Sabine Kaner: Stitching life experiences
The story of the UK’s ‘Windrush Generation’ started with hope but ultimately led to injustices that are still being experienced today. It describes individuals and families who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries and refers to the ship MV Empire Windrush which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948. There were 492 passengers on that ship, and it is estimated nearly half a million others have followed them.
Textile artist Sabine Kaner is a member of that vital Generation, and she uses her art to sort through her own particular experience, as well as raise awareness of both the beauty and pain that rests within that diaspora.
Sabine is in love with colour and a master at manipulating textiles, which comes from childhood experiments with her German mother’s sewing remnants. Sabine mixes colours and thrifted textiles (including threads) into gorgeous tapestry-like works.
It’s surprising to learn Sabine has only been creating textile art for the last few years. Her original artistic pursuit was fine art printing. But family health challenges spanning several years found her sitting by bedsides in hospitals and treatment centres. Print-making became a struggle, which led her to explore the creative possibilities of fabric and textures.
Sabine’s story is one you won’t want to miss. And it’s especially timely in light of the immigration challenges being experienced across the globe. She not only shares an insider’s look into her artistic process, she helps us understand the experience that informs the stories she tells through her work.
If you would like to learn more about the Windrush Generation, Sabine recommends the WindrushFoundation.com.
Sabine is a member of the artist group @outsidein_uk where she first showed her textile work and was selected ‘Artist of the Month.’ She has also exhibited with SEAS Brighton to celebrate the Windrush Generation’s contributions to the U.K. and wellspace in London to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Day. Last year she hosted her first open studio as part of the SitSelect Art Trail in Stroud, and she was selected to become an exhibiting member of the international exhibiting group Prism.
Art as activism
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Sabine Kaner: My mother had a large chest of drawers that was always filled with bits of materials, lace, unfinished knitting, boxes of buttons and more. I was fascinated by those items and often spent time feeling the fabrics and rummaging through all her sewing bits.
She was also lucky enough to have an electric sewing machine bought by my father, so she made a lot of our clothes and all the home furnishings.
Still, I didn’t really know the word ‘textiles’ when growing up. I knew the word ‘fabric,’ and I knew people made things with it.
At school, we did needlework. I enjoyed doing sample stitches of embroidery, because they were always in bright and contrasting colours. But I didn’t enjoy making garments.
And my mother bought me little sewing kits with which I would make small felt animals that are still in my sewing box today.
I really excelled in the school art room. I loved drawing, painting and printmaking. I was inspired by colour, and it is through colour that my imagination was really captured.
I also won a couple major art competitions when I was only five years old and another for a National Road Safety Campaign when I was seven.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in London during the 1960s. Both my parents were immigrants. My mother came from Germany, and my father from Jamaica. Mixed marriages were frowned upon at that time, and there was a lot of racism and poverty. We lived in poor housing as one family sharing one room with inadequate facilities.
Most immigrants at that time were desperate to better themselves. My parents both worked long hours, often having more than one job, so I saw very little of them. As a result, we had to grow up quickly and become independent.
I struggled as a child to integrate into three cultures and was bullied a lot at school. My parents told me not to tell people my ethnicity. But that created a lot of confusion and identity issues. I eventually found myself fitting in with other immigrants of various nationalities, because we all shared similar experiences of prejudice, rejection and poverty.
The immigrant experience has had a profound effect on me and my art. It underpins all the work that I create. I spent a lot of time reading and drawing and learning how to sew. These were all quiet activities that suited the environment in which we lived.
In the 70’s, there was a lot of political unrest in Britain which sparked creativity, radical thinking and change. Young people like myself regrouped and expressed our dissatisfaction with society by attaching ourselves to punk fashion and radical music.
I joined a punk band along with my best friend and had a lot of fun supporting various bands in and around London.
I was also very fortunate to have an art teacher who took an interest in me and encouraged me to apply to art school. I was accepted to study an art foundation at Saint Martins in London, and I was the first person to go on to higher education in my family.
Saint Martins gave me many new experiences and opportunities. We visited lots of galleries. One exhibition that completely changed my way of thinking about art was at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was called ‘Outsider Art,’ and it suggested to me the power that art could have in documenting an artist’s life. It was also a way to explore identity, emotions and experiences whilst avoiding traditional art materials, either by choice or necessity.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
My route to becoming an artist was never straightforward and has been continually interrupted by life events. I have continued to make art throughout my life, but mostly in private rather than public spaces.
