Liz Heywood interview: Working with wire
Textile artist Liz Heywood creates quilts using a combination of machine embroidery, knitted wire, and paper pulp. Her aim as an artist is to capture the essence of plants and present that essence in a surprising and fresh way.
Captivated by quilts
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Liz Heywood: It was when I first saw some patchwork quilts; I had no idea that such things existed. They were displayed on a wall in a gallery in London and I was captivated immediately by their size and the visual impact they made. The patterns created, as I found out later, were made by individual blocks which were simple but when combined produced more elaborate patterns. It had never occurred to me that such art could be made in fabric.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My early influences were in art as I enjoyed drawing and painting, but at that time I had no interest in textiles or sewing. Perhaps it was the lack of stimulus at this stage that made stitched textiles so exciting later on in my life. Although my mother could sew and knit she did very little of either activity as far as I can remember. All her energy and spare time was spent in her garden. She did own a sewing machine which I borrowed years later when I started patchwork and quilting classes. Then when I wanted to knit using wire she taught me how to cast on and cast off, a skill I had previously never mastered.
A change in direction
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Although I would have liked to have had an art training I was encouraged to study an academic subject at university instead. It was not until several years later that I took a class in patchwork and quilting. After learning the basics I started to make traditional and then contemporary quilts. To gain more information and learn skills I did City and Guilds Part 1 and 2 in Patchwork and Quilting.
Since I had enjoyed the experience so much I then went on to the Stitched Textile Diploma HE at East Berkshire College, Windsor. This course was run by Jan Beaney, Jean Littlejohn and Ros Hills. It was here that I was introduced to a whole range of new ideas and skills that led to a change of direction for my work.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
It was at East Berkshire College, Windsor that I first developed the technique that I am using at present. At this time I discovered free machine embroidery and found how exciting and versatile this could be. I also experimented with knitting in wire. These two skills are combined in my work to produce hangings that look delicate and fragile but are surprisingly robust.
I have always enjoyed plant and flower drawing so this was an obvious subject to explore. Seed heads and plants that grow wild in the countryside are my favourite images, though I have also used plants found in gardens. The cycle of degeneration and regeneration is constantly in my mind. The knitted wire represents the cell structure of all living things and the addition of paper pulp hints at the decaying process.
Assessing visual impact
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I have a work room and also a small kitchen that I can use for wet work. The most important thing I have is a large design wall. This is invaluable for displaying work in progress and when completed to assess the visual impact. With machine embroidery you get very close to the piece most of the time and need to stand back and consider what you have done. I like to work in a quiet environment where I can concentrate without being distracted.
The work is completed in stages. First the knitted wire base is completed. The machine embroidery is then stitched on soluble fabric and later attached to the hand knitted wire. The background is made separately and auditioned on the design wall, so that it enhances and does not overpower the stitched embroidery. Finally the paper pulp is added and painted.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes. I always use a sketchbook to draw the plants that I will use in my work. I will draw them several times using different specimens so that I am very familiar with the structure and growth pattern. I need this practice as the next step will be drawing on the machine and I need to be confident with the shape and structure of the plant before I do this.
When I go out walking I constantly look at plants and observe details and interesting growth structures. Climbing or hanging stems that intertwine are particularly interesting and provide the structure that I want to interpret in a stitched textile.
The structure of stems and branches
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am still inspired by plants and trees and the structure of stems and branches and intend to continue working with these images. Although I go to as many exhibitions as I can it is the countryside that inspires me most.
There are many artists whose work I admire but to name a few: I have always enjoyed the work of Paul Klee and found his exhibition at Tate Modern inspiring because of his masterly use of colour and detail and the thought and knowledge that underpin his work. John Piper‘s work appeals again because of his use of colour and his draughtsmanship. Bridget Riley‘s paintings, though very different, use colour and shape in an inspirational way and although abstract are evocative of their subject. The earlier op art works are intriguing and fascinating and continually amaze me. I admire Gerhard Richter‘s paintings for the diversity of his work which invites closer inspection to see his skilful use of colour and detail. Although Anthony Gormley is a sculptor he is also definitely an artist who has produced a variety of thought provoking work on the human body which is both moving and beautiful.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Cascading Leaves was the last of the pieces that I made for the final exhibition for the course at Windsor. There were six pieces but this one appealed to me most, as I felt I had finally been able to show what I felt about the nature of the plant. I saw it growing at the Living Rainforest in Berkshire and made a sketch which I developed later. The twining, hanging stems created an amazing pattern and the leaves were a perfect shape.
Layers of wire
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Although I have continued to work with machine embroidery and wire and the same subject matter, my practice and skills have developed since those early experiments. I am now interested in creating pieces with layers of wire and a delicate background that encourages closer inspection. As well as this I belong to a group Studio 21 and we are working with a variety of mixed media.
Increasingly I am drawn to using more wire in my work and have become interested in producing 3D pieces, an area I have previously avoided.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
The most important thing in your textile work is to make what you really want to. Be true to yourself, you must enjoy the making and the finished result. Listen to advice and attend workshops to improve your skills. Visit exhibitions and look at the work of other artists.
Which books have you found most inspirational in your work as an artist?
There are a vast number of textile books which are informative and inspiring though I believe that it is also important to look at the work of artists working in a variety of media. I have found that I constantly refer to Pattern, Colour and Form: Creative Approaches by Artists and Making and Drawing by Kyra Cane. The Art Textiles of the World published by Telos are also an inspiring series and I particularly enjoy Japan (Art Textiles of the World).
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Without doubt it would be my sewing machine. I love working with my machine and would be lost without it. I have never really enjoyed hand sewing!