After 30 years of dipping in and out of quilting Sara Impey would begin combining textiles with her creative voice resulting in meaningful works of art. Some call this craftivism…
Photo: Art Van Go
Please tell us a bit about your background and your journey to becoming a textile artist.
I grew up on a farm in Essex and was quite a bookish child. I never expected sewing to feature so largely in my life. At school, needlework meant dressmaking and was my least favourite subject. However, my mother came from that wartime generation who made all their own clothes and in 1971, when I was 17, she produced from nowhere a hexagon template. I spent a happy week sitting on the floor cutting up old shoe boxes for the templates and making a patchwork quilt from her collection of fabric scraps. I enjoyed the soothing and repetitive hand stitching and the freedom of playing around with brightly-coloured patterned fabrics. Unlike dressmaking, which I always found dull, mechanical and frustrating, this was creative and sparked a love of textiles that has stayed with me.
After university I trained as a journalist with a local paper and then joined The Times on their Parliamentary reporting team. I started making quilts for the home – always from hexagons – in my free mornings (I worked afternoons and evenings in the House of Commons). I didn’t know any other quilters. In 1985 I discovered by chance a weekend patchwork workshop at Snape Maltings in Suffolk run by the well-known quilt teacher Lynne Edwards. As well as other types of patchwork, she introduced me to The Quilters’ Guild, which led me to a local group in Colchester. Apart from workshops with Lynne and also Siripan Kidd, a Thai quilt designer who lived near me, I am self-taught.
My children were still small so I couldn’t do much stitching, but in the 1990s I started going to quilt shows and won a few awards and began to take my work more seriously. In 2000 I was very fortunate to be selected into the group Quilt Art.
I began stitching text in 2004. I had wanted to do so for some time, and tried to find a way of incorporating it into my existing working methods which at the time consisted of elaborate repeated patterns using machine appliqué set against bold geometric backgrounds. I didn’t want the text to be an add-on, but an integral part of the design. My first text-based quilts were simply lists of related words or reproduced verses from Victorian samplers. It was when I started stitching my own writing that I felt I had finally found my ‘voice’ as a quilter – more than thirty years after making my first quilt. It was a very long apprenticeship! The text on my quilts is all free-motion machine stitching, letter by letter. I mention this because these days a lot of people assume it is digital embroidery.
Your work is honest, striking and thought-provoking. Talk us through your creative process from concept to quilt.
Thank you for your lovely comment, but that’s a really hard question! The text, design and sometimes the structure of the piece are inextricably linked so it’s hard to know which comes first. I want the overall design and structure to relate to the meaning of the text. Ideas that combine these elements don’t come along every day, so I tend to develop one idea over a series of pieces.
Sometimes I come up with a potentially interesting technique and then think ‘what can I say with that?’ For example, in ‘No Exit’ (pictured above) I experimented with leaving the thread ends loose. I thought it would be visually striking to comb them outwards from the centre of a circle. So I decided to stitch the text in concentric rings. That led me to the content, which is simply the two phrases ‘I keep on losing the thread’ and ‘I keep on going round in circles’ repeated. The whole piece became suggestive of mental confusion, with the text glimpsed behind a fog of threads. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s disease and it is something we all dread.
The thread-ends are not secured in any way. The fibres cling to one another and to the background fabric and support their own weight. Every time this quilt is handled or rolled, I have to comb them out again, so it never looks quite the same. With this quilt I was hoping to achieve a visual metaphor in which the verbal, textural, semantic and structural all came together.
Photo: Kevin Mead
Sometimes I start with artefacts from everyday life which lend themselves to social commentary. Recent examples include colour charts, trellises, tickets and chains. Or I might simply stitch a piece of writing on to fabric such as in ‘Stitch by Stitch’ (pictured above, left) which is an essay on the nature of stitching.
I find it easier to come up with a promising textile technique than to think up a text. To try and develop the writing side, I joined a poetry group three years ago. Contact with local poets, as well as quilters, is hugely stimulating. I won an award with one poem and stitched it on to the quilt ‘Absorption’ (pictured above, right). But on the whole I’m wary of stitching verse on to quilts as I don’t want to stray into folksy or sentimental territory.
Following the Thread
Photo: Peter Evans
What are you currently working on?
I’ve recently finished another stitched version of this poem which is extremely long and thin (over six metres) and can be displayed in various ways – the image ‘Concentration’ shows it as a spiral. Making these quilted ‘tapes’ from calico has led to a whole range of three-dimensional pieces, including ‘Following the Thread.’ Here the tape is wrapped around a large wooden spool like a giant cotton reel and the text consists of an essay on thread, so that again the words and the structure come together. I found the spool in a junk shop.
Photo: Kevin Mead
What’s the best creative advice you’ve ever been given?
Another hard question! I think it is follow your own instinct, develop your own voice and try not to be influenced by other quilters or fads and fashions in the stitching world. One quilting acquaintance (this is years ago) avoided looking at images of textile art in case they rubbed off on her own work. I would never dream of cutting myself off in this way and I hope I would never be that arrogant! On the contrary, you can learn a huge amount from artists you admire, but there’s still a lot to be said for perseverance and single-mindedness.
Favourite books or blogs?
I have lots of quilting books which I dip into from time to time and I also have books on contemporary graphic design. Not surprisingly, I love books about artists who use text, such as Art and Text by Black Dog Publishing and Writing on the Wall: Word & Image in Modern Art by Simon Morley. I’m also interested in academic writing to do with textiles and textile history, such as The Textile Reader, edited by Jessica Hemmings.
Photo © Jonathan Richards
If you’d like to see Sara’s work in person, her ‘Deconstructing the Stitch’ quilt will be at The Festival of Quilts 2015 in the Fine Art Quilt Masters exhibition and ‘Following the Thread’ is in the gallery Quilt Art: Small Talk.
Festival of Quilts
NEC, Exhibition halls 7, 8 & 9
Marston Green, Birmingham, West Midlands B40 1NT
6 – 9 August 2015