The future is bright: An interview with mixed media embroiderer Jessica Grady

15 November 2022
Jessica Grady has exploded on to the embroidery scene with a crazy fusion of colour, texture, traditional stitching and eclectic materials. So what’s it like being an embroiderer in a modern world?

Drinking straws, rubber bands, metal washers, bits of sponge and bubble wrap – there’s not a lot Jessica Grady won’t use to embellish her futuristic pieces. At the heart of her kaleidoscopic designs is a mind-blowing mix of conventional hand stitching and quirky handmade sequins. However, her playful creative approach sits alongside an enviable work ethic. After graduating in textiles from Norwich University of the Arts in 2014, she undertook internships and freelance embroidery design jobs in London. Then three months travelling around South America left her with a head full of colour. Receiving the Art & York RAW Talent Award gave her confidence a much-needed boost. Securing a scholarship with the Embroiderers’ Guild in 2018 proved pivotal. Their support provided game changing exposure and funds. Read on to find out how she’s building herself a bright future.

As a contemporary embroidery artist, how would you describe your work?

Some people would say my work is a little mad. I can accept that! My pieces are always 100% hand embroidered with traditional stitches. However, my methods and materials can be quite unconventional. I don’t just want to create work that is exciting to look at. I want to make you wonder; to consider the details and origins of my embellishments.

The environment, waste and recycling are hot topics. How do these influence you?

They are the backbone of my whole design process. What excites me is looking at new ways to create sequins, beads and embellishments out of rubbish. Quite literally sometimes! Giving things an unexpected new lease of life gives my work fresh inspiration. And I feel good knowing I am saving items from landfill.

Mustard Hill Wild Collection: recycled plastic, paper, metal & textile 3D sculptures. Photo by Proud Fox Creative

What new materials and techniques are you exploring at the moment?

My current obsession is embellishing with found objects and materials. Flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach, such as old plastic buckets that have been shaped and softened by waves. Or even bits picked up from the gutter on the street. I can drill them then bead with wires and fabric snippets. Clear plastic waste is fascinating. It can be transformed with heat, dye or paint then chopped into lots of lovely sequins. I have some new exhibitions hopefully happening next year which means I am planning a new series of work, so lots of experimentation behind the scenes. 

How do you manage the creative process with running your own business?

With great difficulty! On social media and in person, I have to be upbeat and fully in my role as an artist. Only those closest to me get to see the low moments - like opening the tenth rejection email of the day. It’s hard not to take it personally. Finances can be difficult as I am not guaranteed a set wage every month. Pricing is the biggest headache: it really is trial and error, coupled with lots of practice.

Fragments (50x50x10cm): recycled plastic straws, cables & dyed oxygen tubing.

Describe your work space.

I have just moved into my brand new studio space that has been built for me by my family and fianceé. I have never had such a large and organised space to work in before with all my embellishments organised, colour coded and put away! I also think it is helping me to achieve a slightly better work/life balance, as when I lock up my space - that's it - I don't bring my work back home with me, as much as I love it, the sequins need to stay in one place and not overtake the rest of my house! Having a proper working space again after over a year of being without one is also going to really help with my inspiration to create new works and try out some new ideas I haven't got around to yet. 

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What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt so far?

That it really doesn’t matter if people don’t like my work! I would rather be a marmite artist; to have someone love or hate it, rather than it just being okay. But mainly it’s about enjoying and feeling gratification from creating something I love. If I love a piece, it comes through and makes it a better. However, brushing off negative comments can be really hard, but after a while you can play an interesting game of artist bingo with the things people say!

Confetti (12cm framed art): recycled bubble wrap sequins, thread snippets & seed stitch on denim.

How has being a Type 1 diabetic influenced you?

I have been diabetic over 20 years. It’s very much a part of me and always will be! It’s never stopped me doing anything and I don’t intend on letting it. But It has made me aware of how much plastic medical waste is being thrown away daily. I often use the bright orange plastic caps from my insulin vials to create embellishments!

How do you keep a balance?

Relaxing is hard: I get twitchy fingers if I am not busy! My cats, Spencer, Henrietta and Lottie are great stress relievers. I do have a doodle stitch cloth I often keep on the go, which is a tool to do some mindful stitching - just for me, without pressure of it having an outcome or purpose. If all that fails then a good cup of Earl Grey tea, chocolate and a scary movie will sort me out!

You're also involved with textiles education workshops in schools across the UK...

Teaching is something that I never thought that I would be good at or enjoy. Now it is one of the most rewarding parts of my artistic practice. I travel across the UK and further afield to deliver workshops to varying age groups and abilities, as well as online classes. I have taught giant sequin making to primary school children in Paris and related embellishments to microorganisms, culture projects and florals to hundreds of GCSE and A-level students and even teachers CPD sessions. I also do visiting lectures for universities within textiles design for higher education and BA students. That is the brilliant thing about stitch and mixed media, its vast scope and appeal to involve so many people! 

Finally, Jessica, any stand-out higlights…

I was lucky enough to visit the very hectic Great Quilt Show in Tokyo at the beginning of 2020; they had over 250,000 visitors. I was exhibiting with Art Textiles Made in Britain - I am a full member of the group. It’s the first time an international group had attended. The reaction was so positive: the Japanese were fascinated by the materials used and that it’s all hand stitched together. It was a definite career highlight. The beautiful juxtaposition between old and new found throughout Tokyo has left a deep impression: I am now working on carving out some time in the new year for experimentation and development for myself and new work, with lots of exciting things to come in 2023.  ❤

Jessica will be at the Harrogate Knitting and Stitching show 17th-20th November teaching number of workshops, and is part of the Creative Living Theatre demos, looking at "Eco-Embellishment: Sustainable Ideas for Textile Art"

Keep in touch with Jessica at:

Instagram @jessica_rosestitch 
Facebook @jessicagradyembroideryartist 

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