Karen Nicol

Chloe Evans || October 24th

Karen Nicol is an embroidery and mixed media artist that has excelled in her career and over the years built an extensive and impressive CV, ranging from teaching, to work in fashion houses, exhibitions, fairs, commission work and even publishing her own book – ‘Embellished – New Vintage’.

With such an extensive coverage of the art world I was keen to know what she felt was the most enjoyable and the most memorable aspect of her career so far. Nicol explains that the most enjoyable aspects of her work are the ‘constantly changing challenges, trying to reinvent the subject to meet the needs of the current project. It’s an amazing way of working; mixed media/embroidery has such vast breadth’, and how she has been ‘at it for years and there is still always something new to discover’. When I asked what had been the most memorable moment she responded by saying that ‘there have been many memorable times and jobs’, and how it is ‘impossible to choose one. Each new thing I take on is really exciting at the time but I always feel that the next thing is going to be even better’.

“Showing in galleries has been an interesting chapter in my career as it has given me a chance, not usual for a textile designer, to take ownership of the work”

Nicol has been massively influential in the fashion world, creating work for fashion houses such as Anthropologie, Chloe, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Gucci Couture, working for such companies is the dream of so many young artists specialising in textiles and fashion and Nicol told me how ‘doing designs for Alexander McQueen was a real high’ as she is ‘such a fan’. Nicol also told me how working for Clements Ribeiro was fantastic as ‘they were the first ones to really understand the excitement of embroidery’. I asked Nicol what it’s really like working for such famous and iconic fashion companies and if it ever feels surreal, or if it’s something that you just learn to become accustomed to; having to embroider cushions for the Pope’s London apartment, napkins with small birds and flowers for the King of Qatar’s daughter’s wedding and monograms for a party that Tamara Eccleston was holding, there must have been times that were extremely overwhelming but Nicol humbly replied that for example, the interiors projects that she has worked on are ‘always through interior designers so I never actually get to meet the clients so I’m not really aware of the grandeur of the scheme, I’m in the studio with the machine but it is a great feeling to think that the work is being in these amazing settings’.

Nicol was one of few artists commissioned by Liberty to embroider quilts to celebrate their 140th anniversary, I asked about her involvement and what it was like being one of the artists involved and she elucidated that she was ‘incredibly pleased to be asked to take part in the lovely project to celebrate the 140th anniversary of Liberty. The wood from two sailing ships - the HMS Hindustan and the HMS Impregnable was originally used to build Liberty so they asked us to create patchwork quilts on the theme of sailor’s tattoos… It couldn’t have been a better brief. I decided to make mine 2 metres square and the patchwork all from different beautiful white damask taken from vintage tablecloths and add my own little personal touch by having two tattooed monkeys holding the rope from the ship’.

Nicol has created a collection of ‘creatures’ all beautifully embroidered and embellished. The time that has been put into the animals is incredible and I couldn’t wait to hear more about them - “The animals gave me a fantastic excuse to do fashion inspired embellishment which didn’t have to pass any wash and wear tests on one off couture creatures. Even on the largest polar bear there was still a relatively small area to embroider so the embellishment could be as creative and experimental and time consuming as I liked. They actually take me about a week each although the faces often go in the bin a couple of times before I complete them”. I asked Nicol what has inspired her to create such highly embellished work, she explained that she has no idea why she is so drawn to embellishment but added that ‘working with mixed media is like painting with a thousand textures, patterns and colours and the possibilities are endless with continual opportunities to come up with something new. I have a way of working where I am obsessed with the literal, I can’t look at a flower or a bit of wood or cobweb without thinking how I could translate that into embroidery/mixed media, the real qualities of the thing, whether it is matt or shiny, soft, hard, rough or smooth and then make up the way of converting it onto the cloth. I have gathered materials from car boots for decades and can usually find some old thread or haberdashery in my stocks which has the required characteristics’.

On Nicol’s personal website you can view an ‘accessory’ collection full of quirky handbags, I asked Nicol if they were commissioned pieces, or pieces for fashion companies and asked her to describe the processes that she goes through when creating them. She told me that all of the bags were for a solo show in the Rebecca Hossack gallery in London called ‘Conversation Pieces’ where she found vintage bags that she could ‘update with different straps and quotes’ that made her laugh and that she ‘let the two inspire each other’. Page 2 of the accessories is more about pieces for fashion companies and for herself. She explained that the pearl ‘hat’ was for Clements Ribeiro and their brief was ‘maharajah’. “I pleated magazine pages to make the flowers and juxtaposed plastic game counters with diamante. The ‘Mohican’ was for me and inspired by some beautiful black waxy garden twine which I could just hold together with chiffon strips, the black necklace was made with hand cut melted sequin ribbon and the ‘crown’ was made with Indian hair dye papers”. It is evident that Nicol’s work knows no bounds and materials are less than limited.

I asked Nicol if she even saw herself becoming so successful, and if it had always been her dream to be an embroidery artist and also if she had ever had times of real struggle through her career and she told me that she had never thought about being successful, and that she just wanted to make a business out of embroidery. She explained to me that when she left Art College most graduates who studied stitch went on to teach or use their skills as a hobby, but Nicol was determined to keep herself with her work. She then added that ‘there have of course been some tough times as in most small businesses, but by keeping my work as diverse as possible I’ve managed to ride most waves. One has to keep an eye on the market, for instance when fashion began to be more streamlined and less embellished I moved to interiors and then to get my name more recognised I moved to gallery and now I’m back doing fashion again’. Through her determination Nicol has obtained many awards over the years including the Beryl Dean Award for Teaching Excellence in 2014 and was also awarded the Royal Designer for Industry award. She told me that being awarded The Beryl Dean award for teaching was such a lovely surprise as there are such wonderful, dedicated teachers in the field. She explained that she feels that she has been ‘extremely lucky setting up the mixed media course at the RCA and having worked there for years, visiting colleges to give talks and having been involved with some really amazingly talented and interesting students’. She also explained that ‘being made an RDI last year absolutely knocked me sideways, probably the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. Embroidery has a lot of baggage and preconceptions which I have battled against my entire career so to be chosen to be one of the 200 Royal Designers for Industry amongst architects, industrial designers, fashion designers was quite overwhelming’.

To conclude I asked Nicol if there is anything that she is currently working on or if there are any future projects in the pipeline, and lucky for us she told me that she is extremely busy at the moment – “I am just doing two large maps for Black Rock Investments. In the past I have done large art pieces of bears and bulls (bear markets and bull markets) for their headquarters in the city of London and Copenhagen. Now for their offices in Hong Kong and Paris they want illustrated embroidered maps of the world and Europe, about 2 metres x 1 metre. I have just finished embroideries for dresses for Jasper Conran SS17 collection and they have gone well so I’m just starting designing for their winter collection. I am also designing embellishments for Preston Knight sheepskin and leather coats and a range of interior pieces for Katharine Pooley… So quite lively! For myself I really want to create a new portfolio of designs of totally over the top bespoke wedding embellishments but that may have to wait until 2017!”