Jess De Wahls: Stitching her stance

Jess De Wahls: Stitching her stance

From intimate thread sketches to large, impactful embroidered pieces, the artworks Jess De Wahls makes are bold, contemporary and intensively stitched, setting themselves apart from the more traditional styles of embroidery.

As you will see, her images pack an unexpected punch. While the familiarity of the embellished surface draws us in, it’s her expert use of colour and tonal variations that bring her portraits and narrative works to life.

Jess uses her art to communicate about how she feels. Her work is thought-provoking and complex. She is compelled to express her stance on issues including feminism and social injustice through her stitched portraits and elaborate narrative works. 

While making portrait sculptures during the early years of her life as a textile artist, Jess became more and more interested in embroidery. Now it’s her main focus. She urges you to dig deep and figure out your ‘Why?’, as it will help you to concentrate on what is important to you in your own art-making.

Upcycled monsters & contoured portraits

TextileArtist: What initially attracted you to textiles and, in particular, stitch as a medium?

Jess De Wahls: The birth of my goddaughter was the event that initially triggered my love for textile art. I wanted to create something tactile, artistic and with meaning attached. It was this need that got me to pick up a needle and thread. Back then, I simply sewed funny monsters from upcycled clothing.

These little creatures took on a life of their own, growing into a full-blown exhibition in 2011 at the Resistance Gallery, London, UK. This rapidly evolved into more complex work and led me to recycled textile sculpture – Retex sculpture – a unique medium that I developed myself. 

Portraiture is important to me. I am drawn to faces because they are just incredibly interesting to me. The stories they tell, often without even meaning to, is something that has always fascinated me. I also love embroidering hands for the same reason – hands tell you a lot about a person.

My paramount themes are social injustice, period poverty and gender inequality. I also target the problems of textile waste and develop creative upcycling solutions. Being entirely self-taught has endowed me with the freedom to establish my own voice and unique approach towards the age-old medium of embroidery, a medium which continues to be undervalued and dismissed as merely ‘craft’. 

Whatever the context, bygone or contemporary, the breaking and re-shaping of preconceived ideas about textile art is integral to my work.

Jess De Wahls, Putting On a Brave Face, 2019. 30cm x 42cm (12" x 16"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Putting On a Brave Face, 2019. 30cm x 42cm (12″ x 16″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Toni Morrison, 2017. 20cm x 20cm (8" x 8"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Toni Morrison, 2017. 20cm x 20cm (8″ x 8″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Same Same, But Different, 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12" x 16"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Motherhood ~ Same Same, but different, 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12″ x 16″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Same Same, But Different (detail), 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12" x 16"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Motherhood ~ Same Same, but different (detail), 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12″ x 16″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

Organic inspirations

How do you go about developing a narrative for your work?

I always work on several pieces at the same time and, while doing this, I ponder about many thoughts and concepts. Doing something with my hands, in solitude, has inspired many of my ideas, which I write down as soon as they appear. Sometimes I won’t revisit these for a month or even years.

“I don’t set out to intentionally develop narratives, it’s more organic than that. It all happens quite naturally.”

I also listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I stitch. These provide much food for thought. Last but not least, my slight obsession with reading has inspired many a narrative. In the end, the stories I tell all develop mostly of their own accord.

Jess De Wahls in her studio.
Jess De Wahls in her studio
Jess De Wahls, Athena, 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12" x 16"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Athena, 2023. 30cm x 42cm (12″ x 16″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Masi Alinejad (process detail), 2024. Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Masi Alinejad (process detail), 2024. Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

French knot frenzy

Tell us about the work Nevertheless, She Persisted

In 2022, I was invited to exhibit in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. My work had been removed from sale at the Royal Academy in 2019 after I had created a controversial embroidery piece with a companion essay. There followed a two week-long major news story in the national press. Eventually, I received an apology from the RA and the chance to take part in their annual show.

The theme of the show was Climate, and for this, I created Nevertheless, She Persisted. The work imagines the sixth mass extinction, where most humans don’t make it, but the earth, bees, plants and fungi heal themselves and tidy up the mess we created. 

At the time I made it, it was the largest embroidered piece I had ever created – it’s enormous! There were many moments in which I questioned my decision to use french knots made up of multicolour-combined threads to depict sand. Ultimately it was the right decision. 

