Spotlight: Sarah Pedlow, Artist and Ethnic Embroidery Devotée

The Arraiolos stitch, focus of the Évora and Lisbon retreat in August.

Spotlight: Sarah Pedlow, Artist and Ethnic Embroidery Devotée

Step into Sarah Pedlow’s world of ethnic embroidery and experience rich cultures and storytelling traditions, all accomplished with the simple tools of needle and thread. This Amsterdam-based American artist leads textile tours as well as telling her own stories inspired by the textiles of Transylvania.

Traditional Hungarian embroidery
Hungarian Written Embroidery, írásos, the style that inspired ThreadWritten and embroidery traditions, Transylvania, Romania, 2019.

Why textiles? Why embroidery? How did you get started?

Although I did a bit of sewing and embroidery as a child with my great aunt and grandmother, I didn’t really get interested in it until my early 20s. After I graduated from college, I bought a sewing machine to use mainly for art. I sewed old clothing patterns, paper, and photo transparencies together, and my grandmother helped me sew a linen dress with a pattern.

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About ten years later I visited the Ethnographic Museum in Budapest while there for an artist’s residency. That museum changed everything!

I then fell in love with embroidery and became interested in traditional clothing. I started hand stitching on photographs and returned with an incredible embroidered tapestry that inspired ThreadWritten. Then there was more travel, making artisan-embroidered products for a few years with Hungarian women in Transylvania, Romania, teaching workshops, an art practice inspired by traditional textiles, and now leading cultural embroidery retreats. 

Budapest Metro embroidered piece
Sarah Pedlow, Budapest Metro, 2009, 16 x 20 inches, thread on c-print.

Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?

My dad started a family art contest held on vacation every summer, so there was always a lot of artmaking in the house for contest entries and generally. It was a small event–I’m an only child– but both my parents liked to draw. My great aunt and uncle who would go on vacation with us were hobby oil painters, and sometimes my grandparents would contribute entries. So it was a lot of fun!

In high school I gravitated toward photography, then in college I made photo-mixed media work. When I went to graduate school for an MFA in visual arts, I wanted to work with my hands more. So I focused on mixed media and installation, using the sewing machine and thread in my work.

Photography is very much a part of my creative practice, a grounding element, whether documenting textiles and the people who make them for ThreadWritten, making a visual note of something I pass on the street, or putting together source material for a textile piece. The joy and specific kind of concentration in looking are meditative in a similar way to embroidery. 

Sarah at work in Amsterdam
At work in Amsterdam
Sarah Pedlow Quote

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn? 

Creativity is a way of seeing the world that starts with curiosity and asking questions.

I’m at my best when I turn my mind off and work with lightness and looseness. Play is key.

For me, creativity begins with a simple attraction to a material, image, or scene. Then “I like that” leads to “what can I do with this?” What would look good with this? What does this remind me of? How does this relate (or not) to that? What story does this tell? And then what story do I want to tell? Anyone can learn to ask questions like these and follow where they lead. 

Tell us about the name ThreadWritten Textiles

ThreadWritten is in large part named after Hungarian written embroidery (írásos in Hungarian which translates as “written”) from Transylvania, Romania. That is the embroidery that inspired my business. I am interested in textiles and embroidery as text, record, and visual language. So some of my artwork explores abstract stitching as a form of language. 

Samples for an embroidery workshop
ThreadWritten Hungarian Written Embroidery workshop project and the embroidery that inspired the work.

How did you become interested in stitch traditions around the world? What is it about a particular region’s thread art that draws you in?

Asking someone if they or their grandmother embroidered is a wonderful way to meet people and start a conversation when traveling. I love sharing the joy and pride felt in the handmade, especially pieces that tie to family, heritage and tradition.

The floral patterns, dense stitching and colors of Central and Eastern Europe have particularly drawn me in. I love seeing how these traditions might connect with those of other countries. Some motifs appear all over the world. So you can find similar designs in some Romanian, Portuguese, and Mexican embroideries.

I like to provide a deeper cultural reason to visit a country, with a focus on micro-regions or lesser traveled areas. A few stops in more well-known cities like Budapest, Lisbon, and Porto add balance. 

A village in Transylvania, Romania.
A village in Transylvania, Romania.

How does a region’s culture and history shape local stitch traditions?

The natural landscape, politics, changing borders through history, the migration of people in and out of an area or lack of movement all affect a culture and, as a result, its aesthetic sensibility. Local plants and farming practices influence the materials people use and the motifs in the work, often depicting local flowers.

For example, we can see the influence of the Ottoman Empire’s rule of Hungary and what is now Transylvania, Romania, in the tulip patterns in Hungarian textiles. Sheep’s wool became the thread for stitching so people made highly decorated sheepskin vests and coats.

In Portugal women stitched patterns based on local marjoram and camellias on linen that was grown locally in the north. In Lisbon and the Alentejo region, the Moors developed a tradition of stitching carpets with a type of cross stitch that still continues today. 

Women lining up for the parade in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, 2018.
Women lining up for the parade in Viana do Castelo, Portugal, 2018.

How did you get started leading tours to study embroidery? How do you decide where to go?

