I am so pleased that Sarah Homfray made the time to answer questions for our Inspirational Interview series! I met Sarah briefly last summer when at the Royal School of Needlework, Rugby Center, where she is a tutor. Sarah’s full of ideas, energy and enthusiasm as you will see when you read her interview!
Sarah completed the RSN Apprenticeship in 2006 and went on to teach the RSN Apprentices and the Certificate and Diploma students as well as undertaking freelance teaching and commissions. She has travelled extensively and has recently returned from a year in Cyprus where she gained a Diploma in Fine Art.
Inspiration from her travels often appears in her work and she believes strongly in observation and attention to detail, embroidery design being a particular area of interest. Sarah holds a Certificate in Education from the University of Greenwich and has taught in the USA and Cyprus. She has published in magazines and her book RSN Essential Stitch Guide – Silk Shading was released by Search Press in June 2011.
1. Do you have a favorite kind of needlework? If so, which kind and why?
All kinds! I don’t have one specific technique that I am drawn to particularly; I am interested in how to use different stitches and techniques to create the effect I am after. I don’t consider techniques stand-alone, I think they work best when worked in tandem with other techniques and often one will have something that compliments another well, eg. the painterly effects of silk shading with the opulence of goldwork. Hence, I have done goldwork on canvas, silk shading on denim, mixed freestyle stitching on plastic and have even stitched through clay! I like to learn new techniques all the time in order to have more knowledge at my finger tips and learning is such an exciting process. At the moment I love working on and with felt and am very interested in Indian embroidery. I love to paint and draw and these often get combined with my embroidery work.
2. What motivated you to create your very first design? Looking back, do you think it was a successful design? If so, why? If not, why not?
I came to needlework later on in life and I hadn’t done a design for myself until I started my embroidery training at the RSN. The first piece I actually designed myself was traditional Jacobean and it was pretty daunting. I had some art skills but there were very specific design criteria to design this piece around and we literally had a few hours to start from scratch. Added to the pressure of being surrounded by experts you can imagine how hard this was! The design process consisted of pulling out different Jacobean elements and rearranging them into a new design. If I did it again I would draw elements from scratch as I felt it wasn’t wholly my design but you have to start somewhere! I think the key to design is to get drawing. I was able to give myself a year off to study a Diploma in Fine Art and this has helped my design skills no end.
3. What has been your most unusual source of inspiration?
Inspiration is everywhere, and once that becomes apparent to you, it’s hard to turn it off! I have made pieces based on everything from the weather to a doodle I did while chatting on the phone, to fireworks, fairy stories and childrens toys, to chimmeys and window frames! I like to look for embroidery inspiration outside the field of embroidery.
4. What’s your favorite kind of thread to work with and what qualities does it have that makes it your favorite?
The simpler the better! I tend to choose the thread to fit the occasion rather than the other way around. So if I need something to look luxurious and shiny I use silk, if I need more texture and depth I use wool. It’s easy to get carried away with all of the exciting threads on the market these days and the choice can be overwhelming! Threads like silks (especially unspun) and filament fibres can be hard to use; I can be a little impatient when stitching and my ethos is ‘why make it harder than it needs to be?’!
5. When it comes to choosing a color palette for a design what guides your choices?
More often than not I let my design inspiration be my colour guide. If it is something less figurative, I usually go for a strong, hot colour palette simply because these are my favourite colours. I may see a colour scheme I like somewhere and note it down for future reference. Occasionally it is good to push yourself in a direction and use a palette you wouldn’t normally use. I worked a silk shading based on a Kandinsky painting once and worked it in pastel colours, ones I would never normally choose! If I am struggling to pick colours I will go back to colour basics to help me: complimentary colours, hot and cool colours, symbolism of colours etc.
6. Tell us about your process of choosing stitches. Do you choose your stitches and then never change them or do you adapt as you work the design?
It’s very easy to stick to stitches you know well and not to try new ones! Teaching embroidery is great to counter this as students will often have new ideas and want to try something you haven’t thought of. I have often been inspired by students ideas and stitch choices and this in turn encourages me to try new things in my own work; teaching is always a two way process. When it comes to choosing individual stitches, I have a few basics I like to think about such as larger stitches come foward, smaller stitches receed ( I like to get these the right way around in my piece to help give it depth), does the stitch create the texture and effect I am looking for? I do like to plan embroideries but I am always willing to adapt it if needed. I certainly can’t visualise a whole piece in my head! Sometimes you can’t see how something is going to turn out until you have stitched it. It might work as you thought…it might not!
7. Is there one stich that’s your favorite and that you almost always include in your designs? What is you top tip for for that stitch?
I don’t really have a favourtie stitch, I really like the design to dictate the stitch I use, not the other way around, although you can be sure I will sneak something sparkly in there at every available opportunity whether it is beads, sequins, mirrors or gold! My top tip for any stitch however, is using the correct length of thread and the right size needle. Using the right tools for the job will make the whole process much easier. A good thread length to use is from the palm of your hand to your elbow. This may seem short, but this length with prevent the thread from wearing and tying itself up in knots. The needle should make the hole for the thread to pass through not the thread itself, so if you can hear a loud noise when you are sewing use a slightly bigger needle! Too large a needle could damage the fabric. Try different sizes out on a scrap piece of fabric and see what the effects are for yourself. You will soon learn to judge the right size needle every time.
8. Do you produce your design by hand or digitally? Use a computer or draw or a combination of both?
I love to use my hands (I spend enough time on computers as it is!) so I am always keen to draw my designs. There is something about drawing it yourself that gives you a really good understanding of the subject. I often use photos to help me but I find that if you take a photograph of something, you are letting the camera look and not really looking yourself (you tell yourself ”I can go back and look at it properly later!”) You have to really look at something to be able to draw it and therefore see all the detail in it and understand it fully.
9. Describe your embroidery studio or space for us. What makes it the perfect place to work? What would you like to change if you could?
You can never have enough space to work in! You always expand into the space you have, and I am currently building a wall around myself. My space is quite functional and organised although with my on-line shop being quite successful at the moment I am outgrowing my studio space rapidly. Having a dedicated, comfortable, light space is essential for me in order to be creative. Everything has a place and is labelled so that I can find it (whether it gets put back there or not is another matter!). As I make my living from my embroidery, my space has to be pretty functional. My work space is not full of beautiful things and baskets of threads, and in fact much of my time is spent not sewing much at all; unfortunately the computer and printer are usually at the centre of my day!
10. Please complete this thought: When I’m stitching I feel…
This is a tough question! Even though I love embroidery, there is no getting around it – it’s my job; I have other hobbies that enable me to relax/inspire me//help me chill out! Usually when I’m stitching I feel anxious that I’m not stitching fast enough!
11. How does needlework allow you to express your creativity?
There are so many things to have a go at in life that I find I can actually be quite impatient, wanting to try everything! Working in the technqiue of embroidery helps to slow me down and focus my mind. If I am given the chance to rush something, I usually do and it usually goes wrong! Hand embroidery makes you slow down which means you can think about what you are doing and make a much better job of it. I strongly believe that if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
In addition to teaching at the RSN Rugby, Sarah also runs courses with Nicola Jarvis through Heart of Embroidery. Sarah’s blog is a wealth of information and includes a shop where you can find her “Prick and Pounce Design Transfer Kit” along with lots of other fun items.
Sarah Homfray, embroiderer, artist and author