There’s just something about the work of Karen Nicol that makes you look twice. The London-based textile artist recently mounted a show at a New York City gallery, where dozens of her embroidered creatures peer out from their mounted canvases in what she calls an “Imaginary Menagerie,” drawing viewers in with their fantastic variety of unusual details.
“With each animal, I use a different process,” says Nicol. “The range of possibilities of the craft is what excites me.” Nicol starts by drawing the animal, then having it enlarged so that she can trace it onto the fabric. She takes a kitchen-sink approach to sewing, crafting the animals with complex layers that often include hand-cut and shaped sequin film and old photograph negatives. “The face on my black bear is bleached velvet,” explains Nicol. “The ears are embroidery over millinery canvas, which I steamed into shape.” Step close to a black-and-brown cat and you’ll notice this embroidered animal’s wispy fur is composed of an entrancing mix of string, felt, and even shoelaces.
Nicol’s secret weapon is an Irish machine that she describes as an “ancient industrial embroidery machine, which has only a straight stitch and a knee pedal-controlled satin stitch.” Since there’s no feed or presser foot, the machine allows Nicol to “draw” freely. The machine also lets her easily feed in elements like sequins that would otherwise be much trickier on a standard, contemporary sewing machine.
Nicol’s sewing and embroidery skills were passed down through her family. She admits that she wasn’t eager to learn the craft. “My mother and sister were both embroiderers, so I definitely didn’t want to do that,” explains Nicol. “I wanted to make fine art, but in art college I was just better at using fabric than anything else. I still think it is the most exciting way of working. I’m totally passionate about its breadth and diversity — you can work like a painter but have the choice of millions of surfaces. Plus, my mother and sister are now painters so there’s no competition!”
Nicol acknowledges that needlecrafts are often stereotyped, overlooked as domestic women’s work. “People’s perceptions and preconceptions are by far the largest challenge I have found in my career,” notes Nicol. “Many people disregard embroidery as just a hobby. As an artist, you have that extra battle to make people see its potential.” This is why Nicol chooses to mount her embroidered animals, hanging them on the wall so that they are viewed as art.
With her gallery show coming to a close, this artist isn’t taking time off. Nicol is busy embroidering 212 huge screens for a palace in Riyadh. She’s also preparing a show focusing on her embroidered monkeys. Even though Nicol has worked for years to hone her craft, she encourages beginners to pick up a needle and thread. “Just jump in!” she says. “The water’s lovely, and there are no rules or failures. The thing is to see it with irreverence and just enjoy it.”