Alice Kettle

Portrait of Alice Kettlecoeus dreamLotos Easters

Textile artist Alice Kettle creates dramatic figurative panels built up using free machine embroidery. She says, ‘I find embroidery really liberating as it is both a drawing tool and constructional tool.’ She is currently working on a large-scale commission at Winchester Discovery Centre (due to be installed in September) where visitors can watch her at work during gallery opening hours.


What made you change directions from the fine arts which you studied as an undergraduate at Reading to the textile arts which you studied as a postgraduate at Goldsmiths?

It was a big move to go back to stitch. As a child I was always attracted to stitch and textiles were part of my culture, but at Reading there had been an emphasis on fine art as pure medium and applied arts were regarded as almost inferior. I felt slightly guilty when I applied to Goldsmiths, but I knew I had an affinity with textile practice and the moment I started there I felt comfortable. I feel I can draw better in stitch then in paint and I have a voice in stitch which is inhibited in painting and drawing. I find working with stitch liberating as you are not constrained by shape, scale or surface and you can play with light and the different qualities of thread – it’s an ongoing conversation between the thread and fabric. The vocabulary is wider than in the fine arts and I enjoy the breadth of mark making. I also think that as there is not the same weight of tradition as there is in the fine arts whatever you do in stitch is a process of discovery and a new means of expression.

Why are you specifically attracted to free machine embroidery as opposed to any of the other textile techniques such as weaving?

I’ve never been attracted to weaving – it’s too technique based for me. I’m more concerned about ideas and expression and not so interested in technique. I find embroidery very intuitive and immediate. You don’t have to plan very much as you just respond to the act of making – if you go wrong you can just cut that bit out or stitch over it. I really respond to the rhythmic quality of the machine and love the feeling of being in tune with it. It’s like having a fixed pen – ie the needle – and drawing by moving the paper – ie the fabric. There are all sorts of elements you can play with. You can change direction, tension, the type and thickness of thread and the speed you move the fabric which effects the results making the stitching thicker or thinner. You can also change the relationship between the top and bottom thread by altering their colours or types.

Do you ever work with any other embroidery machines?

Last year I became a research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University and I am using my time there to expand my vocabulary in machine stitching. So I am learning to use the multi-head computerised sewing machine which is often used by the fashion industry. It’s more about the process as you draw your design on the computer and then design the stitch and the machine (which has 12 needles) stitches out the design. I’m trying to understand the nature of its mark and then impose my handprint on it. The beauty of it is that you have a blueprint of your design so someone else can stitch it out for you – it’s a great help when you are doing large-scale work. I’ve also been experimenting with the Irish machine, the Cornely machine and the omni stitch machine. The omni stitch machine is very exciting as it is used to pleat very thick material and I have been using it to produce really strongly defined lines.

How do you make your textiles?

I do the background first, building up the stitches in different directions so the light falls in different ways. I use thicker threads and rayons to achieve luminosity. I also use a lot of metallic threads to create an undulating surface. The light responds to the different threads in different ways and you can also create areas of shadow. You can create three-dimensional effects by varying the tension in the cloth or by keeping stitching in one small area so that the machine is forced to pound and mould that area into a specific raised form. I then go back and ‘draw’ the figures.

Are all your textiles figurative?

I have always worked figuratively since working through my abstract expressionism phase as an art student. I feel that something is missing if my work doesn’t include something about my response to the world in a figurative manner. I like playing with the relationship between the figure and the space it finds itself in – its relationship with other figures and the borders of the fabric.

What are the main challenges involved in the Winchester Discovery Centre commission?

I am really lucky to have been given this commission. It’s quite scary but also quite exciting. The scale of the piece (16.5 x 3 metres) means that I have had to think of new methods of working and has forced me to open up my practice. It’s like setting up a studio as graduates from Manchester Metropolitan University and Winchester School of Art are making small panels which will then be collaged together onto my original work. I have had to work out where the joins will go so that my work will bind the separate pieces together. The scale has also made me expand my palette as the piece needs a lot of colour to make an impact – it’s fabulous as I’ve never worked with this strength of colour before. It has also caused me to seek a stronger definition of line. There are a lot of constraints involved in public commissions – for example you have to use fire resistant materials and the design has to be agreed with the architects – but they can force you to work out things which you might not otherwise have tried and which feed back into your private work.