Ailish Henderson

The Funk Files: Embroidery Frontiers

Meet Ailish Henderson
Meet Ailish Henderson

Name: Ailish Henderson

Location: North East England

Are you in school now? If so, where?

I am currently teaching Textiles and Fine Art, while studying for my BA in Textiles from home. However I do love it when I get asked if I am still at school, sadly it doesn’t happen very often ;).

Your email name is “flounderingfish.” Why?

I am afraid I have no idea why, I blame my early teenage years. I have had the name for so long, maybe it was a rebellion, a small flaunt at the idea of being independent, “floundering” on my own?! I have no idea where it came from. Yet I have had to keep it on as so many people know it!

You had no interest in needlework when you were younger. Did you have any exposure to it at all? If so, what did you think of it?

Ohhhhhhh yes. As a child I was home taught, due to where we were living at that time. My mum was very much into dress making and textiles. The amount of times both she and my grandmother used to try and get a needle in my hand! However I recoiled and always considered it a boring, patience ridden activity.


Cape, hand felted with machine embroidery, Ailish Henderson
Cape, hand felted with machine embroidery, by Ailish Henderson


Tell us about the experience that first opened your mind to embroidery. What changed for you that made you want to try it?

At age 16, I began to study Fine Art at college. We didn’t have enough teachers, so a Textiles tutor (Julia Triston) was brought in to teach our lesson. Very subtly she began to incorporate sewing related activities into my body of work. I will never forget the day I proudly brought home my first piece of applique, only to be greeted by my mother’s voice asking why I had not let her teach me all along! Looking back, I must have just needed that outside influence to spark that desire in me, my mother had taught me everything else.


"Mum and I on opening night of Customs House Exhibition 'In Dreams' last year." - Ailish Henderson
“Mum and I on opening night of Customs House Exhibition ‘In Dreams’ last year.” – Ailish Henderson


You come to textiles, sewing, and embroidery from a fine art background. Tell us about that background.

As a child, I was never happier than when I had a pen/pencil/paintbrush in my hand, I loved and still love children’s book illustrations and always aspired to be an illustrator. I have kept a lot of sketches from my youth, from one year old right up to the present. My grandmother on my dad’s side of the family was a painter. I think I may get my talent and interest from her. On every occasion, or even just when I felt like it, there is a picture, a drawing; my version of capturing a moment. I don’t just draw from real life, whatever I have made up in my head, comes out on the page. As I grew older, I acquired a wider variety of Fine Art techniques. When I began to attend college at sixteen, I experimented heavily with print making, such as Dry Point, Lino Cut and Screen Printing. Nine years on, I have begun the process of relearning these techniques and going back to a famous local print-making studio, Northern Print in Ouseburn, Newcastle. With so much experience in Textile art now, I would like to try and merge the two techniques. Dare I say it, if I was not so heavily involved with Textiles, Fine Art would still be my first love, it is my solace and savior.


Sketchbooks, Ailish Henderson
Sketchbooks of Ailish Henderson


You base your art on stories. I love that! I have a series of posts on my own blog titled “The Story Behind the Stitchery,” and I maintain that all embroidery has a story (or two or seven) behind it. Can you describe your process of moving from story to a finished art piece?

I always say, my work begins in my head and ends up in thread.

The idea is given birth to in my mind, it then comes out on paper; it may be in the form of poetry, a story or a sketch. This is then developed and played around with on paper, until I feel that I have “drawn out” enough. I then begin looking at my work from a textile point of view, how could this be interpreted in fabric form. I play around with what media to use and once I have gathered a selection around me, I begin. If I am planning a garment, I will adhere to materials I feel suitable. If I am embroidering a more illustrative piece, then I will always begin with a plain piece of cotton or silk. I will hand paint it and machine / hand embroider it to my whim. Once finished, the piece will be framed or placed on a mannequin, depending on the artwork type.


The Torn Umbrella, watercolour painting, by Ailish Henderson
The Torn Umbrella, watercolour painting, by Ailish Henderson


Faces close-up: Embroidery inspired by The Torn Umbrella painting, Ailish Henderson
Faces close-up: Embroidery inspired by The Torn Umbrella painting, Ailish Henderson


Why do you think having a story behind a piece of art is important?

Stories come from the heart; I will always maintain the idea that the best work comes from an idea you feel strongly about, something personal and sentimental. Thus the “story” or “concept” is actually more important than the finished piece. The idea of stories encompasses so much, it can be things that have happened in our lives, memories, things we store up, journeys, travel, or even our own penned poems. Our story can be our own, what we create.

