We have a special treat today—a Christmas gift for those celebrating Christmas, and a December 25th thanks-for-being-here gift for those not celebrating Christmas—a chat with The Kingpin of Contemporary Embroidery himself. Grab a cuppa and enjoy!
Name: Jamie Chalmers aka Mr X Stitch
Location: Bedford, UK
What was your first exposure to embroidery, and what did you think of it?
If you ask my mother, she’ll claim to have been doing cross stitch when I was a kid, but I’m darned if I can remember that. Certainly I can’t lay claim to a strong family tradition of needlecraft or such like, so the first stitch based memory I can recall is a project about the Bayeux Tapestry when I was at middle school (aged 9 or thereabouts).
What was your first embroidered piece, and why did you choose to undertake it?
In 2002, I was going to Canada on holiday and wanted something to do on the plane. I went into a haberdashery shop and saw an Art Nouveau cross stitch kit. I thought it would be funny to see peoples’ responses to someone of my size stitching on a plane, so I bought the kit. When I eventually got to trying it, in Canada (a plane is not the ideal place to do your first ever cross stitch), I really enjoyed the calm feeling that comes from the meditative process of stitching. I was hooked.
So here’s the thing. I thought that I came to embroidery pretty late in life, with the whole “wanting something to do on the plane” story, but then about six years ago I remembered the Bayeux Tapestry project at school and how I’d stitched a man on a horse carrying a shield. While I can’t recall much about the project I do have strongly positive feelings when I think about the stitching.
What made you want to start the Mr. X Stitch website and become the Kingpin of Contemporary Embroidery?
I think it was borne of frustration. I’d really struggled to find cross stitch patterns that reflected my tastes – If I’m honest, I still do struggle as the mainstream cross stitch market hasn’t changed a great deal in the seven years I’ve been running Mr X Stitch – and so the platform was created as a way to make things I was interested in. Back in 2007/8, when I was thinking about starting the site, discovering Craftster was a major step in my journey as it showed that the “alt-craft” movement was alive and kicking, and that definitely inspired me to try making patterns and sharing my ideas.
Describe your journey from cross stitcher to Kingpin.
The story goes a little something like this. In 2008 I’d been making some graffiti cross stitch patterns and had started an Etsy store to try and sell them. By that point I’d been cross stitching for about two years and was really enjoying it. The name Mr X Stitch had popped into my head while on honeymoon that year and I decided that the Etsy store needed a blog to go along with it, the first post of which went out in late August 2008. For a few months I wrote about all kinds of gibberish, but I became interested in finding out what other embroidery artists were doing and decided to start featuring them. In the first twelve months of the site, there was a big shift towards Mr X Stitch becoming a site that showcased other peoples’ work and we launched a range of columns that focused on certain themes. I say “we” because I was blessed with the help of the mighty Beefranck whose spirit and sense of humour was critical in setting the tone for the site. While Bridget isn’t so involved in the world of stitch these days, she was a major factor in the early success of the site, and I remain eternally grateful for her help.
Somewhere down the line I realised that the site wasn’t about me anymore and that it was about the world of embroidery, and that I’d moved from being an artist (I use that term very loosely) to being more of a curator. Producing PUSH Stitchery affirmed that concept as it was a great opportunity for me to showcase talented needlework artists from around the world, and it was a pretty sad day when I realised that I wasn’t good enough an artist to feature in my own book…
I like the title of Kingpin – I can’t remember how it first came about, but being a comic book fan, I quite like the similarity to Daredevil’s Kingpin. I am proud to do my bit to champion the cause of embroidery and challenge the existing paradigms about needlework. Being a Kingpin just means I can have more fun and disarm people who think that cross stitch is just for old ladies.
There’s an obvious definition of “contemporary embroidery,” but is there more to it than that? What is “contemporary embroidery” from a Mr. X Stitch perspective?
In some ways it’s almost easier to say what contemporary embroidery is not – it’s not the embroidery you find in the mainstream shops and literature, that’s for sure. It’s not the reproduction of a pattern or design that someone else has made – to me that’s a hobby, a craft at most, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, as I said in my TedX talk, it’s the individual expression that elevates this stuff to an art form.
Contemporary embroidery is a vibrant multi-faceted art form that reflects the modern experience. The problem with a lot of people’s views of stitch is that they’re outdated and stagnant, and the mainstream embroidery eco system reflects this viewpoint – seriously, how many country cottages and angel cross stitches do we still need? Contemporary embroidery uses a needle and thread to express our times and to explore the micro and macro views of the world we live in. It’s warm and soft and kind and dark and edgy and painful. It’s funny and sincere and honest and intelligent. It’s beautiful and it’s heart-breaking. It’s not limited to one medium and it’s certainly not limited to one demographic.
Contemporary embroidery is such a huge subject, I’m continually discovering new examples of the form that change the way I think about it. That’s one of the things I love about it – it’s vast and because embroidery is a part of humanity’s storyline, contemporary embroidery happens all over the world. People worry that embroidery’s days are numbered. Maybe they are, but they’re numbered in millennia so I’m not worried about its future.
