Reviving a Dying Art

Reviving a Dying Art

Jul 13 • Art & Soul, Highlights, News & Features • 1908 Views • Comments Off on Reviving a Dying Art


Helen McCook is not just passionate about needlework and embroidery but is determined to repopularise the art

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am Helen McCook. I currently split my time between Dubai and Great Britain. I hold a BA (Hons) degree in Printed & Dyed Textiles with Art History (Non-European specialism), am a qualified teacher for post compulsory education and graduated from the historic hand embroidery apprenticeship at The Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace in 2003.

How did it all start?
I have been eternally curious since childhood and that excitement of discovering, exploring and understanding never abated. I suppose it is these qualities which lead me towards a career in art, after all, art is a mental and physical exploration of life and the world around us. Striving to create beauty is an age old quest and it is one which I felt committed to from a relatively young age.

How did you enter into teaching?
I love my subject and strongly feel that it must continue. I want people to be able to derive as much enjoyment from this amazing art form as I have and continue to do.

I am often told that embroidery is a dying art. Without exception the person telling me this does not and has not stitched beyond school age and if you delve deeper, they have a host of horror stories to tell you about their experiences of textiles – mostly featuring some sturdy, bun wearing battle-axe bellowing like a Wagnerian valkyrie who is a stickler for unpicking and redoing hems. Their experience is no experience at all. If I am not prepared to educate people of all ages, then I cannot complain with the view that it is dying. To survive, a few people must still be involved, to thrive requires many more than that and that is my aim by teaching – to turn opinion around and to pass on the highest quality of skills at all levels of learning, whether that be complete beginner or master classes.

Education can also take many forms and sometimes one of the most important things that I can do is to demystify the secretive and often tangled thread of traditional artisan craftsmanship in a modern world.  The aim to be accessible and to open the doors on what can sometimes seem like a very cloistered and private world. Sometimes it can be to encourage people to look at the world around them with a new, challenging, inquisitive eye, picking out details and engaging with their chosen subject and people in an active manner. To see with fresh eyes, a world they thought they knew.

Generally the trend  is that arts and crafts are being less supported and embedded within the curriculum in schools, even though it promotes a whole host of transferable and desirable skills, creative thinking and improved spatial awareness being just two examples. Sometimes it can be something as seemingly simple as teaching people that they have choices and facilitating their feeling of enablement to take control and be informed. And that is what makes art and education so important, informative, relevant and fundamental, not only for the future of my subject but also for our general development.

How supportive has your family been about your decision?
I have been extraordinarily blessed by family and friends who understand the importance of my commitment to my art and have supported my choices even when they did not necessarily agree or understand them. They have had faith that my hardwork, perseverance and dedication will enable me to have a fulfilled and interesting career.

What are your future plans?
I will extend my personal and professional practice. I am currently exploring options in Dubai and hope to become involved in the creative scene here. I am also interested in arts education and cross cultural exchange in Dubai. There is such a rich tradition of textiles within the local community which I find very exciting and interesting but Dubai is also such an internationally robust place. The whole world seems to be represented here. What appears to be missing here is my personal brand of elegant, luxurious, one off pieces of textiles for fashion or interiors which take pride in a rich heritage, utilise the opulence of wonderful materials such as French or Japanese silks, British linens, golden threads or tweeds, and represent  a the influence of the individual for whom they are made. I have made a career of the creation of legacy textiles and I’m not sure that I have seen a society quite as ambitious to create a lasting legacy to reflect their achievements as I have in Dubai. I’m the woman to help them do so with taste and just the right level of opulence and grandeur.

Why art as a field?
We are educated to doubt our opinion, to feel that we require an expert to tell us what we think. In reality, although art may be judged on composition and context, the deeper meaning and relevance can be assessed by academics, the quality of the brushwork and techniques employed put under intense scrutiny and digested by the art world at large… what is real and true, the honest sign of success is very simple and cannot be faked… does it speak to you? Does it illicit a response? How does it make you feel?

The process of creating for me, can only be likened to wandering across a new and ever changing landscape. Sometimes you will find yourself in conditions that seem familiar and you are equipped to work with ease and at other times the terrain is difficult and overpowering, leaving you to work through confusion to find resolution.

I stumbled across a piece of poetry the other day which comes close to verbally describing the relationship which I personally have with art. It is called ‘Where the mind is without fear’ by Rabindranath Tagore.

‘Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever widening thought and action
into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake’.

