Playboy centrefolds, hip-hop lyrics and sports logos: embroidery is being embraced by the fashion industry and no subject is off limits
It’s not often that hip-hop lyrics and octogenarian needle-and-thread experts are united by a fashion trend, but in the delightful world of modern embroidery such contrasts are celebrated.
Embroidery is having quite a moment in fashion – and on Instagram – right now, with a growing number of artists and designers posting pictures of their delicate work on social media. The techniques they use tend to be traditional – with embroidery hoops and crewel needles a common feature – but the subject matter is often anything but.
James Merry, for one, decorates sports logos with intricate floral embroidery, which he says “is about finding some way for extremely opposite things to exist side by side – urban vs rural, machine vs handmade, human vs plant. I’m fixated on that peculiar place where the overlap occurs, and the moment when one thing transforms into another.” His work has a post-apocalyptic feel to it “which wasn’t intended at first,” he says, “but I kind of loved that result. It’s like the urban sportswear landscape has been destroyed and nature has come to claim it back, growing up through all the cracks.”
A self-taught embroiderer and long-term Björk collaborator, Merry has seen interest in his work boom since he opened an Instagram account. “I decided I was only going to do Instagram if I made a rule with myself – only ever post pictures of something I’ve made. When I get the urge to post something, I have to make something first.” He is now working on a small handmade collection and is considering taking on personal commissions: “I had the idea that people would send me their old favourite sportswear and I would embroider flowers growing out of them. It takes a long time, so people would have to be patient, but you would end up with something totally one-off and different each time.”
Marie Sophie Lockhart – AKA Good For Nothing Embroidery – is another artist making waves with her feather stitch. Having taught herself to embroider for fun, via books and tutorials posted by older women on YouTube, her hobby became a profession after she stitched a pair of praying hands – after one of Drake’s tattoos – on to the back pocket of a pair of jeans, a picture Drake re-grammed.
“I woke up in the morning with thousands of new followers,” she says. “Then Drake asked me to make some clothes for him – that’s how everything started.” After making jeans, overalls, a hoodie and a bomber jacket for Drake, all of which were embroidered with logos and signs related to his last album, Lockhart was approached by luxury London boutique Browns, which has recently started stocking her embroidered jeans.
“Mainly my inspiration comes from the 1970s,” she says. “Old books, magazines, 1970s Playboys, as well as from my friends, from walking down the street in New York, from travelling and from tattoos – my husband is a tattoo artist. And from music, especially hip-hop, for sure. I live in Brooklyn and whenever I open the window Biggie is playing somewhere.”
Elsewhere on Instagram, a range of artists have thousands following their every cross stitch. At Dirty Needle Embroidery, the focus is music, motorbikes andmarijuana. Teresa Lim’s work spans travel and female empowerment – her deceptively cutesy aesthetic all faded pastel colours and pink gingham tablecloths. Alaina Varrone, meanwhile, applies her needle to club kids and women in grunge.
The medium’s popularity, says Merry, could be “part of the cyclical nature of things. Hand embroidery is the supreme antidote to huge mass-production and quickly, cheaply manufactured stuff. You can see it has taken incredible attention and care, and there’s a personality to it that you can never get with a machine.”
“There’s something political and powerful about women making stuff again and returning to traditionally feminine and folkloric practices that they used to do in the 1970s,” adds Lockhart. “It’s very human work – it’s imperfect. Plus people don’t wanna wear H&M and Zara any more. They want something made by hand that is ethical and not mass-produced, something unique and not the same as everyone else. They want to look different.”
Embroidery is a difficult field to get rich in – pieces can easily take hundreds of hours – but for artists much of the joy is in the process. “I love the fact that every hand-embroidered piece is different – each one is its own riddle that I end up solving as I go along,” says Merry. “I love the control and focus of the technique – and getting tangled up in the tiny details. I love that you can just unpick your mistakes and try again, and I love that you can wear your artwork, it’s not stuck in a picture frame. I love the humble portability of it – all I need to work are some threads and one needle.”