Is there a bridge between “contemporary embroidery” as defined here and “mainstream craft embroidery”? If so, describe it. (Show me, and others, the way! How do we bring contemporary embroidery to mainstream craft, and how do practitioners of mainstream craft expand into contemporary embroidery?)
The mainstream of embroidery, that is the ecosystem between shops, magazines, producers and consumers, is in a somewhat stagnant position. Magazines can set trends but don’t take risks due to the risk averse nature of big business, so they perpetuate a very safe world of embroidery. Shops sell kits and designs from producers, but respond to the trends being set in the magazines. People can only buy the kits that are available, so they have to play it safe. And the producers make kits based on sales trends, without particularly pushing the envelope.
Over time, this ecosystem has lost its edge. But on the internet it’s a whole ‘nother beast.
The contemporary embroidery world we share on Mr X Stitch is made up of artists, who express themselves through a needle and thread. Or a sewing machine. Or a drill and a car door.
It’s the expression that makes the difference, and the use of the basic tools, which are cheap and easy to use, to create something unique is the spirit of contemporary embroidery. The offerings of the mainstream craft world offer tons of materials and ideas, and there is a momentum out there, but people have to use that stuff to learn the ropes and then read Mr X Stitch to learn skipping.
What does it mean to “push the boundaries” of embroidery?
I did an exhibition at the Spring Knitting & Stitching Show in 2011 and remember seeing a lady staring at a cross stitch sampler that was inspired by the TV series Lost. I literally heard the penny drop in her mind as she realised it was okay to do that sort of thing. Similarly, when we started NSFW Saturdays I got people asking me why we were showing rude things in stitch, and over time I’ve concluded that it’s a necessity in challenging people’s preconceptions. We like to show things that people haven’t seen before, because it shows that these thing can be done, and maybe that’ll inspire someone to try that thing for themselves. Each time we push at the boundaries, we create creative space for people to play in, and the world gets a little bit better.
How has becoming the Kingpin of Contemporary Embroidery changed your own embroidery?
It’s been interesting. I’ve been able to try various types of embroidery that I might not have known about before, although I still prefer cross stitch as my medium of choice. The biggest challenge is seeing so many people do great things that I might have been contemplating, or seeing people produce work that blows me away and makes me feel pretty useless as an aspiring artist. With the cross stitch field, people like Rhys “Lord Libidan” Turton, Lindy “stitchFIGHT” Overdiek and Marshall “Sailormouth” Thompson have all pioneered techniques that I wish I’d thought of. It’s a double edged sword as my life is better for knowing of these things, but my creative path has to be course-corrected each time they make something new. Finding a unique artistic statement when you’ve seen thousands of artworks from other people is pretty tricky.
What about contemporary embroidery has surprised you?
I had a moment a few years ago when I properly realised the geo-socio-political context of contemporary embroidery and that it’s one of the few art forms that has been part of the human experience for thousands of years. Dr Susan Kay-Williams, The Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework, has written a book about The History of Colour in Textiles, which illustrates how three or four hundred years ago, the people that made cloth, thread and dyes were the most powerful people in the world. Embroidery is an integral part of the world we live in, and while we take it for granted now, the connection between individual cultures and needlework is profound. Contemporary Embroidery is the modern output of this craft, but it’s the history and context of the art form that continues to amaze me.
As a curator, what is one (or what are three) of the most interesting projects you’ve seen?
The first time I saw Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė’s embroidered car doors was a seminal moment, and when I got to exhibit one of them for real, that was a really amazing day. Similarly Cayce Zavaglia’s portraiture is stunningly powerful, and I have such massive love for the pencil and embroidery work of Ana Teresa Barboza. There are so so many amazing artists, that I could go on forever, but I’m blessed to know many of them now and it’s an honour to be in such talented company.
You’re in the UK, and I’m in the US. Do you think embroidery is different in these two locations? If so, how? And what do you think are some of the differences in contemporary embroidery around the globe?
There are some definite differences between the UK and US approaches to needlecraft. Here in the UK, we’ve arguably stronger connections with lace and embroidery than in the US, where quilting is definitely more proportionally prevalent. Both sides of the pond share the affection for stitch, but the impact of quilting in the modern American history is not dissimilar to the geographic connections with lace in the UK.
Globally I think there’s an inverse relationship between the view of needlework and the impact of Western consumerism. Many parts of the world have strong needlework traditions, but much like other traditions, be they languages or currencies for example, the more Westernised a place becomes, the more these traditions die out. In places like the US, UK, Canada and Australia, the contemporary embroidery scene often takes a post-modern view, reflecting on the world around the artists. In other areas, the tension between the old ways and the new, shinier ways, becomes more apparent and the honouring and revitalising of tradition is often a feature. I realise this is a generalisation, but artists like NeSpoon from Poland (working with lace and graffiti) and Faig Ahmed, the Azerbaijani weaver, are good examples of what I’m trying to say.
