Embroiderer Kate Clark describes her workshop, her inspiration and the detail that goes into each piece we create….
I always wanted to be an embroiderer; it is part of who I am.
My great grandmother was a court dressmaker, great grandfather a tailor and my grandmother was great at sewing as well. My mother is a quilter, maker and I’ve inherited her fine eye for detail. I am so lucky to have a job that fulfils a dream. I am also fortunate to have a job I can work around my family. The level of detail and hours required can be all consuming – I quickly bonded with the Mexican craftswomen over our ‘embroiderer’s’ sore shoulders!
My workshop is in the old kitchen of our home in Tisbury, Wiltshire. My husband was born in this house – it is his family home. That makes it sound very grand but it is actually just a 1930s bungalow that until recently desperately needed a new roof. It is charming though and the workshop has big windows with lots of light. There are beautiful views across fields and down to the river.
Like most embroiderers I am a bit of a magpie. I tend to fill any space with pretty and interesting things I have collected. Over time as the business has grown I have needed to move most things elsewhere to make more space. There isn’t even really room for pictures on the walls – every surface is covered in shelving, fabric and cushions! The materials we use are so colourful and beautiful though it really doesn’t matter. I love working surrounded by so much colour.
The room is completely dominated by a huge high table. This means we can lay out and work all the way round the larger wall hangings and throws. I work with a friend, Fiona, who I am training up as an assistant. We spend the day walking round and round the table, passing the iron to each other and fighting over the quilting ruler.
We work in a very traditional way.
We have one industrial sewing machine and most things are finished by hand. It is safe to say that no two pieces are ever the same. Everything is personal; every piece involves individual decisions about the finish. We even hand paint the picture frames to get the result we want.
We also take commissions and are happy for people to come to the workshop and make decisions themselves about the choice or combination of fabrics. We have set up a shop in Tisbury, its just 5 minutes from the workshop, in partnership with another friend, Emily Pinsent. Customers can see things in the shop and then make an appointment to visit the workshop to commission pieces themselves.
I love the ability to make choices and take inspiration from each piece of fabric.
My style has definitely evolved. I’m learning all the time about what colours work best or which fabric best suits which product. I find combining Mexican cloth with the best of British fabric is what gives a really exceptional finish. For example the new Elvia range is based around a heavy hand woven cloth. So we chose to back the cushions with a beautiful thick British linen union. It complements the more rustic fabric so well.
The new ranges that we will be introducing in 2017 are the result of our visit to Mexico last year.
I studied and had taught workshops about Mexican embroidery at the British Museum during my time at the Royal School of Needlework. But seeing the level of skill of the craftswomen at the cooperatives first hand was just amazing.
The patterns are all held in each individual’s memory, not written down. It feels wonderful to be helping to keep a traditional art form alive and we are conscious of this in the work we commission with the cooperatives. Although it takes much longer to produce, we were keen to keep including fabric in the collection woven using a back strap loom. The loom is tied around a weaver’s waist and then around a tree or post to hold the tension. This method dates right back to Aztec times and enables women to work at home rather than having to travel.
As an embroiderer I am used to things taking time, and taking my time to get a high level finish. This has been useful as we have been setting up the business as well – the level of determination, patience and grit needed is definitely transferrable!
Kate trained at the Royal School of Needlework. Since then she has published books on embroidery, taught workshops at the British Museum, taught at the Royal School of Needlework and run the workshop at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As a Royal School graduate, if there are any major royal occasions she might be called upon to help make the garments!