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 2017 brief invited entrants to ‘celebrate, let go, to let loose and indulge in childlike freedom, to celebrate history, global culture, sense of place, sense of identity, and to celebrate embroidery and life.’
London’s Bishopsgate Institute displayed entries from 32 finalists and hosted the final judging of the 2017 Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery.
Today we’ll meet the second-place winner in the Fashion Student Category.
Name: Claire Edwards
Location: Shrewsbury, Shropshire
School: Staffordshire University–BA (Hons) Textile Surfaces, graduated 2017;
Staffordshire University – Masters by Negotiated Study 2017–2020
Describe your Hand & Lock entry:
‘Rising from the Ashes’ is an evening dress with a richly decorated phoenix on the back which is held by laser cut leather straps. From the brief ‘Celebrate’ I was inspired by a combination of mythology and folklore, Moorish architecture and the intricate goldwork found on military dress uniforms. I found the meaning of the Phoenix resonating closely with my life as it is a symbol of transformation, longevity, strength and creation and represents rebirth and renewal. I designed the repeat pattern and silk screen printed this onto the devore fabric that the dress is made from. The leather straps on the front are a translation of this design.
What made you want to enter this competition?
It’s something that I had intended doing at some point but at the start of the 3rd year we had to undertake a live brief so I chose the Hand & Lock brief. As I was still new to embroidery I took this as an opportunity to challenge myself not ever imagining the result.
What motivated your choice for your entry?
I had spent the summer visiting my parents in Spain and visited the Mezquita in Cordoba and the Nasrid Palace at the Alhambra in Granada. I found the Moorish influence and the stone carvings fascinating and knew that whatever project I was going to undertake then this would be the basis of it.
Are there any secrets you can now reveal about your entry?
Hmmm, there are a few.
Ooooo, spill! We love secrets!
I’ve never made any type of garment or even inserted a zip before. That was the steepest learning curve of this project. I had an idea of what I wanted the finished piece to look like but no idea how to achieve it. One of the senior lecturers, Colette Dobson, supported me so much with the construction that she gave up some of her days over the summer to help me, which I am truly thankful for.
Trying to gain access to a laser cutter was also another headache as the one I had used before at University was closed. My first attempt with the leather skin I chose was a disaster. Luckily, I had just enough leather left from the wings to cut the straps on the front of the dress.
I also learnt the goldwork and beading techniques on the go. If it didn’t look right, I unpicked it and started again, and that’s how I stitched the whole project.
Describe your life and career before you went back to school.
Now there’s a question, it’s been so varied and looking back, I’ve had quite an exciting life. After I left school I joined the Royal Air Force at the tender age of 17 as a Telecommunications Operator and spent 10 years having a ball. I’ve lived in and visited some amazing places like Cyprus, Kenya, Israel and Lebanon to name just a few and have taken part in so many fun sports. I’ve thrown myself out of a plane a few times even though I have a real fear of heights and falling and have spent many hours off shore sailing around the Mediterranean.
I left the RAF after having my children and moved to Germany where I embarked on my next career working with and supporting vulnerable families. After 5 years, I moved back to England and continued with my career in the voluntary sector working with young offenders and their families before ending up managing a Young Carers and substance misuse service in North Wales.
When and how did you learn embroidery, sewing, etc., and what impression did it make on you?
I’d done a few counted cross stitch patterns whilst I was in the RAF but I confess to never finishing a single project. The next time that I did any sewing was in my 2nd year at University undertaking a project called the Stitched Surface. I fell in love with stitch, sitting in the room for the whole day with my needle and thread felt like heaven. Life goes so fast and this small part of the week that I could dedicate to stitch felt very meditative, a time to slow everything down and enjoy seeing something merge from the material. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do.
I have learnt most of my techniques from books and analysing other artists work particularly Michele Carraghers work on the Game of Thrones costumes and Beata Kania’s entries into the previous Hand & Lock competition. I was over the moon when I found out that Beata was to be my mentor.
