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69% CHAT

  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

A Woolly Christmas

We have a simple brief for our annual Christmas card: ‘31% Wool, 69% [insert festive-related word]’. As you’ll know, we are big fans of collaboration, so we work with artists and illustrators to interpret our Christmas brief as they like – this year’s card is by Tina Crawford.

Tina is an artist who just so happens to create her work using a sewing machine. Tina explains:

‘The sewing machine makes me come alive; the fluidity, the speed, the risk – it's an incredible instrument that I found by chance to keep me sane and is now an extension of my hands. When I draw with the needle, it’s completely freehand, I don’t draw or mark first. The beauty of the medium is where it takes you.’

Here I catch up with Tina on her creative processes, how she distinguishes client projects from her personal work, as well as her love of sheep-based art.

Julia: Am I right in thinking that you’re known as a free embroidery artist – how did you get to where you are today?

Tina: I’m not sure I would describe myself as a free embroidery artist anymore – I do use the sewing machine a lot in my art but as a painter would use paint, but sometimes they might use other mediums... I guess I’m just an artist, I always have been! It’s all I cared about when I was a child, then at 15 I decided I wanted to work in TV. I went to Central St Martin’s, graduated and worked on kids art show SMArt – I could not have been luckier! My TV career ended when I became ill – in about 2000 and then I concentrated on art to keep me sane and to distract myself from the pain I was in. To pay the studio rent I run Tobyboo, which is thread-drawn art, but creating bespoke products for museum & heritage (obviously this year I’ve had zero income from it so that means I’ve been concentrating on my art).

Julia: Watching you create a piece on the machine is quite mesmerising – when did you first learn to use a sewing machine, and when did it occur to you to use it to draw with?

Tina: When I was ill I did a free embroidery course with CALAT in Coulsdon – lots of talent with women who knew more than me but I took elements and just rolled with it! I think my dyslexia means it makes sense for me to ‘draw backwards’. I don’t know why but I can’t draw like that with a pencil – or I probably wouldn’t use the machine!

Initial sewn sketch (left), final sewn piece (right)

Julia: You collaborated with us to create our lovely Christmas card this year. How did you go about coming up with the concept and developing it into a finished piece?

Tina: Thank you! This was more Tobyboo for me – so I’d sit in the Tobyboo half of my studio! I was just playing about stitching the word wool... obviously went into a sheep. I used to love sheep! My favourite painting is the Holman Hunt sheep one and I do love Damien Hirst’s ‘Away from the Flock’ – also – here’s a ramble for you... when I was at school I used to make jewellery out of Fimo – I got an order of 100+ sheep brooches and earrings for the Sheep Shop in Covent Garden, and also made stuff for Godstone Farm all before I was 17!

The sewn work developed digitally

Julia: Tell us more about why William Holman Hunt's 'Strayed Sheep' in Tate Britain is your favourite painting.

Tina: I used to go and see it a lot and now it’s probably nostalgic. I love the light and the sheep at the front – it’s almost cartoon-like! I’m sure I’ve seen more modern pieces I prefer. I look at that piece like Cameron looks at the Seurat in ‘Ferris Bueller's Day Off’.

Julia: How do you tackle personal projects differently from client work?

Tina: Client work is Tobyboo. I separate it from my work mentally and physically – my studio is sort of divided. My art is very personal so it doesn’t really cross unless I randomly stitch a building and put it in a frame to sell – but that’s commercial and not really art.

Julia: What’s been your most interesting commission?

Tina: Oh gosh – I loved the collection I created for Kew Gardens based on their Tudor Remedy Garden, I learnt a lot!

Julia: In your personal work you create art that’s very topical – how important do you feel it is for artists to comment on current affairs?

Tina: I don’t mean to – I just create what’s affecting me or the world around me. I’m inspired by everything. Right now my hands can’t keep up with my brain – I really want to do work on trans issues which are huge at the moment and it feels like the 80s with Clause 28 all over again.

I think all art is topical in some way, even if you might not see it. If it’s just something that has no opinion or comment I see that as craft (I don’t know why craft is a bad word – it’s just different regardless of the medium used). Art is how you see or translate something.

Detail of ‘Better with the Threads Uncut’ (left). Detail of 'Dead to me' – an artwork about endometriosis.

Julia: Claim to fame? We know you have more than a few.

Tina: Hmmm claims to fame? My first job was in TV, on BBC’s SMart which came after Take Hart / Hartbeat. My biggest claim to fame was meeting my hero Tony Hart – he was going to draw something for me and at the last second I asked him to draw something for my then boyfriend. The worst part? My boyfriend said ‘you’ll regret that when we break up, you should have got him to draw something for you’. That’s a far more interesting story than Grayson Perry, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sir Paul Smith having dolls I made of them!

Julia: Being it’s nearly Christmas, I have to ask, do you still have your collection of Snow Domes?

Tina: Obviously! They live in the studio. Snowdomes seem to be a symbolism for ‘broken females’ – watch films and spot snowdomes!! Always women with problems!

Julia: Plans for 2021?

Tina: Hopefully to stay in my studio (not in a lockdown way though!). With my main income gone for a whole year I might not be able to afford to stay on, which will mean I won’t be able to make the art I want… Sadly art is a rich person's game.

I won’t end on that note though, as that’s miserable! I’ve got loads of work I want to do and if I have to I’ll adjust it to do it from home. Hopefully I’ll have some good news on where ‘Connected by a Thread’, my large lockdown piece, is going…

Detail of 'Connected by a Thread' (left), Tina with the final piece (right).

Julia: I very much look forward to seeing it exhibited. Thank you Tina for the chat, as well as our woolly Christmas card.


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