As Mr X Stitch, embroidery artist Jamie Chalmers promotes cross stitch as a contemporary art form through his patterns, blog and social media channels, attracting attention wherever he goes as a big bald guy wielding needle and thread. With the rhythmic process of one stitch at a time, he finds embroidery to be calming and meditative, and Jamie’s mission is to share the creative possibilities of cross stitch far and wide.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I started cross stitching as an adult in 2003 and fell in love with it. In 2008 I started the Mr X Stitch blog to promote the cross stitch patterns I was making. Then the blog became the main focus of what I was doing. At the time there wasn’t the prevalence of social media and there were only a couple of contemporary embroidery blogs. Because I shared work that I liked whether it was rude, edgy or just aesthetically awesome, and because I was a guy doing so, I stood out a little bit.
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At the time I was working for a children’s charity as an IT Project Manager, and I don’t have any formal artistic education, so it was an unusual turn of events. But I don’t feel bound by the preconceptions of art history, so I can showcase whatever work appeals to me, regardless of its accompanying narrative.
What inspires you to create?
The realisation that it’s the purest form of life. Sounds pretty hippy but there’s so much pleasure to be gained from being within the creative state, that it’s a pleasure to spend time there.
That said, an awful lot of my time is spent on admin and seemingly mundane tasks, so I appreciate the creative moments a lot, when I get them.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think creativity is a process and that the more time you spend in it, the more you can discover your own path through it. Being born with a particular skill set isn’t the key. You just have to have the stamina to stick to a creative journey – even if that’s diverse and multi-disciplinary – because your own creative signature will appear through your output.
You can be creative in any direction and you shouldn’t let the opinions of others get in your way. There’s as much creative pleasure to be gained from colouring something in as there is in making a sculpture of a dinosaur from car parts. While there are differences in technique and practice, it’s the time spent in the creative space that’s the important part.
Also, one creative step leads to another and if those steps take you in one single direction as you dive deep into a specific medium, or they take you to the tips of many different pursuits but only for a short while, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you learn about yourself through the process that’s the secret sauce.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I’ve realised that I’m not an embroidery artist, I’m more of a curator/ambassador. It’s my job to help introduce people to the world of needlework, rather than create work with a specific message. I’ve always seen myself as the compere, rather than the stand-up comedian; my role as the Founder of XStitch Magazine is a prime example. I pick the themes and work with other designers to bring the magazine together. And while I do my own designs from time to time, I’m more interested in pushing forward the “cross stitch is a contemporary art form and one of the best crafts in the world” agenda. Maybe I’ll make some art somewhere down the line, but my creative path has walked me down this avenue and that’s where I’m at.
Oh, and I take this stuff seriously, but not toooo seriously, which is important in the world of creative egos.
What is the best way for beginners to get started with embroidery?
Start with cross stitch as it’s the simplest stitch form to get comfortable with. Buy a magazine that comes with a free kit. It might not be to your taste, but you can get to grips with the method and then bin it, if you like. (Although it’s better to give it to your Mum if you can). From there, you can stick with cross stitch if you want, or move to other needlework forms. Just see what resonates with you.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I guess the funny thing with me is that my embroidery skills haven’t massively evolved of late. I am more of a website owner and magazine publisher these days. However, there’s still a lot of upskilling to do in that area. So I spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks and podcasts on exciting topics like marketing and productivity. I do have some of the Royal School of Needlework embroidery kits stashed in a safe place for when I’m ready to get my stitching skills up. The RSN are the best at what they do and their online learning kits are brilliant.
What are the benefits of cross stitch and other forms of hand work?
There’s something magical about existing in the creative space, without thinking about the past or present. All forms of handiwork propel you into that mindful meditative space. Cross stitch is fantastic in this respect. Each stitch brings you back to centre and the present moment, so it really is a remarkable tool for collecting yourself and being calm. Plus you get that handmade gift for your Mum as well, which is always a bonus!
How is contemporary embroidery different from traditional embroidery?
In many ways, it’s the same stuff, certainly from a technical standpoint. Even the concept of subversive needlework isn’t a new thing. After all, in the Bayeux Tapestry, there are men with their junk out! But you can argue that contemporary embroidery addresses modern narratives and social commentary with more prevalence than it’s more traditional counterparts.
It’s definitely NOT a question of specific techniques being more contemporary than others. While wearable technology is a new invention, you can produce contemporary textile art using any stitches you like. Any discussion of “this stitch is craft while this technique is art” is simply reinforcing a greed-driven paradigm that has been going on for centuries. It really ought to be put to rest now.
I like to think that contemporary stitching explores areas and perspectives that haven’t been covered before. Even then there are ”traditional” techniques and outputs that are still relevant and critical of the status quo.
Tell us about your Mr. X Stitch website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
A sense that embroidery is cool and that there are many many people who are doing it. We can’t keep up with the number of new and interesting textile and needlework artists that show their work on platforms like Instagram these days, which is truly awesome. But for over 12 years we’ve been sharing work from people who amaze us. Hopefully that will inspire readers to pick up a needle and try it for themselves.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, The Mr. X Stitch Guide to Cross Stitch?
That cross stitch is a magnificent mindful meditative craft that can be used to create art. And if you’re in doubt about any of that statement, then the book will politely explain it to you.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Pre-pandemic I would often do talks or workshops. As we emerge into the new normal, I’m more than happy to explore options. People can find me at jamiechalmers.com for that kinda thing!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
This answer comes from the perspective of a solopreneur/magazine publisher rather than a textile creator. My main tool for productivity is Notion, an online platform that is simply brilliant for building systems for project management. It’s incredibly flexible and I love it so much I’ve created a Notion Publishing Hub for managing a blog that people can buy from GumRoad. I also use a tool called TextExpander for saving me lots of time writing the same things over and over again. PCStitch is my cross stitch designing tool of preference at the moment, and InDesign is my magazine making tool. From a stitching standpoint, I choose gold needles but am open minded about most other things!
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
If I’m in a deep creative space, then I need music, and Mixcloud has been a real bonus for me as there are all manner of curated mixes to listen to across a wide range of genres. When I’m on the move, I prefer audiobooks, but they can be distracting if I’m trying to be properly efficient.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I do like taking a bit of cross stitch on a flight, as it’s a fantastic pastime. A man doing cross stitch is usually intriguing for the cabin crew to speed up the Gin & Tonic return times. They like to see the progress I’m making. Also it’s a great way to get space on a train. Most people won’t sit near the big bald bloke doing the stitching. It’s too strange!
How do you keep all the balls in the air? Is there one you wish you could drop? Which one will you never give up?
Notion all the way. I’m not the best at keeping track of things, or processing all the things all the time, but Notion helps me put all the info in one place and prioritise what needs to be done. It’s a game changer.
I am quite the fan of delegating and over time I hope I can get other people to help me run the show – I am already blessed with the help of Ailish Henderson – but at the same time, I’ve had over 20 different jobs in my lifetime, and now I work for myself to promote contemporary embroidery so I’m not looking this extremely busy gift horse in the mouth at all!
What is on your creative bucket list?
I’d like to learn Japanese Embroidery one day, and I’d love to travel to more places and discover textile traditions. But at the moment, as well as all the Mr X Stitch and XStitch stuff, I have two pre-school daughters. Their continued flourishing is the immediate goal. There’s plenty of time for the other stuff in the future.
Interview posted July 2021
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