Courthouse Steps: Democracy on Trial, 2020, 43 cm square (17” square) Calico, wholecloth, free-motion machine stitched, machine quilted.
Sara Impey is a British quilt artist specialising in free motion machine-stitched lettering based in Essex, England. She is the author of 'Text and Textile Art' (2013), and for 20 years has been a member of the pan-European group Quilt Art, the oldest group of its kind in Europe.
Erica Gillingham for The Signal House Edition: Sara, you’ve been quilting since the early 1970s, but your work this year has taken on a different focus with the pandemic. Can you tell us more about how this series of small quilts came about and what they’ve been focusing on?
Sara Impey: Like many people I suddenly found myself with time on my hands during the lockdown – I realise I’m very fortunate. But museums and galleries were closed, and the yearly round of exhibition opportunities came to a halt. In my exhibiting group we normally plan ahead at least a couple of years, but now everything was in abeyance.
My wall-hangings are usually quite large – up to four feet square – and labour intensive so I can only make a few a year. At the start of the lockdown I embarked on a time-consuming piece (a stitched diary, of which more later) and after that I decided to make a series of small quilts specifically for Instagram on the subject of Covid. This enabled me to work through ideas more quickly than usual. They were highly topical, so it was satisfying to be able to reach an instant audience. I also thought they might turn into a body of work which could be shown together one day.
From the beginning of the lockdown I had logged the daily cumulative death toll from the virus in the UK and this series of numbers featured on these little quilts. The first was a colour chart showing the colours of spring in small rectangles with the numbers underneath. We all remember what a beautiful spring it was, and how it seemed to throw the pandemic into sharp relief. I then made Flying the Flag, a Union Jack design, which also included the death toll in that first few weeks. The colours fade towards the bottom as the country seemed to be fading out as a player on the world stage. The UK had the highest number of deaths in Europe and scandals like the shortage of PPE were further tarnishing our reputation overseas.
Flying the Flag, 2020, 60 x 40 cm (23 ½x 16 cm), Calico, wholecloth, free-motion machine stitched, machine quilted.
Is Anybody Listening?, 2020, (42 x 44 cm ) Commercial cotton, felt wadding, free-motion machine stitched numbers and bubbles, machine quilted.
Is Anybody Listening? put these numbers in speech bubbles. This quilt coincided with the easing of restrictions, but as I have a son with a learning disability and other medical conditions who is vulnerable, we had personal reasons for being concerned that the daily death toll seemed to have dropped down the news agenda. Although much of my work could be described as social commentary, I don’t usually choose subjects that are so raw, immediate and emotionally-laden. I was very aware that each death was a tragedy and didn’t want to make light of it. I kept this piece very plain, as the numbers spoke for themselves.
EG: One of the things I admire so much about your quilts is the way in which you pair traditional elements of quilting with current events and ideas. An example of this is your Courthouse Steps series, which uses a traditional quilt block to make visible many of the headline themes we’ve seen in the US and the UK in recent years. What, for you, is the interplay between traditional quilt patterns and your text-based textile art?
SI: I had been casting around for a design to illustrate the current concerns about the threat to democracy and the Courthouse Steps idea was a gift, as it’s such a well-known quilt pattern and the name suggested the notion of putting democracy on trial. I had never interpreted a quilt pattern so literally before, but much of my work is nevertheless based on traditional designs since I often use repeated patterns and simple geometric outlines. And, even if my quilts are an unusual shape or three-dimensional, they are all defined as quilts – that is, two or more layers of fabric held together with stitch.
Most of my work is based on a grid. The first thing I do is draw a grid on a piece of fabric, layer it up to make a quilt, pin the layers all over with safety pins (tedious and sometimes painful, but we have to suffer for our art!) and stitch along the drawn lines in a thread colour that matches the fabric. I then have a surface of empty squares and my ‘canvas’ is ready. So whether I end up with a design of large concentric circles or small speech bubbles or even the national flag, they all start with a grid, in the same way that many well-known American quilt patterns are based on a block.
