Trained as a surface designer, but dedicated to hand stitch, textile artist Mandy Pattullo is inspired by old, worn fabrics. Old quilts, bits of used clothing, discarded fabric scraps and pieces of long-forgotten needlework find their way into Mandy’s studio where she layers them, arranges them, rearranges them, then adds her own distinctive marks with hand stitches. Because her materials are unique, each of her works of art expresses Mandy’s voice and cannot be replicated.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I come from a family of women who sewed, but more out of necessity making clothes than creatively. The lightbulb moment came when my mother started doing patchwork in the 1970s. I thought I could do it myself. I joined two hexagons together with a whip stitch and I was hooked! At that time you could buy scrap packs from Laura Ashley and Liberty . So it didn’t take me long to move away from commercial patterns and start designing quilts myself. For many years I made art quilts which were exhibited. But then children and a full time job teaching textiles at a local art college got in the way. It was only when I could afford to give up the job that I came back to being able to really focus on developing my work.
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What inspires you to create?
It is always the fabric itself. In the last 12 years or so I have only been using old materials. This is fabric that has been gifted to me, that I have bought at thrift stores or antique fairs or that have a personal connection because it has been worn or made by someone in my family. This is a unique palette of fabric which you cannot buy in the shops. Because it holds a history and memory of previous use and wear and tear, it is always inspirational.
Why textiles? Why collage? How did you get started?
I actually trained as a surface pattern designer, so I do know how to draw, paint and print. I could have gone that route of designing textiles for fashion and interiors. But it was the love of the fabric and making marks with stitch that really drew me in. I guess I am making patchworks, but I call it textile collage because I layer up, have raw edges, mix materials and work in the same way as a paper collage artist.
When I left teaching I made a conscious decision to only hand stitch. (I had taught machine embroidery and didn’t want to look at another Bernina!), to upcycle old fabrics and particularly to have a quilt story in my work. This was because I live in the north of England where there is a very strong quilt making history. I didn’t, however, want to make quilts, but to use parts of them in my work.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Does your work have stories to tell? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I don’t have concepts, ideas or stories. It is purely about playing with the placement of fabrics, colour, tone and putting my mark on the pieces with stitch.
On the side, though, I am always working on something that relates to my family history and personal story. These pieces often act as a starting point for conversations with my mother who is now in a care home. They help her open up and tell stories. At the moment I am doing a stitched map of the farm where I grew up. Her memory of the place and mine differ, but it is interesting to talk about it.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I plan a “range” based on a colour scheme or theme. But then when I come to make the collages I totally improvise within those constraints. I never plan or do a drawing.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think what makes my work different is my continual use of old quilt fragments within my work, whether they be from the north east of England where I live or from France where I sometimes teach. The fabrics that I work with cannot be easily sourced and they make my work unique and difficult to copy exactly.
I may “borrow” from a piece of old needlework, but I will always put my individual mark on it through the hand stitching which is improvisational and led by the contents and structure of the piece. I think I can use colour well and it comes easily to me ,so I think when the viewer looks at my work they will see something that is fully resolved and pleasing.
How do you decide which materials to use for a project?
I use clip boards to gather together colour stories when I have all my fabric baskets open so it is all there and waiting. There are of course some constraints; if I am doing traditional applique, then I know I will need patchwork cottons for the job. When I do my animals and birds, I often bring in some sheers.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
That is the hardest thing. Sometimes one can put too many stitches on and a breathing space within a composition is actually better. I never mount the work till I have given it 24 hours of rest and I have reviewed it after a night’s sleep.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Textiles Transformed: Thread & Thrift with Reclaimed Textiles?
I think I want to give readers the confidence to cut things up and use them, even if they are of sentimental value. It is no good hoarding things or keeping them neatly packed away. By using things you have a personal interaction with the cloth and also you share its story with other people. I want readers to know that collage isn’t scary and there isn’t one correct way to do it; you cannot get it wrong. In the end it is about pleasing yourself. I think lockdown has also made us re-evaluate our clothes. So I hope my books make people think about embellishing things they own to give them a new life.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I rent a studio ten miles away from my home. It is an artist’s complex with 9 studios, so there are always other people to bounce ideas off. It isn’t very big as it is in a manse and my studio was once a bedroom. My desk is always pretty tidy but the floor isn’t, as I often throw baskets of fabric together on the floor to see what turns up next to each other. I have lots of things on the wall – my own work and most importantly my big inspiration pin board.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I would be lost without my unpicker and “best” scissors, but I have very little equipment.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
In my studio I always have something on in the background. I rarely listen to the radio now but download podcasts. I love interview ones and there are loads of sewing and craft ones out there now. My music comes through Spotify. And I sometimes watch programmes on my iPad, particularly the ones my husband thinks are lightweight!
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think creativity comes naturally to only some people, and I don’t think it is a skill but making space for it in your life. You also have to feed it by reading and going to museums and art galleries. Having a studio away from home made me more creative as at home I could always see things I could be doing other than my own creative work. In my teaching, however, I do try and inspire and enable rather than be prescriptive.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I have always been very generous about sharing my work and there are many images on my website in the Gallery sections. I think it is worth looking at the Remember Me and Memento Mori sections as you will see a very different side of my output which is more fine art than textiles. My day to day work is documented through Instagram and this is where I link through to the items I sell every week from my studio. My studio is open to the public but always contact me first to see if I am there. This can be done through my website contacts page.
Facebook @ MandyPattulloTextileArtist
Interview posted May 2021
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