Untamed Threads

Watch the recording of Untamed Threads Untangled on 24 November, where the artists present and discuss their work and answer questions.

Nuala Abramson, Tzipporah Johnston and Kate Rolison present their embroidered art, rich and wild with animal symbolism. The very act of embroidering is spider-like, turning threads into webs and narratives. The artists have each, in Nuala Abramson’s words, “found a home” in this often over-looked fine art form.

Tell us what you think about Untamed Threads.

Nuala Abramson

An image of a back ribcage, with muscle tissue pulled back to resemble wings, embroidered in deep red colours on grey background. An outline of a bird with wings outstretched is created using negative space, letting the grey background show. A head is outlined in gold thread, with part of the face hidden behind the bird's wing.

Nuala Abramson. Angel. Embroidery. 32 x 23 cm. 2022.

To make Angel, I took Muscles of the Back, from a 1746 collection of medical illustrations made in coloured mezzotint by Jacques-Fabien Gautier-d’Agoty, and layered it with an image of a dove to explore the links between renaissance-era obsession with unveiling the mystery of the woman’s body and the Victorian obsession with the fragile purity of white women.

An image of a snake outlined in white thread on a white background. surrounding the snake is a circle outlined in white thread on a white background, filled with decorative white stitches.

Nuala Abramson. Snake Sampler. Whitework embroidery. 26 x 26cm. 2022.

In the Imperial Gothic short story The Speckled Band, one of the first Sherlock Holmes stories, the fear of reverse contamination which guided Britain’s colonial projects is represented by a snake. In Snake Sampler I have taken an image of a snake from an 1830 collection of zoological illustrations and a slide from a cholera infected water sample to examine the feared non-western ‘other’ as contaminant in the eyes of Victorian society, fears which still guide immigration policy today.

An image of a girl praying, outlined in gold and black stitches, filled with grey background colour. Surrounding the girl is an arch, filled with decorate stitches in gold, bronze, copper and blue.

Nuala Abramson. Matrix. Goldwork embroidery. 22.5 x 17 cm. 2022.

In Matrix, I have layered a photograph of Augustine, an asylum inmate studied by Charcot, and a conceptual illustration of a panopticon used in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This comparison was used to explore the history of modern psychiatry, and its inextricable links to surveillance, moral management, and economic Progress.

A pink rectangular border surrounds a gold rectangle made of horizontally stitched down gold threads. Inside this is the outline of a woman lying down with her ankles crossed, and her torso is covered with small stitched images of a blue snake, green bramble vines and a red pomegranate.

Nuala Abramson. Petit Mort. Goldwork embroidery. 25 x 16 cm . 2022.

Petit Mort is a simplified version of a larger piece, in which I experimented with symbolic language, using botanical and zoological imagery to explore themes close to my heart such as sexuality, pain, death, surveillance and fragility.

Tzipporah Johnston

Close-up shot of a realistic, three-dimensional embroidered bumblebee perched on a woman’s fingertips. It has ginger and black stripes.

Tzipporah Johnston. Moss Carder Bee. Stumpwork embroidery. 34 x 34 x 20mm. 2021.

This Moss Carder Bee is part of a series of dimensional embroideries exploring the crisis in insect populations. The aim of the series is to draw attention to the beauty and necessity of invertebrates in our ecosystem, and ask people to stop and consider our dependence on them. The bee is designed so that it can be held in the hand, evoking a sense of wonder and helping to foster an emotional connection with these delicate invertebrates.

The Moss Carder is a native species in steep decline, now limited to isolated areas. It seems to prefer coastal areas with enough loose shingle and sand to build its nests, but also enough clover-rich open grassland to feed on – a combination increasingly rare as human activity encroaches upon its habitat. Unless people can be made to care about the Moss Carder and protect its range, the species faces a bleak future.

A large, realistic, three-dimensional embroidered moth pinned in a case like an entomological specimen. The moth is bright pink and brown.

Tzipporah Johnston. Elephant Hawk Moth. Stumpwork embroidery in entomological display case. 200 x 250 x 50mm. 2019.

