An established career in contemporary Textiles – Is it possible?
Many artists and designers aspire to carve out an established career amidst this terrain. Within my text, I aim to determine if this is actually a conceivable objective. Why explore this area? I hope to discover, compare and contrast selected artists, in order to define their working methods and ascertain personal lessons to envisage where I could sit in this domain.
Where did they start? How do they continue? Are there key points / lessons / values to learn? Surely there have been barriers to break through? What about the future? In order to look at continuous working examples of whom I can observe developments, I have chosen three contemporary textile artists / designers who are all still practicing. They are: Louise Gardiner, Alice Kettle and Karen Nicol. I realise that as we are all individuals, we cannot create a recipe for success which is guaranteed. The three afore-named, were not selected with leanings to my own preference; rather through evidence-driven findings they have become templates to observe; role models.
Having chosen three artists, I extensively narrowed down my criteria, in order to research their individual pathways and develop a body of text with quality concentration, rather than a saturation of surface findings. This careful choosing should initiate balance.
I will hone in on certain areas relevant to my desired findings:
• What was their individual path into textiles and how do they approach their practice?
• Why do they make and what are the driving values behind their work?
• How do they achieve balance between making a living and creating?
• Have the artists / designers had to override any obvious barriers or needed to change their practice or approach to it?
• Can their presence continue?
I intend to answer the above, not in a strategic form, rather in a natural response from interviews and researched media. Finding answers to the proposed questions above, should leave me with an understanding of how others have manged to establish themselves within this vocation.
Let’s first scrutinise how each artist individually came to their current practice.
Beginning with Alice Kettle, we learn that she was exposed to the artistic realms from an early age. In an online interview for Textile Artist, she confides to the reader that she has made her own clothing ‘from early years’ (Picher, 2011). This led on to work in a craft shop as a teen; ‘it gave me a glimpse of the world which I wanted to be a part of’ admits Kettle. Family also influenced her leanings: ‘My mother loved making, she used to jump on the train and go to Liberty London and buy remnants and samples. She made my sisters and I matching Liberty Print dresses and we made puppets…with the offcuts’ (Stone, 2012) I wonder if this early airing made her cloth-biased? Sometimes in our lives, it can take years for our real vocation to flourish. This may explain why Kettle began studying for her BA in Fine Art, only later moving to Textiles. Was this originally chosen to defy her mother’s interest in things tactile? No admission can be found.
One critic states: ‘Alice Kettle is a contemporary artist who has established a unique area of practice by her use of a craft medium, continuity and unprecedented scale’ (Roberts, 2015)
Louise Gardiner came from a farming background, with no early dalliance in the arts. Yet she readily admits in almost every interview published, that it was her parent’s ‘hard working and labour intensive’ example, which drives her practice. She forms a key archetype of someone who was not nurtured to become an artist, but found her own way. When asked during an interview in 2016 ‘Has growing up on a farm shaped the way you work?’ She answered: ‘Absolutely. Farming is full time, you don’t switch off. It has given me a strong work ethic and a can-do attitude. Work can be challenging but you have to get on and do it.’ (Mollie Makes, 2016) This illustrates that qualities observed and learned in our early years, even when unrelated to the arts field, can combine to make our practice stronger and more importantly, lasting.


Fig 1. Louise Gardiner. Mollie Makes. (2016)

In contrast, when asked in an interview what her route into textiles was, Karen Nicol answered: ‘My mother and sister were both embroiderers. My mother stitched and painted and demonstrated flower arranging and is a Master in Ikebana and my sister went to MMU and did a degree in Embroidery. My mother taught us all the basics from square one; at the age of 14 she made us both a dress pattern block and said that she would buy us any fabric from the local market but no more clothes… a baptism of fire but brilliant. At that age you have no fear’. (Textile Artist, 2013)
She almost didn’t continue in Textiles in contraposition to her mother’s example: ‘I desperately wanted to do something with more street cred than embroidery, aiming to be a fine artist, painter or sculptor, but I just couldn’t ignore the versatility and diversity of textiles as a medium.’ (Nicol, 2017) Thus she studied for her BA in Embroidery and then when on to do her MA. This educational path was one walked by Kettle and Gardiner too; Kettle has a BA in Fine Art and MA in Textiles to her name with Gardiner having both a BA and MA in Textiles.
In a recent interview, I asked her what she felt was her personal approach to Textiles and why does she create in this way? She answered: ‘I like to be irreverent with embroidery, but that has come with many years. Now that’s just the way I work…I like to try to paint with the stitch I suppose’. (Nicol, 2017)


