Kate Wells: From conception to creation
You might have seen dissolvable support fabric for use with embroidery, but wondered about how best to use it. Kate Wells uses this type of fabric along with machine embroidery to make absolutely stunning fine lace works.
Her Gold Series was constructed using a Singer ‘Irish’ Industrial machine. Her work At Your Feet, a rippling golden roll of lace festooned with a design of pebbles, leaves and daisies, was made after a barefoot walk in the garden. Her design had been inspired by the delicate works of medieval goldsmiths and jewellers as well as sampling explorations, testing out metallic threads and dissolvable fabric. Once she had finished the complex, inter-linked stitch work she took the plunge, holding her breath and dissolving the support fabric away, leaving the embroidered work as a delicate self-supporting fabric roll. It sounds like a scary moment!
Kate’s work is held in public and private collections including The Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan, and The Diana Springall Embroidery Collection. She has been a regular exhibitor at Art in Action, Waterperry House since 1984, and was a Textiles selector at Art in Action 2012-2016. Recently her work has been featured in Embroidery Magazine (‘The alchemy of thread’, March 2019).
In this article, discover how Kate developed her work At Your Feet, from gathering reference materials and creating samples. You’ll also learn more about the construction process for this beautiful roll of intricate lace work.
Name of piece: At Your Feet
Year of piece: 2013
Techniques and materials used: 220cm x 20cm, Machine embroidered lace. Materials: Metallic thread on dissolvable fabric.
An interlocking jigsaw of threads
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Kate Wells: Although this work hasn’t been a major exhibition piece, it has been pivotal to me. Other works have grown out of it. In a way it’s a large sample and making it opened up a new conversation between the maker and the made.
I’d always made landscape images in embroidery. These were really intensely stitched and often large-scale, each one a huge commitment once started.
I like to have a purpose or meaning behind what I embark on and on a workshop week with fellow artists I began to play with paper in response to our theme, instead of drawing. I had that ‘Aha’ moment and I was soon making patterns and open grids, like ‘paper lace’. Repetitions and textures that hadn’t previously been part of my usual way of working.
Once back home, I began to sample with metallic threads on dissolvable fabric. It was liberating to explore without having an end composition. Out of this work, a mini-series of small samples developed which I called ‘Fragments of Splendour’ (from the Bhagavad Gita scripture).
I then found myself shifting to research jewellery, goldsmith work and lace-making.
What research did you do before you started to make?
Until this project, my lifelong habit of sketching in museums and observing the details of decorative work had never found its way into the studio. I began to use a sketchbook to develop my ideas. In fact the next liberating step for me was to have themed sketchbooks with nice, heavy paper and a square format. My books gradually began to bulge with samples and experiments.
For the first time the possibilities came rolling along one after another. Each sample suggested the next direction to take, by questioning ‘What if….?’
I worked my way through different metallic threads and under-threads until I found a selection that worked reliably without too much fraying in the needle.
Walking barefoot in the grass
Was there any other preparatory work?
In 2008, at Art in Action, I had the privilege to meet a master Indian embroiderer. His double-sided embroidered pashmina entitled ‘The Divine Garden’ had won the Best of the Best award, voted by peers at the show. As I sat on the floor while he showed me his embroidery technique, I knew deep within that this was an important and inspirational cross-over moment. I had voted for his work and he had voted for mine. To this day, I regret not buying his pashmina. I should have paid homage to this pivotal moment.
The preparation for this piece was a simple walk in a divine garden, across the grass, barefoot and early in the morning. ‘At Your Feet’ was conceived. I took some photographs as references. Pebbles, gravel, leaves and feathers on the path, the grass and the daisies.
As sampling was now a more familiar process, I started to experiment. I knew that this piece had to be gold, like the morning atmosphere, and that it should be long and narrow like the width of a single footprint. I had seen rolls of Italian and French lace in the Burrell Collection (Glasgow) a few years before and this image had stayed powerfully with me. I wanted to construct my own roll of lace.
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?
Using hot-water dissolvable fabric from Whaleys of Bradford and Superior Metallics Thread from Barnyarns I set about sampling each surface.
I work on an old Irish industrial machine which is such a joy to use. The swing is variable, using a knee lever to widen or reduce the width of the stitch hands-free (anything from straight stitch to 12mm and back). I sampled the pebbles by stitching over and over to make a pad of dense thread.
