Kate has work in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan. Her tool of choice is a 1920’s Singer sewing machine! With an MA in textiles at Manchester Polytechnic (MMU), she taught for six years at the Glasgow School of Art. She’s also given workshops in NSW Australia, created an installation in the Students Union at Sheffield University and participated in many inspiring exhibitions. Kate is a senior philosophy student in Sheffield.
Painting and Drawing with Thread
Kate Wells, Sheffield, UK
I love drawing, and drawing with the sewing machine and have a lifetime of interesting projects and ventures. My field of work is embroidery but maybe not in the traditional way that first comes to mind.
Surrounded by Makers
Childhood in Sheffield was a happy and simple affair surrounded by a family of makers, menders and very creative relatives. Learning to sew was a rite of passage, along with knitting and crochet. Both my grandmother and aunt could sew finely tailored dresses and coats, selecting beautiful fabrics, silk linings and embellishing any collar with lace or exquisite hand embroidery. Turning the handle of my mother’s Singer sewing machine, together we’d mend sheets, and make clothes for me and my dolls.
Look, Look again
At school we had an inspirational art teacher who encouraged my love of observational drawing. His own work was very fine. While we worked – I loved the smell of the art room – he would chat about famous artists as if they were his personal friends. He’d talk about paintings in the local gallery and describe a world beyond the everyday. Wisely, he sowed the seeds of an artistic life for anyone who’d hear it.
When I found my way to an art Foundation Course and then to Loughborough College of Art to pursue a Textiles (Embroidery) Degree, it was my teacher’s dictum of drawing that I carried forward in my own portfolio. ‘Look, look again, and really look.’
The degree course in embroidery was essentially ‘decorative fine art’. We absorbed an aesthetic of detail, beauty and skill from the studio environment. It felt natural to start the day at 08.00 and leave at 20.00. I was able to take sculpture and music as my supporting subjects. We learnt about The Bayeux Tapestry and ‘Opus Anglicanum’ – the golden period of Medieval embroidery. Life was rich and full. I emerged with 1st Class Hons.
Manchester Polytechnic introduced me to industrial sewing machines, including the Singer ‘Irish’ Industrial machine, used in haute couture embroidery. Technique was more rigorous here and teaching was more evident. The ethic was for personal fulfilment and a purpose beyond art school.
I’d also met my husband who pointed me to the School of Philosophy in Sheffield and to the very early days of Art in Action at Waterperry.
Teaching at degree level
After MA I taught at Glasgow School of Art for six years, working in a team of inspirational staff and students in a stunning environment. Teaching at degree level felt very satisfying. The interaction with students was often on a deeper level, matching observation with skill and execution with textile processes – hand or machine embroidery. It strengthened my own love of drawing with needle and thread, encouraging students to explore machine embroidery as we set up a small machine-room in the department for the first time.
It was also the first taste of ‘that which is in front of you is your teacher’. These enthusiastic students were inspiring and a joy to learn from in return – something which I really value in any class of learning and teaching to this day.
The Machine for drawing
I bought my own Singer ‘Irish’ machine as soon as I set up my home studio. It is an original cast-iron machine, made in the late 1920’s. Designed for free-machine-embroidery, it was in use in factories (many in the east end of London and in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and requires some special skill to use it precisely. The fabric is stretched in a large hoop, tight like a drum.
The needle can swing from side to side up to 12mm and be varied with a lever by the knee, effectively creating a free line in any direction. It’s a wonderful tool to use. Two threads combine to make each stitch, one in the needle, one in the bobbin below. Colours can be mixed, and threads can be dull or metallic, to create rich textures on the surface. Extra fabrics can be applied or even layers cut away. I often work on dissolvable fabric creating unique lace-structures.
The joy of this type of work is the focus required – simply sitting in front of the machine, cleaning, oiling, adjusting the tensions and then threading up the bobbin and needle – bringing me to stillness. I find it totally settling to stretch the fabric, pulling it evenly round the hoop then to switch on the motor and put my foot on the speed pedal with work in place. Although it’s familiar, it’s not at all mechanical.
The bare needle is a dangerous friend and the work has to be directed all of the way – in the moment – like a calligrapher or painter would equally recognise. I can guarantee a snag will occur when my mind wanders.
Attention really does bring a deep level of satisfaction, unlocking potential and new knowledge and happiness. And for me, meditation is part of the breathing-space of creativity. To have a method of finding inner space, of letting go, the empty page. It opens a creative gate inside.
I spend a good deal of time on my own, working in the studio. Creative work isn’t such a sociable occupation. It requires time and space to become absorbed in the work, to have continuity and perseverance to explore and allow the work to evolve.
‘Dip Your Mind in Gold’ was made in response to an exhibition theme of ‘Life Journey’ for Lincoln Cathedral. Each artist had a prescribed alcove in the nave, dimensions 90cm x 122cm.
It was interesting to feel the work tell me how to proceed, to follow the germ of the idea of an inner journey from outer movement to inner stillness and to embroider on a fine silk organza, making a gentle veil-like quality. The centre was to be a solid gold circle of meticulous stitching, gradually opening up in a spiral of seed-like spots (following the meditation mantra) out to full flowers on the outer edge. The golden threads catch the light and the centre holds the mind in a quiet place.
My current commission is for a lovely light, high-ceilinged room. My client shares a love of music and many philosophical themes, so encouraged by my previous work, the concept for his wall has evolved. We have discussed the size (2m06 wide x 1m deep), proportions, golden qualities and colours.
Although the design seemed to emerge quite easily, the scale and detail of the embroidery is taking much longer to work out. I’m sampling a lot, trying out new threads and silk organzas, sending pictures and having conversations. When all this preparatory work is complete, then I will simply ‘get on with the job’. It’s a balance between past skills and new directions, always discovering. When it flows, I’m out of the way. It’s enormously satisfying. (My cat thinks so too and is never far away from helping me in the studio.)
Can the artistic life be regarded as a service? To be able to encourage people to look – and look again – to find the line of beauty and open their own creative inner door is an immeasurable offering. There is always a teacher somewhere along our way.
Visit Kate’s beautiful website: Kate Wells.
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