Embroiderer’s work has common threads

‘Make’, a symposium on ‘making’ in art, technology and science, is at the CIT Cork School of Music on March 7.

One of the keynote speakers is embroiderer Alice Kettle. Based in Winchester, Kettle is a senior research fellow at Manchester School of Art. She exhibits her large-scale works of stitch internationally. She did a mammoth work for Winchester Discovery Centre in 2007.

Kettle will speak about her craft and technology and how artists communicate with audiences. “For me, that involves using threads to make pictures which tell stories. My work is all done on a sewing machine. Recently, I started using a lot of combined technologies, using sewing machines that are digital. That means I can do a drawing, scan it into the machine, and change it into a stitch using embroidery software. You can repeat an image, which you can’t do with a normal sewing machine. You can change the scale and you can change the original image, in the same way as you can with other graphic and artistic practices,” she says.

Kettle loves sewing. “I feel drawn to textures and the sensory qualities of them. I like handling material. Machine embroidery is very fluid. You can work on it in a very pictorial way. I think that’s what my work is known for.”

Kettle uses technology differently to fashion manufacturers. “I try to use technology, not as a production tool used in manufacturing, but as an expressive way of working. I play with a combination of threads.” Kettle will start by sketching. “That then evolves. Embroidery is a very slow process that involves a lot of labour. My ideas change as I’m working. I can work on a piece for months and sometimes for over a year. I can get frustrated, but I actually think I like spending time on a piece, because it’s quite sustaining. If I’m working on a big project, I can reflect on it and let it evolve gradually.”

Folk stories and mythology influence her, as do “contemporary events. I’m responding to the various conflicts going on around the world. I did a piece on the Japanese tsunami. I wanted to reflect on the catastrophe and respond to it.” Kettle’s work is figurative and colourful. “I love the lustre of surfaces, so I use a lot of metallic threads, including gold. I use lots of combinations of colour, which tend to be rich and deep.”

Commissions for public buildings suit Kettle. “Textile has a lovely relationship with architecture, because it’s the combination of the soft and the hard. Tapestries have always historically hung in buildings, like pictures on walls. I’m working very much in that tradition with embroidery.”

The relevance of craft “is a topical issue. People often ask if it’s dying out. But I think people value hand-making skills,” Kettle says.

The ‘Make’ symposium is in conjunction with an exhibition of contemporary textiles at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery. Entitled ‘Things/Daiktai’, it’s an artistic exchange project between the Crawford and Kaunas Art Institute, in Lithuania.

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