Embroidery with Claudine

As part of Volunteers' Week, we're catching up with the fabulous team who give up time to help in our Hackney day centre (when it's open!). We'll be asking about their experiences of volunteering, a bit more about their lives outside of Headway, and the ways they've been connecting with our community since lockdown...

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We’ve been lucky to have Claudine on our dedicated team of volunteers for the last 3 years. As an artist she was first drawn to the Submit To Love studios, hoping to pass on her skills in embroidery and textiles. What started as an idea, grew and grew and in the months before lockdown our lively studio was filled the gentle flow of threading and sewing as we prepared for a collective exhibition, Common Threads at Autograph gallery. Whilst this exhibition is currently on hold, we spoke to Claudine about how this project took shape and what was learnt along the way...

When did embroidery become part of your own art practice, how did you discover it?

There’s a long history of how I got into textiles and I won’t go into it now, but basically I was asked to be part of an exhibition, and I hadn’t done any art work for many years. I suddenly realised what was the strongest point, that I had as an artist and I thought it was ‘the drawing line’. I began to wonder, how could I make the drawing line into an object and that’s when I started to embroider in such a way that the line would stand out and become three dimensional. I totally fell in love with all the threads; the different types of thread, the colours and the textures of the materials.

"I went off to buy all kinds of materials and equipment and really the whole things taken off in a way that I just really had no idea it would."

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Tell us about how the embroidery project at Headway started…

When I first came to Headway I really wanted set up an embroidery branch of the art studio, on the other hand I had no idea how to go about it until Michelle one day took a canvas said “Go on have a go at it”. So we pulled out a drawing of Frida Kahlo’s face and I went off to buy all kinds of materials and equipment and really the whole things taken off in a way that I just really had no idea it would. What’s extraordinary is how the members have invented, not only their own way of designing and constructing, but also their own way of crafting their stitches here, it completely amazed me. And also what I thought was very interesting, is how people felt that they needed to fill up the empty canvas as if it were paint, this was very different to how I approach embroidery.

"What’s extraordinary is how the members have invented, not only their own way of designing and constructing, but also their own way of crafting their stitches here, it completely amazed me."

You worked closely with members in the art studio, what did you observe and learn as this embroidery project progressed?

When I first began this embroidery project, I had to hold the stretcher, so that the member would hit the canvas in the right place, Now I hardly ever need to hold the stretcher for people, they’re quite capable of working, often by themselves. I do feel it really has helped a certain kind of coordination and the repetition of this three dimensional kind of skills. The mastering of what is intended to do is very helpful and very useful and very healing.

The other thing that I found really interesting was how some members were quite intimidated at first, when I very first began, I stopped very quickly because it became something that was very difficult to do. But now look what has been achieved!

Another thing I observed, while working in the art studio was the desire to conquer the actual making of something. I realised this when I was working with a couple of members who had difficulties, one of them was by using both hands in coordination with the eyesight. So the eyes needed to focus where the hands were going to be, where the needle needed to be pricked into the canvas and how difficult this was. This was about making something work with a whole coordination of skills but in three dimensional.

What is interesting with embroidery, is once you have the design and once you’ve made the decision on how you’re going to do things then you’ve got the structure there of a whole activity. What’s actually taking place is the mastering of the body over the material – that is to say, the mastering of the hands doing one stitch after another and it was wonderful to see the pleasure that people expressed when they’ve managed to do a stitch just as they wanted it. And that is really extraordinary.

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I felt as if…very often you say to people “Time for lunch!” and the members reply “Hang on a minute! Hang on – I’ll just do one more stitch!” and I think that this really reflects the pleasure people have at really conquering and mastering whatever disability there is.

I’m very very pleased the way it’s taken and the textiles the members have made are just magnificent.

You can read more about the Common Threads exhibition and see some of the finished embroideries over on the Autograph website: https://autograph.org.uk/blog/common-threads/