Bury St Edmunds: A milestone year for Suffolk textile artist Helen Stevens

It’s a milestone year for Suffolk textile artist Helen Stevens – one that’s produced her 2,000th professional embroidery. STEVEN RUSSELL spoke to her on the eve of her 15th one-woman exhibition

HELEN Stevens has been a professional textile artist for more than three decades – her work commissioned by clients such as Harrods, the “top people’s store”, and some embroideries selling for �2,500 – but she cheerfully admits “I cannot sew a practical seam to save my life!”

Sorry. Wax in my ears. Could you repeat that, please?

“I would love to be able to say I make all my own clothes and do all my own mending, but no,” she laughs. “I can just about sew a button on, but on the practical side I’m pretty useless, I have to say.

“I think it’s because to do dress-making/tailoring you have to have more discipline, perhaps. In my method of stitching . . . it sounds a little bit up oneself, but I like to be a little bit more relaxed and artistic about it, whereas I think if you’re going to really make a beautiful job of creating a dress or a suit, you have to be absolutely on the ball with regard to the technical side of it.

“With my work, I suppose – as with any form of artwork – you tend at times to be a little bit more experimental. When I look back at my work over the years, I can see how it’s evolved from the early days, when I was taking my first steps away from what I could call ‘textbook embroidery’ into being far more fluid and allowing myself to take chances.

“Then, gradually, one introduces gold and silver threads. At the moment I’m very into incorporating semi-precious stones and beads and sequins.”

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Helen had always wanted to work on the “fine art” side of the embroidery spectrum, rather than taking the “crafts” route – even though there was always a ready market for cushion covers, tray-cloths and the like – “so it was a case of making things that were purely decorative, rather than with a functional element to them”.

So is her approach a bit like “painting” with stitching? “Very much so. The Americans have an expression; they call it needle-painting.”

Whatever it’s called, Helen’s approach has its fans. In the past 30 years she’s published a dozen books – some even translated into Russian – staged seven lecture tours to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, and run courses in Suffolk that draw disciples from far and wide, including South Africa.

Wildlife, flora and fauna often feature in her work – Helen has a deep love of the countryside – but she has covered many other subjects, too.

She also keeps up with the times – there’s an e-book under her belt and another due – while her Facebook site has passed the satisfying 1,000 “friends” mark.

Helen’s designs have been incorporated into greetings cards, printed fabrics, cottons, silks, and as the basis for home furnishings and fashion. She’s met the Queen, too, through her passion for needle and thread . . . and all this without a single formal lesson in embroidery.

It was 1981 when Helen, who had worked on the secretarial side of the legal profession after leaving school at 16, decided to chuck in a traditional existence for a life less ordinary.

“By the time I was in my mid 20s I’d been out in the big wide world for a long time and had had enough of the 9-5-ing and I gave up the day job.” Sounds courageous. “Well, you are brave at that age, aren’t you!”

Not that it was easy at first. “To be perfectly truthful, for the first few years of my career I think I could have earned more money going out and scrubbing floors. But as soon as people started to become aware of what I was doing, and because it was a little bit different to anything that anybody else was doing, I was fortunate enough to get interest.”

Her really big break came after she produced a limited edition of work for The Mary Rose Trust. The organisation spreads the word about the 16th Century warship that sank in the Solent in 1545 and was salvaged in the autumn of 1982.

The trust had a display at the Harrods art gallery. Members of the Harrods board saw and liked her work (this was in the days before the department store was bought by the Al-Fayeds) and commissioned Helen to create a series of pictures for their boardroom.

There were eight of them, based on the murals in the food halls, as well as a large study showing the outside of the famous building, “looking rather like a magnificent ship sailing down Knightsbridge. Oh, if only we had had digital cameras in those days!”

An exhibition in the Harrods gallery followed, as did a series of magazine articles. The publicity put the embroiderer’s work before a wider audience and it wasn’t long before book publishers were interested, too.