This stumpwork embroidery was created as part of a larger installation, The Museum of Monotropism, a modern take on the Wunderkammer. It uses pieces inspired by nature to stimulate discussion of both the issues facing the natural world, and the autistic hyperfocus that drives me to collect and catalogue it.

Moths are often unfairly maligned, inspiring revulsion or viewed as pests. In fact, our ecosystem depends upon them both as pollinators and food for other animals. Their sensitivity makes them important indicator species, warning us of environmental threats. We are also indebted to moths for many scientific discoveries, from understanding Rh disease to breaking down plastic.

By creating large-scale specimens, several times actual size, I encourage people to look again, and more favourably, at moths. Enlarged, their beauty becomes more striking, the diversity of species more evident. By kindling a sense of wonder, I hope to inspire people to value and protect these remarkable insects.

This piece, featuring needle felting and stumpwork embroidery, was created as part of a larger installation, The Museum of Monotropism. A modern cabinet of curiosities, the Museum uses my long-standing interest in the natural world to present an experience of autism that does not emphasise distress, instead foregrounding what is beautiful and rich about autistic experience.

Autistic hyperfocus is the lens through which I see the world. Life is huge and overwhelming. People are sometimes cruel and often confusing. Focusing on the structure of a flower, or the geometry of a shell, or the tiniest details of a moth’s wing makes the world feel smaller, safer; more manageable, more beautiful.

A wooden tray lined with rough grey fabric, with three objects pinned on it: a yellow, dandelion-like plant, a yellow and brown striped snail shell, and a yellow buttercup-like plant. All are realistic, three-dimensional embroideries.

Tzipporah Johnston. Reverend Kirby’s Specimen Box. Stumpwork embroidery, paper, nettle fabric, and wooden box. 250 x 350 x 35mm. 2022.

This piece imagines the natural history specimens that the Reverend William Kirby might have collected on his walks around Suffolk chalk pits in the autumn of 1797, when he made his first observations of the Spined Mason Bee. Born in 1759, Reverend Kirby was a prominent parson-naturalist. His landmark 1802 Monographia Apum Angliae (Monograph on the Bees of England), in which he first identified and described Osmia (initially called Apis) spinulosa, was the first scientific treatise to be published on English bees.

Osmia spinulosa is a bee that few will ever see, and even fewer will recognise – tiny and nondescript, except for an orange pollen brush on its abdomen, The Spined Mason Bee is almost invisible in the landscape. It is seen most clearly through its impact on the landscape – the greater prevalence of the Asteraceae plants it pollinates, the marks of its jaws on cinquefoil leaves, and the chewed mortar peeking out of its snail shell nests. It therefore feels appropriate that a portrait of this bee should focus on its footprint on the land, rather than its physical appearance.

A wooden tray divided into small compartments, each containing an object. The objects include: dried nettle specimen, tiny lead figures and animals, three-dimensional embroidered insects, anatomical diagrams embellished with embroidery, a papercut swan wing, vintage cigarette cards, and a miniature spinning wheel.

Tzipporah Johnston. Nettle Cabinet. Embroidery, papercutting, gouache, mixed media, cordage, found object assemblage. 574 x 378 x 40mm. 2021.

The Nettle Cabinet is part of Plant Lives, a series of mixed media curiosity cabinets exploring the social, cultural and ecological significance of some of our most common wild plants. Plants are the lynchpins of our environment. All animal life is dependent on them – including ours. This knowledge was once reflected in their central place in folk culture, forming the basis of everything from cures to curses, food to fashion. As we become increasingly estranged from the natural world, plants that we once prized are forgotten or denigrated as weeds – to our lasting peril.

Plant Lives aims to restore plants to their rightful place in our imaginations, and to highlight both the cultural loss and existential threat represented by their decline. Objects in the cabinet variously represent the insect life dependent on it for food, and the mammalian and bird life dependent on them in turn; human use of nettles in food, medicine, agriculture and textiles; and nettles’ significance in folk religion and magic.

A wooden entomological specimen case with a glass front, containing 7 life-sized, realistic butterflies made from embroidery.

Tzipporah Johnston. Butterfly Specimen Case. Stumpwork embroidery in entomological display case. 250 x 350 x 50mm. 2018.

