I interviewed Gemma Matthews, The Sewing Songbird. Gemma is a prolific artist who started her creative experiments with embroidery in 2018. She says: “I create freehand stitched pieces onto upcycled denim and I am heavily inspired by nature, books and the arts.”
Leslie: What’s the story behind your nickname ‘The Sewing Songbird’?
Gemma: My first career was as a professional singer, and as my sewing started to take off I used the name ‘The Sewing Songbird’ to separate the music side of my life. My Grandmother’s maiden name was Nightingale, so it seemed a perfect fit.
Leslie: Why do you work on upcycled denim? What special techniques/tools/aptitudes does it require? How did your own personal style come about?
Gemma: I started doodling on a pair of my children’s offcut jeans with a needle and thread, and it just grew from there really. People started giving me their old jeans to upcycle so I had plenty of canvas to work on. Denim is a thick fabric, so you need tough fingers, but I’ve been stitching on it practically every day for nearly 6 years so I’m fairly used to it now. Regarding style I think it’s been fairly organic, I just stitch what I enjoy, there’s no plan or pattern that I have to stick to so I’m free to just stitch whatever I feel. I am not overly technical, and I have my favourite basic stitches in my ‘tool belt’ that I like to use, and denim is a sturdy fabric that holds its shape and so I can get away with creating longer stitches that I wouldn’t be able to use elsewhere, which helps.
Leslie: Can you explain what’s involved in working with ‘swirls’? Why’s it so difficult?
Gemma: I am not sure what possessed me to create the swirls, I had an excess amount of leftover threads to use and thought it would be fun to use them up this way. Doodling and experimenting with stitches the swirls evolved. They’re made using backstitch, but they are quite tightly packed together. That raises them slightly to making a small dome, which gives them added depth. They have become a bit of a signature of mine that appear every so often in a piece, but they take an absolute age to stitch so patience is key…
Leslie: How do you convey intensity and struggle in a small-scale artwork?
Gemma: I wouldn’t say I struggle; I mainly use an 8 inch hoop which is just about the size of a dinner plate and that size, I find, is perfect for my hands to hold. I guess the intensity comes from the way I generally fill the whole piece in with thread, including the background. Just like a painting would be…
Leslie: Where do you think your love of bold colour and textures as well as your patient & persistent attention to very small details comes from?
Gemma: When I create a piece, I’m in my own little imaginary world. You could call it escapism, but I only create what I enjoy, so the themes are very me… I’m like a child in a sweet shop picking colourful threads, my daughter has to literally pull me away; so I definitely like to fill a piece with as much as I feel it needs. Nature plays a huge part in my work, I love being surrounded by it, and I’m always looking at the different textures and shapes that nature creates. So adding them into my work seems more realistic (well in my way anyway). I also think using different stitches, textures & colour to create depth that really draws the viewer in… Plus, I love to create the details and I often get absorbed into them – the more intricate the better!
Leslie: ‘No patterns or paints’ – how has your freehand sewing developed over time?
Gemma: It’s always been freehand to be fair, but yes definitely more intricate now. The background definitely has – so I love to fill the slightest gap between stitches. I obsess over every blade of grass, thinking about the overlapping stitches. Also, the of type of plants/foliage I use in a piece will have a reason why they are there… It is freehand, but there’s lots of staring time and thought processes going into it.
Leslie: How would you describe the world you’re creating? What drives your artistic vision – the needle, the hand, or head & heart?
Gemma: Somewhere where the viewer can escape to, I hope… I would say all three, but the heart drives the hardest!
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.
- Ways to be Equally Human tells the inside story of coming out as a non-binary person, from being ‘othered’ in gendered toilets to stepping up on stage & radio and taking action with Extinction Rebellion. Full of lyrical writing, humour and quirky insights, this is a book for lovers of language, nonconformists and passionate thinkers. Due out March 2024. Preorder your copy here.