What do you hope people take away from your story-inspired art?

Stories are personal possessions, when we translate them into an art form, it does not have to be real; it can be a fairytale or a dream. But it can also be a real life experience. In other words anything that inspires us to pick up a pen or needle. All we need is a source to work from, a story from our heads, a story based on our lives.


Free machine embroidery, Mum and me, by Ailish Henderson
Free machine embroidery, Mum and me, by Ailish Henderson


Personal themes have always been good starting points for me . . . photos, cards, diaries, other paper documents that I hold dear, postcards, magazine cuttings . . . the list could go on. I have always had a vivid imagination, thus words can take on images in my mind, stories or journeys that help me create. When I say personal, it doesn’t have to be out there in your face, but a sentiment. We don’t need to post out our personal diaries for the public to view, but rather a picture, holiday memory, life experience, that we can work on, as long as we know inside ourselves where the idea has come from; it doesn’t matter how much others know, as long as we produce something!

Life can be a great inspiration in itself, good or bad; each day will hold different memories. Lots of Textile artists use their own personal experiences to draw on, to create their work. I hope those who view my art, don’t just look at the work itself, but develop their thinking to plan how they could use their own “stories” and translate them in their own personal artistic way.

Among other things, you have hand-felted bags for sale in your Etsy shop. So, you felt, you sew, you embroider, you draw, you paint. What am I missing?

As I touched on earlier, I am currently working on re-educating myself in print making and also exploring surface design onto textiles. This will form part of my body of work for my forthcoming solo exhibition, opening in March 2016.


Screen-printed garment, by Ailish Henderson
Screen-printed garment, by Ailish Henderson


The problem is that I love it all; art runs through me, if you cut me open like a still of sea side rock, I’d have art written all the way through! There are very few Textile/Fine Art techniques that I don’t want to take on and incorporate into my work; however I have to be careful not to spin too many plates.

How do you employ this variety of skills? Is such variety helpful or a hindrance?

I don’t use them all at once. Having experience in a wide variety of skills helps when teaching; it means that I can give advice to students in class, and also have a better chance of being able to take on work.

It can have a dampening effect on my work, if I feel the need to use lots of techniques at once. I have experimented with this and artwork produced in this way looks overworked. Thus skills are great, if you use them wisely and don’t “eat” them all at once! Art needs to be selective not saturated; this takes practice.

For example, I am currently working on some garments made from recycled lingerie, vintage findings and lace. Because I am working with bright colours for one of the garments, I would not then add other art or textile techniques, the actual creation of the garment is enough. However, if the garment I was making was plainer and more neutral, I would play with adding other details, such as hand embroidery and even screen printing onto the fabric.


Garment made from "reworked" lingerie and lace, by Ailish Henderson
Garment made from “reworked” lingerie and lace, by Ailish Henderson


What skill do you not yet have that you want to learn?

I have had experience in Print Making in the past, but I hope to further polish my skill in this area. I hope to continue developing my hand embroidery to a high (and neat) standard, something I am always working on! I currently take all my own photography of my work. I hope to continue with this practice, all the time getting better at it!

Have you ever had an embroidery or textile disaster? If so, what was it, and what did you do about it?

For an exhibition last year, I had some hand embroidered canvases to frame. I tried so many glues to stick them to the back of the frame and phoned many professional framers for advice. I ended up getting the pieces professionally framed; however, the morning after the opening night I got a panic phone call from the Gallery Curator informing me that the canvases had dropped inside their frames! So even a professional could not manage the task! I ended up popping in and out of the gallery to “reframe” the pieces on a regular basis throughout the exhibition.

Till this day my dad and I shudder when discussing how to frame my future work.

Describe your ideal career. What do you hope to be doing five years from now? Ten?

I have never had any ginormous aspirations to become a famous artist or designer. I love what I do, I love the people who I meet and I love teaching others and helping them see how Fine Art and Textiles can be the love of their lives or the thing that may help them “heal” in some way.

Five years? Finished studying for my BA in Textiles and hopefully continuing to teach and exhibit.

Ten years? I would like to think that I had by this point published a book, showcasing my work and telling its story. Alternatively I would love to write and illustrate a children’s story. I hope to continue exhibiting, teaching and hey, maybe I will have my MA in Textiles by then!

Where can we see more of your work?

Apart from my website, there are great reviews on my talks that I give all over the UK about my work on The City of York Embroiderers’ Guild and Border Textile Group.