Fig 2. Karen Nicol. Painting with the needle. (2017)
Can we discover any secrets from their continuity? How can they create a sense of balance, between earning a living which is appropriate to their own needs and creating?
All three artists / designers teach, as well as developing their own personal practice in a variety of manners. Gardiner does this on a freelance basis, while Kettle currently leads Textile programs as a Professor at Manchester School of Art. Nicol leads programs at The Royal College of Art, while working with many clients and commissions.
In one interview, Gardiner opens with the words: ‘you have to make your own opportunity: You can’t just wait for it to land. I’ve always been driven…if I don’t get it out there, no-one will come find me’ (Johnson, 2011).
In contrast, when asked whether she worries about work and finding opportunities, Kettle states: ‘I go where I am asked and that is that’. (Mr Stitch, 2011) When asked by The Victoria and Albert about her position in Textiles, she answered: ‘It is about an emotional connection within the work; I am not sure about my position, I don’t really mind very much about that. I just do what I do. I earn my living from my work which inevitably means to a large extent whether I like it or not it is dictated by those concerns’. (Springhall, 2013)
Returning to Gardiner, she admits to an ‘ever changing practice…I see myself as a contemporary embroideress’. In The Textile Curator she confides that ‘security financially is vital. I have to have several strands to my career; become more professional, more commercial, book illustration, large commissions and teaching’. (Adams, 2014)
I asked Nicol how she found it possible to keep a balance between making a living and developing her work: ‘I think working in industry the way I do to make money, is to try to constantly make ground breaking work.’ What does she feel constitutes as success? ‘Someone offering me a great job/commission, I get really excited’. Has she had to change her approach over the years? ‘Constantly you need to be able to bob and weave as the market dictates’. (Nicol, 2017)
Has this previously self-confessed irreverence or by definition ‘disrespect’ towards embroidery usage been party to her continuity?
We find visual physical evidence within her outcomes: ‘I love to challenge embroidery, I love to push it and push it, working with mixed media such as resin, cut glass and taxidermy’. (Karen Nicol, 2014) ‘Diversity, flexibility, experimenting, trying to break the mould, thinking outside the box are what I would define as most important’. (Nicol, 2017)


Fig 3. Karen Nicol. Raffia flowers. Partial view of a lace skirt. (2014)
It has got her noticed by galleries. In a film interview for The Embroiderers’ Guild, she refers to her long relationship with the Rebecca Hossack gallery in New York. Within the press release for her most recent exhibition held at this venue, we read: ‘Nicol pushes the boundaries of her practice through the inclusion of fine jewellery, pearls, collaged photographic negatives and such unconventional materials such as taffeta, chiffon and leather’ (Hossack, 2014)


Fig 4. Karen Nicol. ‘The edge on the woods’. (2014)
All three artists illustrate their established status in their longativity of career. But can this last? Have any of the three thought about the future?
Gardiner discloses: ‘I know that my life as an embroideress’ is limited because embroidery is a physically demanding medium’. She has her own remedy to this concern: ‘I now archive my work through professional photography…I feel it will enable me to explore new avenues; in the future I would love to do a book’. Her afore mentioned background fuses with the present; coming from a self-confessed ‘hard working family’, who in her own words ‘had to be entrepreneurs, inventive too’. (Mollie Makes, 2014). Nicol divulges: ‘Versatility and fast thinking in textiles , mixing contradicting narratives to create the unexpected keeps the audience as well as discovering your own personal way of seeing. As Jean Paul Gautier said ‘The only way to stay ahead of the game is by being true to yourself’. (Nicol, 2011)
Looking at contemporary resources, I noticed that both Nicol and Gardiner make use of the social media tool Instagram. This could be identified as a semi–permanent way of making a “mark” on the future, it can be looked back on by other users and the artists themselves. Alternatively it can also be deleted at any time. Having an isolated image of their work to view, could give each artist a sense of clarity and work as a displacement activity, an allowance to be creative in a way unrelated to their usual practice. Each image posted could be carefully curated to form a “flat” piece of art in its own right, as those posted can be manipulated and filtered to the artists will.


