Inspirational Interview: Margaret Lee

Today we will be hearing from Margaret Lee, the artist who produces those exquisite Japanese and Chinese embroidery kits. Her specialization is one that many of us are intimidated by: the detail, the fine stitches, the close work. However, the end product is so beautiful that I – like many of you, I’m sure – am inspired to try to at least begin to learn about this type of embroidery.

If you are interested in having a week long class with Margaret Lee, she is offering a course from 4 – 9 November 2012 in Chinese Silk Embroidery (Foundation Level). All welcome to join, especially for embroidery enthusiasts in Europe. Please contact: Joke or Cis.   Email:

1. Do you have a favorite kind of needlework? If so, which kind and why?

Fine Silk embroidery is definitely my favourite, hence my specialisation in traditional Japanese embroidery and Chinese ‘su’ embroidery(more particularly the sub category called embroidery art). Both these forms of embroidery demands technique knowledge, attention to detail and stitching precision. It appeals to me that any one design can be stitched in any different number of ways and the final outcome is dependent on how well one has combined knowledge, colour and stitch selection and application skills to give life to the design.  This is especially so with  Chinese ‘su’ embroidery where a high level of likeness to the subject can be achieved by a skilled embroiderer. In this way, the embroidery is very individual even though the design is the same.


2. What impact do you have on the final interpretation of the design?

Chinese embroidery is based on actual paintings, so I don’t create the design as much as I plan how to execute the stitching of a masterpiece. Through history, there has always been a close link between painting and embroidery.”

3. What’s your favorite kind of thread to work with and what qualities does it have that makes it your favorite?

Filament silk. All the best embroidery in both Chinese and Japanese traditional embroideries use filament silk exclusively. Its versatility and sheen is unlike any other threads and  with good technique selection and application, produces an embroidery effect  second to none. This is made possible because of the qualities of filament silk:

·        Unlike  other threads, such as cotton and wool, which are cellular and absorbs light, silk is a protein and reflects light thereby giving the shine associated with it. It is this quality that an embroider will capitalise on to create movement and colour in the embroidery.

·        Being filament silk, there is flexibility in thread sizing. The threads can be thinned to as fine as one strand which is almost invisible to the human eye or combined for greater thread thickness, all without compromising quality of ‘shine’.

·        Twisted  threads can also be made from the filament silk by the embroiderer thus affording the embroiderer  endless varieties of threads of differing colours,  twists and  thicknesses.

·        See the eye of the Kookaburra – it is embroidered with more than15 colours of threads culled down to  single filaments for the embroidery.(Please let me know if you would like me to send you an image of the kookaburra-it is on my website)

4. When it comes to choosing a color palette for a design what guides your choices?

Various elements will usually guide  my colour choices:

·        Firstly, I am guided by the style of the design-Is it an oil painting, a photograph or a brush painting etc

·        What is the artist/design trying to portray and is there a specific symbolism attached to it

·        Are there any historical colours attached to the design. In oriental embroidery, shades of colours often have underlying meanings attached to it.

·        Finally the colours must all complement each other when  placed together.


5. 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?

I am a great fan of  pre-work planning. In fact, on a complicated design with lots of elements, pre-work planning can take days. I will start by looking at the design and try to absorb the atmosphere of the design. This will help me identify the main elements requiring highlight and determining what techiniques, stitches, threads and colour I will use. I make notes of ideas and thoughts along the way. When complete, I will review them as a whole and make further adjustments.  Even with the best of plans, changes will be made along the way as the embroidery develops. I have been known to perform ‘reverse stitching’ on whole sections if I am not entirely happy with it.

6. Is there one stitch that’s your favorite and that you almost always include in your designs? What is you top tip for for that stitch?

My very favourite technique is one that I call the ’add’on’ stitch technique. It is, however, not a standalone technique in itself but is used together with most of the other major techniques to create dimension, colour and shading – all contributing to a more realistic outcome. For best success with this technique, precision is key and though it may sound contradictory, my ‘best advice’ for the application of this technique is – ‘Go with your instinct’


7. Do you produce your design by hand or digitally? Use a computer or draw or a combination of both?

Traditionally, designs were drawn and or painted by hand. Nowadays, with technology, we  can  print the full art piece or design  on the ground fabric. However, even with designs printed on ground fabric, I still practice the habit of tracing the design elements, either with an imaginary pen or a real tracing. I remember being given the instruction as a child to always trace the element to be stitched  before stitching. It was explained to me then, that by tracing the elements, the hand will transfer the design lines to the subconscious, which will in turn  guide the hand in the subsequent stitching. It is a practice that I still perform  and I  try to pass that on to my students.

 8. 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?

I am fortunate enough to have a large room as my embroidery space with long floor to ceiling windows on one side of the room. On the walls, I hang  embroidered pictures and also class samples. This room is also where I hold classes and it comfortably sits up to 25 people with 1m long frames and elbow room to spare.

9. Please complete this thought: When I’m stitching I feel..

an inner tranquility and it is as if time stands still. I have been known to stitch up to 16 hours a day without realising the amount of time passed.


10. How does needlework allow you to express your creativity?

I do not consider myself a creative person. Chinese embroidery is part of my cultural heritage. It stirs in me an ongoing  passion and a desire to ensure that these beautiful art forms are being passed on in their best tradition.

Thank you Margaret Lee for taking time to give us insight to your art!