Meeting on Monday 12th June 2023
Karen Nicol - 24/7 Stitch
Karen Nicol joined us on a hot, sultry evening to share her long career as an embroiderer in the worlds of fashion, interiors, TV/film and gallery. Technical issues with the slides were counter-balanced by the wide variety of beautiful pieces she brought to show us, including the metre-square scrapbook of samples which she takes when working with designers to show the vast breadth of techniques she can offer.
Karen’s studies began with a degree in textiles at Manchester. Graduating to the Royal College of Art, her determination to make a career in embroidery where no course in the subject existed, led to her studying knit, and embroidering on the knits. Her expertise in this led to the world of high fashion, as well as teaching part time at the RCA, where she created the degree course in embroidery she had lacked, under the name of “Mixed Media”.
The fast pace of the fashion industry means it is a matter of days from drawing to production of a piece based on a designer’s brief which may be a vague “something silver” to off the wall “Frieda Kahlo meets Singapore whorehouse”. Karen specialises in recreating in a matter of minutes effects which, using traditional techniques, would take months. A stunningly lifelike bird ready to fly off the fabric takes around 45 minutes. Her principal tool is her 100-year-old Singer Irish machine, which has no guard and moves using foot and knee pedals to guide the speed, length and width of a stitch. Hands are free to feed the direction and add extra fabric to be caught by the thread. Using a lifetime’s collection of materials sourced from flea markets, car boot sales and the like, Karen is endlessly searching for new ways to manipulate them through stitch, folding, and heat pressing.
After a career in fashion for any major couture house you can name, and in interiors when embroidery was “out of fashion”, the lack of recognition for the embroidery designer led her into the art world, exhibiting firstly in 2005 with a series of “wall skirts” – meant to be gallery hung, but still wearable – on the theme of lace, using a wide variety of repurposed materials. Since then, her series of “couture creatures”, dressing animals in textures and designs inspired by porcelain, woodcarving and other man-made arts, to explore the contradictions of humans wearing animal skins, have made her name. She has created hundreds of these exquisite animals, both to commission and for gallery display and the variations seem limitless. Her recognition as a Royal Designer for Industry in 2015 by the RCA, only one of 200 at a time, has gone a little way to addressing the lack of recognition for her textile designs.
Other works have included bespoke wedding dresses, maps, handbags and medals with jokes incorporated in the design, floral wall-hangings for a cancer hospital and during lockdown, a series of hangings on the theme of Oscar Wilde’s quote about a cynic knowing the “price of everything and the value of nothing” combining idyllic nature with bookkeeping scrawl.
Karen’s work always begins with a drawing on tracing paper (so it can be reversed) and it seems there is nothing she will not attempt to reproduce in stitch, fabric, plastic or any flexible material, thriving on deadlines and the challenge of creating something new. She was generous with explaining her techniques and ideas, and invited us to visit her in her Hampton Court studio to see the work in action. A tempting prospect for a future outing!
See more of Karen’s work on her website
Watch Karen’s talk to Talking Textiles 2021 Conference on YouTube
Read about our talk with a very different artist using the Irish machine, Kate Wells
Words © Liz Wilmott/CETG 2023
Photos © Liz Wilmott/Karen Nicol