Photo Credit: Michael Wicks
Based in Essex in the UK, Sara Impey’s free-motion machine embroidered quilts include text as both a design element and a tool for communication. It enables her to use the quilt surface to experiment with wordplay through texture, pattern and colour, while exploring social and personal issues, sometimes with a dash of humour.
Sara stitched her first quilt at school in 1971. She is self-taught, and for many years patchwork was fitted around her career as a newspaper journalist and her family. In the 1980s she joined a local quilting group and discovered the potential of the quilt as an art form. She has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for twenty years. Her work has won many awards and is included in public and private collections, among them the Victoria & Albert Museum, the American Museum of Arts & Design in New York and The Quilt Museum in York. Her book ‘Text in Textile Art’ was published in 2013.
How do you describe your work?
I call them quilts because they are all made using quiltmaking techniques, even the most recent three-dimensional ones which don’t look like quilts at all. And I’m self-taught – I started by making patchwork items for the home, and I still think of myself as a traditional quilter in some ways. I’m not really interested in high-tech techniques, for example, though I admire people who are pushing the boundaries. I’m a bit of a purist – I like working simply with fabric and thread. Their potential is still limitless.
Where do you find your inspiration for the words?
A difficult question! Topics are often suggested by the techniques or the structure of the piece, for example: Losing the Plot, where the words describe what you are seeing, but which also has a serious comment about a disease like Alzheimer’s. I like to include an element of social commentary, such as the list of undesirable phrases in Bitter Pills and Spoiled for Choice. And an undercurrent of humour, if I’m lucky. Recent 3-D pieces have featured my own poems, but this has to be done sparingly and with much thought as I don’t want to stray into sentimental territory. And I have also written essays on the nature of stitch and the importance of process to textile artists, something that is dear to my heart, and stitched them on to quilts. I like working where the verbal and the visual intersect. I can’t conceive of working now without using text, though it’s hard to say which comes first: the visual and the verbal elements are inextricably linked. I’m very lucky that the inclusion of words seems to give them a broader appeal so that non-stitchers can find something in them.
Why do many of your works have a muted colour palette?
Because I need to maintain a strong contrast between the fabric and the thread in order to make the lettering visible. I either work with light thread on dark fabric, or vice versa. I avoid middling shades, though it would be fun to do something a bit brighter one day.
What is your process for designing a quilt?
I never draw, except to sketch out rough geometric shapes. I sometimes draw out a block that’s going to be repeated in its actual size, so that I have a record of the measurements to refer to. I also use it to estimate the dimensions of the finished piece and calculate how much fabric I need. My quilts are mostly based on very simple overall designs, often bold geometric shapes or repeated patterns, so the design process is probably much shorter than for some quilters. I don’t take photos and I don’t have a sketchbook. I do make samples, usually to check that what I’m planning to do is actually possible and also to make sure the colour contrast is sufficient. Along with drafts of the text on paper or the computer, they are my only source material.
Is there a preferred fabric you use?
I used to work exclusively with silk, but I usually now work with cotton, which is easier to handle. Sometimes I dye it to get a mottled effect as a background to the lettering, but dyeing is not my strong point and I don’t enjoy doing it. Some of my most recent 3-D pieces are made from heavy and stiff calico with a felt wadding so that they are very robust when finished and can almost stand up on their own.
How long does a quilt take from start to finish?
An absolutely impossible question! Big pieces can take five or six weeks. Smaller pieces, between a week and a fortnight. But it’s variable, and depends on what else is going on and how much time I can devote to quilting. I do keep a record of when I start and finish a piece, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect how much work went into it.
Do you work on more than one at a time?
Never! I’m always amazed that other people can do this. If I did, I would never finish anything. I guess if you are doing more free, collage-type quilts you can hop from one to another as the spirit moves you. But my work involves intense concentration and I might lose the motivation if I stopped in the middle.
How long did it take you to perfect your machine embroidery?
It’s hard to quantify, except that it takes a lot of practice. My earliest attempts at machine embroidery were satin-stitch lines: see Positivity. The earliest free-motion work was a simple zigzag, up and down. The first ones with text look quite crude to me now, with great big letters and clumsy stitching. As I got better at it, the lettering got smaller and the stitching got more even and consistent. Now I ‘write’ with a needle, so that the stitched text is my own machine ‘handwriting’, letter by letter. I find I can do it pretty effortlessly and even think about something else while I’m stitching, but there’s always the danger I’ll leave a word out, so I have to be careful!
Do you ever make a mistake mid quilt? If so what do you do?
Yes, see above. It usually happens if I get interrupted. I make a point of re-reading the sentence I’m stitching so that I don’t wander into the wrong tense or leave something out. If I make a mistake I try and rewrite the rest of the sentence to accommodate it, but if I can’t there’s nothing for it but to unpick. Sometimes I can just re-do a couple of words. But it’s very fiddly and extremely annoying!
How did your book come about?
Batsford called me out of the blue and asked me to do it. I already kept a list of textile artists working in text just for my own interest, so I didn’t need to do much research!
What do you think are the challenges for professional textile artists?
It depends where your ambitions lie. It’s difficult to support yourself through making and selling, but some people derive an income from teaching, writing, etc. We’re very lucky in the textile world that there are numerous opportunities to exhibit and for your work to be validated. Belonging to an exhibiting group is important for me – I’m a member of Quilt Art and Anglia Textile Works. But the textile world, although huge (think of the Festival of Quilts) tends to be a closed world, operating below the radar of much contemporary art. Many quilt artists are quite happy within this world. But if you want to get your work ‘out there’ it’s more of a struggle. The word ‘quilt’ still has an old-fashioned image that can be off-putting to curators, though the public at large is much more aware of textile art than, say, thirty years ago. But much contemporary fine art is conceptually-based and not tuned into process or craft skills.
Any tips for fellow quilters / textile artists?
Seize the opportunity to exhibit wherever possible. I’m not very good at self-promotion, but we should really all be doing more of it and making full use of social media, etc. And for beginners: start on something small that you are able to finish and be proud of. If you don’t finish it, the experience will always be connected with disappointment and make you reluctant to try anything else.
What is next? Any exciting plans?
I’m still quite taken with the three-dimensional stuff – getting away from having everything flat against the wall. But I have some ideas for ‘flat’ pieces as well. I belong to a poetry group and I have started stitching verse on to my pieces, but you have to be very careful with this and the words, for me, must have some relevance to the textile piece.
Any words you would like to leave us with?
Well, perhaps you could stress that my text is free-motion machine stitching and not digitised embroidery, which a lot of people think it is. I suppose I should be flattered in a way!
For more information visit www.saraimpey.com