Monday, December 12, 2016

Chapter 12 - Written illustrated essay

And finally, drum roll please....
Here is the final chapter to Module 6 and the last posting of my Diploma

Stitch: functional or decorative?

Stitch in textile art – is it functional to the physical integrity of the artwork, or purely decorative and thereby the definer of artistic quality?
It is not a question I had generally considered when viewing textile art; after all it is not something that comes to mind looking at gallery paintings or ceramics.  The paint strokes clearly do not hold the painting together or the glazes the clay, and yet they impart a texture, a movement and an aesthetic to the work that is present in many beautiful weavings borne out of functional stitches.

The weaving and coiling of Indigenous Australian artists researched during my last diploma module of work are clearly functional in their creation of vessels from grasses, but also highly decorative in stitch technique and adornment. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Fibre sculpture detail by APY* artists

This fibre art enables the artists to express their culture and interest in their local habitat in the form of highly tactile sculptures.  They have a drive to create in this way, and a desire to continue the creation by passing on traditional skills to the next generation.  This passion led me to think of three British textile artists whose works exude their enthusiasm for stitch and inspire me to express myself in textiles: Jan Beaney, Sue Hotchkis and Alice Kettle.

Jan Beaney is a renowned embroiderer, teacher, author and exhibitor in the UK and worldwide.  She can employ mixed media, paint, beading and other contemporary materials into her work as the subject demands, but always with hand and machine embroidery as the principal players.  Like the Indigenous artists, she finds inspiration in the landscape around her and beauty in the mundane and everyday details.  The focus of indigenous art is often the locale and activities surrounding the artists.  Their fibre sculptures may be simplified to the point of schematic but the source of their design lies in local wildlife and vegetation.  Jan may not be using tangible vegetation in her work but her design sources lie similarly close at hand.
Over recent years she has used a water-soluble material on which to stitch, connecting fragments such as fabric scraps and wool roving through hand and machine stitch.  Once the fabric is washed away a complete new “cloth” remains on which further stitching can be done.   This is clearly a situation where stitch is both functional to the created cloth and decorative.  The combination of hand and free machine stitch gives a wonderful texture and depth to the work.  Hand embroidery in various weights of thread and wool, and in different type and size gives tremendous detail in layers of stitching.  Free machine embroidery then integrates and embeds the stitches, blending colour and its movement within the piece.
Whether her work is densely layered (Figure 2) or translucent to the point of extreme fragility (Figure 3), the compositional thought involved and skilled execution is always there and entices one to look ever closer.

Figure 2: New Life (2008) Jan Beaney, private collection

Figure 3: Skala Eressos – Early Evening (2009) Jan Beaney from scan of postcard

I love the way Jan blends and layers large bold hand stitches in thick wools with fragments of scrim material and wool roving (Figures 4 and 5).  It appears too great a contrast up close but simply gives enough texture interest when one steps back.  I have learned from this to continually stop and view ones work from a distance.  Fresh eyes from a different perspective are the key to self-critiquing.

Figure 4: New Life detail

Figure 5: New Life detail

It is the wish to entice the audience to look closer that I also endeavour to reach, and therefore it is not surprising that her use of hand and machine embroidery has been influential in my work.  In Lichen, I sought to bring detail and texture to dimensional nunofelting with significant hand embroidery in different weights of wool and pearlised cotton (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Lichen detail (2016) Helen MacRitchie

In researching Lichen I came across a recent textile of the same name by Sue Hotchkis, a UK artist now living in Guernsey.  I had seen glimpses of her work over the last few years, glimpses of amazing layered texture, freely embroidered but only this year had the opportunity to discuss her work with her, first hand, while she was solo exhibiting in Fragments in Australia. 

She too is drawn visually to the details of living, drawn to photograph the torn posters, the rust and wear, the detritus of modern life. She sees beauty in the detail that is often missed on first glance.   Her inspiration and subject matter may be far from exciting in name but once they abstractly transform into such jewelled fragments of stitched detail, they come alive.
She employs digital printing, screen printing, paper lamination, trapunto, free machine embroidery to name but a few contemporary techniques, building and disintegrating layers and fragments (as her exhibition was so aptly named) into detailed sculptural hangings (Figures 7 and 8)

Figure 7: Door detail Sue Hotchkis 
Figure 8: Fifty-two detail Sue Hotchkis

Her stitching is functional, combining layers and fragments into a cohesive hanging, but of course it is also highly decorative.
  Without her extensive embroidery much surface detail and sculptural manipulation would be lost and the fragment cohesion diminished.