Making stitched lace has to follow the traditional rules of lace-making, so I first stitched a grid to support the free embroidery design. This stopped the whole piece falling apart after dissolving the support fabric.
What equipment did you use in the creation of the piece and how was it used?
I used a 12” circular embroidery hoop. Knowing that the support fabric was temporary, I outlined the design directly onto the fabric using a fine marker and wrote measurements and memos along the way. The embroidered fabric was rolled and pinned to avoid it dragging and snagging as the work grew.
The Great Dissolve
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage
The roll was so long that it became really cumbersome so I started to work on a second strip at half-way, planning to join them together later.
In the bottom half, I’d been making a grid before stitching. As I was now embroidering flowers I changed my method to create something more like Guipure lace, stitching and wrapping bars between the petal shapes. This had to be sampled first. As I worked, a collection of samples was developing nicely on my wall alongside the reference images.
The sky section needed to balance the richness of the walk section. I chose a fine ultramarine blue thread (Ultrafyne from Restore Products) for the bobbin and loosened the lower tension until there was a shimmer of colour in all the top stitches. This became ‘starburst’ into which I left spaces to stitch plain gold flowers appearing as stars in the blue sky.
Both sections were then joined, blending the top and bottom embroidery sections together.
Once I’d thoroughly checked over for loose links in all areas, the piece was ready for the hot water pan and the ‘Great Dissolve’. The point of no return! After three minutes of gentle movement in very hot water, the whole fabric was lifted out and rinsed in cold running water, checking to make sure there were no traces of dissolvable gel left in the threads.
I laid an old soft flannelette sheet on the studio floor to stretch and block the whole cloth, gradually teasing and pinning the edges out to fill the template of stretched threads and keep a good alignment. Then it was left overnight.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
This beautiful gold cloth was exhibited at Art in Action (2013). It currently remains rolled up and shown when I have open studios or give illustrated talks. It has inspired more work and samples including a ‘Dip Your Mind in Gold’ (2014) and ‘Gold Field (2016).
For more information visit www.katewellsartist.co.uk
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11 comments on “Kate Wells: From conception to creation”
wow, good for you! the plunge was great!
i too have done lace with soluable fabric. i love it!!
my experience was great!
i too used my embroidery machine to do up the stitches. from a bought pattern and
i sized it to fit my project.
i am so pleased with it. wow!
i have been asked if i would sell my project.
I’ve never used soluble fabric. I have done a little lace weaving. I’m interested but a little concerned about the possibility of toxicity of the soluble fiber. What is it made of. How environmental is it?
Hello Pamela, most water-soluble fabric is made from poly-vinyl alcohol which is biodegradable when run through the water treatment process. Different makes may have slightly different compositions so it’s always worth checking with the manufacturer.
An amazing, gorgeous piece and very interesting process!
So beautiful and so intricately executed. Thank you fur sharing the process. I love the focus on small things in the garden to create something much bigger and all encompassing.
This is very inspirational. I have made lace this way–but it never occurred to me to make a grid first! I’ve also tried combining this type of lace with snippets of fabric. Thank you for sharing
Me encantó ver cómo realiza el Encaje. No sabía que hay una tela que se disuelve en el agua!!!
Muchas Gracias, Nilda
Kate, it is stunning! I have used a selection of dissolvable but have not come across a hot water dissolvable. What are the benefits of hot water dissolvable as opposed to cold water? I can’t find a similar product available in Australia to experiment but would order it from your supplier if it is worth the cost. Again, your work is beautiful, thank you so much for sharing your process. Kind regards Valerie
Il tuo lavoro mi ispira profondamente. La tua sensibilità e la capacità di percezione che sono alla base della tua opera mi stimolano ad approfondire la mia ricerca. Grazie Kate!
Your work inspires me deeply. Your sensitivity and the ability to perceive that are the basis of your work stimulate me to deepen my research. Thanks Kate!
Every time I open the new Joe and Sam report I am amazed and awestruck in the new ways and old ways brought new that’s happening out there in that gorgeous world of talent and stick to it Ness. I have saved all of these to reread and I do that alone. Thank you, Joe and Sam, for the best little bits of the huge talent out there.