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 third-place winner in the Fashion Open Category.
Name: Fabienne Gassmann
Describe your Hand & Lock entry and the inspiration behind it:
A bright pink parka covered in trapunto quilting, couching and semi-transparent sequins. I wanted to turn a functional garment into something that is both protective and glamorous enough to see its wearer safely through uncertain times….
The brief was ‘Sustainability’, so right up my street. Every material apart from the gold work supplies was sourced either from deadstock or organic. The base material is a RAF surplus 1969 supply parachute and yes, they actually were bright pink! The cord used to couch over also comes from the parachute and was originally white, but when I washed the parachute I discovered that the fabric leaches a lot of dye that can be used to dye pretty much anything pink. The padding used for the trapunto is wool from a sheep called Lucy, who lives on an organic farm outside of London. The goldwork is my concession to Hand&Lock’s and the parka’s longstanding connection to the military and was used to add a bit of shine. What would life be without shiny things in it, right? It also reminds of Kintsugi, a Japanese mending technique that celebrates repair and imperfection. All in all, lots of little stories of provenance, tradition and subversion are having a dance on an everyday item of clothing.
Are there any secrets you can now reveal about your entry?
I hand punched all the sequins out of plastic milk bottles and yogurt tub lids. I was so unhappy with how ragged they looked that I made my lovely wife sand the edges of every single one of them while having a total meltdown myself. It’s really hard sometimes to combine upcycling and a thoughtful approach to material consumption with my perfectionism.
Oh, dear. Cheers to wives and rewards for extreme efforts!
Tell us about your background and how it led you to where you are.
I grew up in rural Switzerland and did my BA in Fashion Design there. After graduating, I moved to London to study Fashion Knitwear at the RCA and after a stint as a freelance fashion jack-of-all-trades, I went back to Uni and did an MA in Design with an emphasis on fashion and sustainability at Goldsmiths. In the two years since graduating I have been trying to find ways to design without adding to the ever growing mountain of redundant garments, feeling like there really is no need for more products in our oversaturated world. Embroidering onto existing garments or using deadstock materials and writing patterns for handknitting rather than churning out clothing seem approaches that moves toward a more careful way of dealing with our planet’s finite resources.
You’ve studied knitwear and fashion. Where did embroidery enter?
I had dabbled in embroidery since I was a kid, mainly little personal projects to decorate my clothes. A classmate in my MA was doing really cool little cross stitch badges and inspired me to take it up again. I had promised myself not to buy any new materials throughout the course, apart from the pink parachute that I later also used for the Hand&Lock entry. Embroidery proved to be the perfect means to add sparkle, texture and also commentary to what could have otherwise been a very austere year. For example, once I had to buy a new hole punch, which was of course against the rules. To make this act of consumption very special I enlarged the receipt and embroidered it onto a stylised shopping bag, made from pink parachute.
Another example is that one of the garments I made during this time bears a little stitched memento of ‘White Rabbit’-candy I liked to eat at the time.
The slow nature of using embroidery as a note-taking tool makes these mundane events appear special and in my opinion creates emotional attachment to a garment. This emotional attachment in turn might mean that we as consumers are less likely to quickly discard the garment in question.
How have you married hand knitting and embroidery?
I do a lot of mending and darning which is embroidery on knitwear in a very functional way. I feel that the two disciplines are linked in ethos. Everything I do I try to do thoughtfully and with respect for the artisans that came before me, but I am hoping to find some time for personal projects next to my commercial knit design work to explore how combining the two could be done more extensively.
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?
Well, thank you! For me the frontier would be using traditional techniques in new and surprising ways. In anything I do I try to question why I am doing things a certain way and if I can push beyond my habits. I also question the materials I use to either find more ethical alternatives or solutions that minimize the environmental impact of a project. Often each material sourced this way has its own history, which can turn a simple embroidery motif into a multi-layered, far more meaningful piece.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
I am having a baby in October and I can’t wait to see how this will change the way I see the world. Workwise, one of my knit designs will be published in a well-known hand knitting magazine early next year, so that side of my work is really taking off and I am currently knitting the sample and writing the pattern for it. In the coming year I am also planning to publish a collection of design patterns under my own name. I am really looking forward to getting my Hand&Lock entry back soon though, I think having it in front of me will spark all sorts of pink ideas…
Ohmygosh, congratulations! That’s a lot going on. Big changes are on their way!
Where else can we see your work?
Soon also in my studio shed in our back garden. Come by for a cup of tea!
What one piece of advice would you offer someone looking to expand his/her embroidery skills?
Learn the techniques properly by attending workshops at places with a background in traditional craft like Hand&Lock or the London Embroidery School but look for inspiration in avant-garde art and fashion. Vintage craft books are a great source for learning skills thoroughly too.
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
If you could embroider with just one color thread for the next three years, what would it be? Neon Pink!
What stitchable motif would you choose to represent you and your life? A sparkly brain running after a pocket watch in the style of Alice in Wonderland…so many ideas, so little time!
You’re asked to create a garment for an animal. What is the animal, and what do you create? A little super hero cape for my ginger cat. He’d hate wearing it though and would just sit on it in protest and give me the evil eye.
Favorite book you’ve read recently: Not quite reading in the classical sense, but A Treasury of Knitting Stitches by Barbara Walker. Three hundred pages of infinite design possibilities to nerd over!
You must include something live in your next garment. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? Glow worms. I’d teach them to just hang out on the garment as they please and create random illuminated patterns.
If you were not an artist, what would you be? That’s a hard one as I have always been creative. I have an analytic brain though and am really interested in how the human body works, so probably a medical research profession like pathology.
You must turn a song into a garment. What’s the song, and what’s the garment? ‘Nataraja’ by Jai Uttal and Ben Leinbach. Nataraja is a depiction of Shiva as a dancer and has lots of hands… very convenient for a maker! The garment would have to be multiple pairs of gloves to protect our precious tools, when we are not working.
A place you’d like to visit: Tamil Nadu. My wife is half Tamil and I would love to experience this part of her heritage.
A celebrity wears one of your garments 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? Queen Latifah. Sequin-encrusted pink parachute silk overalls.
You’re asked to make a garment or accessory for a tv show. What is the show, and what do you make? I have a weakness for bad DIY home renovation programmes, so really bright tool belts for all the presenters.