on a studio space in a group studio, Participate Contemporary Art Space, Shrewsbury. It was the best investment I could have made.
Having a space that is entirely dedicated to my art has really allowed me to see my practice as work rather than something to fit around my daily life. I used to think that having a studio was an indulgence, but actually it has made me take my practice much more seriously.
I like the fact that I can shut the front door behind me and know that I am going to create work, and leave the studio with my work out ready to pick up when I return, rather than making the choice between eating dinner at the dining table or keeping my artwork out.
I like to have several pieces of work on the go at the same time. I have larger pieces that I will work on in my studio and smaller stitched pieces and drawing that I will do at home. I like the flexibility this gives me and the fact that even if I don’t have time to go to the studio one day, I still have work I can carry on with.
Having two bodies of work on the go means I don’t feel too tied to one particular idea. I can move freely between concepts. I have found this makes my work stronger and gives me space to think about one piece as I’m working on another. If I rush a piece without giving it the breathing space, I find my work isn’t as strong.
What currently inspires you?
I am really fascinated by lichen at the moment. I love the resourcefulness of lichen, and how easily overlooked it can be, which makes it even more fascinating. I’ve been drawing and stitching it a lot and pondering how I can capture the feeling of lichen in stitch without directly copying it. I think it may be a body of work about making time to consider the small miracles around us.
Who have been your major influences and why?
I love the fact that she saw each piece of work as an extended experiment and only on completing one piece can one tell if it worked, and allowing that to then influence what you make next. I love the balance of playfulness and conviction to an experiment.
She pushes a concept as far as it can go in her work – taking ‘what happens if…’ to the next level. For more information visit: www.tate.org.uk
For me, her work is the perfect example of embroidery as painting, she is not limited by her medium and the way it is conventionally used, but she embraces threads and pushes them to rival paint in its scale and expressiveness. Read our interview with Alice here.
I love the way she homes in on the small, everyday marks that are usually the byproduct of a process, such as paint splashes on an overall, and painstakingly re-creates them using craft processes including embroidery, so beautifully that it is hard to tell them from the real thing.
Her work makes me question how we use making skills, and I love the way she makes something mundane precious so that you look at something like a paint splash in a different light. For more information visit: www.seventeengallery.com
I find the way he works with natural materials really inspiring. I am really interested in capturing the essence of nature in my stitches, and I love the way he is able to use nature itself so skillfully to create stunning works.
I admire the element of impermanence in his work, maybe one day I will explore this myself. For more information visit: www.tate.org.uk
Learning to trust my ideas
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
Last April, I was walking to my Mum’s house to deliver a Birthday present and my phone rang, it was the head of Adult Programs at the British Museum. Out of the blue, I found myself creating an interactive goldwork project to be exhibited in the Great Court of the British Museum.
I was tasked with responding to the exhibition Scythians: warriors of Ancient Syberia which explores the lives of the nomadic tribes of Siberia 2500 years ago. I was asked to create goldwork activities for the Scythian themed Friday Late (Oct 2017) which people of all ages and abilities could be a part of, which drew on the Scythians love of gold and horses. It was beyond anything I could have dreamed of.
I created a series of drop-in embroidery workshops, with hand printed motifs for embellishment which I designed, inspired by the swirling patterns found in Scythian art. It was important to me to show people that ANYONE can embroider, so I designed my motifs so that they were enticing and accessible, with no right or wrong, but some pattern to follow should you wish.
These embellished motifs then adorned a sculpture inspired by the incredible depictions of antlers in Scythian art, horses were adorned with headdresses making them appear as mythical deer-like creatures, and I really wanted to capture this and give the workshops a focal point. This was created by artist Beatrix Baker who made the most amazing steam bent wooden sculpture.
There was a moment on the final night where I took a step back and saw our packed-out workshops of over 50 people of all ages, nationalities and genders sitting down together and loving stitching and realised how powerful making can be.
It was by far the largest project I have ever worked on, and it would be an outrageous lie to say it wasn’t terrifying at times. I had to learn to trust my ideas, without really having a reference point for if this would actually work. My dream is to be able to create lots more events like this.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has definitely become more focused. When I graduated, I knew I had a strong set of making skills and a real passion for embroidery but looking back, I didn’t have a fully formed sense of how I wanted to apply those skills to a coherent practice. I went from embroidered felt rocks at Falmouth University, to goldwork bowties when I first graduated, to wall pieces exploring contour lines, to then even pondering wedding embroidery.
I knew embroidery was my thing, but I had to realise that the more I strip back my practice to the elements that interest me the most, putting aside the part of me that wants to do everything and please everyone, the stronger my work becomes.
A big part of this was realising that I really didn’t want to make things just to sell. I wanted to use stitch to mark my place in the world and to explore, both what I can do with stitch, but also to explore my thoughts and express myself. Choosing to waitress instead of being dependent on selling has really allowed me to be braver in my art, and think long term so that I can develop as an artist and not worry about instant popularity, which would be too much pressure for me.
I was then able to really think deeply about what I wanted to make and what really mattered to me. I struggled with this for a while, feeling quite lost with who I was as an artist, and I suppose I gradually realised that the most honest thing I could do would be to use my art to say something about my emotions, especially my struggles with anxiety.
I find that stitch is a great medium for capturing the swelling emotions I feel, and the act of capturing an emotion in a beautiful shining metal thread allows me to consider the positives of my characters – it is quite an empowering process.
I definitely have more evolving to do. I don’t want to tie myself down as to what this may look like, but I intend to keep pushing how I use stitch and keep on trying to be honest about who I am in my work and see where this takes me.
I have also realised how much I love teaching goldwork, breaking down some of the notions of how it should be used, and sharing with people the joy of working with metal threads, and how one can achieve this with just a few beautifully simple techniques as a jump-off point. I started with talks, then workshops with Embroiderers Guild groups, and I am really enjoying seeing this grow and evolve as I teach at museum, colleges and groups nationwide.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
The more you make, the more ideas you have, the more ideas you have, the more you will want to make, and the more you make the stronger your work will become.
Just trust the journey and keep pushing and questioning what you make and you will be amazed how much progress you can make, but don’t worry about how quickly you develop, just go with it.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I tend not to look too much at the techniques of other artists, I like to find my own response to embroidery technique.
When I am working, I like to listen to documentaries and talks that can help me to see my work from different perspectives, and inspire me to keep going if I’m having an off day. I could list so many things, but I would recommend the Louisiana Channel on YouTube, lots of interesting talks with artists from a wide range of disciplines.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I love using size 12 sharps needles. I love the intricacy and accuracy I can get with such a small, concise needle.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
There are also a few more museum projects in the pipeline. Information about these and other teaching projects will be up on my website soon.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
When I first graduated, I felt I had to push myself to show in as many places as possible. This meat that I put a lot of pressure on myself to be ‘out there’ without really having had enough time to breathe and think about honing my practice.
I remember one show where I looked at my stand and realised how chaotic it looked. It was definitely a reflection of how confused I felt about what I wanted to make. Once I realised I needed to give myself the space to make work without pressure, I have been able to explore my practice in a much more honest way, and I am really happy with the work I am now making.
It has actually felt quite brave to choose not to exhibit, but I now feel ready to start exhibiting again. I feel ready to use this to push my work further. This coming year, I intend to apply for shows and opportunities as much as I can and make this a priority, now I have a much clearer idea of what I want my practice to be about.
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