Much like with my other work, I had an initial idea, which I left to percolate for a while before I began drawing. As it’s a huge composition, I had my drawing printed onto a large piece of fabric and then got stitching. I only had four months to complete it, including getting it framed. It was a 12-hours-a-day kind of job, which I’ll admit isn’t how I enjoy working. But the opportunity was too good to pass, so I did it. The technique is the same I use in all my multi-coloured works – a combination of large seed stitches, colour blending and many french knots.

Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted, 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½" x 33½"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted, 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½” x 33½”). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted (detail), 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½" x 33½"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted (detail), 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½” x 33½”). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted (work in progress), 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½" x 33½"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Nevertheless, She Persisted (work in progress), 2022. 95cm x 85cm (37½” x 33½”). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

Tell us about the style of your work…

Feminism, the kind of second wave ‘makes things better for women’, ‘centre women’s issues’ and ‘advance female liberation’ type of feminism, is what I subscribe to. I like to address these ideas while weaving lush florals and botanicals throughout the storyline. Mother Nature commonly has an intrinsic feminine quality, so to me it feels quite fitting to connect the two themes visually.

I make large, detailed and heavily stitched embroideries, as well as smaller sketchy thread drawings. The two styles are usually reserved for different things – though I might merge them a little in the future. 

The thread sketches emerged out of the covid lock-down and grew from an idea into a neat little side hustle. The large embroideries are usually how I work through my ideas in thread, and these seem to be growing ever larger with time. 

An initial drawing for a large piece can live in my files for quite some time until I am ready to stitch it. I pretty much always work on one or two commissioned pieces at the same time as working on my own creations. While I map out the piece as a drawing, the actual stitching – including the colour choices – happens more on the go.

Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature, 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16" x 23"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature, 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16″ x 23″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature (work in progress), 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16" x 23"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature (work in progress), 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16″ x 23″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature (work in progress), 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16" x 23"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Mother Nature (work in progress), 2023. 42cm x 60cm (16″ x 23″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Natural Habitat, 2021. 45cm x 45cm (18" x 18"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Natural Habitat, 2021. 45cm x 45cm (18″ x 18″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

Communicating with the world

Which direction do you think you’ll take in the future? 

I have so many ideas and plans, and mostly not enough time in this life – I also have a toddler dancing around me most days now. I am working on a solo show I am hoping to open in a couple of years. It will be an epic collection of large scale embroideries that will no doubt rattle some feathers in certain circles and open eyes in others.

Art, in the end, is my way of communicating with the world. If some can’t handle that, that’s okay with me. I don’t set out to be a contrarian, but with so many people nowadays too afraid to say what they think, I stick out like a sore thumb. I refuse to toe the party line with my explorations in thread.

My pieces have grown significantly in size, so I anticipate more of that in the future. I’ve also picked up crochet over the past couple of years, so I’m sure this will make an appearance in my work.

Jess De Wahls, Ode To Joy – She Came, She Saw, She Conquered, 2018. 60cm x 60cm (24" x 24"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads, metal wire.
Jess De Wahls, Ode To Joy – She Came, She Saw, She Conquered, 2018. 60cm x 60cm (24″ x 24″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads, metal wire.
Jess De Wahls, Kitty Kitty, 2021. 35cm x 35 cm (14" x 14"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Kitty Kitty, 2021. 35cm x 35 cm (14″ x 14″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, J Ross commission, 2019. 21cm x 30cm (8" x 12"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, J Ross commission, 2019. 21cm x 30cm (8″ x 12″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, untitled commission, 2019. 21cm x 30cm (8" x 12"). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, Untitled commission, 2019. 21cm x 30cm (8″ x 12″). Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

You first became known for your Retex sculptures – do you still make this kind of work? 

I no longer spend time doing Retex sculptures, but then everything has its season. Who knows, I might revisit sculpture at some point.

I used old garments as a source of fabric for the Retex works. Cushion filler helped to create depth, raising the silhouette off the canvas. This allowed me to do some relief shaping and sculpting during the portrait process. 

The waste culture of our consumerist societies is something I have difficulty with, so it came naturally for me to utilise recycled clothing rather than newly bought fabrics. I made a self-imposed rule of making do with what I had in the studio. As a result, the Retex works are unique and impossible to recreate.

Somehow these pieces got more and more intricate. One day, much of the background was embroidered, rather than sewn-together fabric. So, for all intents and purposes, I fell into the world of embroidery entirely by chance. Now it’s what I love to do more than anything else. 

I think my portrait of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is one of my favourite Retex sculptures. I love how wonderfully colourful it is and how much embroidery is part of it. I also feel a kinship towards her after her public hounding for her views and how gracefully she dealt with it all.

