Rachel Ellenbogen | Fashion Embroidery

The Funk Files: Embroidery Frontiers

Every year, Hand & Lock organizes a competition for the prestigious Prize for Embroidery to promote the use of hand embroidery and to discover emerging embroidery talent. The 2020 brief, “The Poetics of Colour,” invited entrants to use colour as a fundamental component of the design process, employing inventive embroidery and textures that enhance and enrich or contradict and counter the colour choices.

Today we’ll meet the second-place winner in the Student Fashion Category, Rachel Ellenbogen.

Location: In and around New York, New York
School: Parsons School of Design, Fashion Design BFA, 2022

Meet Rachel Ellenbogen and Quentin
Meet Rachel Ellenbogen and Quentin

The Competition

Describe your Hand & Lock entry and the inspiration behind it:

My entry in Hand & Lock in 2020 was an interesting experience because I had never entered my work into anything like it before. One of my teachers at school told me that I should make a piece for it and give it a try, so I did. Then the pandemic happened and I had no access to the outside world except for the internet and the quick walks that I went on several times a week. I decided to make a piece influenced by a Monet painting, specifically Waterlilies. Pinks, blues and greens were the colors I was most surrounded by while on these walks. After being in my house for so long and being given such an open prompt such as color, I decided that I wanted to make something for myself just to make me happy, using colors I loved and saw everyday. It did that, and I enjoyed every second of the process, (with the exception of shipping my work to London, because sending something that important overseas is a bit stressful.) I am still so honored that my work was picked to qualify for the second round, let alone to go on and win 2nd place. I’m so excited to enter my work again this year, and so grateful that last year’s work will be displayed at their 2021 exhibition.

Dress by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Dress by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery

Tell us about making plastic bottle beads.

I used two different types of beads on this piece. I used seed beads which I took from second-hand jewelry, and I used plastic beads which were made from plastic bottles and also from deadstock plastic. This process definitely took a while, and it also took a lot of experimentation. Each bead is cut out by hand, then colored with alcohol inks and then I used a lighter to slightly melt the edges. After I let them cool off, I used a sharp tool and hammer to punch two holes in each bead. I was continuously making beads throughout the process of embroidering the dress.

Embroider detail, Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Embroidery detail, Rachel Ellenbogen

Are there any secrets you can now reveal about your entry?

I honestly really didn’t expect to qualify for the second round of judging, let alone go on to win an award. It was a huge confidence boost for me to have my work appreciated at such a high level and also an enormous honor as well. I hope to keep pushing myself to qualify again for this year.

Dress back, Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Dress back, Rachel Ellenbogen
Dress side and sleeve, Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Laced side and sleeve, Rachel Ellenbogen


What made you want to study fashion and textiles in school?

I’ve known since I was a little kid that I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I’ve always loved to draw, paint, or engage in any other creative endeavor I could try out. My mom and grandma taught me to sew starting at the age of five, and I’ve always loved fashion and design as well. What sealed the deal for me was when I was around eleven and was first exposed to Lady Gaga, and my parents taking me to see “Savage Beauty ” at the Met, a show of Alexander McQeen’s work. After being exposed to his work and realizing fashion could be so much more artistic and dramatic than I had ever thought possible, at around age twelve I decided I was going to go to Parsons. Although my style, skills, and specific interests have changed since then, my focus on the intersection of art and design has remained the same, which is what brought me to embroidery. I did so much work in high school surrounding 2D art and drawing and missed it a lot when I started at Parsons, where I found myself doing mainly draping and sewing. I still love draping and sewing, but embroidery and beading has let me use color and images in ways I never thought possible when I first started on my journey here. I still have my senior thesis left before I graduate from Parsons, and I’m so excited for what’s next to come.

Matching mask by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Matching mask, Rachel Ellenbogen


My job in The Funk Files is to interview “pioneers on the embroidery frontier .” That’s you! What is the embroidery frontier, and what does it mean to be a pioneer here?

Being on any “Frontier” requires pushing the boundaries of the field, whether that is through trying variations on techniques or using different materials as I used in last year’s dress, which were all recycled including all of the fabric. I only learned how to tambour bead about two and a half years ago. After that, everything else was through practice or trial and error. It honestly feels like such a short time that I have been doing this. It’s an absolute honor to have my work seen, especially next to so many other talented people at such a prestigious organization as Hand & Lock and it is an honor to be considered a pioneer here. I only hope that I can keep working and progressing and better myself and my work moving forward.

Dress by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Dress by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Sleeve by Rachel Ellenbogen, second-prize winner, student fashion category, Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery
Sleeve detail, Rachel Ellenbogen


Where can we find you on the Web?

I’m currently in the process of redesigning my website which will be located at RachelEllenbogen.com and it should be finished by the end of the summer. For now the best place to reach me and my work is @RachelEllenbogen on Instagram and TikTok.

What projects are on the horizon for you?

I currently have one year of school left, where I am to complete my senior thesis. I also have this year’s entry for Hand & Lock in progress, which I am super excited about but I can’t say too much yet.

New work: dress and mask by Rachel Ellenbogen
New work by Rachel Ellenbogen
Dress detail, Rachel Ellenbogen
Dress detail, Rachel Ellenbogen


What one piece of advice would you offer someone who wants to create art?

It’s always really important to listen to constructive criticism, especially from those who have your best interest in mind. My advice is to take what you want from it and leave what you don’t. I’ve gotten amazing criticism where I really needed it that has helped me improve so much all around as an artist. But some criticism has been really unhelpful as well. It’s important to take only what you need from it, because at the end of the day it’s still your work and it should reflect you. Art is very subjective and other’s opinions on exactly what you should be making can sometimes cloud your judgement and intuition.

Embroidery detail, Rachel Ellenbogen
Embroidery detail, Rachel Ellenbogen

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

A book you’ve enjoyed recently: I found the diary of Richard E. Byrd on a second hand shelf in a bookstore. He explored the Antarctic in the early 19th century and I found the book to be very interesting.

You must include something scented in your next piece. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? I would love to use floral scents. Embroider different flowers on a dress and have each flower smell like the actual flower it was based off of.

If you were not an artist, what would you be? Astrophysicist

You are making lunch for the artist of your choice—and she/he/zie will love it. Who is the artist, and what are you making for lunch? Lady Gaga, and I can’t cook very well, but I can bake so we’d just be having dessert.

A studio is remaking a movie, and they want you to design the costumes. What is the movie, and what is your favorite costume in it? Shrek 2, but it would be decked out in glitter and beads. Fairy godmother’s costume for her final musical number would be my favorite because it would be so dramatic and showstopping.

You must create a garment or accessory for an animal. What is the animal, and what do you create? I would create a beaded collar for my cat, Quentin. I found him as a two week old kitten in my parents backyard, abandoned by his mother. I would create a collar because he’s not crazy about weaning clothes, and I would want to make him something that he would actually wear. He’s all black, so I would want the collar to be as colorful as possible.

You can shop for free at one store. What store do you choose? Any store with a very large selection of every type of bead.

Favorite pastry: Raspberry Thumbprint cookies

A celebrity wears something you’ve made to an awards show, and you receive fame, fortune, good health, fitness, and cake for life. Who is the celebrity and what does s/he wear? Lady Gaga, fully beaded dress (or whatever garment she would like) the beads making up portraits of anyone she would like.

What was the best gift you gave someone? I made one of my close friends a corset top for her birthday last year and she wears it to go out and loves it!

Marine motif corset top, Rachel Ellenbogen
Fish top, Rachel Ellenbogen

Thank you, Rachel!

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