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Text in Textile Ar t Sara Impey

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First published in the United Kingdom in 2013 by Batsford 10 Southcombe Street London W14 0RA An imprint of Anova Books Company Ltd Copyright Š Batsford 2013 Text copyright Š Sara Impey 2013 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. ISBN 978 1 84994 042 9 A CIP catalogue for this book is available from the British Library. 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Reproduction by Rival Colour Ltd, UK Printed and bound by Craft Print International Ltd, Singapore This book can be ordered direct from the publisher at, or try your local bookshop.

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Contents Introduction · 6

1 Context · 14

2 Personal expression · 26

3 Social and political issues · 46

4 Stitch techniques · 56

5 Non-stitch techniques · 76

6 Design and alphabets · 88

7 Ideas and inspiration · 102

8 Guidelines for machine-stitched text · 112

Copyright · 124 Conclusion · 125 Bibliography · 126 Acknowledgements · 127 Index · 128

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Introduction Textiles help us communicate and learn, add beauty and stimulation to our days, and make our lives richer.

Beverly Gordon, Textiles: The Whole Story

Why use text?

5 Sara Impey (UK), Talking Textiles, 2012. 51 x 58cm (20 x 23in). Commercial cotton, wholecloth, machine quilted.

In the early 1990s at a national patchwork exhibition, I noticed a group of people gathered around one of the quilts, intense concentration on their faces. The marquee was bustling and most of the exhibits were large, vibrant and colourful. But the quilt attracting all this interest was small, pale, almost monochrome, devoid of imagery and seemingly insignificant. Intrigued, I took my turn to shuffle to the front of the queue. The quilt was A Few Words About Sewing by Mary Fogg.

Mary Fogg’s quilt (shown opposite) was covered with machine-stitched lettering. The text consisted of quotations from writers and poets, with stitching as their subject, and drew attention to the rich cultural heritage of the needlework arts. As a novice on the sewing machine, I was impressed by Mary’s skill. But I was also struck by the effect on the crowd. Words draw people in. They engage people’s whole attention. They can make an instant impact, or, as here, demand a deeply thoughtful and analytic response. The people reading this quilt were taking their time. Text incorporated into an artwork communicates in a uniquely direct way, whether it is strident and striking like an advertising poster, or thought-provoking and contemplative like a poem. If you can read, you do read: you can’t help it. This may seem obvious, but it’s a point worth bearing in mind if you choose to work with text. Reading feels so instinctive that it’s impossible to disengage from it and to perceive a word simply as a collection of meaningless shapes. The brain interprets the simplest strokes and outlines as letters or numbers. Textile artists are in the business of visual communication, and text is one of the most powerful and immediate ways of expressing ideas, impressions and emotions. If you have something to say, text can say it for you.

3 Mary Fogg (UK), A Few Words About Sewing, 1990. 135 x 122cm (53 x 48in).


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Introduction 7

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Contemporary artists using textiles Several artists who normally work in other media have turned to text on textiles as a means of expression. Perhaps the most famous example in Britain is that of Tracey Emin, with her appliquéd blankets and her embroidered tent: Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Grayson Perry, primarily known as an artist working in ceramics, also designs tapestries. His Walthamstow Tapestry, measuring 15 x 3m (49 x 10ft), is a statement on consumerism. It is covered with images from contemporary urban life interspersed with brand names. Another British artist who has recently collaborated with stitchers is Gavin Turk. Under the auspices of the charity Fine Cell Work, he worked with 35 prisoners from across the UK who hand-stitched a series of embroidered squares designed around the letters of his name for an exhibition entitled ‘Gavin and Turk.’ The stitch they used – Afghan stitch – was employed by the Afghani stitchers working for the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti in his text-based tapestries, to which Gavin Turk was paying homage in this exhibition. Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that fosters hope, discipline and self-esteem among prisoners by teaching them needlework and then selling their work.

3 Gavin Turk, Limited Editions, 2012. Produced by Fine Cell Work.

20 C o n t e x t

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Stitch and handwriting Text has become central to our lives – it is all around us – and many of us rely on technology for instant texting communication. But it can be argued that something has been lost. Handwriting, which forms a direct link between writer and reader, is fast disappearing. Handwriting encapsulates a moment in time. The ink, pen and paper can identify a historical period, but more importantly, writing reflects the character, the thought processes and even the mood of the writer. An intimate letter or a fragment of historical manuscript produce a thrill of connection: they are the genuine article.

Textile artists are fortunate in that they still have a variant of that genuine article at their disposal in the form of fabric and thread. The stitch – even the sewing-machine stitch – is unique to the stitcher and, like handwriting, it carries the permanent imprint of an individual personality. Several textile artists lament the decline in handwriting and seek to address it in their work. Some, like Mary Fogg, use the sewing machine needle as a pen and ‘write’ freehand on the fabric. Some stitch their own lettering by hand. Others write directly on the fabric or print samples of their handwriting.