What made you want to pursue fashion and textiles after your military career?
I never set out to pursue fashion or textiles. I unfortunately fell ill whilst working and in the time that I was on sick leave I taught myself to Crochet. I knew that returning to work wasn’t an option for me so submitted my application to Staffordshire University the day before applications closed. I applied to take 3D Contemporary Jewellery but on the day of the interview I saw the studios and the work that they were doing and changed to Textile Surfaces. I started the week after, had a bit of a catch up and as they say, the rest is history.
What’s been the biggest surprise of returning to school and the projects you’ve undertaken?
I never expected to enjoy learning so much, I didn’t particularly enjoy school apart from the sports side of it so further education was never on the cards for me after I left school. I feel very privileged to be able to return to education so I suppose my attitude was to embrace everything with open arms and learn as much as I could. I had no idea where life was going to take me.
The biggest surprise—getting the email from Hand & Lock to tell me that I was a finalist and then to be a prize winner amongst all the other talented entries was truly amazing. It’s certainly made me have more confidence in my work.
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?
I have no idea but I think it’s all about taking traditional embroidery techniques and pushing the boundaries of these and shouting about them from the roof tops. Motivating a new generation to learn, to experiment with and to try new techniques. To never give up in achieving your dream and to celebrate your achievements. Embroidery is an art.
In my second year, I finally got the diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia. The scans showed that I had already sustained damage to the joints in my hands but I refuse to let it take away the things that I am most passionate about and that’s my embroidery.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
I’ve got a few things on the go currently—between being a full time carer for my partner and managing my own illness, I’ve decided to continue with education and over the next 3 years will be completing my MA in Embroidery. I’m quite excited as I’m experimenting with combining my embroidery with resin, silicone and latex. My long-term ambition would be to become a Lecturer and deliver workshops.
I’ve also been very lucky to gain a place on the Be Inspired business start-up programme at Staffordshire University which is supporting me on my venture with my new business, Defiant Embroidery. I’ve also gained a couple of commissions and some freelance work.
My dream though would be to work embroidering costumes for films (and of course) Game of Thrones.
Where else can we see your work?
I have a website, Defiant Embroidery, but tend to use Instagram to showcase my work. I’ve found this platform to be both inspirational and supportive, especially the encouragement and support from fellow embroiderers—it’s nice to be part of a such a positive community.
What one piece of advice would you offer someone looking to expand his/her embroidery skills?
Love what you do and do what you love. You don’t always need to follow the rules, or do things just because a book or someone tells you to do it that way—experiment and find your own way, play and have fun with materials and techniques as often the most exciting things come from messing around.
Never be scared to take it all apart—if you don’t like something, change it.
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
Favorite embroidery or textile medium: goldwork purls—I love how they feel and they’re such a versatile material to work with. In fact, anything metallic—I’m like a little magpie.
If you could embroider with just one color thread for the next three years, what would it be? Difficult one, but it would have to be black
What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? It’s got to be the Phoenix. I think this symbolises my journey through life so far.
If your embroidery were cataloged with books, what genre would it be (romance, mystery, horror, history, psychology, something else)? Mythology or alchemy
You’re having a solo show for your art. What is the title of the show? Of course, it must be “I AM DEFIANT”
You’re asked to create a garment or accessory for an animal. What is the animal, and what do you create? Ha ha! It would have to be a onesie for a sloth. It would remind me of my eldest daughter sitting in her onesie, slobbing in her Halls at University. She’s currently in the first year of a Fine Art degree.
Favorite book you’ve read recently: There’s a couple—Scarlett Moffat’s Me Life Story (just because she made me laugh so much on gogglebox) and The pill That Steals Lives by Katinka Blackford Newman.
You must include something edible in your next project. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? I thought of gummy bears but I’d eat them before I got the chance to use them.
You must turn a song into a piece of art. What song do you choose? Comfortably numb by Pink Floyd
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? That’s an easy one. It has to be Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones wearing my Hand & Lock entry. Now that would be a dream!
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.