From illustrator to embroiderer: an interview with Stacey Chapman

25 November 2021
Get to know free machining extraordinaire, Stacey Chapman of Art Sea Craft Sea whose unique application of freehand machine embroidery and background as an illustrator enables her to create strikingly life-like thread paintings.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

From the age of two and a half, I spent my childhood dancing. This began a lifelong love of musicals and the elegance and glamour of old Hollywood. The time in-between that I wasn’t dancing, I was always laying on the floor with a catalogue open, drawing pictures of the clothes I liked.

I studied four different kinds of art A-level – ironically, I dropped textiles. I went on to do my foundation course where I chose the path of Illustration and studied this at Westminster University, where I’m proud to say I achieved a First Class BA (Hons).

Sweets machine embroidery by Stacey Chapman

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How did starting out as an illustrator lead to stitching?

Because of dancing as a child, both of my parents made my costumes and there was always a sewing machine around. I remember wanting to play with it, but never knowing what I could do with it. But I’ve always loved, collected and indeed hoarded, cloth. I also love old objects and items that have been worn, as I believe they carry some sort of mystical, inherent history. So, my love of stitching really came out of wanting to do something special with cloth. 

I’d always wanted to make my own clothes. I attended adult education classes over two years and realised that dressmaking really wasn’t my forte. However, through these classes I became familiar with my machine and was able to mingle with impassioned makers weekly. 

One day, I had a conversation with a lady who was having a long debate with herself on whether to spend thousands of pounds on a whizz bang machine, or whether just to freehand and talked about the merits of the craft. I’d seen Kirstie Allsopp learn the craft from Lou Gardiner and had been intrigued and excited about combining cloth, stitch and drawing, but was too fearful to attempt it.

Soon after, my mum got a rescue dog and I decided to make her a Christmas present and combine all of these elements. I created a portrait of the dog, enjoyed the process and felt unusually pleased with the results. I started researching other artists doing the same thing and to my surprise I couldn’t find anything…

Miss Darcy hand embroidery by Stacey Chapman

Miss Darcy

And this is where you turned your stitching into a career?

Yes! That’s why I started my business. I’d found this hole in the market and I decided if I had dog portraits, it seemed to me that the most obvious place to go was Crufts. I called them to see how much a stand was and was sad to hear that I had nearly a whole year to wait until the next one and with a fire in my belly, it was too long. They suggested I try Discover Dogs at Earls Court as that was about six months away. 

I spent the months leading up to it creating samples of various breeds to exhibit with the hope to bring in commissions. The show was a roaring success! Along with numerous commissions, I had a few jaws physically drop when they understood what they were looking at – an artist’s reaction of a lifetime, along with so many people going out of their way to give me advice and encouragement. It seemed like the universe had my back with this venture, so I kept pursuing it by travelling to many events around the country for about a year and a half. I currently sell my work through local galleries, the odd exhibition/event in London and online.

 Dog portrait machine embroidery by Stacey Chapman

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You’ve been to both the Warwickshire and Wiltshire Handmade Fair – what can you tell us about them?

The Handmade Fair has been pivotal to me. The first Fair was utterly magical. I floated for the whole three days and I felt privileged, as it seemed to me I was part of something very special. There I was, just a few years after seeing Kirstie Allsopp learn the craft that had inspired me to change my life, at her very own show rubbing shoulders with likeminded people. There was also something about the fact that so many people dressed up in their vintage inspired finery and I’d never been in an environment that was made up of 90% women. It had a wonderful buzz of feminine excitement, creativity and goodness – and it’s still just as fabulous today.

Where does your inspiration for such realistic portraits come from?

Realism in painting has always made me want to get creative with a fevered passion. I've always been inspired by Degas and I love the work of Jenny Saville and Lucien Freud.

Machine embroidery portrait by Stacey Chapman

How about other textile artists that you admire?

I was lucky enough to hear a talk about the work of Beverly Ayling-Smith last year and she almost moved me to tears as everything she said about cloth and utilising it as a communication through artwork, articulating everything I’ve wanted to convey. Her work is wonderful. I love Karen Nichol’s work and the spectacular work of Nick Cave and Kaarina Kaikkonen, both of whom I found moving, poignant and beautiful.

How does this feed into free machining as a technique?

Freehand machine embroidery is essentially painting with thread. You can produce the most incredible detail created from the whole colour chart, one delicious, tiny stitch at a time. It’s mesmerising and the most mindful practice I’ve found. If you leave the sewing machine ready to pounce on when you have a moment, you jump on and jump off without any of the clearing up of paints and washing brushes, etc. It’s utterly versatile and like printmaking, you can produce happy accidents that can inspire the next project.

Do you have a particular piece that you’re most proud of? 

I think Lacey the cat is probably the best I’ve ever produced. But to be honest, there are moments in each of the artworks that I love and I think were very successful and that led me onto be more inventive and skillful with the next piece.

Lacey the cat machine embroidery by Stacey Chapman


Have you had any real disaster moments?

No, I can honestly say there haven’t been. Any failure is just feedback.

Is there a tool you can’t live without?

My wonderful sewing machine – I LOVE that thing. It’s a Janome 1600P – a true, stable and solid, no-frills workhorse. It has a separate motor for its bobbin and you cut the bottom threads with the touch of a button. For all of you sewers out there, apologies for serious sewing machine envy that I may have created!

Fly machine embroidery by Stacey Chapman

What’s your ultimate free-machine embroidery tip?

Be playful. Be creative. Push your own boundaries and don’t be afraid. There really is no such thing as going wrong.

Worst case scenario? Start again or appliqué a patch over it. This craft can be pushed in any direction. If you need a helping hand to get you started, go to a workshop and then keep practicing your new skills as soon as you return home to build your confidence and grow your own unique mark making language. You can then apply these skills to all of your sewing moving forward.

Find out more

See more of Stacey's projects in Stitch issue 122 where she brings the yellow brick road and Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers to life in glorious technicolour, Stitch issue 123 where she creates a thought-provoking portrait that cleverly blends identity and Stitch issue 134 where she creates a textile nutcracker!

Browse all back issues


Next, meet more talented machine artists, like Janine Heschl and Suzy Wright – prepare to be 'wowed'. And be sure to check out our guide to free machining to set your art in motion!

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