After my foundation at Saint Martins, I decided not to carry on in London due to family difficulties. I went to Manchester to study fine art printmaking, and it was there I truly fell in love with textiles. For the first time, I discovered one could specialise in embroidery. I used to visit the textile department and gaze at the wonderful stitching and creations.
I started to incorporate some fabric into my screen prints, but unfortunately in those days, it created a lot of disapproval. Subjects were kept very pure and mixing of materials was not encouraged.
I went back to London after my degree and completed a one-year business course whilst also attending an evening course in advanced printmaking at Central School of Art. I had my first piece of work accepted at a gallery in Covent Garden.
I then worked for various companies, including Saatchi & Saatchi, but I continued to attend evening classes at Saint Martins at their print studios in Long Acre Covent Garden.
The importance of colour and balance
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
When I first started creating textile pieces, I mostly used bits of fabrics and materials that had been donated to me or I had lying around. For example, I had a lot of cotton pillowcases and sheets my mother and grandmother had given me which I used as canvases to sew on. I also cut up bits from discarded and worn out clothes and used whatever threads I already had. My early pieces were very intense and experimental.
My present process still incorporates my initial ideas of reusing materials and recycling as much as possible, but I now buy natural unbleached calico on which to sew. I also use donated clothing from family and friends. I buy felt locally and visit charity chops to find discarded crochet and woolen pieces. My mother also left me a large array of embroidery threads which I have incorporated into my work over time.
On my desk, I keep a large piece of plain paper on which I jot down ideas and small sketches. I also have a larger sketch book I use to draw and experiment with colour. My drawings tend to be more loose ideas and don’t usually just sit on one page. I have a separate book where I keep experimental stitches, print experiments and mark making on fabrics.
Starting a piece of work requires a lot of organising of ideas. As there are so many interrelated threads (metaphorically speaking), I have to tease out which one is the strongest.
The advantages and disadvantages of particular materials for sewing often dictate some of the design. I use printing and paint as the underlying base of my work which I then gradually layer with fabrics and hand embroidery.
I use colour intuitively and am aware that it is a powerful tool with the ability to communicate subliminal messages. I try to create a sense of balance in my compositions with both my colours and shapes.
I use different colours such as a black background to bring other colours forward, so they stand out. Using black creates a dramatic backdrop. It’s a colour that conceals and doesn’t illuminate.
In my ‘Decorating the Cuts’ piece which highlights the importance and loss of certain species, I also used red to emphasise the urgency of the topic and to represent the colour of blood. And in the ‘Colour of the Nations,’ I used brown which represents home and family to me. It is the colour of our roots and our history which I combined with the colours of the Jamaican flag.
I’m currently working on a piece called ‘[purple] violets’ which has the colour purple incorporated into the violet which represents modesty and spirituality.
Every piece I create feels like a journey from the past to the present. I find myself unpicking memories as I go along, working them through in my mind and then translating them into my compositions through the materials and the act of making. Political, social, economic and cultural identity are all part of the stories that present themselves in my compositions, often symbolically.
Colour combined with certain images can work simultaneously to convey messages. For example, hands are symbolic of expression. So, I have used a grey hand in the ‘Colour of Love’ to represent impartiality and emotional distance.
Sleeves are another frequent icon in my work, adhering to the saying ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve.’
Other frequently used images are autumn leaves which, for me, represent reflection and the cycle of life. And I have also used butterflies (a metamorphic symbol) posing the question of transformation.
Symbolic meanings differ across cultures, so these are my personal interpretations based on my cultural understandings and the symbolic meanings attributed to these particular images.
My work is the vehicle for my personal expression and narrative, like a book is to a writer. And the titles I choose for my pieces are usually a play on meanings, metaphorical or symbolic of an idea.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I work in a mixed-media way creating abstract images that are juxtaposed with contrasting patterns. I layer the different processes and techniques that I use either on top of each other or side by side.
Working with collage I try to connect the separate materials together with hand embroidery and stitch. My embroidery mostly uses simple stitches which knit together to form a tapestry of colour.
I save every piece of fabric—even tiny pieces—and have a big bag of scraps which I reuse. I also collect buttons, buckles and all the other bits attached to clothing.
