Sue Rangeley interview: Bespoke embroidered textiles
Sue Rangeley has been creating unique works of art for fashion for more than four decades. She is perhaps best known for detailed free machine embroidery, beadwork, delicate silk appliqué, hand-painting, and an array of artful embellishments.
In 2009, Sue was the recipient of award funding for ‘A Wearable Art’ by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and Oxfordshire County Council.
Her work has been featured in several publications, including Crafts, The World of Interiors, and Vogue, and she is the author of the book ‘Embroidered Originals’.
Sue offers us a detailed look at at rewarding career, a tour of her studio, and two serendipitous moments that changed her career.
Free expression with a needle
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Sue Rangeley: From an early age, I was entranced by the world of fashion, the craft of embroidery, and all things sparkly, which is quite a glitzy contrast to the rural farming life which was my childhood in the 1950s. Perhaps it was delving into a dressing-up box of 1920s silk dresses or playing with my paper dolls on rainy days that caught my imagination, and sewed the seed of my future career.
Country life certainly influenced a love of nature, too. My first forays with stitch broke the boundaries of cross stitch patterns; instead, my school cookery apron was embroidered with flower fairies. It was my liberated needlework teacher who allowed me free expression with a needle and thread at the age of 11, but that was just the beginning!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Throughout my life, my parents encouraged my creative endeavours. Although not artists themselves, they were farmers with a shared love of country life and an interest in the arts and crafts.
David Bailey, the fashion photographer, once said that ‘curiosity is everything’ and my post-war childhood and education certainly nurtured my curiosity. It has shaped my life as an artist and designer ever since.
But I have to thank the heady days of the late 1960s, and my art college years (1966 – 1970) for opening my eyes wide to the sheer joy of creativity! The influence of that era on the arts, music and fashion was significant. The fun and the freedom of that time was a natural catalyst for my own artistic pursuits.
At Art College, I studied Fine Art, but I was always making fancy clothes, smothered in sequins, to wear to art college dances. In 1970, I made my first embroidered jacket to wear to a concert by The Who in London; a humble length of cream calico was emblazoned with ‘flower power’ hand stitchery, and that was my first piece of wearable art!
Before I conclude this nostalgic glance at past influences, I thought I would add one more key influence from the late 60s, and early 70s – Vogue magazines! As I write this piece, the beautiful face of Jean Shrimpton stares back at me from the cover of Vogue magazine, April 1970. This iconic cover captures the essence of the fantasy fashions that were then emerging. Jean is wearing an outfit by Pablo & Delia – a leafy painted leather tunic, a gauzy petal hat, and a leather caterpillar choker! This cover certainly inspired my first tentative steps into the world of fashion embroidery. Collecting vintage Vogues is a passion of mine, and fantastic source of research for my work.
Amazing serendipity moments
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Despite fierce opposition from my headmistress, who had a more conventional career in mind for me, I was determined to study at Art College! A love of drawing and painting, and visits to museums and art galleries while at school had opened a door into an exciting creative world, which I wanted to step into.
I was lucky to be selected for the Foundation Course at Loughborough College of Art (1966 – 1967), and although advised to follow a textiles direction, I chose to study Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry for three years. Drawing and painting was my focus, and the course demanded an independent approach to creative work. This was an experience that would prove invaluable when I set up my studio.
In 1973, while I was teaching art in a school, my career path came to an interesting crossroads. Life often has amazing serendipity moments, and mine was meeting a lady with green hair and a passion for embroidery named Constance Howard. Constance was a famous embroiderer and lecturer.
After attending three workshops with Constance, I gave up my full time teaching job and joined a group workshop in the Cotswolds to set up my studio in 1975. This dramatic leap into an unknown freelance career took me, quite quickly, into a glamourous world of couture fashion and an encounter with Bill Gibb in his Bond Street showroom in the summer of 1976.
My professional work in embroidered textiles began that day I met Bill Gibb with my case of embroidery samples, which was another serendipity moment that shaped my artistic life.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
During 40 years of embroidery, I have explored a diversity of techniques within the medium of embroidered textiles, although I had no formal training in textiles. For me, design research and drawing interplay with creative techniques for stitch and fabric embellishment. Historical fashion embroidery also sparks new experimental textile techniques. Here is a summary of some of the techniques I have used:
- 1975 – 77 Free-machine quilting, with three-dimensional accents of machine applique, hand embroidery and beading. Techniques inspired by the relief textures of 17th century stump work and 1930s applique work.