I think to be an artist you have to be an eternal optimist, quite apart from anything else, because if you were a realist, you would most certainly not have chosen art as a career! For embroiderers particularly, there is no quick fix. There are only hours of painstaking work, tight deadlines and the constant quest of striving for perfection in each item which you produce for a client, but even more so, perfection for the decoration and relief of your soul. The relaxed and happy motion of expelling a deep breath of contentment before turning to face another challenge. We constantly tilt at perceived aesthetic windmills.

Whilst it is true to say that there is no need for embroidery, we will not be naked or cold without it, but it is this form of embellishment that beautifies. It should be by turns, tactile, impressive, familiar and yet special. It can, and should, add what every single person on this revolving orb is striving for – beauty in its simplest form. Beauty for beauty’s sake. A sanctuary for the senses in a world which dulls them.

It is these qualities exactly which has created our enduring love affair with embellishment and embroidery and where we feel passion, we often feel pride. It is this pride and sense of achievement that keeps us involved with embroidery. The never ending challenges that rise up to meet you and the feeling that you will never stop learning.

I had a conversation with a friend about the difference between knowledge and understanding and in terms or embroidery, knowing the bare bones of the technique does not mean that you have grasped all of the opportunities which it can offer, only extensive practise, experimentation, and application can provide an insight into this. That and the generosity of the spirit of shared learning and universal truths.

Everywhere you could go in the world, you will see embroidery of one form or another and even if there are barriers of language or culture, it could be argued that it is a universal language, as the barrier of mother tongue bears no restriction upon the demonstration and passing /sharing of information.

There is also a bare honesty in embroidery, it can not be more or less than it is.  Anais Nin said ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage’. It is the same with all art and experience. If you aren’t prepared to take the gamble, to experiment and risk getting it wrong, you will never experience the happy accident and nothing new will develop. This gamble is essentially the basis for all development.

So the mantra that I’ve come to believe in is very simply this,  don’t let people with small minds convince you that your dreams are too big. You never know what you can achieve and will learn along the way. I certainly never expected to be here this time two years ago and who knows where I will have been and what I  will be working on next year… All I know is that I will be thinking, designing, stitching, learning, teaching and extending the conversation.

Any major awards you would like to mention which you received.

Awards aren’t really given in my field but I have worked on some amazing projects. A very small selection include:

  • Was part of the team of embroiderers who created the embellishments for the wedding dress, shoes and veil for the wedding of Katherine Middleton to Prince William.
  • Selected to be the first artist in residence for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
  • Was commissioned to create wall hangings for Hampton Court Palace
  • Published author – commissioned to write the Royal School of Needlework Essential Guide to Goldwork. Sold worldwide and now translated into the French language.
  • Pieces of work in private collections and galleries worldwide including items now in the British Royal Collection.
  • Commissioned to create an aesthetically sympathetic piece of embroidered textiles to complete a piece of furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh utilising the original watercolour, thus completing the furniture as per his vision for the first time. Owned by private clients.
  • Have just been commissioned to create a piece of artwork to feature in an upcoming exhibition (2018) in Scotland which will then go into the collections at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.
  • Embroidered two sets of large leather wall panels for Gordon Ramsey restaurant in London.
  • Produce embroidery/embellishment on costume for West End (London), Broadway (New York) Australian and German theatre productions.
  • Curated and presented a permanent exhibition of antique textiles for Sudeley Castle (Gloucestershire). Wrote and presented an information video loop film which is played to visitors to the Sudeley Castle textile exhibition on permanent view.
  • Demonstrated at The Victoria & Albert Museum (London) as part of their Golden Age of Couture educational evening, amongst many other world renowned galleries
  • Helped to design and worked on the Kate Moss dress for the Swarovski Fashion Rocks Concert, funded by Topshop and later auctioned to raise money for The Princes Trust.
  • Images of garments displaying my work for fashion companies have been used in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle Collections and Hello Magazine.

Being a multi-talented person how are you able to strike a balance?

It is the balance of interests which keep the person in harmony with themselves and their work. Each different aspect and interest feeds into the other and adds enhanced richness to the mix. Equally, in terms of time spent making versus times spent teaching, lecturing, exhibiting, consulting or lecturing, they are two faces of the same coin. One is solitary, inward facing and contemplative and the other is the polar opposite, sharing information, outward facing and extending networks or creating communities. One cannot healthily exist without the other.

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