Hanny Newton: The amazing qualities of goldwork
Sometimes following your chosen subjects at school can be a bit of a red herring. As an academic child, Hanny Newton didn’t consider embroidery as a career option. After a few false starts, but gaining useful life experiences along the way, Hanny was eventually guided towards her contemporary goldwork destiny. She began her journey of embroidery exploration after a chance comment by a friend, who suggested enrolling for a degree in embroidery. And it was whilst studying at the Royal School of Needlework and Falmouth University, that she first became drawn to the glittering possibilities of working with metal threads.
Hanny’s work is mostly abstract, using pattern and shading to make the most of the stunning reflective qualities of the metal threads, contrasted against a background of soft fabric in shades of grey. She delights in playful experimentation with her cherished goldwork threads and her favourite technique of couching, injecting her work with personal emotions and the meditative patterns of the natural world. The concept of limitations gives her more freedom to explore, without becoming overwhelmed by all the possibilities.
Hanny’s work has featured in numerous exhibitions and she has taught creative goldwork across the UK and in Australia, running workshops at Ardington School of Crafts, the British Museum and King’s College Cultural Centre, London.
In this interview, Hanny describes her artistic journey from her very first stitch to her passion for gleaming goldwork. She shares how embroidery has helped her deal with personal anxieties and cultivated her love of experimentation. Read on to discover how to embrace play in your own work, and how metal threads can add a stunning, tactile and lustrous aspect to your work.
Stitching is so accessible
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Hanny Newton: I love 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. Unlike ceramics or woodwork, I don’t need expensive specialist equipment or a designated space to stitch. I can take my embroidery on the bus, to the park or the pub. My work-in-progress can travel with me and be a part of my life, whenever and wherever I want it to.
With embroidery, nothing is permanent. If I make a mistake, I can easily unpick my stitches and re-do them! This makes it the perfect jump-off point for me as it allows me to explore and play freely.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
As a child, I was encouraged to be creative in quite a free way. Creating mess whilst playing wasn’t a problem for my parents. I think this gave me 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. She would spray an entire can of shaving foam onto the kitchen table and let us have fun moving it around and making shapes. At every birthday party, we would choose a theme and create decorations, costumes and cakes at home. I suppose there was an understanding that having fun making something yourself was more interesting than just buying perfect, ready-made things. I know this has been a big influence on my life and I have never felt a pressure from my family to follow any other path than my own.
In terms of discovering textiles, my maternal grandmother was definitely my biggest influence. As a keen embroiderer, she would make us clothes and we were always so excited to be given something she had made especially for us. She encouraged us to stitch, making my sister and I sewing baskets full of everything we would ever need; I still use the monogrammed fabric needle book she created for me. I remember her studying City and Guilds courses and just how amazed we were with all her creations. It impressed us that she could make what she needed and not rely on buying.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Art was not something I had considered pursuing in my teens and early twenties. I studied academic subjects but always felt that there was something missing. Studying felt like watching life happen to others rather than living it for myself.
When I was aged twenty-three, I was living as a voluntary worker in a Camphill Community, a school for disabled teenagers based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. The work was fantastic but intense so I started stitching, to gain a balance and do something just for me. Remembering the skills my Grandma had taught me, I became 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.
As a teen my making had turned into baking, but I had never pursued anything creative beyond it being a hobby. By this point, I had taught in Thailand for a year, studied Anthropology and Religion for eighteen months at Manchester University, 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. She pointed out that I could study embroidery and that it didn’t just have to be a hobby. Completing an art degree had never even occurred to me! I really owe her a lot for that serendipitous comment.
After studying Foundation Art and Design for a year, back home in Shropshire, I landed a place at the Royal School of Needlework on their Foundation degree course. There I explored hand stitch techniques and learned about the rich heritage of embroidery.
During my studies I discovered the magic of seeing something from my head and heart take form in the world, using my own hands. After completing this course, I went to Falmouth University to study for my BA in Contemporary Craft where I immersed myself in a totally different environment, away from the traditions of the RSN, to discover how I wanted to use my embroidery skills.
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
A lot of my pieces start with a question, “What happens if…?”
I find that if I simplify my work down to one stitch type or one idea, it actually gives me more freedom to explore than if I had a world of overwhelming possibilities. 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, I created a series of gold circular pieces in fine Japanese thread. It struck me that groups of lines in metal thread would capture the light in different ways. I explored idea of breaking down goldwork into the simple concepts of light and gold.
I tend 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! Starting with an idea, I allow it to shift and change as the piece evolves, seeing where it takes me in the moment.