I will be taking part in a group exhibition “Illustrative & Stitched Drawings: Various Artists” at The Customs House in South Shields.

I have my first solo exhibition at the same venue in March next year, exact opening date to be confirmed . . . keep a look out on my website!

Come and find me at this year’s Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, November 26–29. I will be teaching classes in the Learning Curve on Thursday afternoon, Friday and Saturday. I am also hoping to take some time on Art Van Go’s “Artist in Action” stand at the same show. If you visit the shows website, you can not only pre-book your show entrance tickets but also pre-book your workshop classes, all through the same “Book Tickets” button.

The title of this column is, in part, “Embroidery Frontiers.” Describe your embroidery (or textile) frontier.

In my mind, the word Frontier captures the idea of being on the “edge” or “border” of something, maybe even crossing over. I would like to continue “crossing over” and merging Textiles with Fine Art techniques, to create and build my own blend of Mixed Media pieces, as it were.


Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)


Favorite thread: Undyed cotton/silk or vintage thread reels.

Favorite tool that is not a needle, scissors, or hoop: My Bernina 220 sewing machine; I will mourn it like a dead relative if it ever dies on me!

You can stitch with just one color for the next seven years. What color do you choose? Black, having come from a fine art background, I love to draw and am never without a black pen and sketchpad. Thus when sewing, black thread becomes my “drawing tool” and fabric my canvas.


Model collar, by Ailish Henderson
Model collar, by Ailish Henderson


Name something edible that you can stitch: Banana skins. I can also make necklaces from pasta.

You can teach a textile or embroidery class anywhere in the world. Where will you go? Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court. A few of my past tutors teach there on occasion. The atmosphere of the place is so inspiring in itself; I would love to teach in one of their rooms overlooking the gardens and beautiful topiary!

What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? The things I love do not really adhere to the idea of representing my work, for example I love Bees and Hens, yet they would not symbolize my work. I think I would choose my signature, which is simply my initials written over the top of each other. Here is an example:

Signature motif, Ailish Henderson

If your art were cataloged with books what genre would it be? Fairytale. From as far back as I can remember, I have been brought up on stories. Adventure and the “happily ever after” concept are ones we should all have in our lives. For the record, my favorite Illustrator is Arthur Rackham and my favorite writer is Agatha Christie . . . an eclectic mix!


"Castles in the Sky" dress, by Ailish Henderson
“Castles in the Sky” dress, by Ailish Henderson


Castle Pocket close-up, by Ailish Henderson
Castle Pocket close-up, by Ailish Henderson


What and for whom is your dream commission project? I find it hard to hone my style of work into one box. I recently visited the Alexander McQueen exhibition at The Victoria and Albert museum. I was a little apprehensive before entering, having perceived that a lot of the wonder of it was down to his “status symbol” rather than creative mind. However I was blown away. In an ideal world and if he was still alive, one conversation with him would be enough to inspire me!

One piece of your art will be displayed anywhere in the world that you choose. What is the art piece, and where will it be displayed? My most sentimental artwork has to be ‘The Star Catcher’. This was based on a poem I had written about my mum and how she successfully got through breast cancer twice. This piece of prose inspired me. I hand painted a Post Surgery bra (specialized underwear for women who have undergone breast surgery) then embroidered it with an illustration, based on word pictures I perceived from the poem. It has great sentimental value. As to where I would like it seen . . . I have no great aspirations to see it donned in a high class art gallery. It was created as part of my body of work for an exhibition at a gallery in the North East last year, where it achieved a high amount of interest. I wanted it to have impact; more from the point of view of helping other women feel positive about themselves while going through the ravaging time of having cancer, a sign of hope, that you can look ahead and have hope. It captured the interest of local newspapers, which was nice publicity too. In the future, I would love it to help head campaigns for charities related to cancer, the sort that Marks and Spencer support.


Watercolour-and-ink illustration development for 'She reaches for the stars' bra piece, by Ailish Henderson
Watercolour-and-ink illustration development for ‘She reaches for the stars’ bra piece, by Ailish Henderson


The Star Catche, embroidered bra, by Ailish Henderson
The Star Catcher, embroidered bra, by Ailish Henderson


The Girl Who Reaches for the Stars, head close-up, by Ailish Henderson
The Girl Who Reaches for the Stars, head close-up, by Ailish Henderson


In a parallel life where you’re not an artist, what are you? To be perfectly honest, I can’t imagine many reasons I would get up in a day, if I was not creating. I teach art and textiles, so can I say I’d be a teacher . . . in Art and Textiles? That doesn’t class as being solely an artist does it?