As I have said before, one of the great pleasures of being part of a group are the friendships that evolve and one such friendship is the subject of my next Studio Conversation. I knew of Dorothy Tucker through her work with the Embroiderers’ Guild but only met her when I attended my first weekend with the Textile Study Group. Dorothy trained as a teacher and taught art and textiles in schools. Following a Diploma in Fine Art and Textiles at Goldsmiths, University of London, she taught in adult education centres in Inner London and tutored degree programmes for the Roehampton Institute, University of Surrey and The Opus School of Textile Arts. For many years she was the Education Officer at the Embroiderers Guild where she contributed to the Guild’s education programme, the selection of scholars for the Graduate Showcase, and edited Textile Ideas, a magazine for Young Embroiderers. Whilst at the Guild she completed a course in Museum Learning at The London Institute.

With this experience I was interested to hear more about her practice and during a coffee break I started by asking Dorothy how important was teaching to her practice?

  • Teaching plays a very major role both in nourishing and driving my practice forward.
  • I trained as a teacher and taught in schools. When I took up the chance to complete a Diploma in Fine Art /Embroidery at Goldsmiths, Audrey Walker was head of department, and the exciting world of contemporary fine art textiles was opening up.  Constance Howard, who had established the department, was my external examiner. It was Constance who encouraged me to join the Practical Study Group, now the Textile Study Group (TSG). To continue to be close to Goldsmiths I stayed on in London supporting myself through teaching part time adult education classes in Inner London.  In those early years teaching took up most of my time. But I was able to develop my own work through attending two TSG weekends every year, and my teaching developed through tutoring TSG summer schools. Taking on a summer school always challenges me to reflect on my own work and to articulate ideas before I devise a creative experience for the students.  In return I gain a great deal by information, inspiration and confidence from the stimulating exchanges which take place. When I accepted a permanent part time post as Education Officer at the Embroiderers Guild, I found myself in a world of embroidery enthusiasts. There were many opportunities to develop my professional practice in new directions, particularly in relation to the Embroiderers’ Guild Collection where I was able to research and deliver activities based on learning from looking at actual examples.  Working at the Guild part time enabled me to focus on teaching contemporary stitched textiles for City and Guilds, and on degree programmes at the Roehampton Institute, and later the Opus School of Textile Arts.  Those years are now some time ago but I am still out and about teaching workshops and devising summer schools!

You have worked with some very influential artists over the years. Is there anyone you would say has been a major influence on your own practice, or which of these artists would you say you admire the most?

  • My love of drawing and painting began at school through my art teacher Miss Gash, a painter trained at the Slade. Aged 16 I was taken to a 62 exhibition at Congress House in Great Russell Street, where I was astonished by Audrey Walker’s work.  Her take on a pear orchard in spring was sumptuously expressed in torn fabrics and freely stitched textures. For me this brought together painting and embroidery and her work continues to inspire me. Looking back to the textile artists emerging from Goldsmiths whilst I was there, the freely painted and stitched aerial images of flying birds created by Nicola Henley remain fresh in my memory, and Louise Baldwin introduced me to the idea of stitching into drawn over, painted, creased and torn paper just as you would into cloth.   My enjoyment of colour has been nourished by Constance Howard, Liz Ashurst and Ruth Issett. I love Liz Harding’s stitched fabric landscapes. They are so close to water colour paintings!  I am indebted to Surjeet Husain with whom I spend very many happy hours researching and stitching kantha, drawing,  and when the weather allows, painting out- of- doors in Richmond Park.

Can you describe your studio – do you like to listen to music or audio books or do you prefer the peace of silence?

  • My work space is in a loft conversion at the top of our end-of-terrace Edwardian house in South West London.  My work table is directly under a Velux window where the light is excellent.  All sorts of things are pinned onto two areas of display boards on the door of a big cupboard. Everything else is tucked into boxes, sets of drawers, one of two book cases or a very large old plan chest. A single bed provides an essential “putting place” for work in progress. My office is a desk with a shelf for files and enough space for my computer and printer.  Storage and space is such a big issue up here that I frequently migrate downstairs to work on the dining room table. I work without music or the radio. I like to be in touch with what’s happening in the house and when the windows are open, listening to everyday sounds from the street and houses and gardens below.  I could certainly do without the noise of planes on their flight paths to Heathrow!

You have been a Textile Study Group and Prism member for many years.  How important to your practice is the sharing of knowledge that membership of a group offers?