I should add that I’m quite a purist when it comes to textile art. I confine myself to working just with fabric and thread. Many artists today experiment with all sorts of different processes such as fabric treatments, digital techniques, found objects and photography, but I find enough creative potential in the domestic sewing machine and what it can do.
EG: During the pandemic, you’ve also been keeping a daily diary on 1 metre quilted strips of calico and you’ve now woven them into a large quilt piece entitled Interlockdown. What has that process been like? What has surprised or delighted you in keeping this diary?
SI: I really enjoyed making Interlockdown. I made two or three of these strips per day and they are a record of personal and national events in the first few weeks of the lockdown. There was a kind of comfort and therapy in the daily ritual of cutting out, layering and stitching the strips and then thinking of what I wanted to say in thread about the previous 24 hours.
I decided to make strips rather than one big piece because I wanted the process to be open-ended. Nobody knew what was going to happen and there was a lot of fear around. Who knows – I might have caught the virus myself and never finished it, so it felt like a leap into the unknown. I didn’t know how I was going to assemble them or how many I would eventually make. But as I went along, I formed the idea of weaving them in and
out like a basket so that the verticals interrupt the text on the horizontals. Because of this the text is not immediately legible but can be puzzled out with effort. I hope this reflects the disruption to everybody’s lives during this period. It was a confusing and disorientating time when, confined at home, we felt both connected to and disconnected from one another. When I finished it in mid-May some of the restrictions were starting to lift so it seemed an appropriate place to stop. The text is over 1200 words and there are more than sixty strips.
Iris Recognition, 2016, (82 cm x 107 cm) , Calico, free-motion machine-stitched text and circles, machine pieced, machine quilted.
Interlockdown, 202, (1 metre square approx), Calico, free-motion machine stitched text
EG: You have been quilting since 1971, but in your book Text in Textile Art (2013) you talk about seeing A Few Words About Sewing (1990) by Mary Fogg as a turning point in your own work, especially when witnessing viewers’ responses to it. You write: ‘Words draw people in. They engage people’s whole attention. They make an impact, or, as here, demand a deeply thoughtful and analytic response.’ How did that experience change the quilts you were making?
SI: Introducing text into my work was, as you say, a pivotal moment. It felt as though I had finally found my creative ‘voice’ after 30 years of quiltmaking, so it was a long apprenticeship! It’s important to me that I write my own material. I studied languages at Oxford University and then trained as a newspaper journalist, eventually working for a few years as a reporter on the parliamentary staff of The Times. So I had always been drawn to working with words both in my real and quilting life, but it was not until 2004 that I found a way of incorporating text into my quilts.
I use the ‘free-motion’ machine embroidery method, where the teeth that usually feed the fabric under the needle are disengaged, so the stitcher is in control of the direction of the stitched line; you can go any way you like without turning the fabric. I stitch each letter individually. I’ve done so much of this that I can do it by eye and don’t need to mark the fabric first and I’ve developed my own stitched ‘handwriting’. The text has to fit into the space available, so this is where the writing and stitching really come together. I’m sometimes making up the text as I go along to achieve this, so the words travel straight from my brain to the needle. I don’t want to over-dramatize, since quilting is not known for its roller-coaster thrills, but at these moments my heart rate goes up and I feel that I’m living on the edge!
You’re right that introducing text changed the quilts I was making. In my earlier text pieces I stitched one letter per square like a crossword puzzle, making paper stencils for the letter outlines, and they looked similar to my previous geometric-style quilts. These were quite visually pleasing and I sometimes had fun with wordplay, making them read down as well as across, for example, which was a challenge. But the technique had its limitations, and after a few years I abandoned it and now stitch smaller letters so that the text has more in common with printed or written lettering. This enables me to be more discursive, sometimes writing an essay of several hundred words which covers the whole surface.