When I do my printing on fabric, I try to organise it all in a day and do a whole lot of prints at the same time. I don’t always know how I will incorporate them into my work, but I usually find that the textures that I create inspire me and spark off ideas.
I’m always trying to create a sense of balance in my compositions, taking things apart, re-imagining them and creating something new. My experience of printmaking, especially screen printing, has enabled me to understand how to overlay and how to use blocks of colour.
A few years ago, I worked as a seamstress. I had to make various garments and alterations to clothes. I have incorporated ideas and techniques learned from this into my work.
At the moment, I am creating a series of work using sleeves from deconstructed jumpers. I enjoy making use of the accidental marks, holes and shrinking that occurred over the life of the garment. These always provide more opportunities for embroidery stitches.
I also recently started experimenting with hands through gloves. I was very inspired by a recent exhibition at the fashion museum in Bath. I would love to see more representation of BAME people in all aspects of fashion and textiles.
The acronym BAME in the UK refers to ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.’ In the world of textiles that I inhabit, there are very few people of those particular backgrounds represented, particularly in the area of fine-art textiles. Some of the textile groups have an international membership allowing for better representation. But there are not many representations from the UK.
What currently inspires you?
I am very inspired by people’s lived experiences and stories. As part of my degree, I chose to study American literature as an optional module. I also recently attended a short course on women’s role in the American civil rights movements. I still read a lot of American literature. Activism really inspires me. I am passionate about injustice, including disparities between rich and poor, mental health and the environment.
I have always listened to a lot of music, especially Jazz. My eldest son is a successful modern classical composer @Matthew Kaner. Listening to his work allows me to think of endless possibilities. His work resonates with my inner creativity.
We are made up of many parts and experiences. Collage is a way of putting those connections together in one piece. My experiences in life have been so varied. I have lived in lots of different parts of the country. At the moment, I live between two places due to my partner’s work. This gives me access to both city and country living. I am inspired by the different communities that live in each place.
Gaining artistic confidence
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I have particularly fond memories of a piece I created using a favourite hand-knitted jumper. Both I and my daughter work that jumper until it started to fall apart. She wore it when she was very unwell and found it comforting, as it was big and baggy and very warm.
The piece is called ‘Blended Stitches,’ and it is flanked by pieces of the jumper on both sides, creating a panel of embroidery stitches in the middle. I wanted the middle to be like an expressive painting.
I find the piece joyous and comforting, a metaphor for warmth and security, and for those who stood by me through many difficult years, giving me much to be thankful for. It was a really special moment when a well-known designer came to my open studio to view this piece of work and liked it so much.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I have learnt so many different ways of using fabrics, paper, stitch and print— exploring their different qualities and how to combine them with stitching. I have also experimented with lots of combinations of colour and would like to continue to develop that.
In the last couple years, I have been able to exhibit alongside others in shows that explore people’s lived experiences of mental illness and identity. I would like to contribute much more to this conversation with my work.
Before lockdown, I was working on a project in Nottingham funded by the New Art Exchange which is led by African, Caribbean and South Asian artists. It celebrates the regions’ cultural diversity and is the largest gallery in the UK dedicated to nurturing artists and showing culturally diverse contemporary visual arts.
I designed what will be an illustrated map in stitch of important places and memories of the Windrush Generation. We hope to carry on with the project in the future when it is safe to do so and exhibit it as part of Black History Month.
In 2021, I hope to exhibit my work in Northampton at 78 Derngate, a house that Macintosh built, in a joint exhibition with my partner who is a furniture maker. Alongside my textile work, we plan to make a couple of joint pieces. He will make the furniture, and I will design and make the fabrics for them.
I have been asked many times to do workshops and mentoring. I hope as my health improves, I can take on more commitments. I am gradually feeling more confident with my own style, and my voice is starting to come through in my work.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
I would advise any aspiring textile artist to experiment as much as possible in the early stages. Try out different techniques, not just the ones that are popular or safe.
Create a booklet or sketchbook of different ideas for yourself as a reference.
Look at different materials and their qualities—how they interact and how you could use them.
No mistakes or experiments are wasted. You are creating a library of resources that will enable you to move forward more quickly and develop your own personal language.
Be kind to yourself, even if all your ideas don’t translate into the visual image you had in mind straight away. Just keep going, and with practice, the work will reveal itself!
For more information visit sabinekaner.com
How have you been inspired by Sabine’s story? Let us know below.