Helen’s work was also displayed at the Stanley Gibbons Gallery in the Strand; and, after she exhibited her research on Anglo-Saxon embroidery at the British Museum, Helen was commissioned to do some work for the House of Commons Works of Art Committee. Another highlight was an invitation to create a “portrait” of the Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell, who cared for injured men during the First World War and was later executed by the Germans.

The portrait was destined to adorn the foyer of the Edith Cavell Hospital at Peterborough, with Helen landing the opportunity thanks to the impact she made by regularly exhibiting at the East of England Show.

When the Queen opened the hospital in 1988, the artist was introduced.

“She was very gracious and asked the question virtually everybody asks, which is ‘How long does it take?’” Helen remembers.

Er, how long does it take?

Well, a single flower (like one on her 2,000th embroidery, featuring an owl) might take five or six hours. A big piece could take a month. “But, like probably every artist, I don’t tend to write down every hour or half-hour I work. You work on a piece until you’re pleased with it – until you think it’s finished, really.”

The Duke of Edinburgh accompanied his wife to Peterborough, and commented on the embroidered red poppies.

“I’m always very careful when I do my pictures to do the research upfront and make sure I get everything right. I was delighted when Prince Philip said ‘You’ve actually got the right species of poppy that grows in Normandy!’ I thought ‘It just goes to show it’s important to get the details right!’”

Helen reckons the art of embroidery is in good health. “Certainly the enjoyment of embroidery as a pastime, rather than anybody trying to turn it into a ‘big art’, is very popular still, and not just in this country. In Australia it’s a very popular artform; South Africa is very strong, too. Several of my books have been translated into Russian, where there’s a big following.”

Its great advantage is that it’s not complicated for novices. “I think one of the magical things about embroidery is that all you need is a needle and a hoop – I work on an embroidery frame – and a piece of thread.

“That’s the magic: to find yourself sitting there and thinking you’re indulging in exactly the same discipline as people did 100, 500, 2,000 years ago.”

All you really need to add to those basic ingredients is some patience and persistence.

“When I have my introductory classes, I have people come along who – and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say – have hardly threaded a needle before; and, by the end of two or three days, to my mind they are producing some really, really good work.

“They will look at my work and say ‘Well, it doesn’t look like yours . . .’ but I’ll say ‘Frankly, after three days, if yours looks like mine do after 30 years I’m packing up and going home!’

“But it is amazing how quickly people can get into the swing of it. And that’s because the discipline really is very simple. I don’t go in for all this complicated stitching and specialised techniques like appliqu� and vanishing fabrics. They’re not for me.”

Happily, it seems we don’t need to have the artistic skills of John Constable in order to embroider, either. If we can’t produce our own designs, we can use other people’s. “You don’t need to be constrained by the thought ‘I can’t draw’.”

There don’t appear to be many occupational hazards, either. Helen rarely pricks herself these days – “It’s not an extreme sport!” she laughs – and eyesight shouldn’t suffer, as long as one works in good light.

Actually, there’s a benefit. Embroiderers do need to keep the skin of their hands smooth, but that happens automatically if you work regularly with silk, as its natural emollient properties do the job nicely. That and the lanolin from wool means Helen never has to use hand-cream.

A summer show called Gloriana marks her 15th one-woman exhibition. “Gloriana” was the name of a character representing Elizabeth I in 16th Century poet Edmund Spenser’s work The Faerie Queene. Helen links the first Elizabeth with our monarch. Among the work is a series of embroideries called The Queen’s Beasts – including polar bears and a giraffe.

As mentioned, her 2,000th career piece features an owl chasing a bat. By happy coincidence it fits the Elizabethan theme of the exhibition, taking its lead from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Towards the end of the play, Ariel tells Prospero “In a cowslip’s bell I lie;/There I couch when owls do cry./On the bat’s back I do fly/After summer merrily.”