Project Fear: Black Hole, 2018 (106 cm x 123 cm) Commercial cotton, cotton velvet, calico backing, felt wadding. Free-motion machine stitched text, reverse appliqued by hand, hand and machine quilted.
If you produce letters, you have to have a subject and this, of course, opened up a new area of expressive possibilities. Many of my pieces are concerned with contemporary issues, often from the point of view of the absurd language they generate. Brexit was, and no doubt will continue to be, a rich seam to mine. One of my Brexit quilts is constructed like a portcullis, whereby I made a series of black tapes and joined them together in a trellis, and stitched on it some of the outlandish expressions that have emerged in the last couple of years: Canada plus plus, Henry VIII powers, Brexodus, Remoaners – that kind of thing. I called it Fortress Britain. I was trying to use the language and the visual metaphor of the portcullis to highlight how our stance on Europe must have been viewed from abroad.
Words do draw people in, but while I want the text to be legible, I don’t expect everyone to stand in front of one of my quilts and not move till they’ve read the entire thing. Some people do and a lot of people just get the gist and that’s fine – I’ve made my point.
War of Words, 2018, (112 cm x 130 cm) Calico, wholecloth, free-motion machine stitch, machine quilted, felt wadding.
EG: There is also a lot of humour and word play in your quilts. Is this an element of self-expression or is there also an engagement with the expected ‘seriousness’ of art?
SI: Yes, I do like humour and wordplay. While I’m serious about my work from a technical point of view and want the quilts to be properly constructed and neatly finished, I prefer the content to be quite light, though I hope there’s a thought-provoking element lying behind it. I don’t want to be didactic. I like to think I’m poking gentle fun, rather as a cartoonist might. Like a cartoonist I have to think visually, and I like it when the design or structure of my pieces reflects the text (like the portcullis), so that there is a kind of double meaning going on. Ideas that incorporate both elements don’t come along every day, so I often work in a series,
exploring the possibilities of an idea over a number of quilts. When an idea occurs, it’s hard to know which comes first – the design or the text – as they are both interlinked.
Stitched lettering, rather like letters carved in wood or stone, has in the past tended to be meaningful and portentous and I enjoy subverting this. There’s also something inherently ludicrous about spending so much time stitching, and this is heightened when the subject-matter is unexpected in a textile context, like the stitched blood splats and crosshairs in War of Words. I’m interested in language itself and the way political clichés are used unthinkingly, even lazily, to avoid thinking deeply about subjects or, worse, to obfuscate or manipulate. War of Words is full of military metaphors which are commonly used in everyday speech but could ratchet up the tension in a situation of confrontation and brinkmanship.
The one area I want to avoid is over-sentimentality, and there’s always a danger one can stray into this territory when working with textiles with their associations of warmth, comfort and memory.
Thrall, 2017,10 links, total diameter when joined 92 cm (approx.) Commercial fabric, free-motion machine stitched text, machine quilted, felt and pelmet vilene wadding.
EG: For this issue, we’ve featured your quilt entitled Negative Spaces, Positive Times. Can you tell us more about this piece?
SI: Negative Spaces, Positive Times is all about the stitching process from the stitcher’s point of view. This is one of my favourite subjects, though I appreciate such navel-gazing won’t appeal to everyone. It’s one of a series prompted by the first question that almost everyone asks when they see a quilt (or a tapestry or some other labour-intensive piece of needlework) which is: How Long Did it Take to Make?
The question is simple and obvious to the questioner, who is evaluating the work purely on time and effort, but often unanswerable, except in vague terms, by the maker. This is because to many makers the time taken is the least important aspect of the work. Unless you’re being paid for a commission you’re unlikely to bother logging the hours spent at the sewing machine, any more than you know how many pieces of work you’ve made. What’s important is the process – the exercising of a skill, the problem solving, the overcoming of challenges, the pleasure of handling fabric and thread, and of watching the finished piece gradually take shape – and also, in a more abstract way, the sense of being part of a continuum of women’s art and of a connection with stitchers, usually women, from the past.
