Leigh Bowser interview: Happy accidents

Leigh Bowser interview: Happy accidents

We were originally introduced to Leigh Bowser when she got in touch about The Blood Bag Project, an important fabric art and crafts scheme that aims to raise awareness of the rare blood disorder Diamond Blackfan Anaemia. We then spotted her work featured on the contemporary embroidery and needlecraft blog Mr X Stitch and were impressed by how she is using her passion for textiles to create work that is modern, accessible and extremely saleable.

Leigh is a recent Textile Crafts Graduate from the University of Huddersfield. She describes herself as an illustative embroiderer, specialising in portraiture and using free hand machine technqiues. Each piece is hand drawn before being stitched with no need for the use of computers or digital technology.

In our interview with Leigh we find out more about her work, how she feels textile art and embroidery can speak to the young and how she has created a business out of a passion – inspiring stuff!

Leigh Bowser produces unique illustrative embroidery

‘Animal Crossing Character Patch/Brooch’ – Free hand machine embroidery on calico

All thanks to mam and dad

What initially captured your imagination about textile art and contemporary illustrative embroidery?

Before college, I thought textiles only meant fashion. It wasn’t until I started my A-level in Textiles that my tutor showed me there was so much more. Since then, I’ve never looked back!

What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?

My mam taught my twin sister and I hand embroidery as a kid and I remember making a sampler of different things from an old book of patterns. I have my mam to thank for teaching me how to stitch and use a sewing machine, and my dad to thank for my drawing abilities. My twin sister and 3 year old niece have been HUGE influences in my work, especially in my final year of university.  I like to create work that is personal, but that the viewer can still relate to or make a connection with.

Leigh Bowser is a textile artist using free hand machine embroidery to produce unique results

‘Those Jumpers’ – Free hand machine embroidery and paper on canvas

What was your route to becoming an artist?

I studied textiles in college but wasn’t sure about carrying it on in University, even though it was my favourite subject. My tutor told me to do something I loved at Uni, instead of something I thought would be ‘practical’.  I didn’t have a clue where I would find the right textiles course for me, until I was given the prospectus for the University of Huddersfield. If you’d asked me then, I couldn’t even have pointed Huddersfield out on a map, but the BA (Hons) Textiles Crafts course was the only one of its kind at that time, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I graduated in 2012 with 1st class honours, and a year’s exchange in Finland studying glass and ceramics under my belt.

A piece of contemporary embroidery by artist and business woman Leigh Bowser

‘Great Grandma’ – Free hand machine embroidery on cotton

Embroidery as a voice

What is your chosen medium and what techniques do you use to create your illustrative embroidery?

I’m a free motion machine embroiderer. I use a Bernina 1000 Special and tend to use plain sturdy fabrics such as canvas and calico.

How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?

I’d like to think my current work, which is sold through my online store is contemporary but accessible. A lot of it has cult references to film and TV, but then there are also more personal options, such as the pet portrait brooches. I feel like I’m in the middle of this really great time in contemporary textiles, where young people are really responding to it as an art form, and using it to express themselves.  I know lots of amazing young female embroiderers who use it as a way of having their voices heard.

Contemporary illustrative embroidery on calico by Leigh Bowser

‘Pocky’ – Free hand machine embroidery on calico

Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?

Currently, I have a very small desk in my very small flat. I would like a bigger space where I could be free to stitch, paint, make a mess and work on pieces for weeks at a time like I did in my studio space at University. However, I’m grateful for any space that will stand my sewing machine on it, as really, that is all I need!

When I create a piece of embroidery, I sketch it out on paper first. I then pin this to the cloth and free motion stitch over the illustration. Once the outline is complete, I peel away the paper so that only the cloth and thread are left behind. Some might think this is a long winded process and drawing it directly onto the fabric would be quicker, but I feel I can be more precise in pencil first, and I love the ‘peel and reveal’ when the paper is removed. Sometimes I leave small sections of the paper in place. After this stage is done, I start filling in the colour, usually working background to foreground.