Jess De Wahls, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, 2013. 46cm x 61cm (18" x 24"). Hand stitch. Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.
Jess De Wahls, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, 2013. 46cm x 61cm (18″ x 24″). Hand stitch. Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.
Jess De Wahls, Queen B (process detail), 2013. 80cm x 140cm (31" x 55"). Hand stitch. Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.
Jess De Wahls, Queen B (process detail), 2013. 80cm x 140cm (31″ x 55″). Hand stitch. Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.
Jess De Wahls, Channelling the Greats, 2013. Hand stitch. 45cm x 70cm (18" x 28") Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.
Jess De Wahls, Channelling the Greats, 2013. Hand stitch. 45cm x 70cm (18″ x 28″) Recycled fabrics, cushion stuffing, thread, plywood.

You aim to elevate the perception of embroidery and its consideration as fine art. In what ways are you tackling this?

As the years go by and my work is being commissioned and collected by more and more patrons, I feel that in part I am doing my bid just by doing what I do. Sticking to my convictions and speaking up for what I believe in has garnered a lot of attention, not just on myself as a person, but towards embroidery as an art form. I am quite proud of that.

I no longer seek to fit in with the commercial art scene and have carved out my own niche instead. Introducing embroidery as an art form to as many people as possible is what I set out to do, and that’s exactly what I am doing.

Do you have one or two practical tips for other people making textile art? 

My practical tip is not to compare yourself to others, ever! There will always be somebody ‘better’, but this knowledge is irrelevant and actually useless to your own practice.

Really dig deep and figure out what is your ‘Why?’. This is important, because otherwise you will just be floating around without much of a plan – that gets you nowhere.

Once you figure out your motivations, then you can make a practical plan on how to get there, be it improving your technique, working on your marketing skills, or whatever else it might need. For the rest, the internet is a vast well of information – you can find all you need there and in books.

Don’t get hung-up on sticking with old-fashioned techniques once you’ve become proficient in them. Learn them and then take them where they serve you and your goals. 

For example, I couldn’t care less about traditional transfer methods in embroidery. I draw all my pieces on the Procreate app on an iPad, then I get them printed, or I print directly at home if the piece is smaller. I have no time or patience for the traditional transfer processes. For me, what matters in the end is the actual embroidery, not the drawing.

Most important, and often forgotten, remember to have fun.

Jess De Wahls, ‘That’ Lunch (work in progress), 2023. Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.
Jess De Wahls, ‘That’ Lunch (work in progress), 2023. Hand embroidery. Various embroidery threads.

Key takeaways

Jess De Wahls stitches figures that jump out at you. Why not consider making powerful artworks full of character and depth?

  • Get to grips with the techniques, then allow them to serve you. Adapt processes to suit you, like when Jess prints her drawings onto fabric to give her a quick and easy start to her projects.
  • Don’t be afraid of intensive stitching using lots of different thread tones. Jess builds up her works with layers and layers of mixed colours, creating shadows, highlights and depth. This will help to bring your portraits to life.
  • When you know why you are making art, you’ll have more purpose and direction, and you’ll feel more fulfilled – so go find out your ‘Why?’ 

Jess De Wahls was born in Berlin and has been based in London since 2004. Her solo exhibitions include Big Swinging Ovaries Vol. 2 at Platform Gallery, NSW, Australia (2018), and her work has featured in numerous group exhibitions worldwide, including A Nasty Piece of Work, The San Francisco Gallery, SF, USA (2023) and the annual Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, UK (2022).

Artist website: jessdewahls.com

Check out Representing people: Portraits in textile art to discover more portrait artists using the medium of embroidery. Or enjoy the work of Bryony Jennings, another textile artist who creates 3D sculptural textiles.

Sunday 26th, May 2024 / 22:13

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6 comments on “Jess De Wahls: Stitching her stance”

  1. Cecile says:

    The eyes on these portraits are incredible!

  2. leigh says:

    Beautiful work!!

  3. Cheryl turner says:

    Amazing work such a talent.

  4. Leisa Rich says:

    Love the technique! An excellent application of it. However, the recent inundation to the craft market of portraiture — especially portrait of famous individuals — is saturated and has become redundant. I would love to see what this artist could do with this technique in a more fine art manner!

  5. efrat says:

    Amazing work
    Accurate work pretty and colorful! (:

  6. Linda says:

    Stunning work, I love the whole concept!!

Comments are closed.

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