For this quilt I experimented with not leaving a gap between the rows of lettering. Where the letters touch they sometimes randomly create intriguing negative spaces. I have no control over this process as I make up the text as I go along and the letters, being free-machined, are not predictable and ‘perfect’ in shape and size. I made a small sample in which I coloured in some of these shapes rather like a child might, except I used thread instead of crayons. That gave me the idea of the negative spaces filled, as it were, by positive times.
If I can quote from the piece:
In the negative spaces between the stitches your mind is set free. Your fingers become fluent in the haptic language of the sewing machine. Hand and foot and eye work in harmony to control the speed of the motor and the positioning of the needle until the rhythm feels as natural as your heartbeat and the thread flows through the system like blood. Decisions are taken moment by moment in what seems to be a kind of wordless dialogue with the materials. You are immersed in the transformative act of making. The piece takes on a life of its own… But even a casual observer is aware of a hidden hinterland beyond the textile surface involving time and commitment and perseverance. Something that cannot be seen or touched is nevertheless there – positive times concealed within the negative spaces.
Covid Misinformation Help Point, 2020, 62 cm square, Calico, wholecloth, free-motion machine stitched, machine quilted.
EG: You are a member of the pan-European group Quilt Art and your work is part of an international conversation in textile art. Who or what is exciting you in contemporary quilting and textiles right now?
SI: Yes, I’ve been a member of Quilt Art for 20 years and I would choose all the other members as producers of ground-breaking work. It’s a small pan-European group which started back in 1985, so it’s the oldest group of its kind in Europe. We’ve exhibited all over Europe and in Japan, Russia, Canada and the United States. Most of us came to textile art through making quilts, though some have other textile backgrounds. We don’t insist that the work has to conform to the traditional definition of a quilt, and we are very diverse as individual makers.
The art quilting scene is burgeoning in many countries, some with their own quilting traditions and some with none. I’m sticking my neck out here, but a few countries are evolving their own styles: I can often recognise a Japanese or an Australian quilt, for example. The US is interesting, because their ‘quilt revival’ of the 1970s grew out of feminism and protest with makers such as Faith Ringgold, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro leading the way. Even today American art quilts tend to be more pictorial and poster-like with a greater use of primary colours than European art quilts, which are on the whole more minimalist and restrained.
Of course, quilting is only one branch of the textile arts, interest in which has exploded in recent years. When I made my first quilts for the home in the 1970s I didn’t know a single other quilter, and there were very few books, groups, classes and exhibitions and no internet. Today there’s lots of exciting, challenging and thought-provoking work happening based on traditional textile techniques. I’m thinking of Freddie Robins in knitting, Celia Pym in mending and darning, and Caren Garfen in hand embroidery, but there are many others. There’s also highly creative work coming out of university textile departments which have the equipment for the new digital processes. The public profile of the textile arts has risen with the work of Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry. And international artists such as Joana Vasconcelos from Portugal and Tatiana Trouvé who is based in Paris have disconnected stitching from its domestic origins and make works on a monumental scale that can only be shown in enormous spaces. And yet, what unites us all are textile processes that haven’t changed in essence for millennia.
EG: Finally, every quilter has their stash of favourite and (temporarily) forgotten fabrics. What’s in yours?
SI: Well, I hate to disappoint but I don’t have a huge stash because most of my work these days is done on plain fabric so that the text is legible. However, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that about 15 years ago I gave away to a fellow quilter my lovely hoard of floral printed Liberty Tana lawns – the fabrics I used extensively in the 80s and early 90s – which I would dearly love to have now, if only to get them out and admire them from time to time. We quilters have long memories!
SARA IMPEY is a textile artist specialising in machine-stitched lettering. With a background in quilt making, she uses the textile surface to comment on social and political issues, sometimes with a dash of humour. Find out more about her work and exhibitions at Website, Instagram.
(Image credits: artwork photography by Douglas Atfield)