She describes her stitching process as meditative. She becomes almost lost in the rhythm of machine stitching, merging fragments and creating texture, reminding me of the repetitive weaving involved in Indigenous fibre art.  Such dedication to the process is apparent; never invisible to the close examiner.  I also see the employment of new technologies such as digital printing which are at hand to the contemporary textile artist, an extension to the materials at hand to the Indigenous artist.  The techniques may have changed but the opportunistic approach to available resources has not.  I love her striking use of colour, particularly her combinations of complementary colours as in Verdigris (Figure 9), and the tonal variations within pieces, such as Embrace (Figures 10 and 11), giving them real depth.

Figure 9:  Verdigris detail Sue Hotchkis 
Figure 10: Embrace detail Sue Hotchkis
Figure 11:  Embrace Sue Hotchkis
In the past Sue had tried to make her work conform to perceived standards of hangings, e.g. straight-edged and two dimensional, but her recent organically shaped and distinctly sculptural pieces give her freedom and pleasure. They evolve during their creation and have a life of their own. Her adherence to perceived guidelines resonated with my own reluctance to contain the organic nature of wool felting and to embrace the artistically sculptural nature of that material as in Loedhas (Figure 12).  I applaud Sue’s mantra of being true to herself, confident in her own work and in her art practice while striving to develop further.  
 Figure 12: Loedhas Helen MacRitchie

Another UK textile artist who has found her own medium in which to express her art practice is Alice Kettle.  Alice is currently Professor in Textile Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University having studied fine art as an undergraduate working in abstract expressionism, and then pursuing textile art as a postgraduate.  She has established a unique position in the fibre arts field creating heavily stitched wall hangings, using extensive free machine embroidery and layering threads of different weights and thicknesses on a cloth background.   She often chooses as inspiring subject matter, historical characters and tales, mythological stories, and figurative representations.  In her pictorial pieces, there is rarely a literal connection to her theme, more often a symbolic one.  This is reminiscent of the markings found in Indigenous art e.g. circles representing homesteads or gatherings, meandering lines as rivers, movement or animals. Their culturally important people and story creatures are represented symbolically in their fibre sculptures.   In Alice Kyteler (Figure 13) the central figure may indeed be the old woman of that name but Alice gives her a sense of regal majesty inferring her power and strength of character through the adornment of her skirt in textile ephemera and her compositional placing in lightness with metallic threads.

Figure 13:  Alice Kyteler Alice Kettle, photo taken from

I briefly studied Alice in a previous module of diploma work, but since then I have examined some of her commissioned installations more closely and had the opportunity to hear her speak in conference about her work.  I did not fully appreciate before her painterly approach to her work. She expresses her love of the physical nature of paint, the gestural nature of mark making, and her desire to translate her fingerprint in painting into textiles.  She layers threads in her stitching to convey the fluidity of painting strokes, playing with threads of different colour, thickness and shine.  Different qualities in light reflection are achieved by layering glossy and matt threads, which let the viewer “go into” the surface of the threads.  She tries to “float” a matt thread over areas of metallic to give depth and alter the light resonance between threads.  I am fortunate enough to own a textile Daniel and the Lioness (Figure 14), by Alice Kettle, and can appreciate this effect at first hand – aspects of the surface appear differently coloured and reflected as you move past in different light. 

Figure 14:  Daniel and the Lioness Alice Kettle, private collection

Threads are layered in different directions (Figure 15), some stitches tiny others huge, whipstitching colours from beneath appear (Figure 16), and loops of thread jump off the surface (Figures 17 and 18).

Figure 15:  Daniel and the Lioness detail 1 Alice Kettle

Figure 16:  Daniel and the Lioness detail 2 Alice Kettle

Figure 17:  Daniel and the Lioness detail 3 Alice Kettle
 Figure 18:  Daniel and the Lioness detail 4 Alice Kettle
The fascinating detail is there on close examination but the joy is apparent when you step back.  It then becomes less about the individual stitches and more about the movement and light conveyed across the whole textile.  It could be said that each stitch is decorative but I feel they are not to be admired in isolation – rather they exist ‘en masse’, creating a fluidity of colour and gesture true to Alice Kettle.  In that sense they are indeed functional, and successful in achieving that goal.

Mark making through stitch takes many forms: functional and decorative. My study of these three artists for whom mark making has great affinity, has shown me that be it in the creation of soft textural colour blends, the effect of abstract paint strokes, or organic sculptural detail, stitched textiles are a feast for the eyes and an inspiration to us all.

Helen MacRitchie 2016

All photographs are my own except where noted.

*APY: Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara


Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn (2010) Stitchscapes, published by Double-Trouble, UK
Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn (1998) Stitch Magic: Ideas and Interpretation, published by Batsford, UK
BeCreative with Workbox magazine (2015), May/June
Embellish magazine (2016) Vol 25 March
Embroidery magazine (2016), Jan/Feb issue, Craft, Credo & Collaboraton, pp28-33
Carol Shinn (2009), Freestyle Machine Embroidery, published by Interweave Press USA
Diana Springall (2005) Inspired to Stitch, published by A&C Black Publishers, UK

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