Rosalind Wyatt is a British artist who loves words. Initially trained in calligraphy, she went on to study textiles at the Royal College of Art. Her practice combines text and textile, and she works from her studio in London. Stitch commissions include luxury bespoke gifts for private and corporate clients from around the world, including two stitched garments for Fortnum & Mason of London, which now hang in their boardroom. She has developed her own technique of ‘writing with a needle’ combining text and textile where she hand stitches, by sight, the handwriting of an individual onto a garment. The Stitch Lives of Others was the first major body of work which explored this concept, and this has evolved into her current project, The Stitch Lives of London – a ‘modern day Bayeux Tapestry’. Calligraphy commissions include working for PR, Film and TV, interiors and fashion. Her collage paintings allow for philosophic expression and abstract mark making, and often incorporate large brush calligraphy; Zen brushwork has become part of her artistic practice. Collages have been shown in galleries and collected by private individuals including the designer Nicky Haslam, who commissioned a series. Rosalind lectures, talks and teaches widely – including for the V&A, Cambridge University and in the USA. She has been featured on BBC Radio several times, and her work continues to be shown in galleries and museums around the UK, and in Switzerland, the USA and Japan.
Richness, Depth and Sound
“My interest in words goes right back to my education where I was introduced to the Sanskrit language. I’m no linguist but the richness, depth and sound of Sanskrit made a deep impression on me as a child. I still have a Sanskrit/English dictionary in my studio – it’s amazing when you trace back the meaning of certain words.
“Textiles are something I fell into. It’s the softness, tactility and beauty of textiles that I find alluring. They introduce the sense of touch, and immediacy – making the ‘story’ a little more tangible and real.
“My recent work explores ‘writing with a needle’: transferring handwriting into stitch. It’s about discovery and communication, and telling a story is paramount.”
Making a Mark: From calligraphy to brushwork to ‘writing with a needle’.
“When I decided I wanted to go to university, I was ready to invest in a practice: I didn’t know there was such a thing as a degree in western calligraphy, but there is and I found it. I wanted do to something with a bit of depth, and the BA in Calligraphy and Bookbinding is crafts-based and formal. It’s founded on the work of Edward Johnston, who reformed calligraphy around the time of the Arts and Crafts movement. He laid out the correct way to make a letter and he created a series of letterforms for students to progress through. It was a wonderful degree but it was really hard. And the hardest thing was the idea of the right way to form a letter.
“Western calligraphy is a whole process of learning – with your brain, with your eyes, with your hands – to actually form a letter in the correct way. There is a beauty to this, but after completing the degree I felt that there must be more to it. I felt sure that those medieval monks, when they were writing, say, the Lindisfarne Gospels, weren’t copying, they were inventing, they were creating a letter form from their consciousness. In the western tradition we have copied historical letterforms, as a means of learning.
“I wanted to find a tradition in which you could create your own mark, in the moment. That, to me, is the moment of discovery, and it was that search that took me to Japanese brushwork.”
“I came to the Japanese tradition when I was doing my postgraduate work in textiles. I looked at these incredible Japanese scrolls, and viewing them was like meeting somebody through the mark they had left on the parchment.
“The word calligraphy translates literally as ‘beautiful writing.’ The Zen master I learnt from said it’s not about learning to write beautifully, it’s about becoming enlightened through the act of mark-making. It’s completely different to the western tradition. It’s gestural, physical. In the western tradition you’re writing from left to right – and I always think there’s something about crossing your body – in the eastern tradition you’re drawing the brush towards yourself, and you’re completely focused on the meaning of the word you’re trying to write.
“In Japan there are several ways of doing calligraphy but the form I practice is called hitsuzendō: it’s brushwork and swordsman work in one form. You work with your body, your breath. The most important part is your intention when you make the brush-stroke. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s not about beauty, it’s not about perfecting a form: it completely challenges all of our western perceptions of perfecting or ‘nailing’ something.
“But then people ask: are you just painting a squiggle? But you’re not, there are a couple of kanji that mean a simple Zen concept, like ‘be in the present’ and that’s what you’re really focused on when you make your mark. And then you step back and you look at it, and appreciate it, and that’s the other wonderful thing about this tradition: as part of the practice you learn to appreciate the quality of the mark and to see the details within a mark.
“There are all sorts of aesthetic descriptions, like ‘the persistence’ of a mark, and the ‘determination’ of a mark.”
Writing with a Needle…
“While studying textiles at the Royal College of Arts I started to look at all the different tools with which you could make a mark – it really expanded my whole repertoire: from pen, to brush, to needle. And I thought, I wonder if you can write with a needle?