Leigh Bowser produces textile brooches on commission

‘Tyra, Commissioned Pet Portrait Patch/Brooch’ – Free hand machine embroidery on calico

A selfish stitcher!

Do you use a sketchbook?

I do, but it has been somewhat abandoned in recent months. I spend so much time at my sewing machine stitching commissions; I just can’t seem to find time to paint anymore, which is a shame as it is something I really love to do.

What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?

My current pieces are heavily influenced by my favourite TV and films – I’m quite a selfish stitcher in that I sew Brooches/Patches that I want to wear. Luckily, my customers like to wear them too!

I recently saw ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, Grayson Perry’s collection of woven tapestries and they were some of the most amazing pieces of textile art I have ever seen. I sat for an hour taking them all in and look forward to them coming to Leeds so I can see them again! The colours and fluid lines, as well as the detail and narrative was just overwhelming!

Original and unique piece of illustrative embroidery by textile artist Leigh Bowser

‘Frida Kahlo Patch/Brooch’ – Free hand machine embroidery on calico

Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?

I have this Betty Boop doll I made from felt as a kid. I still have the plan I made on how I would stitch it and she has different clothes to change into. It was my first real feat of embroidery – I made something that no one else would ever have! I still have it but she is safely stored away at my parents’ house.

Leigh Bowser uses freehand machine embroidery techniques when creating pieces of textile art on commission for clients

‘Those Jumpers (detail)’ – Free hand machine embroidery and paper on canvas

Unpicking stitches and changing threads

How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?

My work has definitely developed since I became more confident in myself. I started with very abstract, open lines, but now my work is a lot more meticulous and clean cut. I still surprise myself sometimes at my abilities, and will always strive for perfection. If something doesn’t look right, I’ll work on it until it does! I spend a lot of time unpicking stitches and changing thread colours, but I’ve never sent off a commission I wasn’t 100% happy with! I’m hoping in the future it will develop into larger pieces, as I’m currently working on a small scale.

What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist or anyone interested in illustrative embroidery?

Experiment. Don’t be afraid of your materials and try out all your ideas. If they don’t turn out how you want, it doesn’t matter, you’ll still learn something along the way. I have had countless ‘happy accidents’ in my work when something has gone wrong, but the result was 10 times better than I had envisaged! I’ve also learned a lot about materials and fabrics through this!

Can you recommend 3 or 4 great books for textile artists?

These are all great books for the contemporary embroiderer!

Leigh Bowser specialises in textile portraiture

‘Commissioned Pet Portrait Patch/Brooch’ – Free hand machine embroidery on calico

What other resources do you use? 

I love Embroidery Magazine and Crafty Magazine, and I follow a lot of young embroiderers through the blogging website Tumblr.

What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?

My tweezers!  They are essential for getting those tiny bits of paper away from the fabric without tearing all the thread off with it. They are also great for holding those annoying tiny loose threads that need trimming but you can get hold of with your digits!

Where can readers see your work this year?

I don’t have any exhibitions coming up as I’m concentrating on my online store. I like to create products that are small piece of art that my audience can buy and wear. I want my work to be accessible to everyone, and I want them to touch it, love it and own it!

You can find out more about Leigh and her work from the following places:

Read the Blood Bag Project article on TextileArtist.org

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Wednesday 29th, March 2023 / 00:36

About the author

Joseph Pitcher is the son of textile artist Sue Stone. He is an actor and voice-over artist and has worked at the RSC, the National Theatre, West End theatres and several other leading regional venues across the UK. Find Joe on Google

View all articles by Joe



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2 comments on “Leigh Bowser interview: Happy accidents”

  1. Graeme Bowser says:

    one proud father 🙂

  2. Shaheen Akhtar says:

    Leigh, its me Shaheen. I would really like to chat to you about a short term project.

    Its ghazal inspired. Its fabric based – poetry on fabric.

    Its for a short period of time and I would love you to deliver it. It will be delivered at Bostan Spa silc (West Oaks School)

    Does this sound good?


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