As I stitched inside the circles, I found that varying the density of stitches gave a feeling of ambiguity; the pattern could be breaking apart, or coming together. This is how anxiety makes me feel, so I followed this thought as I stitched. I swapped between three canvasses, playing with different approaches and ended up creating a triptych.
Ideas for new works tend to come while I sew, as the meditative act of stitching allows my mind to ponder. I always have other pieces of work on view as I work and I often switch between them, so that I can act on ideas as they come to me; my projects usually feed into each other. I prefer to have several pieces of work on the go simultaneously. This gives me flexibility as I don’t feel too tied to one particular idea and I can move freely between concepts. I have found this makes my work stronger, giving me space to think about one piece as I’m working on another.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Goldwork is an area of embroidery which is sometimes perceived to be more traditional. I like to push the boundaries of what metal threads can do, and I aim to balance technical accuracy with exploration, without being confined to the traditional rules of the technique.
I am fascinated by the way metal threads play with light and the beautiful qualities that different types of metal can bring to a piece of work. Metal brings an unexpected hardness to the soft medium of textiles. Using the simple technique of couching, where one thread holds another down onto the canvas, a whole universe of possibilities appears. Materials, patterns, shading, colours and light-reflective qualities can be varied and explored to great effect.
My work is mostly abstract and has a lot of personal meaning behind it. I use the flow and direction of stitch to describe my emotions, for example how it feels to suffer with anxiety, which was the subject of my body of work ‘Paresthesia’ (the scientific term for pins and needles, which comes from the Greek for ‘Disordered Perception’).
I work mainly on grey fabric, which gives a great platform for the metal thread to shine, and I can provide variety and change the mood of the piece through the use of different tones and shades.
I use a sketchbook regularly; I love the speed at which I can get ideas out of my head and record them on paper, far quicker than by stitch. The sketching feeds into my stitched work, and my stitching feeds into what I draw. I have found it really interesting to have a body of drawing to look over and take ideas from; it helps keep my work moving forward.
What currently inspires you?
I am really fascinated by nature. For example I love the resourcefulness of lichen and how easily it is overlooked. I draw and stitch it a lot, pondering how I can capture the feeling of lichen in stitch without directly copying it. I think it may become a body of work about making time to consider the small miracles around us.
Inspiration also comes from the act of sewing itself; the simplicity of one stitch being multiplied through human graft, building substantial works from small initial gestures. Repetition, time, patience and dedication are all essential to hand embroidery. One must, to some degree, humble oneself to the generative process of making.
Communicating through stitch
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
An out of the blue phone call from the head of Adult Programs at the British Museum led to an interactive goldwork project which was exhibited in the Great Court of the British Museum.
I was tasked with responding to the exhibition “Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia”, exploring the lives of the nomadic tribes of Siberia 2,500 years ago. I was asked to create goldwork activities for the Scythian themed evening sessions in 2017, in which people of all ages and abilities could take part. The project drew on the Scythians’ love of gold and horses.
This opportunity was beyond my wildest dreams!
For this series of drop-in embroidery workshops, I designed with hand printed motifs for embellishment, inspired by the swirling patterns found in Scythian art. I wanted to show people that anyone can embroider, so I designed my motifs to be enticing and accessible, with no right or wrong, giving some pattern to follow, should they so wish.
These embellished and embroidered motifs were used to adorn an amazing steam-bent wood sculpture created by artist Beatrix Baker, inspired by the incredible depictions of antlers in Scythian art. There was a moment on the final night where I took a step back and saw our packed-out workshops with over fifty people of all ages, nationalities and genders stitching together, and I realised then 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 whether it 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. I graduated from my degree with a strong set of making skills and a 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, to wall pieces exploring contour lines, to pondering wedding embroidery. I exhibited often, in a chaotic way, without spending time honing my ideas.
Once I realised I needed to give myself the space to make work without pressure, I could properly explore my practice. I found that the more I stripped back my practice to the elements that interested me the most, putting aside the part of me that wants to do everything and please everyone, the stronger my work became. I gradually realised that the most honest thing I could do was to use my art to say something about my emotions, especially my struggles with anxiety.
I decided to use stitch to mark my place in the world, to explore what I can do with goldwork and to express my thoughts. This attitude allows me to be braver in my art.
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 character; it is quite an empowering process.
I definitely have more evolving to do. 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 love teaching goldwork, breaking down some of the notions of how it should be used, and sharing the joy of working with metal threads, using just a few simple techniques. I am really enjoying seeing this area of my life grow and evolve as I teach at museums, colleges and groups nationwide.
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