This piece is simultaneously an homage to Victorian museums and collecting, a celebration of the beauty of insects, and an exploration of how autistic experience can be discussed and presented in an affirming way. Our tendency to hyperfocus, our intense special interests, and our desire to immerse ourselves in them as much as possible are often pathologized, but that’s not how we understand them. In our hyperfocus we experience a sense of flow, peace and wellbeing.

Rendered in painstaking detail and at actual size, the butterfly specimens are a study in autistic hyperfocus, as well as an attempt to freeze nature in its decline. They invite the viewer to stop for a moment and become absorbed in the wonder of the smallest thing.

Kate Rolison

These embroideries all centre around animals; some symbolic; one decorative; one, the frog, conspicuous by his absence, being waited for. Growing up at the edge of Epping Forest, and spending holidays in the Scottish Highlands where my grandparents lived, animal life has always been important to me, and with a magical quality which I hope I have captured here. Animals feature prominently in folk and fairy tales, and can symbolise many things. In my personal symbolism, geese symbolise loneliness and wilderness, and snails resilience, tenacity, patience and home. The animals are accompanied by plant life, again some of which has symbolism. The embroideries employ bold colour palettes, and despite their fairytale quality, sometimes explore the more savage side of nature. Several are ultimately about quietly, yet emphatically, taking up space in this world, and sharing it with plants and animals.

A close-up photograph of a section of a quilt. In the centre is an embroidery on a soft yellow brushed cotton rectangle of two flying geese in shades of blue. The goose on the left has its wings folded up, and the goose on the left has its wings outstretched. They are tearing apart, or putting back together, a broken deep red heart. Feathers fly above the heart. Surrounding the yellow rectangle the geese, heart and feathers are embroidered on to is a border of burgundy cotton, echoing the deep red heart. Surrounding the burgundy cotton is tiny patchwork in the flying geese pattern of interlocking fabric triangles, in blue, yellow and white mainly floral motifs.

Kate Rolison. Detail from The Goose Eggs Quilt. Hand embroidery and paper pieced patchwork. This section 31 x 23cm. 2021.

The central embroidery of the two geese tearing apart (or putting back together?) the heart was made in February 2021, around Valentine’s Day, when we were still in lockdown. In literature and music, time and again, geese are a symbol of loneliness. The patchwork triangles surrounding the embroidery are known as “flying geese”. One of my followers on Instagram commented that the yellow cotton the geese are embroidered on to looks like air flow with all the cross hatching in different directions. A friend made the comment that when she looked at this piece she saw nature putting me back together again; nature was very important to me both throughout lockdown and in my recovery from mental illness.

A photograph of a long textile on a beige wooden tabletop. On the right of the textile is a large embroidered banded snail with a yellow and brown striped shell. To the left of the snail in pink naïve lettering the phrase Just Being Is Enough is embroidered. To the left of the text is an embroidered dandelion flower and leaf, and above the text are four embroidered stitchwort white flowerheads. Below the text are embroidered honesty and self-heal plants in purple and green, interspersed with faint hapa zome natural flower prints in subtle shades of purple. Above the snail is an embroidered dandelion clock, and below the snail is an embroidered bouquet of wild flowers by the person who originally made the textile; all other embroidery and hapa zome has been added by the artist.

Kate Rolison. Being is Enough. Hapa zome and hand embroidery on found textile. 55cm x 30.5cm. 2021.

This embroidery was made in May 2021. My therapist at the time challenged me to make an art work about belonging in the world, as a reminder for myself, and anyone else who might need it. Therefore, this embroidery is about being worthy by virtue of simply existing. It’s also about learning to be, not do; to slow down and practice gratitude, and not constantly be in a frenzy of striving. To me, snails are a symbol of resilience, tenacity, patience, and being at home in the world (they carry their homes with them wherever they go, so are always at home). There is also a lot of flower symbolism in this embroidery; the faded colours printed on the fabric are hapa zome, or flower pounding, when you place flowers on the fabric, fold it in half, and hammer it until the flowers release their colour into the fabric. The flowers I have used in the hapa zome are self-heal and honesty, which are fairly self-explanatory in terms of symbolism. I’ve also stitched some of these over the hapa zome, as well as stitchwort to symbolise my art/craft form, and a dandelion to the left and dandelion clock to the right to symbolise taking your time. The flowers to the bottom right hand corner were stitched presumably by the person who made this textile; I see work like this as a collaboration with a needleperson of the past.

