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Q&A – maker of the week: Susie Vickery

A Stitching Storyteller.

Susie Vickery is a time traveller and globetrotter, armed with needle and thread, on a mission to tell important and intriguing stories. Although now mainly based in Fremantle, Western Australia, she works across three continents, with benches also in London and Mumbai. Since we met Susie a couple of years ago, she has completed some impressive exhibitions and projects; it seems her imagination knows no bounds, and we are always intrigued to see what she is working on next.

Read on …

What is your craft? How do you like to describe yourself?

I am an embroiderer and costume maker who makes embroidered automata and stop motion films. I also make articulated puppets, embroidered portraits and whatever else can be used to tell a story.

Your studio – where and what is your studio/workspace like?

I have a little wooden room upstairs in our house, in Fremantle. I painted the ceiling pale blue and there are a LOT of shelves to house all my threads, fabrics, buttons, books and works in progress. It is my first separate workroom since my costume making days over 20 years ago, so I am expanding my work to fit the space.

In our London flat our main room is divided into dining room, lounge, kitchen and workroom. So I am in the centre of all the action there working on my favourite piece of furniture, an antique tailor’s bench.

Which of your tools do you love the most and why?

My tailor’s thimble without a doubt!

This comes from my theatrical tailoring days and I can no longer stitch without one. A tailor’s thimble differs from a normal thimble in that it has no top, you push the needle with the side of the thimble rather than the top. They are quite hard to buy in a small size (most tailors are men, I suppose). The only place where I know that I can always get one is in a tiny hole in the wall haberdashery shop in the old centre of Kathmandu. So I stock up when there as I have thimbles stashed everywhere; in pockets, pouches, drawers and bags. I fear being without one.

Your inspiration – what really pumps your creative heart?

I love the act of stitching, so seeing some gorgeous coloured threads always inspires me. But what really excites me is thinking about telling a story in some way with an embroidered object. I love making the puppets and automata, and enjoy the problem solving in getting the shapes and the movements right. I am also really inspired when researching new subjects and putting a whimsical, decorative slant on their stories.

Susie Vickery, Citizen Botanist prepared for a pandemic with loo roll

Susie Vickery, ‘Citizen Botanist prepared for a pandemic’, 2020. Photo: S Vickery.

What was the spark that made you choose this particular medium?

I have been sewing ever since I was a little girl and was so lucky to be able to turn it into a career, making costumes for theatre for many years.

We then went to live in Kathmandu and I started studying embroidery by distance learning, (pre online learning days, it was a case of posting work and waiting for the snail mail response.) In doing this, I discovered a whole world of embroidery with its many many layers, of technique, of history, of materials, and of expression, and a lifetime of joy opened up.

Your working style – how do you like to start on a project and then progress it? Do you stick to a working schedule 9-5 or flex around a bit? Do you play loud music? Are your pets welcome in your space?

The ideas sometimes come fully formed, and then I spend the rest of the time experimenting with technique and materials. If I am working towards an exhibition I will ponder for a while, turning ideas over and over. Often the solution comes to me on first waking. Then I do lots of research. I like projects that have a historical link so I read and read around the topic. Then I start playing with ideas.

With the automata I have an idea of what movement I want to show, but getting to that end involves a lot of experimentation.

I work when I can and as much as I can. I love rainy weather because I can just sit inside and work. And long plane trips are great for uninterrupted stitching.
I listen to the radio when I work, usually Radio National. In London it is BBC Radio 4. But if I am concentrating then no sound at all.  I don’t have pets, but the odd gecko lies in the sun on the window sill.

What are you working towards right now?

I have several projects on the go at the moment. I am making a long panel for a WAFTA exhibition at the Holmes à Court gallery in September (2020). It is an embroidered puppet of a skeleton against a background of an embroidered timeline of quotes about the exploitation of workers through history. Cheery stuff!

I am also working on some embroidered portraits for a competition, teaching several embroidery courses (some with Maker&Smith and some online), and planning my entry for Tied Up With String at the Mundaring Arts Centre. For this exhibition I am going to make some miniature embroidered shoes to go into the box that we are all given.

Then when these projects are done I will start making for the big Indian Ocean Craft Triennial next year. Lots of ideas are churning around and I am looking forward to getting stuck into making them.

If you could land the dream commission/exhibition/project, what would it be?

My dream job would be to work with a puppeteer to make some puppets and their costumes to enact a historical drama or story. I would love to collaborate in this way as I have no skill in manipulating a puppet and would love someone to bring them to life.

I have also discovered, after making Peregrinations of a Citizen Botanist, that I really enjoy making small scale costumes. So the show would have to be historical, which would also fit in with my love of telling these stories. It would be a show aimed at an adult audience as I feel that kids get all the good puppet shows. It’s time that we got to enjoy the medium more.

[Collected 13 June 2020. This is a standard set of questions that we ask of all our guest presenters and ‘makers of the week’. They are deliberately low-key.]

Read more about Susie Vickery’s illustrious career so far and enjoy learning and spending time with Susie at her workshops.

Maker&Smith are delighted to host three workshops with Susie Vickery: Embroidering Stories in August, September and October 2020, at Camelot, a beautiful art deco memorial hall and theatre in Mosman Park, Perth.