Fig 5. Louise Gardiner. Instagram. (2017)


Fig 6. Karen Nicol. Instagram. (2017)
While interviewing Nicol, I asked if she saw this particular tool as a way of preserving her work, for others to view in the future. She replied: ‘I do quite enjoy putting things on Instagram and the magic of an instant response from across the world, but I don’t think I have ever got work from it’.
In contrast, when searching for Alice Kettle on this same site, I found a limited page:


Fig 7. Alice Kettle. Instagram. (2017)
This contrast in posting numbers and styles, shows each artist is an individual, with personal priorities.
Looking at Gardiner’s career history in respect to her ability to continue in her chosen calling, we find that her moving from a commission to illustrate greeting cards for the company Woodmansterene to using the afore mentioned professional photographs of her recent embroideries to create ranges of digitally printed Textiles, namely in the form of luxury homeware. Printed cushions and silk throws can now adorn the elite’s pad, digitally printed with her designs.


Fig 8. Louise Gardiner. Luxury printed textiles on display. (2016)
Within a description of this range published on her website, she states: ‘Each piece is a work of art in its own right and a great way to introduce an element of contemporary textile art into the home.’ (Gardiner, 2017) This could be perceived as her Trojan horse, her way of “introducing” the potential customer to her designs.
One potential barrier for any for many Textile artists is how their field is seen, in comparison to Fine Art. The Embroiderers’ Guild have tackled this within their website, where they have designed a section entitled ‘Stitch as an art form’. A variety of influential artists were asked to contribute to this page, including Kettle. The highlight of her paragraph can be surmised by these words: ‘Embroidery is art’. She adds meat to her statement: ‘I wonder if it really matters if embroidery is art or not? What seems more important is a questioning of material, an understanding of process and an opening up of ideas.’ (Kettle, 2013) Her pragmatic vocal response takes the heat out of this protracted polemic concept; she unpicks and diffuses the agitation from this opinion and takes it back to the original meaning of the word art itself: Beautiful. Her reply would also convey that she is able to overcome this potential stumbling block. We could view her work having been bought or exhibited many times by predominantly Fine Art galleries as a part of her conquest.


Fig. 9. Alice Kettle. Pause. 2009. The Scottish Royal Academy (2015)


Fig 10. Alice Kettle. Golden Dawn. 2014. Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead. (2016)
Reflecting on the questions I posed in my introduction, I endeavoured to look into each artists practice, uncovering their history, honing in on certain aspects which I felt were valuable in respect to my essay title and those areas defined in my initial thoughts. What have I unearthed? The most important factor to realise is how they are still practicing. All three artists / designers have similarities and crossovers, such as teaching commitments and commission work and as mentioned in my introduction, they form templates, patterns of how it is possible to develop a sustained career in Textiles. Evidence has been established via the longevity of their work and published successes, along with their personal comments, which I have either gleaned through personal interviews or through viable sources, such as magazine or video based interviews. Some have already planned for their future, such as Gardiners careful photographing of her work, in order to have a catalogue of images to use as publishing material.
In an interview for her acceptance of the Beryl Dean Award in 2014, Nicol refers to the medium of embroidery as ‘a gift’. Gardiner admits during a televised interview with Anthrapologie ‘I have a love hate relationship with my work and I often fantasise about giving it up, yet it is addictive’. From my research I have identified that this is a not an easy path, yet in Kettles words during an interview for The Narrative Line’; ‘it is beautiful, it can be very, very special’ (DCCI, 2012).


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