Diana is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Former Chairman of the Embroiders Guild and the Society of Designer Craftsmen and advocate and champion for embroidery. She shares her thoughts on her work and the joys and benefits of textile projects in the community.
What are the benefits of a group project?
Church projects do encourage groups to come forward, the majority are not necessarily regular church goers but they feel this is a way they can be part of church without having to sign up to be regular. It means that a lot of people who might like to learn a skill, feel guided and helped. That’s where it’s special. It can help with a lot of problems, with people who are trapped at home or whatever; but embroidery is wonderful because it doesn’t cost a lot of money, even if you don’t have much of a budget you can make it with very little. The wonderful thing about a group project is that there is going to be an end result worth doing.
Do you get approached by churches or are you asked to pitch for a particular project?
Generally one is approached. With the Dunsfold project, I replied to an advertisement. They were looking for an artist to design and run a major village project where it was envisaged that every single person in the village could take part. I’d always dreamed of doing a jigsaw, of putting disparate things together, it really appealed to them to depict everything. It takes up the entire west wall. It was a lottery funded project. That was wonderful because we had quite a lot of men, farmers, lawyers; a lot of people shared pieces together. I have to say that the men sewed beautifully because they were determined. They got a kick out of doing something that was technically not the norm for them. It was a huge success because obviously you have meetings, socials, get-togethers to see how you’re getting on.
So it’s the process not just the end product?
The process is probably the most important. It’s the joy of having taken part. We did a huge carpet project in Kemsing and I had someone tell me that they went to check on ‘their’ square, after 20 years to see how it’s doing.
So you are talking about a level of ownership. How do you bring all those disparate things together to present a vision for a project?
I listen very carefully to the client. What is the client’s idea? What are they seeking? You look at the church; you look at the colours you’ve got. The most important thing is that it fits with what they’ve already got from the point of view of colour, subject, scale and position. You look at the site and their expectations and you can advise. It’s a two way process. The most recent altar frontal at Kippington, they knew it was to be a red set and it was to be a bird of some kind, so I needed to go back to all my dove drawings and look at what I could do in flight. I come back to paper and paint. I start making marks, generally working to scale, although it’s not always possible to paint the size. In the case of Kippington it was half-scale and I’m particular about that because it either works or doesn’t work if you have the scale right. I will paint freely. A lot gets dumped. I may go back to the first one and cut bits of it. Some bits may work and not others. It is very much a process of selecting and rejecting. Then I would start sampling; this is going to be textured, or this is going to be flat colour. If it’s going to be a group project then you have to think of a technique that is going to have to be shared and can’t tell that the hands are all different. Very often you can’t tell that the hands are any different if it’s canvas embroidery. They get good at that. Canvas work is wonderful because it’s seamless. They have a huge pride as it always looks good and if you show it carefully at the beginning and are meticulous over how you teach that stitch.
What is the most satisfying thing for you as an artist and designer in this process?
You feel eventually that you made it okay, because there are moments when you think why did I agree to do this? It’s never going to work, in the process sometimes I don’t like it, and I have to work till I do and you are diffident right to the end because you don’t know whether they will like it. On the whole when you get the okay they leave you alone but sometimes clients will come and look at the half-way stage. Some ask a lot of questions. On a recent project I had some ask lots of questions and it gave me some sleepless nights. I do go through awful moments thinking will this be acceptable? Is this what they asked for? I don’t want to make stuff that nobody wants. I’m happiest when I’m commissioned.
On the question of money, if a community group wanted to make something and needed the help of an artist and to pay for materials, where do people usually get the money from?
In a project I did some years ago, the first £500 was given to make an altar frontal. I told them that that amount wouldn’t cover what they wanted but said ‘let’s look behind and enjoy the beautiful table underneath, buy some decent linen, and look at doing a carpet group project instead’. They needed a carpet and £500 was enough to get it going, to research it and do all the drawings and samples. After that, coffee mornings brought in the rest of what was needed. Money was raised and it brought in people who weren’t church goers. They didn’t want to stop after we did the carpet. They asked ‘what else can we do?’ Altar rail cushions and choir seats followed; it just went on and it was wonderful. Then it all stopped when a new vicar arrived who didn’t have any interest in it and the group was devastated.