Q&A – maker of the week: Justine Bonenfant

Haute Couture Embroiderer and Designer

Justine Bonenfant visited us in August 2019 to deliver Hand & Lock classes in haute couture embroidery techniques, not commonly taught in Western Australia, such as Goldwork and Tambour Beading. Participants enjoyed tuition and chats with Justine over the one, two and three day immersive classes in Perth and Midland. We were also delighted to host such a generous and congenial teacher who shared many stories of her life as an embroiderer to top fashion houses and celebrities, and her work in India.

Justine highlights in this short & sweet Q&A her inspirations and her desire to see better acknowledgement of the many skilled artisans who contribute to the fashion houses and who rarely get a mention.

Read on for insights into her embroidery life.

What is your craft? How do you like to describe yourself?

I am a hand embroidery designer, maker and teacher.

Your studio – where and what is your studio/workspace like?

I am based in London. My workspace is a small study under the rafters of a Victorian house. A skylight lights up my embroidery frame. A collection of ribbons, beads, spools, samples, inspiring pictures and cards are placed on shelves (or on the floor, where I tend to lay out my selections). This space is like my creative nest where I feel isolated from everything.

Which of your tools do you love the most and why?

The tool that I love the most is a little hook called the “Luneville” hook, used mostly for Haute Couture embroidery. Once this technique is mastered, we can apply beads and sequins to a fabric in a neat and fast way. It is a technique that requires practice which makes the result pretty rewarding.

Your inspiration – what really pumps your creative heart?

It is a very difficult question as inspiration can come from various forms. I can get close to the Stendhal syndrome, watching dedicated artisans such as the Chinese Buddhist monks who create Moxiu (hair devotional embroidery), although I have not cut my hair to have a go at it yet. At the moment, I would say that I am still inspired by my last trip to Rajasthan. My colour palette changed after that trip. The intricate Rajput miniatures and the Mughal outfits definitely inspired me.

What was the spark that made you choose this particular medium?

Working in luxury fashion, I had to develop textiles and collaborate with embroidery artisans. Seeing their incredible pieces, discovering the diversity of techniques and visual identities that can be expressed through embroidery made me want to specialise in this medium.

Your working style – how do you like to start on a project and then progress it? Do you stick to a working schedule 9-5 or flex around a bit? Do you play loud music? Are your pets welcome in your space?

On Mondays, I usually set-up a weekly and a daily plan. If I don’t stick to the daily one, I adjust the next day to reach my weekly goal. I used to work a lot in the evenings and on weekends but I am trying to reach a better work/life balance. If I work intensively during an extended period of time, I now make sure to plan a long trip afterwards to re-fuel myself. I like white noise and listening to music when I work. I recently discovered a musical app where we can select a decade and a country. My current favourite is 80s Ethiopian.

What are you working towards right now?

I am working on book instructions to develop new classes and a new project in between London and India that will be revealed next year… Watch this space!*

If you could land the dream commission/exhibition/project, what would it be?

I would love to work on projects that highlight the talent of artisans around the world, like a documentary series about the golden hands working in the shadows. Many European fashion houses commonly use crafts and techniques from other countries without acknowledging it, such as Dior producing designs similar to the traditional waistcoat from Bihor or the millions of skilled Indian embroiderers who see their work on the European catwalks every season. Credit where credit is due!

[Collected 9 September 2019.]

Listen to Justine interviewed on ABC Radio National ‘The Arts Show’ by Ed Ayres.

*Since we had this chat with Justine, she has launched “House of Penelope” – you can find her on Instagram @house_of_penelope

This is a standard set of questions that we ask of all our guest presenters and ‘makers of the week’.

ABC Arts – Ed Ayres interviews Justine Bonenfant

Justine Bonenfant shares some of her experiences as a couture embroiderer working for international designers and celebrities with Ed Ayres on The Art Show on Radio National.

We are delighted to host Justine in Perth to deliver Hand & Lock‘s introductory classes in some haute couture embroidery techniques.

You can download and listen to Justine at your leisure, using the link on the ABC  Radio National website.

[ https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-art-show/justine-bonenfant/11371352 ]

We are currently on the second day of a Hand & Lock Goldwork class with Justine, at the Midland Junction Arts Centre, on the outskirts of Perth. It is a delight to learn from such an experienced teacher and along the way to hear tales of couture ateliers, designers, celebrities – as well as Justine’s international life, living between, London, Chennai and Lille, her hometown.

This weekend* Justine will teach a three-day class in Tambour Beading at Calico & Ivy in Mosman Park (Perth). It is another exacting technique, not often taught outside the ateliers, such as The Lesage School in Paris. However, Hand & Lock London run a variety of classes and with whom we are delighted to collaborate to deliver classes in Western Australia.

Achieving skill in Goldwork and Tambour Beading requires hours of practice, but the basics can be taught in two-three days as an introduction only. Both involve significant set up of your base fabric on stretch frames, to set a good foundation for your detailed work.

Selected students from Edith Cowan University, North Metro TAFE and South Metro TAFE have been able to enjoy Maker&Smith sponsored places to extend their skills and to augment their final year collections. Congratulations to those students: Orli, Bridie, Jill and Jess. We wish you all the best.

If you are keen to learn such techniques as delivered in this year’s Maker & Smith masterclasses – let us know.

*Sat 10, Sun 11, Mon 12 August 2019

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