In 2018 I went to Portugal for the first time with my partner who is Portuguese (that’s another story!) and made a point to visit Viana do Castelo, known for the most colorful traditional clothing in the country. I was immediately smitten with the beauty of Portugal, the region north of Porto, and the brilliant embroidered blouses, vests, skirts, and even shoes. We attended a festival celebrating the the city, with a parade with over 600 women dressed traditionally.

I had thought before about creating retreats. Then when I saw all of the women walking through the street I knew I wanted to share the experience with a small group of textile enthusiasts. Last year I held my first retreat to great success with a sold out group there. I am so excited to travel on retreat to Transylvania to learn from the women I first met there in 2012, return to Viana do Castelo, and also learn the tradition of Arraiolos rug stitching in Évora this summer. 

Viana do Castelo Retreat group learning to stitch with local master embroiderer, 2019.
Viana do Castelo Retreat group learning to stitch with local master embroiderer, 2019.

What is the most important takeaway you want students to gain from your tours and workshops? 

A retreat participant commented on how much she appreciated the sense of wonder that everyone had, taking in the sights, sounds, people, culture, and landscape. So I hope that participants will grow their appreciation for disappearing textile practices and connect with other guests and the local artisans we meet. Most of all I hope that the experience, whether a retreat or an afternoon workshop, brings a greater connection with one’s own creativity, roots, and a sense of possibility in the world. 

Beginning embroiderers are always more than welcome, by the way! I create patterns to stitch and work with artisans to provide a project. But you’re welcome to create your own design. Advanced embroiderers will enhance their work with specific stitches and patterns from the region. 

Ilonka, one of our embroidery instructors in her formal room
Ilonka, one of our embroidery instructors in her formal room, Transylvania, Romania, 2019.
Sarah with instructor Piroska in Transylvania, Romania, 2019.
Sarah with instructor Piroska in Transylvania, Romania, 2019.

How can people get in touch with you about textile tours and workshops? 

This year I’m taking groups to Transylvania, Romania, meeting and ending in Budapest, Hungary, in June, then to two different regions in Portugal in August. For more information visit www.threadwritten.com/retreats or email sarah@threadwritten.com

I teach workshops in the United States a few times a year. I’ll be in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area in April. I’m currently planning a teaching trip to the Southeast (Atlanta and more?) and also Portland, OR in October. 

For inspiration and updates online I post regularly on Instagram and Facebook. 

The Arraiolos stitch, focus of the Évora and Lisbon retreat in August.
The Arraiolos stitch, focus of the Évora and Lisbon retreat in August.

How do you keep track of your design ideas for current and future work?

I tend to focus on casual photography, to capture images and as a way of taking notes while traveling. Whatever embroidery piece is in progress, as well as a small “sketch” on muslin that is always with me as well. 

Embroidered sketch on muslin, 2019, 9 1⁄2 x 9 1⁄2 inches.
Sarah Pedlow, Embroidered sketch on muslin, 2019, 9 1⁄2 x 9 1⁄2 inches.

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

My sit-on embroidery hoop is a life-saver. It also works well for demonstrating stitches when I teach. I work out my ideas for workshop projects and artwork on tracing paper. I love working with Perle cotton and fingering weight yarns that catch my eye in the local yarn shop, and my favorite fabric for stitching is 100% linen or cotton. 

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

If I’m in planning mode creating new work, I work either in silence or with classical music. The city noise of cars, birds, kids playing, and boats going by on the canal provide enough ambient noise without distracting me too much.

When stitching a preplanned drawing, I listen to podcasts like Design Matters, On Being, Subtitle, Hurry Slowly, and The Modern Art Notes Podcast. I love interviews with people talking about their lives and work. 

House in Transylvania, Romania, 2019.
House in Transylvania, Romania, 2019.

When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?

I love to stitch on planes and trains, so I always carry a small handmade drawstring bag with my materials and one of those vinyl zippered cases that sheets are sold in. They’re great for protecting the work and I’m happy to keep them out of a landfill a little longer. Thread, needles, fabric, hoop, and my sketchbook are always in my bag. 

What inspires you? What are the recurring themes in your work?

Seeing new places, both urban and natural, inspire me.

I moved to Amsterdam from Oakland, CA in April last year. I love taking walks with my (iPhone) camera while looking for beautiful tile in a doorway, an interesting architectural detail, wheat-pasted posters on a construction site or artful graffiti.

The museums in Amsterdam and The Netherlands are incredible. I love visiting the Costume Museum in Amsterdam and the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. I’m currently developing artwork based on abstracted floral patterns from traditional Ukrainian and Dutch textiles and elements of traditional clothing construction. 

Detail of drawings for embroidery, 2019.
Sarah Pedlow, Detail of drawings for embroidery, 2019.

When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve? 

In my artwork I start with my photos, images and ideas collected by taking screenshots on my phone and computer. Then I save to Pinterest or a file on my desktop, and handwritten notes in my sketchbook. I’ve always tended to write phrases more than draw pictures in sketchbooks. Then I play with different drawings and floral motifs, making new drawings, abstracting, removing, and layering elements. I plan out the final fabric form and then add embroidery extracted from the drawings. 

What’s next for you?

In addition to retreat planning I’m creating digital embroidery patterns for sale. I’m also thinking ahead to the 2021 retreats, with the possibility of adding Spain and Morocco to the roster. 

Gate near Évora, Portugal.
Gate near Évora, Portugal.

Browse through more embroidery projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.


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