Expressive Stitches: an interview with Jan Dowson

10 June 2021
Jan Dowson Jan Dowson
Learn more about Jan Dowson, author of Expressive Stitches, as she shares where her love of stitching came from, her favourite technique, how she came to write her own book and what gems you can expect to find inside!

Where did your love of stitching come from/how did you get into embroidery?

I’ve loved textiles since childhood. My mum taught me to knit, some basic sewing skills and a few simple embroidery stitches. Lazy daisy was one of the stitches – it’s still one of my favourites today! I’d spend many hours as a child making quite crude dolls clothes and dolls covers from fabric scraps we bought from the local market. Once my three daughters were in secondary school, I decided to enroll on an adult education embroidery class – that was the first stepping stone to me achieving my City & Guilds part one and then I was hooked!

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What’s your favourite stitch technique?

My favorite technique is very simple but expressive hand stitching. First of all, I prepare the surface fabric, arrange the design and layout, and place all of the scraps of vintage fabric into what looks a little like a ‘crazy patchwork’. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a two-dimensional piece – it could be a three-dimensional piece like a bird or an art doll. 

The process of preparation is the same in all areas of my work. The joy comes when the hand stitching begins. I use simple line stitches that create a lovely ripple and texture to the surface. The whole surface is stitched and this brings all of the elements of the fabric on the cloth together. This type of stitching is also referred to as ‘slow stitch’ or ‘boro’. It can be meditative, relaxing and very good for your mental health to sit quietly and really connect with your work.

Hand stitched scenery by Jan Dowson

What would sum up your style in three words, and why?

  1. Unique – all my work is researched and taken through design development in my sketchbooks.
  2. Colourful – colour is an important part of my work. Blending vintage fabrics with my hand-dyed threads creates a pleasing and unique palette of colours.
  3. Tactile – it’s important to me that the ‘feel’ of the cloth I'm stitching is a soft and comfortable experience. The intense stitch creates a lovely tactile ripple to the surface of the cloth. 

Tell us more about your book, Expressive Stitches

The book is a culmination of many years being a textile artist and over 25 years teaching G&G’s Creative Textiles. I retired six years ago. Before Covid-19, I still taught workshops and talks for the Embroiderer’s Guild groups around the country. Retired and with more free time on my hands, I was able to get a much-wanted pet and Bertie, our little dog, arrived into our lives. 

For the first time in years I was out walking every day, fully engaging with the natural environment. I did lots of sketching, collecting shells, sea glass, driftwood, beach ceramic, hedgerow flowers (which I later dried) and other bits of treasure I'd find on our dog walks. I started to develop ideas for new work and I could finally begin a new narrative. 

I missed teaching very much. I remember early in my teaching days a colleague said to me “don’t give it all away – save some for yourself!” and this was just not my teaching style at all. I wanted to share and give everything! Although working in my new studio was precious time to me, I needed a new challenge! A textile artist friend, Ruth Issett, gave me the nudge I needed to write a book. The inspiration would be my own creative journey, finding myself as a textile artist and my new work. Everything came together for my book ‘Expressive Stitches’. 

I hope Expressive Stitches will enable embroiderers to take their own creative journey through design development to the finished piece. The book is informative, exploring lots of techniques and processes. I hope it'll inspire readers with lots of visual inspirational and a meaningful approach to developing unique work. Although there are step-by-step instructions to follow techniques, I hope readers will use their own memories and inspirational starting points to their work. 

Expressive Stitches book cover

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What made you focus on an expressive theme?

With so many products available, it can be very confusing for embroiderers to select techniques and processes. Getting back to basics is very important to me – paper, pen, pencil, fabric, needle and thread is all we need to create rich and expressive textiles.

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If you had to pick one project from the book that you think everyone should try what would it be?

The Expressive Stitches section is my favourite chapter. It demonstrates a range of simple hand embroidery stitches that have been exploited and pushed to their limits to reveal a wide range of marks, line, pattern and texture. It demonstrates the key to creative embroidery.

Colourful hand stitching by Jan Dowson

Where did you find the inspiration for the designs in your book?

I mainly turn to nature for inspiration such as the natural environment – landscapes, the beach, the wonderful Lincolnshire Wolds, our local parks and woods. My garden is my oasis and is brimming with beautiful plants and flowers which provide me with reams of inspiration. During trips to Venice, I’ve found inspiration in the architecture and the faded grandeur.

What level of stitching ability is the book aimed at?

The book is perfect for beginners who may need help with design and hand dying fabrics and their approach to embroidery stitches. It'll also inspire more experienced embroiderers by sparking an idea or expanding and developing some of their themes further.

Are you into other crafts, and if so what are they?

I love making three-dimensional pieces such as birds and art dolls. Recently I’ve been enjoying needle felting. I made three-dimensional family pet dog’s heads to give as gifts at Christmas, and whimsical little characters for which I love to knit little jumpers and hats. Free-form crochet is also an interest of mine and I use it to depict natural forms.

Where can people find out more about you?


Ready to get expressive with your hand stitching? Don't forget to pick up a copy of Jan's book, Expressive Stitches! Or, explore more wonderful embroidery techniques and see just what’s possible with a needle and thread! 

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