Susie Vickery: Travels with my thimble
Susie’s career centres on embroidery and textiles, both practical and academic. Her core skills were developed over twenty years as a costumier for theatre and film.
Her focus over the last ten years, however, has been split between development work and fine art embroidery. She has extensive experience of rural and refugee development projects for women, particularly in the area of handicrafts and costume in Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar and India.
Susie is currently working on a Wellcome Trust funded art project on art and health with women in the slums of Mumbai. Her work in the region is the inspiration for her embroidered textile pieces, which draw on issues of iconography, identity, gender and Asian art.
In this interview, we learn about Susie’s processes and techniques. She tells us about the development work that inspires her, which is heavily influenced by the history of garment production and, perhaps more importantly, the workers involved.
The ability to enthral
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Susie Vickery: I have been sewing since I was a child, I made my first dress when I was 7. I lay down on an old sheet and my sister drew around me. Then I hand stitched the dress and appliquéd an image cut out from an old curtain on the front. I have been sewing ever since, making dolls, puppets, doll’s clothes, and my own clothes.
Then I was lucky enough to be able to turn my love of sewing into a career. I made costumes for theatre for about 20 years, specialising in men’s period tailoring. In 1998 my husband and I moved to Kathmandu to live and I wasn’t able to carry on making costumes.
So I looked into courses to do while living there. I found that I could study for a city and guilds by distance learning. I absolutely loved it and took 5 years to do part 1. Then Opus school of Textile Art set up a degree programme in embroidery so I began doing that.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by embroidery ?
Shortly after moving to Kathmandu I went to an embroidery conference in India. My eyes were opened to a whole new world. I met practitioners, researchers, people working in development, historians and pure enthusiasts. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep at night. I have continued to be amazed by the range of embroidery and its ability to enthral.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life influenced your work?
All of my work comes directly out of my development work, the people that I work with, the history of garment production, and issues that concern me, particularly those concerned with artisans and workers in the garment industry.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
While studying for my city and guilds with Opus textile school, I was able to exhibit with a group that they set up especially for the students. And doing the degree programme with them expanded my work for exhibitions.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
I love hand embroidery, especially stitches used in tailoring. I also use a lot of digital printing for backgrounds and animation and automata. I began stitching freely to make my portraits, using each stitch like a drawn line.
How do you use these techniques in conjunction with stitch?
I combine the animation with the embroidery by creating embroidered puppets and then digitally animating them. For one animation I photographed every stitch and then combined them together into a film, showing the embroidery emerging. It was a long, tiring process but I was pleased with the result. It was a series of images of my dad getting older. It was very moving for me as he had died a few years before.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I like to think that I make embroidered, animated ethnography. I have animated some interviews, first making puppets of the interviewees. I hope to do more in that line.
Making your own signature
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I do initial sketches and then a lot of experiments with techniques. Depending on whether I am making an automata, an animation or a 3D sculpture, like my most recent work, there is always a lot of technical problem solving to be done. I really enjoy the process. Also, a lot of decisions to be made about base materials, stitches to use etc.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
Depending on whether it is for a themed show, I always begin with an image in my head, an idea of an issue that I would like to highlight, or a story to tell. Then I work around that initial idea, trying out different ways of presenting it. Then I will start the practical experimenting. When I am finally happy with the components of the work I will set about doing the embroidery and putting it all together.
What environment do you like to work in?
A sunny, light filled room, preferably with trees outside. But as I live in flats, in Mumbai and London, with no separate working space and take my work when I travel, I have to always work on a small scale. I would like to one day have a big workroom to create work on a bigger scale.
What currently inspires you?
Political issues, embroidery from all over the world, and interesting animations.
Stories to tell
Who have been your major influences and why?
I love Opus Anglicanum (lucky me, there is a big show opening soon at the V&A) Medieval iconography, popular street culture in South Asia, folk art, and the faces of the people that I meet in my travels.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I am always trying new stuff and new stitches. There are so many exciting ways of embroidering and stories to tell.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Make loads of stuff and do a lot of experiments. Look at a lot of art and try to make your own signature. Don’t be too influenced by what other people have done before you, follow your own path.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
Well, I am currently reading a Treatise of Toleration by Voltaire, it has already inspired a new artwork. But not sure that I would recommend it as essential reading for a textile artist.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I am addicted to Pinterest, endlessly looking at embroidery on it. Embroidery Magazine, and a few blogs of different textile artists, Mandy Patullo and Janet Haigh. I love the different collections at the V&A. I recently discovered some amazing and ancient textiles in the medieval section and am in love with the Tristan Quilt from the 14th Century, a truly glorious piece.
My own travels with work are a constant source of inspiration. I am lucky enough to work in Tibet, Nepal, India, Turkey, recently Mexico and Australia so there is never any shortage of visual stimulation.
I am off to China so am very excited to be able to visit the embroidery museum in Chengdu, famous for silk shading embroidery. And hopefully, buy some lovely silk threads. I have only recently started embroidering with silk, its expensive, but heaven to sew with.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My thimble, I am always so worried that I won’t have a thimble when I travel that I secrete them into all my bags and end up with thimbles in lots of different places. Whenever I see a thimble that is the right one (small, topless tailors thimble) I buy one.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I am sometimes booked to give talks, these are usually arranged by the organisation that invites me. I also occasionally give workshops.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
It depends on where I am and who is having a show. I would like to arrange more exhibitions but am always so busy with my development work that I never get the time to follow up on this.
Where can readers see your work this year?
There is an exhibition on at Ruthin Craft Centre until the 18th September.
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