- 1978 – 80s Developed the technique of air-brushed fabric painting and stenciling on silk with free machine-quilting, for bridal and evening wear; interior textiles, accessories in delicate pastel tints enhanced with hand embroidery, silk applique and beading.
- 1990 – 2000 Explored a variety of embellishment processes for evening jackets, accessories: metallic machine embroidery, metallic painting on silk, rouleaux, quilting, beadwork, inspired by historic ornament, period fashion.
- 2000 – 2010 Delicate machine applique and cutwork for sheer organza capes, stoles; developed machine-lace ‘Botanicals’ Collection. Paintings and drawings for clients.
- 2010 – 2015 Free machine embroidered lace inspired by botanical themes, with fashion references. Painting and drawings for exhibitions.
How would you describe your work and how it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Hearing this question makes me reflect on a statement made to me in 1978: ‘Embroidery is the Cinderella of the arts’; those words did not clip my creative wings or thwart my ambition!
Although my working practice in the late 70s, the 80s and 90s had a fashion focus, with bespoke commissions for bridal and evening wear plus interior projects, I still regard those decorative, romantic embroideries as wearable art. The fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli has always been an inspiring muse for my work, including her collaborations with Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and the House of Lesage highlighted the art of embroidery in a fashion context.
My creative work is now an interplay of fine art studies, including paintings and drawings of botanical themes, and embroidered textiles that explore fashion shapes. The artistic results can appear as both framed works of art or stitched textiles for exhibitions and commissions. The needle, paintbrush and pencil all creating statements of contemporary art.
A peaceful ambience
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
My studio space is within a garden setting, which was converted from an 18th century stable in 2010, next to my home in Oxfordshire. This, my third studio, and perhaps my favourite as it is quiet, light and well insulated, is the perfect working environment throughout the seasons. The backdrop of the flower garden is a natural inspiration. On my doorstep is the Cotswold countryside and nearby a train station, convenient for visiting exhibitions in London. The studio also doubles as an exhibition space when I have ‘Open Studio’ events.
Looking around my studio now, sitting at the large sewing table, I am surrounded by the different facets that shape my studio life. These include,
- A wall of framed botanical sketches, embroidered lace works suspended in box frames
- A vintage plan chest full of drawings and paintings, with several portfolios tucked underneath
- An easel with the latest ‘mood board’ for the next creation
- A mannequin embellished with samples for the ‘White Garden’ collection
- Boxes of finished pieces ready for the May exhibition
- Books, threads, beads, silk fabrics, and art materials
- A magpie’s nest of textile treats to inspire my stitching
- Under the sewing table are sewing machines of different vintages, ready to conjure my ideas into a tangible form
My working practice follows diverse routes, with research selecting a theme, then styled into a ‘mood board’ of ideas, plus a sketchbook work. Surrounding surfaces become a working canvas of design references, including colour palettes of silky threads, fabrics, beads, fashion sketches, stitched samples, vintage textile fragments, large scale plans for an embroidery, and more.
Beyond my garden studio, my house is a study filled with books, vintage magazines, and archive materials. This resource library inspires my design, and provides a peaceful ambience for writing.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Without a sketchbook or pad of paper I would feel rather lost. It is a close companion for creative moments. I have always used pencil and paper to express and crystallize ideas during research, creating a visual diary of thoughts for embroideries. I also get ideas for designs outside of the studio, so jottings can be literally on the back of an envelope!
The sketchbook too is a portable medium which I will take into the garden to draw plants and foliage.
Using a technique unfamiliar
What currently inspires you?
I am working on a number of themes currently, all of which explore quite different research avenues.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ continues a fascination with palettes of white, cream, ivory, with references to flora, vintage fashion, and a famous gardener of the 1920s.
‘Just Fab’ returns to 1960s fashions to inspire a new series of accessories. It features another mood board that indicates a sombre palette of khakis, earth shades and crimson using textured threads for a new lace – military fashion becomes the keystone for a collection of samples.
It is the diversity of research that fires my imagination. From ethereal starting points emerge the facets of an embroidered textile, such as a collage of 1960s memorabilia reinvented as a daisy lace, a white flora in my garden changed to a confection of silk organza, or a 1970 blouse pattern can style an embroidered cuff in a haze of purple stitchery with a swirl of Art Nouveau.
