18 June 2014
Embroiderer Becky Hogg is a rare and blessed breed - a master of her craft with a contemporary outlook who intricately works her knowledge of traditional skills into a wealth of projects; from restoration of the Royal Opera House's heavy velvet curtains, to the lace appliqué wedding dress worn by Kate Middleton in 2011, to personal jewelry projects that innovatively combine stitching, with wood working and marquetry.
Becky became interested in textile restoration while studying at Loughborough College of Art, and from there developed her training at the prestigious Royal School of Needlework in Surrey. The RSN is steeped in medieval history, both in the traditional skills and techniques it teaches, and in the fact that it is sited in Henry VIII's majestic Hampton Court Palace, built in the 16th century.
"It was quite traditional," says Becky of her time there, "but in a nice way. The first time I visited I became instantly hooked and completely fascinated by everything I saw. We were taught silk shading, metalwork, canvas, and crewel work; all the techniques are still the same but once you learn them, you get to experiment. That's exactly what I wanted to do."
One technique Becky is known for is blackwork, a style of embroidery using black, twisted silk thread, which is as old as Hampton Court itself. She has written a book on the subject, and examples of her own work include intricate, almost mathematical landscapes, employing the technique's tricks of shifting thread thickness to create depth and space amid the linen backdrop.
More recently, Becky has incorporated techniques into her work that might not often be associated with embroidery. "I started using wood as part of my embroidery," she says, "as a way of bringing another material into my work and to make jewelry or even something more sculptural. I discovered that I could stitch though veneer, which is a papery thin wood. Through this process I experimented with marquetry techniques and burning patterns onto wood, which led me to make a collection on brooches based on moths."
Although most of her work is embroidered by hand, Becky does enjoy using a machine, specifically a matriarchal Irish Singer sewing machine (originally designed for monogramming) which dominates her home studio, brimming with beautiful embroidery tools, threads and samplers.
Her approach is to sketch freehand, adjusting the line width with the knee-peddle as she goes and using a cloth-bound ring to keep the tension. The designs are traced onto tissue and the papers torn away when finished; the loose, organic patterns that result are in stark contrast to the seemingly impossible precision of her hand stitches.
Elsewhere among her fascinating array of tools is a baby hairbrush - used as an ultra-analogue method of transferring a design onto fabric in the technique known as Prick & Pounce - and a mellor which keeps tension and prevents tangling in the process of Goldwork a skill that originates in Asia and whose history dates back almost 2000 years. In goldwork, the gleaming threads are held down with cotton, which the mellor helps to guide as it is laid over the gold. A tapestry needle would do, but there's nothing quite like a tool designed for the job!
When it comes to threads, Becky has a rich store of Japanese silk flosses, as well as embroidery metals which are made by Benton & Johnson and originally created for use in military regalia. Containing small amounts of precious metals, they are packed in foil so as not to tarnish - although Becky actually prefers the way that slight darkening makes them 'less bling'.
It's with these particular threads that Becky has developed her metalwork kits; beautifully simple designs featuring woodland animals that give the traditional sampler a pleasing, graphical twist.
She has also recently developed a kit of embroidered sewing patches - blazons to childhood hobbies like sewing, sports and knot-tying . "The inspiration came from finding an old box of my Brownie badges in the attic when we last moved!" Becky says. "I also wanted to make a kit where the embroidery has a use at the end of it, and the designs capture some of those things you had fun doing as a child."
Passing on her deft and delicate tricks of her trade is a big part of Becky's practice, whether it's through these kits or on a one-to-one basis. "The thing I most enjoy about teaching is passing on the traditional skills of embroidery and seeing what direction the students take them," she says. "I love it when a student - from never having picked up a needle - surprises themselves by producing something so detailed and beautiful."
It's inspiring to know that, through practitioners like Becky, these timeless skills continue to find new life, stitch by stitch - like rich stories passed down through the years.
If you'd like to learn from Becky first hand, visit www.beckyhogg.com/yousewfine to find out more about her workshops, based in the informal, creative surrounding of her studio in Hastings, England. Whether you've never threaded a needle or are just a bit rusty, herYou Sew Fine workshops are the perfect way to start.
For those of you new to embroidery, here are a few explanations of terms used in the article
Blackwork - A style of embroidery using only one color of thread (typically black) and often made up of counted-thread techniques such as double running or holbein stitch, backstitch, and sometimes stem stitch.
Crewel work - A style of free embroidery (rather than counted-thread) using wool to create a slightly raised design on a linen background. At least 1000 years old.
Silk shading - Embroidery technique using multiple shades/colors of cotton or silk threads in long and short stitches. The emphasis is on blending color and understanding tonal shade, traditionally to depict flora and fauna.
Metalwork / Goldwork - A type of free embroidery using metal threads which catch the light. Commonly done by 'couching', attaching the metal thread by sewing it on with fine cotton.
Reverse appliqué - An embroidery technique whereby fabric is layered up before cutting away sections of the top layer, revealing the fabric beneath.
Prick & Pounce - Method of transferring an image to fabric whereby powder is pushed through perforated tissue. The artist creates a design on tissue paper; using a needle, she then 'pricks' holes through the design. The pattern is then laid over the fabric and the artist 'pounces' (this is the term for both the action and the substance) black powder (like soot) through the holes using a piece of rolled-up felt. The excess pounce is brushed away using a soft brush, in Becky's case, a baby hairbrush. The result is a join-the-dots pattern, ready for thread to be woven through.
Mellor or Mellore - Gently pointed tool used in goldwork embroidery for holding metal threads in place whilst they are secured.
Marquetry or Marqueterie - is the art of applying pieces of contrasting shades of veneer to a structure,in order to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures.
Photographs courtesy Becky Hogg