Meet the Maker: Alison McIntyre
Although you might not recognise the name, curve stitching will be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1970s. Also known as string art, the curve stitched pictures of the ’70s were usually geometric patterns wound around nails on felt-backed board or owls recreated in threads of brown and orange. So when artist Alison McIntyre rediscovered the technique three years ago, it immediately appealed to her love of craft, maths and geometry but she knew she wanted to bring it up to date. We caught up with Alison to find out more about her very contemporary string art and what she thinks of the UK craft scene today…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
I’m Alison McIntyre and I’m an artist-maker living in Leeds. I spend a lot of my time sewing embroidery thread into card to make beautiful and intriguing geometric patterns. The technique is called curve stitching. Sometimes the designs are totally abstract and other times I use the lines and geometric principles to make animals and other shapes. I make the designs into framed pictures, greeting cards, notebooks and brooches. I’m also considering putting together a DIY kit to sell this year.
Curve stitching was very popular in the 1970s… I wanted to really pare it down and make it contemporary.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Clean and simple. Curve stitching was very popular in the 1970s, usually done round nails on felt-backed board rather than actually sewn into card, but the designs made then were often much more fussy and cluttered than mine. When I first discovered the technique I wanted to really pare it down and make it contemporary.
The technique I use is curve stitching. Sometimes my designs are totally abstract and other times I use the lines and geometric principles to make animals and other shapes.
Did you have a very creative upbringing?
Yes, my mum was an artist and my dad was a graphic designer, so there were always paper and pens around and a lot of encouragement and expertise to draw from. I also had some really good art teachers at school.
Who are your design heroes?
From the past William Morris, Charles and Ray Eames, Dadaism & the Bauhaus movement. Contemporary designers whose stuff I love include Tom Pigeon and Studio Arhoj. If you’re talking curve stitching, then you have to check out the amazing Australian artist Nike Savvas, who does wonderful things with thread and wool and other colourful materials.
My ideas come from other patterns I see in nature, life and books, or just from playing with the techniques and seeing what happens.
What else inspires you?
Maths and geometry (no, really!), Arabic mosaic patterns, Amish quilt patterns… anything with a pattern, especially if it’s geometric!
When, why and how did you start creating the kind of thread art pieces you make now?
I come from a background of painting and drawing (I’m very functional, rather than artistic, when it comes to sewing fabric and textiles) and I also work in the community a lot. About three years ago I tried out the curve stitching technique with a class I was teaching and we all really loved it. I thought that it might have commercial possibilities so started perfecting the technique, creating new patterns and thinking about which products would sell best.
There are a couple of basic techniques that form the building blocks of curve stitching… once you have these under your belt the fun bit is working out how to make lots of different patterns from them.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
There are a couple of basic techniques that form the building blocks of curve stitching. One is sewing a parabola – the curve that’s created when you sew across two straight lines – and the other is sewing a circle. Once you have these under your belt the fun bit is working out how to make lots of different patterns from them. My ideas come from other patterns I see in nature, life and books, or just from playing with the techniques and seeing what happens. It’s very hard to know what will happen until you actually sew the design, so there is A LOT of trial and error involved, but that’s the fun part really. When I’m making my larger work then composition comes into it a lot more as I’m trying to work out which sizes, designs and colours will work best together in the picture, and how to connect them all.
I love just pricking out and sewing while listening to the radio – it’s a very meditative technique once you know exactly what you’re doing.
What’s your favourite part of that process?
Well, I love working out new patterns because that’s the most creative part of the process and I get to use my geometry skills, and there’s also the excitement of not quite knowing how things will turn out. But once the patterns are worked out and I have a template I do also love just pricking out and sewing while listening to the radio – it’s a very meditative technique once you know exactly what you’re doing.
What tools do you need for curve stitching?
Curve stitching tools are really very simple: a very good guillotine, a cutting mat, a tool that’s like a needle on a pen barrel for pricking out the holes in the card, needles and thread.
I have a shed in the back garden – there are definitely pros and cons about home and work being so connected and I’m keen to separate them a bit more.
Where do you create your work?
I have a shed in the back garden (properly insulated with electricity and a sink!) which was great while my children were small. As they’re a lot bigger now I’m considering a studio space again. There are definitely pros and cons about home and work being so connected and I’m keen to separate them a bit more.
Craft and design are around us every day in the things we use and see, and are an extremely important part of our lives and culture.
You’ve recently started working on something called the Threads Project. Can you tell us more about that?
Threads is a community project that has been funded by the very brilliant Leeds Inspired. Between October and Christmas I taught about 70 people the basics of curve stitching at a series of open workshops. They’ve been busy practising since then and now 18 of them have signed up to make work for an exhibition in June at Colours May Vary (a gorgeous shop and exhibition space in Leeds, and one of my stockists). We’ll be making that work at the end of February and recording the conversations we have while we work. I’m really interested in how conversation is different when we are creatively busy in a group like this – we’re more relaxed, and don’t worry about eye contact or the occasional silence. I’ll then be working with the wonderful graphic designer Lee Goater to typographically integrate these conversations into the final exhibition.
I started the project because I wanted to combine my curve stitching work with my community practice. It’s been a really exciting project so far and I’ve very much enjoyed sharing my skills and seeing what other people create with them. I’m looking forward to seeing my participants become artists for the exhibition and working with the conversations and typography.
As part of the Threads project we’ll be making work and recording the conversations we have while we work. I’m really interested in how conversation is different when we are creatively busy in a group.
What about commissions? Do you take on bespoke work and what’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
The first animal design I did was a commission for a bar and charcuterie in Leeds called Friends of Ham. They had bought some of my abstract work for the bar and asked if I could also make their logo – a pig! It took me a long time to work out how to make it without it being 1970s cheesy but I finally came up with a technique based on using on a circle and an outline. I now use that technique to make all my animals and other silhouettes. I’ve also made quite a few zigzag designs with people’s favourite colours and I really enjoy working out which graduation of tone makes the slight optical illusion work best.
Recently there has been a recognition of the importance of craft and design, and a desire to see evidence of the human hand, even in digitally produced things.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
Getting up every day and looking forward to what it holds. That’s not saying it’s all easy – it’s definitely not – but I never dread my working day.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
Have confidence in what you are making, and show that by having a business plan and brand before you start. Having a business plan can really help you make sure you’re selling your work at the right price, especially if you want to move into wholesale arrangements with shops at any point. I’ve kind of done it as I’ve gone along and it’s been more difficult than it could have been.
What does craft mean to you?
A craftsperson is someone who has perfected a skill and is using it to make beautiful, desirable and often functional objects. Craft and design are around us every day in the things we use and see, and are an extremely important part of our lives and culture. It feels as if craft became more of a hobby around the middle of the last century, as people opted for new, machine or factory-manufactured objects. More recently there has been a recognition of the importance of craft and design, and a desire to see evidence of the human hand, even in digitally produced things.
The UK craft scene feels very healthy at the moment – lots of shops are selling handmade work, and the general public seems more engaged in buying and making craft than at any other time I can remember.
How does it feel to be part of the UK craft scene today?
The UK craft scene feels very healthy at the moment on a number of different levels, including people making extremely professional high-end work, people making their living selling through online outlets like Folksy, lots of shops selling handmade and UK made work, and the general public seeming more engaged in buying and making craft than at any other time I can remember. It’s a very supportive and friendly world and I love its transparent straightforwardness in comparison with a lot of the fine art world.
Get 20% off Alison McIntyre’s thread art until the end of March 2016 with the code MAKER20