It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and Brooklyn based artist, Meghan Willis (aka Tsurubride), and I are chatting about the calming effect embroidery has on us. One of us ‘might’ have mentioned that embroidering keeps us from murdering people at work. And while mine might actually look like it was stitched by a shaky hand after an actual stabbing, Meghan’s hand embroidered work delicately captures women in various stages of undress, laced in bits of boldly colored textiles. She gives her women strength within the stitch, dressing them in a celebration of their sexuality, creating an illusion of movement with clean lines — my favorite are her double and triple takes stitched like a series of rapid blinks.
Three of her newer pieces will be exhibited in Paradigm Gallery’s upcoming group show, ‘Stitched’. The show focuses on the shift in opinion toward embroidery, stitching, and other fibers techniques historically associated with women and “domestic tasks”. Sadly, this type of work doesn’t get shown in museums a lot. Is that due, in large part to an ongoing contested artistic legacy of the work? Or is it lack of knowledge of the skill and creativity required to create these artworks? Do you think shifting the focus toward the creativity required to produce these pieces pushes the conversation into the art realm?
Meghan and I jump right into our explorations on the evolution of stitching:
I want to steer the conversation away from craft, by refraining from overuse of technical terminology. I think it’s a real concern, that if we continue to talk about the medium in terms of crafting, that’s the way people will continue to view it.
Tsurubride: I see the point. It’s just another way; another medium. Instead of a pen or a paintbrush – even with digital art and collage – a combination of all these skills come together to bring whatever is in your head, onto the fabric.
It has excited me to see opinions shift drastically about fiber techniques—I stitch during my commute on the train. Sometimes people sit down next to me and either recount watching their grandmothers stitching or express a surprise that anyone still does it. I’ve noticed that most people don’t recognize what an embroidery hoop is.
I sometimes take my work with me when I travel, but I rarely get a chance to touch it.
How do people react to you embroidering while you’re traveling?
I have stitched while riding Amtrak a couple of times. Once I was in business class sitting around people in suits. There I was, in my jeans and t-shirt, stitching a nipple. It was actually the perfect thing to be stitching in that environment. It was like, ‘yes dude, I’ve got my boobs over here, it’s all fine folks.’
What a juxtaposition (laughing).
For a while, embroidery seemed to be viewed as a lost art form and an antiquated one at that. We generally tend to think of older women embroidering. So I think people are shocked to see younger women – even men, now taking up this art form. Even the way they choose to express themselves with it seems to raise eyebrows, and a lot of curiosity.
I’ve been stitching forever and I know a large part of the embroidery community have stitched for a long time as well. When you hear words like “a resurgence,” its’ like, ‘No we’ve always been doing it.
I do think there’s more awareness being brought to it. Hopefully its less in the shadows – hopefully receiving less craft credit and more art credit.
With a rise in popularity, how soon do you think it will be before embroidery kits are being stocked in the novelty section of Urban Outfitters?
I think that would be fun.
I certainly like to create my own work, but if you’re just getting started and see that kit at Urban Outfitters, perhaps you’ll pick up that hoop and have some fun with it… Maybe they start with that kit, have their own take on the product and build into some really innovative ideas.
I learned my basics from aunts and my grandmothers, but I still take to resources like YouTube to learn more from other people in the stitching community. At the end of the day, I’m still thinking about how to transform that information into my thing.
I think places like YouTube are great for learning new techniques, but you have to find your own take on it – your own approach to it. At least those sort of resources are there to start with the fundamentals…
The question is, ‘how do you now incorporate that into your work?’
People on Instagram will comment and ask what stitch I’m using. I only use backstitch, but it’s the way that I’m using it – people are surprised that that’s the way it ends up looking. Taking something as simple as that stitch and being able to translate it into my work ends up creating this visual that’s my trademark.
Were these skills passed down to you?
As a little kid, I was very crafty. Both my grandmothers were very much into sewing – they encouraged the habit. I started making terrible clothes for my Barbie doll. The fabric would be sewn wrong sides together You’d turn it out and the seam allowance would be all wrong. Everything would be done with these really long stitches cause I was impatient, I just wanted to do it. I never thought about how the Barbie doll would then get into the clothes.
It seemed like a natural progression to be in fashion. During the day I do that, and then at night I don’t want to make clothes anymore – partly because that is part of my day job. This is a lot more relaxing, to be able to sit and create something.
I still have that same impatience though – I love the beauty of fill stitches but that’s part of the reason I never really incorporate it into my work. I have an idea and I need to get it out of my head and create it. fill stitches seem like they’re going to slow me down. I’ve got too much art to make!
I love that confession. Impatience is such an oxymoron when you think about embroidering.
When I look at your work I’ve always thought , ‘it’s so purposeful in what side of the story you choose to tell by what was meaningfully left out’. Knowing this now doesn’t make your work any less lovely, it enhances for me. You’ve really made the point that less is sometimes more.
Even when I started with the leather appliques… that happened because I used to make handbags in my spare time, and I had a lot of leather lying around . I thought, ‘well this could be neat as a mixed medium, so I started playing around with it.’.
Even now, I’ll try to go back and work with some fill stitches, but it’s too slow… I’m so jealous, there are many other artists out there who do incredibly beautiful work with fill stitches. It’s like, dammit. How do you do that so well? I know it’s just practice, but I can’t… I got to get the ideas out of my head now.
I think it’s more than just ‘practice’. Especially after talking to the other artists participating in Stitched. It has a lot to do with the way the artists sees things and how they translate that. A perfect stitch is pretty to look at, but perfection can be wearying.
That’s true. I saw your post on Michelle Kingdom. There’s a great example of someone using fill stitches, but not in this clean, overly perfect way. It’s got a movement and a romanticism to it. Her stitching is more painterly.
I always feel like my work is more illustrative versus that painter technique. Its’ more about clean lines and movement in that sense of after the thread versus following brush strokes.
It’s just another way of expression.