With the site redesign and a full and varied editorial calendar, the Mr. X Stitch site enters its next stage. What are your goals for the Mr. X Stitch site? What do you want it to be and do?
I want it to be the site that makes the world think differently about embroidery. I want it to be the Colossal of embroidery. I want it to make some money so that the fantastic columnists can be rewarded for their efforts. I want to turn the site into a resource for embroidery fans and students, and one that people spend hours looking around. The old “toilet roll” format of blogging doesn’t really lend itself to passive consumption of the archives, so I’m hoping the new look and restructure will encourage people to dive in, learn from us and discover new art that changes their world. We’ve got over 4000 posts about embroidery on the site, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that people can find and share this content.
Once the new look site is full up and running, I’ll turn my attention to Weave and try to build the social network for stitchers that they deserve – a place to share work, process, thoughts and ideas with fellow practitioners.
What goals do you have for you own embroidery? Do you even have time to stitch anymore?
I struggle to get much time for stitching as I have Mr X Stitch, a full time job, a fiancée, two ninjacats, a ninjadog and an allotment. At the moment I’ve got three projects on the go, but the only time I get for any focused stitching is usually when I’m travelling on a train or plane. Fortunately I have a secret weapon in the form of The Imposters’ Needle, my stitchy superhero who helps me realise my ideas, so there is some progress with my creative practice. I’m working on a series called “My frustration with modern cross stitch” and I’m pleased to share one of the designs here.
As I said before, it can be a challenge for me as I want to explore the world of cross stitch but in original ways. I’ve seen so many great things and I want to play with some of those ideas if I can, but I don’t want people to think I’m borrowing other people’s ideas.
I have two broad goals with my personal practice. I would like to learn Japanese Embroidery one day, so that people cannot fault my technique. And I think I’d like to do a PhD in embroidery, not least so people can call me Dr. X!
What is your hope for the art and craft of embroidery?
I hope that embroidery gets properly accepted as a valid art form and that it can shake off the gender bias and become the world’s favourite handicraft. It’s such a pleasant thing to do, as the act of creation is such a peaceful practice, and so my dream is that people all over the world stitch their experiences and make beautiful things for friends and loved ones. If that happened, the world would be a better place.
What projects—both curating and stitching—do you have coming up in 2016?
In March 2016 I’m hosting another Inspiration Station at the Spring Knitting & Stitching Show. I’ll be working with the Royal School of Needlework and the Young Embroiderers Guild to make a creative space for people to try stitching for the first time. I’m picking some interesting artists to adorn on the walls alongside the finalists of the Young Embroiderers’ De Denne Competition. It’ll be four great days when it happens, so keep your eyes peeled.
I’m really thrilled to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Searchpress to do a cross stitch pattern book – at last! It’s all really early days, and I think the book should be coming out in 2017. I’m hoping to make a book that knocks the ball out of the park and really push at the boundaries of cross stitch. If anyone reading this is a cross stitcher who might be interested in doing some model stitching, that I’d love to hear from them.
Other than that, I’m waiting to see what 2016 has to offer. I think it’s going to be good fun!
Hey, congratulations on the book deal! That’s a huge undertaking. I—and everyone here—will look forward to sneak peeks into the process as well as the end result. Cheers to you!
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
Favorite thread: DMC Glow in the Dark
If you could embroider with just one color thread for the rest of your life, what would it be? DMC Glow in the Dark.
What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? I guess it would have to be an X.
Name something edible that you can stitch: Chocolate bars. I’ve not done it, but I think it’s worth a go.
You’re asked to decorate a National Monument with embroidery. What monument do you choose, and what do you do? I would love to do a lace-based installation on the London Eye.
There’s a tv special in which you teach five celebrities to stitch. Who are the five celebrities, and what are they stitching? I guess I’m just picking my favourite actors and musicians, mainly because it would be awesome to share a stitchy moment with them. They’d all be cross stitching a phrase that has significance for them.
Bruce Willis, Stan Lee, Prince, Johnny Depp, Bjork.
As an aside, I’d love to get Rosey Grier to help me out with the session. He’s one of my true heroes.
You’re asked to create a Mr. X Stitch float for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the US. What do you do? Panic. I’d probably try to organise a nice space for people to hang out and stitch once they’d finished the parade, with chill out music, bean bags, cocktails and cake.
If your embroidery were cataloged with books what genre would it be? Graphic novels
I like to marry embroidery with wire work. What craft would you like to marry with embroidery? Neon lights or something similarly illuminating.
We’re hosting a show of “performance embroidery.” Describe your piece in the event. I’ll be the compere – introducing the acts and throwing in the occasional (with a bit of luck) witticism to keep the crowd excited.
Jen Funk Weber is Queen of Funk & Weber Designs, a cross stitch and counted-thread embroidery designer and teacher dedicated to stitchy explorations and adventures.