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 2018 brief invited entrants to “celebrate culture, gender and individual heritage in the global atmosphere of transformation.” They were asked to make their work “stand for something bigger than itself conveying a meaningful message relevant to the transient state of the world today.”
London’s Bishopsgate Institute hosted the final judging and award ceremony for the 2018 Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery.
Today we’ll meet the first-place winner in the Fashion Student Category.
Name: Emma Wilkinson
School: Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh, Graduated 2018
Describe your piece for the competition and what motivated it:
I truly took the theme of the brief on board—material alchemy and modern morality.
I wanted to create something that pushed the boundaries of materials and their place within traditional approaches to embroidery and fashion; and in regards to modern morality I looked at masculinity and femininity as well as women being allowed to fight on front line infantry for the first time in 2018, to create a look that was classic but powerful with elements of uniform.
Everything I do tells a story and this piece was absolutely no exception. These themes and approaches ran throughout my graduate collection entitled “Rebuild” and my Hand & Lock piece was a culmination of this, the cover of the story if you like.
Are there any secrets you can now reveal about your entry?
I created every part of it myself, from the pattern pieces to the bismuth crystals adorning the embroidery. This piece is a part of me in every way, and although it tells the story of the progression yet decay within the city of Edinburgh told through material and approach, it also tells a story of progression and decay personal to me too. When making the bismuth crystals and the pewter structures I sneakily waited for my mum and dad to go out and melted the metals on the cooker! Do not try this at home…or just wait ’til your family goes out like I did! It smells really bad!
Oh, that’s hilarious!
When and how did you learn embroidery, and what impression did it make on you?
I first started wee bits of embroidery and beading while I was at college creating a portfolio. The Scottish accessories brand Bebaroque came in to class and set a project that incorporated loads of beading and I was hooked! I realised that everything about it was for me—the practice and commitment required to be great, the sparkle, the precision! It’s thanks to Chloe and Mhairi of Bebaroque, as well as Edinburgh College (Granton), for exposing me to such a wonderful skill early on in my learning, to allow me to make choices that would help me pursue embroidery throughout my degree.
I went to ECA where I continued to push my love of embroidery—regardless of what my lecturers had to say about it, admittedly—and went on to intern at Hand & Lock which was amazing. They could see how much embroidery meant to me and how dedicated I was to progresses and the staff there truly invested so much time in me and my development and allowed me to be part of some of the most wonderful projects!
What made you want to study fashion and textiles in school?
I left school and actually started a law degree. My school art teacher told me I’d never get in to art college, and as an impressionable 16 year old, I turned my back on my creative talents and passion.
I got a lot out of studying law, things I still apply to my thinking and areas of interest even now, so it wasn’t a wasted few years. It was a very sad situation that then led me to re-think the course of my life and pursue design again.
Then a friend passed away under very traumatic circumstances, and at 19 years old I had to come to terms with mortality and what it really means to live—for me I had to spend every day doing what I loved and what made me feel worthwhile, and so I left law, took some time working full time, and then returned to college to study textiles, and I’ve never regretted that decision.
To date, what’s been your favorite course of study?
I really enjoyed the second year of my HND where I was creating my uni application portfolio. I felt really motivated by the projects and lecturers there, it was also a really hopeful and exciting time! I struggled a little bit with uni, I think, because I was a little older and had been through so many drastic ups and downs to get there that I was very clear with what I wanted out of it. Consequently, I really enjoyed my honours year where I was able to totally be myself for myself, tell my story through my work and go where I wanted to creatively!
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?
What a wonderful thing to be considered to be, thank you! I always joke that there are people out there committed to saving trees or rescuing animals. I want to save dying hand crafts!
For me, the embroidery frontier is considering what’s next…respecting and learning from the thousands of ancient traditions and the history it is steeped in, knowing the rules inside and out so I can thoughtfully break them to create work for the 21st century. It’s got to be beautiful; it’s got to mean something. I thought out the box when I graduated. I took my hand skills I developed through embroidery and applied them to kilt making, a craft in Scotland where there is a huge demand but a deficit in young, skilled, future, kiltmakers. I now apply both embroidery and kiltmaking to create pieces that haven’t been done before, to bring Scottish culture together with embroidery for this first time since the Jacobites!
Equally, we’ve got to create a community together with a further reach to keep embroidery and hand skills relevant. I’m so lucky to have been selected by the embroiderers guild this year along with other graduates and scholars to tour exhibitions with our work. I love that we are young people coming, getting on so well, becoming friends for life in our field that wholeheartedly support each other. Not all industries can proudly say that’s the ethos! We are guided by the OG’s (original gangsters, I joke!) of embroidery in the form of the guild ladies, who truly care about seeing us carry on the mantel of embroidery they’ve spent their careers protecting too. A truly wonderful, forward-thinking community and that level of respect for each other is so important in preserving embroidery for the future!
Where else can we see your work?
I will be exhibiting at the NEC in Birmingham with the embroiderers guild in March. I will also have a piece on display at Ely Cathedral as part of the Embroiderers Guild. My kiltmaking work will be exhibited in Edinburgh as part of Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers later on this year, too. I also hope to apply to be an Embroiderers Guild Scholar next year so I can tour the knitting and stitching shows again with my kilts-meet-embroidery collection.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
I definitely want to create a collection that pushes the boundaries on traditional Highland dress and high fashion. I want to embroider kilts and jackets with motifs that possess a narrative of unity and remembrance, a subtly political message that is, above all, beautiful.
