Selvedge: Emily Jo Gibbs
The beauty of making portraits, much like writing profiles, is that it’s a chance to really think about and appreciate the person you are depicting. This is what Emily Jo Gibbs loved about embroidering her first portrait, which was of her son Fred. She then created a portrait of her other son, Bill, which led to an ongoing series of portraits. This talented British textile artist uses tiny, tiny stitches, a soft colour palette and delicate layers of organza and linen to create her intricate artworks. When it comes to Emily, there’s much to admire and write about.
Her creative career began with fashion accessories. While completing a university degree that involved working with wood, metal and plastics, she created a variety of fashion pieces, including purses, shoes, lockets and buttons. “After graduating I had a lot of interest in my work and the purses were the easiest to take forward,” says Emily. “I think my bags stood out because I made all the elements — the handles, frames etc — so I really had no restraint on my imagination. I wasn’t interested in how practical they were, I just wanted to make really gorgeous little packages.”
Emily was the creative director of her own luxury handbag business from 1993 to 2006. Combining painting, embroidery and metalwork, her bags are works of art and several are displayed in permanent museum collections.
The transition from running a handbag business to creating portrait and still life artworks was gradual. “I didn’t stop making handbags to start making flat work — it all took quite a long time,” says Emily. “I found it really difficult to juggle being a mum with running my handbag business; I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air.” She became interested in ‘nature tables’ — leaves, sticks, feathers, etc displayed on a table so kids can learn about them. She started making hand-embroidered drawings of sticks in jam jars as they might appear on a nature table.
“Around this time I wasn’t really sure what my future as a maker looked like and someone recommended I make something for myself, not thinking about routes to market or price points or other businessy considerations,” continues Emily. Building on her nature-inspired embroidery artworks, she started stitching portraits. Emily’s portfolio is growing and she continues to create exquisite still lifes and portraits. One of her most recent projects, The Boat Builders, will be featured in a solo exhibition on the 20th March to the 1st of May 2021 in St. Barbes in Lymington. Emily stitched portraits of the foreman and the apprentices who work at Berthon Boatyard to highlight the expertise of boat builders.
Similar to creating a drawing, Emily spends time studying the subject of her artwork, thinking about the light and dark colours and shapes and lines, but she uses fabric and stitches to create the image. “In the simplest terms, my work is made by sandwiching coloured pieces of organza between a piece of linen and a piece of white organza, then hand-stitching through all the layers, trapping the coloured pieces in place,” she explains. “I push the needle straight down and straight up, making one stitch at a time. This way the thread lies really satisfyingly on top of the fabric.” Emily uses very fine mercerised cotton and a mixture of tiny and long stitches. “At some point, I started using a magnifying visor to help me see. I thought it would enable me to stitch more quickly but in reality it just shrank the size of my stitches.”
With those stitches Emily creates expressions, textures and designs, expertly capturing the characteristics of people and objects. “When a piece is underway and I’m concentrating on stitching, it is completely absorbing and the time goes very fast,” she says. “If I have a deadline it can be quite stressful, but I really can’t rush; it is a slow process so I just have to put in the hours.”