A number of serendipitous a-ha moments inspired textile designer Leah Nikolaou to combine several techniques, creating her embroidered pressed flower art. She plans meticulously, including deciding which seeds to plant in her garden, yielding her palette as the seasons progress. With flowers she presses herself, Leah combines them with paper and stitch to tell her creative story.
With an art education in constructed textiles, did you imagine it might lead to the kind of work you do today?
Not at all! The last recession in 2008 led me to leave a small business I’d set up designing knitting patterns. I went on to work for a publishing company for over 12 years. I was never truly happy without my creativity. After casting it aside for so many years I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to retrieve it. Or find it again at the level that I’d be happy with. I’d studied at the Royal College Of Art in London and I had an expectation in myself that I had to do something well and differently. I was always interested in slow crafts, either working with knitting needles or sewing needles exclusively by hand.
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After having my daughter I started knitting again, making cardigans for her, for my first knitting in literally years. When she was small, my daughter received a toy flower press as a gift. We went out collecting and filled it with flowers just as I had done as a child. The results inspired something inside me to want to do more with them.
At the same time I was enjoying working with chunky wools again but I wanted to do something new. I loved cross stitching as a child so I started stitching into dried leaves. Then I found the work of textile artist Susanna Bauer. She works edges and crochets inserts into leaves, and her work inspired me.
I wrote on little pieces of paper and stitched them into my rubbery brown leaves. Little did I know that these little stitched pieces of paper were the beginning of my fascination with paper embroidery. I loved the link with nature the leaves provided, but it still lacked my favourite ingredient, chunky wool.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to explore it?
Yes, the natural element and chunky wool are very much the recurring themes in my work.
My work went on to evolve from stitching with thread to wool. From using leaves as my canvas to experimenting with a wide range of papers. I loved the experimentation and the challenge of getting two unlikely pastimes of flower pressing and hand embroidery to work together in harmony.
There was a lot of frustration in the early days as flowers and papers tore while I found my direction. I wanted to retain the timelessness of the crafts whilst also finding a modern angle. Preserving that hominess familiar with the iconic “home sweet home” embroidery samplers that once warmed our walls in something new.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My signature style is juxtaposing the crafts of flower pressing and chunky hand embroidery into embroidery kits and art.
I grow, collect and press the flowers in a traditional flower press. Then I use them in their organic form or digitally print them onto a selection of papers. I embroider exclusively with tapestry weight wools that give my pieces an added depth and textural 3D perspective.
My favourite paper to embroider is giclée paper, a museum quality paper. I print using 12 colours rather than the standard 4 known as CYMK. This process produces incredible images of my flowers to work into with stitch. My giclée embroidery kits give people an opportunity to almost collaborate with me. I’ve provided the art canvas and they get to hand embroider the decorative wool details!
What should we consider before gathering materials for botanical pressing?
If you want to create a piece of art, consider how you are going to pick and press your flowers. Do you want your flower on a long stalk, short stalk or no stalk, or do you just want to take the head of a flower or the individual petals? Do you want a mixture of flowers & leaves?
Lots of flowers that press well are plants that we sometimes consider weeds. They grow in poor soil conditions, hold less water and therefore dry out and press quickly and effectively.
If you don’t have much in your garden that you can press, look on pieces of waste ground, in overgrown alley ways and curbsides. At the other end of the scale flowers like most dahlias and roses are notoriously difficult to press because they have many layers of petals that hold a lot of water.
What are some of the easiest plants for home gardeners to grow for pressing?
It’s exciting that each season brings us new treasures that are easy to press. Coming into autumn now nigella (love-in-the-mist) press incredibly well and have a beautiful feathery structure as do anemones and pansies. Favourites for other times of the year include muscari (grape hyacinth), cosmos, poppies, larkspur, forget-me-nots, hydrangea petals and the common daisy.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Very much a planner!
I plan what flowers I want to use in my work and grow them in my garden. Then I plan when I’m going to pick them to get the best results, how long to press them and how often to tighten the screws on the press.
I plan the templates for the embroidery. Then I test the templates two or three times, each time tweaking my master template. The stitches on my pieces are deliberate and formally structured and calculated to prevent tearing.
I guess the only thing I can’t plan for is the results I get from my flower press. The delicate florals are natural and very organic in their structures on the page so I have to improvise and work with the results that I get. For me that is the exciting part as it so often sparks my creativity.
Do you focus on one piece exclusively from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I work in small collections of usually 4 to 6 pieces at a time. I usually only work on one or two simultaneously, although I’ve probably got the ideas for all in my head.
Being a creative business owner comes with so many more hats than just the creative one, so I find it better to work in blocks rather than trying to juggle too much at the same time. For instance I find it super hard to maintain a social media profile when I’m completely absorbed in designing. So I have weeks when I pretty much just plan social media, weeks when I just design, weeks when I’m just marketing, weeks when I just write blog posts, etc.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes, I work from the spare room in my house where I have my desk and design space. Because its such a small space I have to keep it tidy. Otherwise I get overwhelmed sitting and living amidst chaos.
Having a desk is important for when I embroider larger pieces. I balance them on the edge of a table to allow easier access to the back. My studio is also my spare room so there is a single bed stacked with cushions which also makes a nice space to sit for smaller and experimental stitching. Then I have a lot of boxes! It’s not the ideal space, but hopefully in the future I can move my work somewhere bigger.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I wouldn’t be without my flower presses, of course, which are always stacked high and full of new material for my work. I have so much from this summer that I need to get photographed. My tripod and phone are also my absolute essentials whether I’m taking footage of myself making something for my website and social media or photographing new material. Plus my laptop for that’s where my designs are born.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Not really. My initial experimentation and design work all begin in Adobe Illustrator with me only printing out what I perceive to be my final designs. I don’t have a formal bound sketch book but print loose sheets of paper to test, patterns, scale and colours. All of my technical notes about my work are written in my diary. For research I have private Pinterest boards and Instagram collections as well as quick screen-shots I randomly take of things that inspire me.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audio-books, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
If I’m writing, designing or marketing, it’s generally silence. When I’m embroidering my pieces I enjoy podcasts, I listen to podcasts on a whole range of subjects. Recently I’ve been enjoying Margo Tantau’s creative podcasts called Window Sill Chats and Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Creativity is definitely a skill that people can learn. Everybody can be creative You just need to dedicate time to flexing that creative muscle, and then it will start flowing. In finding my creativity again I began by making things designed by other people from knitting baby clothes by Little French Knits to embroidery kits by Emily Peacock and Cotton Clara. Enjoying the materials you are working with, the colours and the subject are important in embracing creativity.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Take projects slowly and be kind to yourself! If a project isn’t flowing put it down for a couple of weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Start small and build your confidence to bigger projects whilst also remembering that by stepping outside of your comfort zone you can find surprising results.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I want my website to be a place where people can go to be inspired as well as to learn and shop. It’s laid out in sections with my embroidery kits, PDF downloads, and original artwork being places where people can buy what they would like.
There is a section about embroidering paper for those people who don’t know much about the medium with some frequently asked questions answered, like “will the paper tear?” I also use my blog to answer other questions people might have about my work, like how easy certain techniques are to do. The first stitch fully illustrated step by step and with video footage is the woven wheel stitch, and other stitches that I commonly use are coming up next year. I’m also going to be sharing some gift guides for hand crafted goods in the run up to Christmas. And I get lots of questions asked about flower pressing which I’ve also begun covering. My first two posts are “What are the Easiest Flowers To Press?” and “Create Kids’ Art with Dried Pressed Flowers.”
Browse through more hand embroidery projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.