So there’s something in that story about articulating vision and that vision to be owned by that community and for that community to have vision leaders?
They need a vision leader that they can trust, and that all this work from their coffee mornings to their actual stitchery is not going to be wasted. It’s going to be a proper job and it will bring joy. People sit and sew together. It’s well known what spiritual strength – almost emotional rehabilitation – it brings. It’s shown in the work of a foundation called Fine Cell working with Lifers in prison. I remember talking to one Lifer who, when he had done his time, came and gave a talk at the V & A and he said ‘apart from the fact that we got enormous pleasure out of making things we were asked to make, one of the most important things about the embroidery was that we knew that somebody outside cared about us.’ A lot of it is commissioned and they are paid a little money and they can save the money for when they come out or they can send it home. It’s the fact that embroidery gives them a worth. They also have a skill when they come out.
It’s coming back to what you were saying earlier about gender stereotypes, and needlework and embroidery always being about women, is not true.
It’s not true, although many, many women are doing it more than men. It’s still viewed as ‘women’s work’ and seen as low because it’s craft not fine art, even though most of us are Fine Artists. This prejudice is reflected in the gallery space it’s given. It’s extremely hard to get a voice. I’m spending a great deal of time pitching for the value of this craft.
What’s happening at the grass-roots, are people as interested in embroidery as they ever were?
More than ever. The numbers at the Knit and Stitch show prove this. In 2010 the V & A did an exhibition about quilting and they had the biggest foot fall the V & A had ever had.
Reflecting on your sacred art projects what is your inspiration?
I believe God is listening to me. Spiritually it matters to me to make something for a church. I like to go in and feel I’ve contributed to an emotion, to a connection. It’s important to be making something that has spoken at a higher level. I’m a very uneducated Christian but my belief is strong and I couldn’t manage without it. I help other people to be in that same place which is important. You make people feel comfortable – for the Kemsing Carpet I chose a subject of a maze which is the path of the soul. I choose subjects that are meaningful to me.
This is about building community isn’t it? And ‘the local’?
In the project we did in Kemsing, we had two new housing developments here, and this project meant that people could meet each other. One person said to me ‘have you met so and so?’ and I said ‘oh yes, she’s one of my ‘carpet squares’. The fact that people are still in touch even though a project might have finished years and years ago shows it’s about building friendships.
If a church wanted to do a project what advice would you give them about how to start it?
I would say to identify a part of the church for a project or a person they may want to remember; it’s also finding out if anyone would like to give some money. Some people might want to give to their church but they don’t know what for. It needs careful discussion. With all projects you need some seed money then you find a sensible project. Initially having a conversation with someone who is qualified to advise on realistic costing is important. It’s also finding out if there is a central wish to create something, finding out whether you have a group. How eager is your block of instigators? Projects can be quite small it’s just getting that initial wish to work together.
It’s obviously very satisfying?
It gives people strength. Someone might be depressed and they spend a day stitching, they have been happy, they’ve made some friends, they know when the next meeting is and it’s the process of making. It gives a lot of happiness to those who may feel lonely, cut off and sad. Embroidery is amazing because you actually have an end project.
And you have to be present in the present moment. A lot has been talked about mindfulness, it’s being present in whatever you’re doing here and now and I think God works in those cracks, whether or not we are necessarily aware of him at the time but there’s something about him being present in the present moment. It’s relaxing and absorbing but that’s probably true for most of the creative arts.
That’s probably true but Embroidery gets such a high score because you can do it in any space at home, you don’t need expensive tools.
And what about those people, like me, who say ‘I can’t sew, I’m rubbish at sewing’ what would you say to completely useless people like me?
I’d say ‘I’ll show you.’