1 Mary Fogg (UK), A Few Words About Sewing (detail), 1990 The complete quilt is shown on page 7.

C o n t e x t 21

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Material qualities of text and textiles Comparisons can be drawn between the structure of textiles and the structure of language. Both consist of small components that can be combined in an infinite variety of ways. Letters make words, which make sentences. Fibres and stitches are manipulated to create a textile surface. The writing or stitching tools – a computer keyboard, a pen, a paintbrush, a needle and thread and/or scraps of fabric – are used to build up units into a coherent whole, often relying on a step-by-step process and repetitive but subtly different individual elements. The writer or stitcher must pay attention to detail while keeping control of the bigger picture as it evolves. The appearance of writing has much in common with needlework, knitting and weaving. Our Roman-based script and stitch are both played out in lines across the surface, each dependent on the previous one. But unlike print on paper or digital script on a screen, words in textiles have a substance and exist in three dimensions. Weaving, knitting, quilting, embroidery – all these techniques produce their own character. They create light and shadow and contribute texture and depth to the surface. They are often units of construction. Letters incorporated into weaving and knitting become part of the artwork’s structure. Quilted lettering travels through all the layers and holds the fabric ‘sandwich’ together. In this way, the text can contribute to the overall shape of the textile as well as to its strength, its texture, its stiffness or softness, its ability to fold, drape, roll and even to wrap and to contain. Textile artists can exploit these physical qualities to add further layers of interpretation to their work.

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1 Sara Impey (UK), Stitch Talk (detail), 2011. Hand-dyed cotton, wholecloth, machine-quilted. The complete quilt is shown on page 13.

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Chapter Eight

Guidelines for machine-stitched text n this chapter I describe the two methods I use to stitch text on to my quilts. In both I use freemotion machine stitching for the lettering, but they are quite different visually. For quilts that contain comparatively few words and which involve simple verse, lists or wordplay, I use the ‘grid and stencil’ method, with one letter per square, like a crossword puzzle. The letters are large enough to be legible from a distance. The wording has to be devised beforehand to make sure that it fits into the grid. For longer and more discursive pieces of writing, the letters are machine-stitched between horizontal lines, so that the text is smaller and more naturalistic in appearance. This method is easier to combine with other design elements such as images or motifs. If necessary, I can redraft the wording as I go along. But once it’s stitched I’m committed, because it takes so long to unpick!


Preparation Fundamental to both techniques is the preparatory quilting with the walking foot to establish the structure of the design, whether it is based on squares, rectangles, parallel lines or a combination of all these. This stitching has two functions: it stabilizes the layers of fabric and wadding, and acts as a guide for the placement of the letters. In both techniques the stitched lettering is evenly distributed across the surface. Fabric tends to shrink under dense machine stitching. This can result in unsightly bulging or puckering where stitched and unstitched areas meet. For this reason, I leave very little ‘naked’ fabric in my work. I have never used an embroidery hoop, but this would be necessary when using thin fabrics or only one layer.

112 G u i d e l i n e s f o r m a c h i n e - s t i t c h e d t e x t

1 Sara Impey (UK), Quilt Blog, 2006 (detail). Silk, wholecloth, machine-quilted. The whole quilt is shown on page 43.

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Fabric I like silk dupion for its lustre and the purity of its colours. I also use cotton, which I sometimes scrunch-dye or space-dye to produce a mottled or marbled effect that adds interest to the surface. Occasionally, I over-dye commercially space-dyed prints, but I don’t need to keep a big fabric stash.

Thread I have a large stock of threads, which are as important to me as paints are to a painter. I use polyester threads for four reasons: they are easy to work with, they are the right thickness for my purpose, they come in a vast range of colours, and they are readily available from fabric stores and even some shops selling general household goods. I always test the thread colours against the fabric for their ability to contrast well, so that the text will be legible, and also for their relationship to one another so that no single colour will dominate, unless that is the desired effect.

Wadding I don’t want the unstitched areas to puff up, so I choose thin cotton wadding or even felt, which is flat but dense. In smaller pieces, I sometimes use thick Vilene interfacing.

1 Sara Impey (UK), Stitch Talk (detail), 2011. Hand-dyed cotton, wholecloth, machine-quilted. The complete quilt is shown on page 13.

Machine-stitched lettering using paper stencils The following guidelines are for a quilted textile with no piecing (wholecloth). The letters are printed from a computer font and used to make paper stencils so they will look professionally produced.

Materials and equipment • • • • • • • •

Cotton fabric: plain or lightly patterned Wadding Backing fabric Thread to match the top fabric and thread in a contrasting colour for the lettering Self-adhesive paper, for example parcel labels (see page 115) Masking tape Needle with a large eye for finishing off thread ends Sewing machine on which the feed dogs can be disengaged; an embroidery foot, preferably an open-toed foot, which gives a clear view of the needle; a walking foot for the grid lines Access to a computer and printer

1 Figure 1: Stitching a channel or lattice strip to form a quilted grid of separate squares. G u i d e l i n e s f o r m a c h i n e - s t i t c h e d t e x t i l e s 113

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