  • From time to time, the TSG generates a major exhibition, most recently DIS/rupt, curated by Melanie Miller. Developing the concept for this involved a long period of in-depth group reflection and discussion. Coming up with a viable personal response demanded a great deal of research, thought and organisation, and many more conversations. The project took me way out of my comfort zone – away from painting and stitching landscapes into expressing ideas about migration which I finally achieved through setting up a small installation, a new venture for me.  This disruption was by far outweighed by what I gained from being involved in such a dynamic, creative process and part of an exhibition with a difference. On a personal level DIS/rupt has provided me with new spaces to grow into, and curated exhibition aspects of which I have been able to share with other groups.  The TSG showcases its members, all of whom are very active contemporary textile artists, on its excellent website. It also features TSG summer schools and exhibitions.
  • Prism is an international exhibiting group which aims to bring together a range of quality textile practices with a fine art approach. It does this through an exhibition set up by its members every year usually in the summer at one, sometimes two venues. A title put forward and agreed by members, gives some cohesion to the show. We submit images and text for selection. The set-up days, AGM, private view and stewarding provides time with other members. My intention to exhibit with Prism each year, together with thinking about the new title and the exhibition deadlines press me on to reflect, select, develop some of my on-going ideas towards achieving new completed pieces every year. When these move on from my small private solitary place into in a much larger public arena, I see them shrink or expand in the gallery space, connect or contrast with work around them, and get valuable comments from visitors, my friends and family. Prism helps to validate what I do!  And if it happens, a sale is very rewarding!

What are your favourite materials and processes?  Your interest in the traditional techniques of India, especially kantha have resulted in many pieces that have been exhibited widely. What is it about kantha that makes it such an expressive stitch for contemporary textiles?

Birch Trees, 2016
Mixed media painting digitally printed onto cloth and stitched.

For me it is almost always colour and light which first trigger wanting to take a photo, make a painting or create a new textile piece.

I enjoy painting mainly in water colour. I do not intend to use these paintings as designs for embroidery. I just want to achieve good enough paintings!  But what I learn in the processes of looking, implying light and space and form, mixing colour, creating texture, enjoying line – often transfers into a textile piece. The daubs of colour I make whilst mixing water colour are often more exciting than my completed paintings. These daubs lend themselves readily to ideas about layering fabrics, stitching, patching and piecing cloth, and more abstract approaches to design.  I create some textile pieces which I intend to hang on a wall, like a painting.

Elephants. Kantha. 2008
  • My love affair with kantha – the embroidered quilts of Bengal – is on-going. I like handling the soft textured surfaces of the old kantha in my collection. The processes involved in kantha making are rich in textile references and symbolic meaning and provide useful ways to build a textile.  I make rolled or folded contemporary kantha intended to be opened up and enjoyed through touch. These are more like quilts than paintings.  The symbols and pictures in Kantha are drawn simply in running stitch – a stitch so open to change and invention. These stitched pictures provide me with accessible and satisfying ways of introducing and developing stitched textiles with students.  
Debris Transformed, mixed media with stitch 2019
  • Another way of working begins when I am sorting out the debris having completed a major project. In a very open and free-wheeling sort of way, I cut up and move left overs around and group together possible options hoping to happen upon some exciting, unexpected connections.  This is an opportunity to take risks: more a matter of chance than design, in which I stitch into paintings, cut them up, combine painted pieces with torn fabrics, and join them together. I might slash or draw over, stitch into or cover areas with paint, and then sand layers away to create wonderfully textured surfaces or exciting juxtapositions of colour, or not as the case may be!  Perversely, I might rework or repair a damaged surface. This open-ended approach often leads to the discovery of materials and processes that work well together. I keep these as samples for future reference. Or they may become an interesting series which I clip together to refer much as I would a working sketch book. And sometimes the debris is transformed into a new piece of work!

What plans have you for the coming year?

  • Hopefully my work will be selected for Prism 2019. The next title is Fragility. The exhibition opens 28 May – 9 June at Hoxton Arches, London and 7- 18 October at the RBSA, Birmingham.  This summer I will be travelling. I have been invited to teach on the Fibres West programme in Perth, Western Australia, and later to South Africa where I will be introducing kantha in the SA Festival of Quilts.  In the UK I will be one of the tutors on the Distant Stitch Summer School at Hillscourt, teaching a two-day kantha workshop at Moor Hall, and a residential course with Ruth Issett at Hawkwood College Stroud.
  • Meanwhile the Textile Study Group is generating INSIGHTS.  So I am now also focused on creating new ideas and work for this project which will no doubt be just as challenging as DIS/rupt!

Thank you very much Dorothy. I really appreciate you taking the time to give me an Insight into your practice, especially as you have such a busy teaching programme ahead of you this year. I look forward to hearing about your trips when we meet and hope you enjoy your travels. If you would like to see more of Dorothy’s work you can find them at the Textile Study Group website and on the Prism website. Another project that Dorothy has been involved with is Shared Heritage which will be interest to many, too. In the meantime…….




Studio Conversations….Dorothy Tucker