Helen normally devotes about five hours to embroidery each day, maximum – split into sessions, rather than one chunk. “Too much more than that and you’re getting a bit bug-eyed.”

She works in relaxed manner – in an armchair, usually with the TV on and a pet dozing on her knee or curled up next to her.

“Even after 30-odd years, the very process of stitching is still a joy and a relaxation. I don’t find embroidery ‘work’ at all. Other aspects of what I do might sometimes fall under the heading of ‘enjoyable work’ – the teaching, the writing – but to actually sit down for an evening or an afternoon and know that I’m not going to be disturbed, that I can just sit and embroider, I’m a happy bunny!”

n Helen Stevens’s Gloriana exhibition is at The Edmund Gallery, next to the cathedral on Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds. It runs until July 19. Admission is free. Gallery opening times are generally 10am to 4.30pm.

A carpetbag of magic

WELL done to the free-spirited woman with the carpetbag full of threads and silks and felts, and the magic to inspire . . . More of her later. First, let’s see how Helen Stevens came to be an adopted East Anglian.

She was born in Surrey but spent her early years as an “RAF brat”, moving frequently as her father’s job in the military took the family far and wide – including three years in America and time on the Shetland Islands.

When her father was posted to Germany in the 1960s no family accommodation was available there, so home temporarily became quarters at RAF Honington, northish of Bury St Edmunds.

Helen went to the little village school, passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school in Bury. Her parents decided to buy a house at Market Weston – her dad coming back for long weekends once a month or so while still based abroad.

Proper Suffolk roots were thus laid. Today, Helen lives in a Georgian cottage in a village near Bury St Edmunds.

She was always fascinated by thread, as a child. Her first significant memory of it dates back to when she was about five years old – and bored, as the family was in transit quarters, returning from America.

“My dad, from somewhere, found a skein of tangled wool and showed me how his mum had created balls of wool out of a tangled mass. He helped me find a loose end – then began to wind it into a traditional ball. I was fascinated by this and often think it was the very first time I got excited about thread!”

Soon she was begging bits of felt and cotton, and making elementary stitches.

Meanwhile, Helen’s love of design, colour and creativity can be traced back to primary school at Honington. A lady would come once a week to teach sewing. “Instead of turning up with boring handkerchiefs to be hemmed, and that sort of thing, she’d arrive with a carpetbag full of threads and silks and felt, and all sorts of fabric scraps, and just upend it on the table and say ‘There, children! Enjoy!’ I did!”

As she got older, she’d enjoy sewing kits, but later started designing her own images. “I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to work-in what someone else had created. I’d rather start from scratch.”

Helen acknowledges she did have a basic ability to draw. “But I was never happy just doing a drawing or painting and leaving it like that; I always wanted texture – and it was bringing the texture into it that gave satisfaction: getting the colour and depth and sweep of the stitching.”

She left school at 16. “We’re talking now about the early ’70s and the art world was very different then; people didn’t really encourage you that there was a living to be made in the arts. I did what I suppose a lot of youngsters did – take the advice that said ‘Get a secretarial training, dear, and you’ll never starve.’ That’s what I did, and I was a legal secretary.”

Creative embroidery was always where her heart lay, however – hence the decision to become a professional in 1981.

Helen does have other interests. She’s long been fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon period and has been working on an historical novel, based on the story of real characters from that era.

“The main protagonists are embroiderers! It’s all based in East Anglia – to do with the Battle of Maldon in 991. I’m desperately trying to make time to work more on this.”

Even if she succeeds, Helen doesn’t intend to stop stitching. Of course. In fact, she has her eye on fresh horizons.

“There’s always something new I see that I get excited about, thinking ‘Oh yes, I want to do that. Now, how will I do that?’

“Who knows? Maybe there’s a ‘gap year’ coming up when I’ll go and get inspiration from new places and bring it back, and work some new ideas and new ways, instead of sticking with the traditional methods . . .”

Web link: www.fritillary.co.uk

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