Textile Art in the North

How innovative embroiderers have explored the boundaries of stitch

Fabrics have a special significance to us all from birth. Babies will feel around cellular blankets, twisting their fingers through the holes, searching for a satin trimmed corner to put in their mouths.

Textile artists are drawn to the medium for these same instinctive reasons: for the pleasure of the feel of working with cloth, for the way it changes and becomes sculptural with stitch, for the contrast in texture between different fibres and with other materials such as wood and metal, for the way it reflects light, for the way it can be used to express pattern and colour, and for its suitability as a medium for personal and cultural expression.

The impulse to decorate and embellish fabric with stitches is ancient and deep rooted in all cultures. Linen is the perfect fabric for stitch. It is hard wearing, strong and has an easily visible even-weave which allows the needle worker to count stitches over the threads.

By the eighteenth century, Irish linen from the linen homelands area, between the rivers Bann and Lagan, had an international reputation for excellence. Despite the wealth this brought to a few, life was harsh for most families, and some women supplemented their income by embroidering edgings and trims for household linens and clothing, or by working other forms of needlework, such as lace. The stitching of fine, intricate patterns required total concentration, and could be a source of great pleasure in what was otherwise a life of hardship.

In Northern Ireland, innovation, creativity, and high standards of craftsmanship have always been valued. Traditional embroidery and needlework still flourish, but innovative embroiderers have explored the boundaries of stitch to develop the new visual art form of textile art.

Textile Art and Artists at the University of Ulster

The art and design school at the University of Ulster continues the local tradition for excellence, and their standards of teaching and research are held in high esteem internationally. The school is presently staffed by Janet Ledsham, Karen Fleming, Michael Brennand-Wood and Hazel Bruce. They exhibit regularly, and their work can be found in collections around the world. All are members of the 62 group of textile artists, formed in 1962. Ever since the group has since been at the cutting edge of embroidery and textile art.

Janet Ledsham is a reader in textile arts at the university, and has been teaching and exhibiting for the last 35 years. In her work she incorporates natural materials into felt, which she sculpts into three dimensional forms. She was shortlisted for the prestigious Jerwood Prize for Applied Arts in 1997.
Karen Fleming is also a reader in textile arts. She builds up the surfaces of her art in layers, often worked and reworked to create intricate surfaces. Her piece, ‘Red Bole’, won second prize in the European Quilt Triennial in 2003.

Michael Brennand-Wood is a research fellow, skilled in conventional embroidery and lace making skills. He creates innovative, colourful art that explores pattern, surface quality and the historical and social aspects of textiles by using a diverse range of contemporary materials such as wire, wood and acrylic alongside stitch and cloth. He won the Jerwood Prize in 1997.

Hazel Bruce is an associate lecturer who finds inspiration in the urban environment. Her work features strong geometric shapes and repeated patterns, but these are worked so that the shapes are often not completely materialised, suggesting change and the passing of time.

Textile Artists working in Northern Ireland

Two other members of the 62 group live and work in Northern Ireland. They are Frankie Creith and Elaine Megahey.

Frankie Creith has a workshop in Portrush where she produces mostly mixed-media work. She uses layers of paper, paints, fabrics and stitch to build up textured surfaces, which often spill off the wall and across the floor to tell their story.

Elaine Megahey uses printmaking techniques to combine images and text with paper, cloth and stitch. She exhibits with the Belfast Print Workshop.

There are many other textile artists living and working in Northern Ireland. Some of these artists, such as Ethna Brogan and Sybil Moses, exhibit with craft organisations like Island Design or County Down Crafts. Others, like Irene MacWilliam, exhibit internationally in quilting shows. Helen Fitzpatrick, Janice Gilmour, Dawn Mitchell and Maggie Jackson all use their skills in relation to the fashion industry. Many others teach in local schools, passing on skills and introducing the next generation to our textile heritage.

Where to see Traditional Embroidery

There are several venues where traditional embroidered textiles can be seen. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, near Belfast, has an extensive textile collection, reflecting the historical significance of textiles in Northern Ireland. Their collection of patchwork and quilting is the best in the British Isles, and the collections of lace, embroidery, samplers and damasks are of both national and international significance. There is also an extensive costume collection, and many of the pieces are embellished with local embroidery.

The Ulster Museum has a textile collection that dates from the eighteenth century to the present day. Although most of the original collection was destroyed in a fire in 1976, the museum has since been working to rebuild it. Two of the most significant pieces in the museum are the Lennox quilt of 1712 and the Delany bedcover, one of the few remaining complete pieces of embroidery by Mary Delany, a renowned Georgian embroiderer and diarist.

Where to see Contemporary Textile Art

There are few opportunities to view contemporary textile art in Northern Ireland as it lacks suitable gallery space to attract international exhibitions. However, there have been two notable recent exhibitions. The Ulster Museum secured the 2002 Jerwood Prize textile exhibition, which it hosted in May 2003. This showcased the work of eight shortlisted finalists. The Ormeau Baths Gallery showed a contemporary textile art exhibition in December 2002. This is to become a biennial open exhibition exploring the diversity of international contemporary textile art.

The degree shows at the University of Ulster and the annual exhibition of the Northern Ireland Embroidery Guild are also worth a visit. Other small scale exhibitions occur throughout Northern Ireland, combining a wide diversity of work from hand and machine stitched pieces recognisably within the embroidery tradition, to conceptual work in which there is little stitch or cloth evident.

The Northern Ireland Embroidery Guild celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, with an exhibition of Embroidery and Textile Art at the Waterfront Hall (running until March 18, 2005) and the publication of a book, featuring the work of members. Images from the Waterfront Hall exhibition can be seen on the NIEG website.