A photograph of an A4 embroidery which completely fills the frame. The embroidery is densely stitched. At the centre is a rug depicting a leaping tiger against shaggy textured green and turquoise stitching. Sitting on top of the rug is a monstera plant with leaves in different shades of green in a brown pot. To the left and right of the rug is the deep purple carpet it lies on, and above a runner rug with abstract circle and oval shapes in shades of blue and beige. Above this is a thin strip of the deep purple carpet, light blue wall, and a shelving unit that plants in pots are arranged on. To the left of the shelving unit is a blue chest of drawers.

Kate Rolison. Jungle. Hand embroidery. 29.7cm x 21cm. 2021.

No symbolism here, just a straightforward depiction of my bedroom. The rug is one I found online after a very similar one (but with a blue background, not green, that was in mine and my brother’s childhood bedroom growing up) fell to bits. That one was a kit that had been made up by my father’s grandmother for his childhood bedroom. So it’s a nice link not only to my childhood, but to my Dad’s as well. The rug surrounding the tiger is in turkey rug stitch; big loops in all different shades of green anchored with a few stitches, and then when all stitched down snipped down to make this rug pile effect. Being a millennial I have plenty of houseplants, so they had to feature in my portrait of my bedroom!

A photograph of an embroidery on teal velvet with white waves printed on the velvet. Stitched on to the velvet are four appliqued felt lilypads in different shades of green. The edge of the lilypads are encrusted with red, pink and orange beads, with different combinations of bead for each of the lilypads. Next to the lilypads are silk ribbon waterlilies in shades of coral, pink, soft blue, sunshine yellow, purple and orange. On the lilypad closest to the viewer sits an embroidered white woman with shoulder length brown hair and a pearl hairclip, wearing a green jumper and brown paisley trousers, gazing off to the right with a pensive expression. Around the lilypads and waterlily flowers is woven seed bead text in green, black, lilac and white, which reads “Lovely to hear from you – even had a dream about you – you were in the Highlands and apparently one of your jobs up there is to wait for a frog to greet you – he always arrives eventually, though it can take him a while to hop”.

Kate Rolison. Catching Flies. Hand embroidery, appliqué and beadwork on velvet. Full piece 119.5cm x 82cm x 7.5cm. 2022.

In this embroidery, unlike the others, the animal (a frog) is conspicuous by his absence. Catching Flies is an embroidery about recovery, friendship, feeling at home, safe places, and dreams. The words are taken verbatim from a text about a dream my best friend had about me while I was in the early days of recovery from a bout of severe mental illness. They fit with experiences I have enjoyed in my recovery, such as seeing the Kew giant waterlilies which are new to science and the largest in the world, and hearing a frog croak in real life for the first time during lockdown. The words read “Lovely to hear from you – even had a dream about you – you were in the Highlands and apparently one of your jobs up there is to wait for a frog to greet you – he always arrives eventually, though it can take him a while to hop.” The Highlands are my safe place, where I go to feel serenity. The title Catching Flies refers to sleeping with one’s mouth wide open, perhaps dreaming, and also the frog who has not yet appeared in the composition, still taking a while to hop. The format of the woven beaded text emulates text messages. Modern technology and the ways it allows us to communicate has proven invaluable for me and many others in lockdown and beyond, particularly those of us who are disabled. The beech branch the embroidery hangs from represents Epping Forest and High Beech, another safe place of mine. The outfit I am wearing in the embroidery is based on Frog from the Frog and Toad series of stories.

Together! 2022 Disability History Month Festival, 22 November - 8 December, www.together2012.org.uk Inclusive Dance, Drama, Exhibitions, Family Activities, Films, Music, Poetry & conversations, all free & from the comfort of your own home, with captions and British Sign Language interpretation. Including the international Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival 2-4 December 2022.Return to top of page