Lateral thinking with my sewing machine helps conjure these inspirations!
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why.
Excuse me being a bit indulgent here, but I am choosing two works!
My first choice has to be the ‘Water lily Waistcoat’ (1976). This quilted, appliqued waistcoat travelled to London in a picnic basket for an appointment with Judy Brittain of Vogue Living, followed by tea with Bill Gibb in his showroom to discuss work for his 1977 Spring/Summer Collection. The waistcoat really was a publicity ambassador, a work that Kaffe Fassett described as ‘landing from the moon’.
This showoff piece was also squeezed into Vogue magazine (September 1976) in an article by Vogue Living. Decades later it was chosen for the book ‘70s Style &Design’ by Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop.
Fast forward to 2009, when I was writing my first book ‘Embroidered Originals’, my second choice is the ‘Viridis Lace’ (2009), a machine-embroidered lace skirt panel created for the ‘Foliage’ chapter. Like the ‘Water lily Waistcoat’, when I began stitching this piece it was a dive into the unknown, using a technique unfamiliar to me. ‘Viridis Lace’ makes a natural connection with the free style of my drawings; the free machine stitchery on water-soluble voile captures the organic spirit of my sketchbook.
It is special to me for two reasons:
- It expresses the essence of my current work, with the flow of ideas from sketch to stitch.
- It evokes the excitement of seeing my first book in print, after years of talking about it!
How has your work evolved since you began?
I hope that within this interview I have revealed my journey as a textile artist, from the early starting points into my current creative work. I had no idea when I started stitching the first collection of quilted satin clutch bags in 1975, in my bedroom on an old Singer sewing machine, what I would be doing 40 years on. My dreamy, romantic ambition to create bespoke embroideries went in tandem with the reality of hard work and determination, and I guess those elements have not changed.
The nature of my business has always been fluid and varied, balancing studio time with lecturing and teaching. From decades of commissions, selling to galleries around the world, and exhibiting internationally, I now specialize in creating a small number of unique embroideries, or paintings for exhibitions each year. I am also planning to write another book, following the popularity of ‘Embroidered Originals’, so that will keep me busy in the future.
A balancing act of creative output
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
Quite a difficult question to answer concisely and responsibly. An artistic career is rather a balancing act of creative output, business acumen, and marketing. But at the core is your own ambition for your creative work, and that essential element has not changed since Constance Howard said to me in 1974, “If you really want to pursue your work professionally, get a studio and build a body of work.”
Being part of a group studio, or joining a group of artists and craftspeople for support in promoting your work and exchanging ideas is certainly worthwhile at the beginning of a career. It was for me! The Crafts Council (now part of the Arts Council UK) aided the direction and promotion of my work in the late 70s.
Having a plan and a strategy for promoting your work continues to be something I spend time on via my website and newsletters. The internet offers an international market for selling work, if you choose that direction.
Can you recommend any books for textile artists?
I would love to list all the textile books that have inspired me over the years, but I will resist the extended bibliography and choose just a few favourites:
- ‘Elsa Schiaparelli: Empress of Paris Fashion’ Palmer White ISBN 0948149434
- ‘The Master Touch of Lesage’ by Palmer White ISBN 0-86565-094-2
- ‘The Art of Embroidery’ Francois Tellier-Loumagne ISBN 0-500-28639-6
- ‘Inspired to Stitch – 21 Textile Artists’ by Diana Springall ISBN 0-7136-6986-1
- ‘Modern Fashion in Detail’, Historic Fashion in Detail, V&A Publications
What other resources do you use?
The internet offers an immediate insight into other textiles artists’ work, so I am often doing research on my laptop. Magazines such as ‘Embroidery’, ‘Elle Decoration’ and ‘Selvedge’ keep me in touch with the textile and design world.
Do you give talks or run workshops?
I have always enjoyed lecturing and teaching. That aspect of my career has taken me travelling around the globe and that has been inspiring. I am still lecturing for textile groups, but I only run a few workshops each year in the Cotswolds.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I shall have an ‘Open Studio’ Exhibition, as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks on May 2, 3, 4, 8 & 10 between 12-6.
All images and text copyright Sue Rangeley 2015. The images and text may not be reproduced without prior permission.
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