Learn to stitch textile landscapes like a master
Cas Holmes is world-renown for her ability to combine the worlds of stitch and painting to create incredible textile landscapes. So when she published her book Textile Landscape: Painting with Cloth in Mixed Media last October, it’s no surprise it was met with great excitement. Textile artists were eager to gain an inside look into her creative process and “stitch-sketching” techniques.
The book is packed with instruction, inspiration and gorgeous imagery. It starts with basic instruction on techniques related to colouring and mark-making on fabric and paper. It then provides a myriad of examples and projects to help readers imagine all the possibilities for creating textile landscapes of their own.
This article features an interview with Cas in which she explains what inspired the book’s creation, as well as some of her favourite techniques featured in the book.
Cas grew up in Norfolk and now lives in Kent. Her work has appeared in both solo and group exhibitions across the globe. She regularly works on collaborations and community projects including a commission with the Garden Museum (London) and a project with a homeless charity in the Medway area. She was also an artist-in-residence at West Dean College where she regularly teaches.
TextileArtist.org: Found objects seem to be a key role in the creation of your work. What is it about re-using materials that is important to you and your process?
Cas Holmes: Both my grandmother and father encouraged me to explore and use what was there. My grandmother was a Romany Gypsy and led a thrifty life full of stories (my father loved a good tale as well). And my dad, who was a painter and decorator, encouraged me to use his old paints and backs of wallpaper for my creations.
My father equally loved a good tale and when I was old enough I loved to meet him from work to walk, talk and look at everyday things and the beautiful buildings I grew up with in Norwich (my home city).
But I can’t say when exactly I realised my use of found materials connected to the environments in which they were found. Instead, I think the process of connecting to place found me.
The memories of how objects come into my hands through travel and work inform my process just as much as my drawings and recordings. And all the imperfections of the objects illustrate their ‘history’.
This also applies to commissioned pieces. Sometimes just sitting and taking in what is around me (often with a sketchbook in hand) gives me time to ‘just be’…to absorb things and think. And then the connections I make between objects and the ‘story’ of a place or person brings the work to life.
How do landscapes inform the work you make?
The landscape and the natural world is a source of inspiration, as well as a useful resource that constantly informs my art practice. And every environment offers its own opportunities and challenges. For example, when I visited Australia, the landscape was inspirational, but also alien to me. It tells its own story, and because I’m not fully familiar with that story, I found only the most transient of connections.
But I still found myself drawn to that which was familiar, such as small gardens, washing hanging on a line, power lines, etc. While the details were different (kangaroos instead of cows and sheep, different plants in gardens, etc.), I still found a familiar connection.
I’m also fortunate to receive scraps of cloth and paper from people I teach or generally meet in the generous world of textiles. Those gifts often trigger an idea. “Tea Flora Tales” is a perfect example in which people created their own connection to the landscape in small postcard-size pieces reflecting local wildflowers and places of special interest. And that effort also helped raise awareness of the need to conserve habitats.
That global collaboration just kept growing and was recently exhibited at The Knitting and Stitching Shows.
Our relationship with the local and global environment is a fragile one. No one who has grown up in the flat Norfolk landscape as a child can fail to make connections between change and man’s impact on the land through farming, building and use of world resources.
What inspired you to write your new book Textile Landscape?
In the closing chapter of Textile Landscape, I reflect upon a question raised at my show in a small library gallery in Kent: ‘…but textile artists don’t do landscape, do they?’
This debate about what we do as artists, let alone textile artists, has been churning in my mind for years. I recognise my practice sits between two worlds of practice: painting and textiles. But I wonder why a distinction of their values as an art form are still being discussed at length. This book is a response to that debate.
The chapter ‘Painting with Cloth’ especially explores the various ways in which paint and print processes can be combined with textiles. Methods presented include straight-forward techniques to colour cloth in which colour or dye is directly applied to cloth. But I also share tips on using printing and resist techniques that can be layered on top of coloured cloth
The chapter also explains how stitched and textured surfaces of cloth can give interesting results in both direct and screen printing. The stitches and textures serve as a sort of stencil in resisting applied paints and dyes. An example would be the ‘Medway Gap’ work featured on the cover of the book. It was created by using a silkscreen and local plants as a resist.
I also encourage readers to remember none of the techniques presented in the book are meant to stand alone. Instead, I suggest ways to experiment and combine the various techniques. In my own practice, I’ll often work into surfaces with a wash of colour (paint or dye) and then work layers on top with printing techniques.
How does your approach to stitching on cloth differ from stitching on paper?
I’m not so sure I make a clear distinction between the value of cloth and paper as a surface for stitch. Instead, I prefer to investigate how any material’s surface responds to stitch, as well as different mediums and techniques.
So to that end, the book shares a variety of techniques for manipulating both paper and fabric to help make stitching easier and more interesting.
For example, I share my experience in Japan where I studied how to manipulate paper to the point where it becomes almost as malleable as cloth (which makes for easier hand stitching). Historical Japanese clothing was literally made out of hand-made paper (Washi) that was cut, spun and woven into an incredibly tough cloth known as Shifu.
Kamiko uses whole paper sheets which through kneading, crumpling and flexing in the hands becomes more malleable and feels like cloth. I happily applied that same approach to some of my found papers which indeed made them softer and easier to stitch.
Conversely, I can also stiffen my cloth temporarily by applying paint and collage mediums to make it easier to handle for free motion stitching. Those techniques are explained in more detail in the book in relation to the creation of cloth journals.
Finally, I like to incorporate ‘inherited’ marks on cloth and paper that come from wear and tear and staining from being handled. I look at these ‘imperfections’ as part of the story of an overall piece. A good example of this technique would be my ‘Loy Yang Power Station,’ in which stains on the material colour the background and steam from the cooling tower is represented by the end threads of torn cloth gathered at the power plant site.
What do you hope readers will take away from exploring the content of your book?
Our connection to the landscape and the natural world is deeply felt and meaningful. And as I recognised its value in informing my own practice, I wanted to share that with other makers.
Practical projects are embedded into the text and are exemplified by both my own and other leading textile practitioners’ works. Artists including Grayson Perry, Jan Beaney, Itchiku Kubota, Sue Stone, Claire Benn and Louise Gardiner have generously contributed to its success.
I want the reader to be as excited as I am by this ‘in-between world’ of cloth, paint and stitch to represent landscape aspects in their own work.
I am extremely proud of being a writer for Batsford, and as a result, my writing and creative arts practice has grown in confidence. Working with the editorial team is a partnership which not only allows but also encourages, my ‘vision’ and specific ‘take on the world.’
For more information visit www.casholmes.com
Have you worked with landscapes in your own artistic journey? If so, we’d love to hear about your favourite techniques below.