Describe your ideal career.
There’s so much I want to try. I want to give back, to be honest. I’ve worked hard and bounced back from adversity to prove I have a skill and something to say. I want to give back firstly to Scotland, my home, where I got my education and where I became the person I am. I see kilt making as my way of doing this. I can fill the deficit of young kiltmakers continuing the hand-made kilt-making skill into the future before it is eradicated by machine-made kilts entirely.
I also hope to teach embroidery on a wider and more inclusive scale up here!
And I want to continue developing and improving within embroidery, finding new outlets for the skill all the time. I’d love the chance to work in film/tv. I’d love to work in a studio again, perhaps Ralph and Russo or Alexander Mcqueen, where embroidery is such an integral part of their collections. I love and appreciate those fashion houses so much for always finding a place with it!
Above all, I want a career that I wake up every day to, and I can’t wait to get to work, a fulfilling career that I get a lot out of, but where I can also encourage others and offer the future embroiderers and designers opportunities, too!
What one piece of advice would you offer someone looking to expand his/her embroidery skills?
Practice, practice, practice! I’ve dedicated countless hours to just practicing, trying stuff, unpicking it, doing it again, but that’s what it takes, and I’ve still got a looooong way to go when I compare my work to that of my embroidery idols such as Hattie McGill, Kate G. William, Georgiana Bellamy and Kate Tume, to name a few (who are all amazing people and unreal talents). Don’t be scared to reach out to others you look up to for advice and support: the embroidery community is a solid and inclusive one, don’t be shy!
I have to recommend classes too. Youtube tutorials are brilliant, but if you get the chance to get some face-to-face teaching, it’s so worth it, as you can be corrected then and there and you can then crack on getting to grips with the rules of embroidery, and of course don’t be afraid to break the rules to create something cool and new too!
And finally, never take no for an answer! I was once told in an interview that they didn’t understand why I would bother sewing on each bead individually when I could just do one or two or print a texture instead. They were of course swiftly told why but always stand your ground and stick up for your skill and the time and dedication you put into it!
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
You can work with just one color for the next year. What color do you choose? BLACK! On black, on black on more black!
What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? I think I’m pretty well known for my organic textures; however, I’m also pretty well known for how Scottish I am, so let’s go for a super textural, little bit spikey thistle. 😉 Just like me! Ha!
A book you’ve enjoyed recently: I’ve been reading Outlander along with watching the series, and I am hooked on both!
You must include something scented in your next piece. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? I’m obsessed with the smell of rhubard and ginger, whether its in a candle, a perfume or even gin! Gotta be rhubard and ginger. I created colour-changing thermochromic beads last year…maybe I could create scented beads susceptible to touch next…. Watch this space…
Brilliant! I call dibs on your first interview when you create these!
If you were not an artist, what would you be? I reckon I would have stuck with law and either become a solicitor and gone into politics or perhaps business management. I still think I’m going to end up on The Apprentice one day.
You are making lunch for the artist of your choice—and s/he will love it. Who is the artist, and what are you making for lunch? I consider Alexander McQueen an artist, his story telling, his approach, his unlimited imagination. I would have loved to have lunch with him, especially in the uncertain and early stages of his career. I’m no cook so I reckon we’d have gone down the pub, couple of pints maybe some fish and chips and chatted away, putting the world to rights and sharing endless ideas.
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?
Had Mary Queen of Scots not just been made I would 100% have said that. So I’m going to go with Gone with the Wind, my favourite film of all time. I’d love to bring Miss Scarlett O’Hara and the changes and growth she represents through her clothes – from the green dress made by Mammy from Mrs O’Hara’s curtains, to that scarlett gown Rhett makes her wear, to Melanie Wilkes Birthday party. I love them all and would love to get a chance to recreate something for Scarlett.
You must create a garment or accessory for an animal. What is the animal, and what do you create? 100% got to be an alpaca kilt. I went alpaca walking up the Pentland Hills in Edinburgh and fell in love with alpacas (and their beautiful wool). Imagine an alpaca in a nice cozy kilt, keeping it warm all winter!
A celebrity wears something you’ve made to an awards show, and you receive fame, fortune, good health, and cake for life. Who is the celebrity and what does s/he wear? Has to be something for either the Met Ball or a Royal engagement. If I went Met Ball I’d love to dress women iconic for modern day style and female achievement – maybe Rhianna or Beyonce for their talent and business savvy or perhaps Angelina Jolie for both her skill and commitment to helping others. I’d dress them in something structured, powerful, symbolic of their achievements but equally something sparkling that celebrates their femininity, too. The embroidery would subtly tell the wearer’s personal story through texture, colour, composition and motif that is for sure.
Equally, and as a Queen Elizabeth Trust Scholar, I’d love to see our Queen in a piece of mine. She’s an exceptionally hard working lady who cares deeply about her country and people, and I’d love to create her a piece that was symbolic of the British Union she represents through beautifully embroidered national emblems intertwined and maybe a wee bit of tartan too!
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.