“It’s not embroidery. This is key to when you’re doing the work. When I teach I try to convey this – this is not an embroidery stitch that you repeat. The needle, that little tool, is your pen, and the thread is the line, and it’s contiguous. The thread is the mark and the line.
“When I started stitching by hand, I began to see the detail in a letter, the detail in a mark. When I’m teaching I tell my students to trace over the handwriting they’re about to stitch and I ask, ‘how does it feel to form that person’s handwriting?’
“Last year I went to Santa Fe, to teach, and I love the idea of the work spreading, the writing with a needle technique. It’s for everyone to discover, and create something, if they’re interested.”
The Stitch Lives of London
“I did a project based on my husband’s family. It started with one garment, which was in amongst a box of letters that my mother-in-law gave me. I was always really fascinated by my husband’s family: his Grandmother was an artist, from a long line of artists: his Great Great Uncle was a Royal Academician. My mother-in-law gave me a big box of letters in which this garment, a beautiful, tiny, silk-brocade bodice, was simply folded, in-between the letters.
“Then I saw an exhibition called The Art of Insanity, at the Southbank, one of the pieces was ‘Agnes’s Jacket’. Agnes Richter was a seamstress, and patient of Hans Prinzhorn, stuck away in a sanatorium somewhere. She had stitched, into her jacket, her thoughts and her feelings. The jacket is part of the Prinzhorn Collection; Hans Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist who believed that giving his patients creative output was very much part of their healing.
“So, the two ideas came together: receiving the letters and garment, and seeing the exhibition, and I thought, I’ve got to stitch those letters into that bodice: it started me off on this train of thought about text and textile.
“I had an exhibition of this work, called Stich Lives of Others, and it was really well received, and then I found that people started responding by giving me their own textiles. The most amazing gift was an Edwardian trunk, full of garments and shoes. And it was partly that gesture, that kept happening, I thought: people feel the need to have their story told. And, I’m a Londoner, I love London, and it came in a flash, the idea of a tapestry of London, a ‘modern-day Bayeux tapestry’, telling the story of London: this idea became The Stitch Lives of London. Not a literal telling, but through the individual garments belonging to people who have lived and worked and travelled through London – joined together. When text and textile come together, that person and their story comes to life.
“I’d like 215 garments, the significance of which is that the Thames is 215 miles long. One of those things could be a fragment, a little handkerchief belonging to someone – 215 articles. When you look down on the complete tapestry, and I call it a tapestry, it will be like a washing-line of garments, it will take the path of the Thames. It will be three dimensional, you’ll be able to walk in and out along the string of garments, and it’ll be chronological: you’ll start with whatever is the earliest piece. In an ideal world I’d get some sponsorship behind it but for now it’s me, and a few assistants. It’s a bit slower than I’d like at the moment. I just think, keep going.”
A boy who loved to run
Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, OBE, donated the running top that had belonged to her son, Stephen Lawrence, to The Stitch Lives of London. See more here.
“Where the words come from is completely different depending on each piece. I always say to people: I need a piece of textile and a piece of text. I can either leave that choice up to the person, or what is chosen can come out in a discussion.
“Baroness Lawrence said that she wanted to give me Stephen’s running top. Not a lot of people knew that he loved to run. And I said ok, what are we going to stitch on it? And we had a two-hour conversation. I asked her, tell me about his running, where did he do it, did he win medals? Yes, she said, he won medals, and she showed them to me. But I still wasn’t sure what I was going to stitch onto the top. Baroness Lawrence was also very proud of the fact that Stephen was an excellent artist, and wanted to be an architect, so she showed me his drawings, and cards he had given her, and there was one piece of text. And I remember it clearly, it was written on an A4 piece of paper, and I said, what’s that, and she picked it up and said, that’s an A-level essay he wrote literally a week before he was murdered. The essay was finished mid-sentence. It said, it still says, so much about him: he was going places.
“I was meeting Baroness Lawrence at the Stephen Lawrence Trust in South East London, in Eltham, and there’s the whole context of that, the whole story of Eltham as a place. The Stephen Lawrence Trust is specially designed, and on the side of the building is metal-fretwork, designed by British artist Chris Ofili, and I put that fretwork pattern on the back of the garment. There are lots of layers, aspects to the story that Baroness Lawrence knows about in that piece. She was incredibly generous – I wanted that to be in the piece too: a mother grieving.”
Following the Mark
“The connection between hitsuzendō and stitching is that when I stitch someone’s handwriting, I’m not thinking about what type of mark it is or how to do it – I mean I used to, obviously, when I had to work out the technique – but now, in the most immersive moments, it’s like I have a unity with the person who made that mark. I’m walking with them, along their journey: through their words, through their marks.
“In terms of literally reading the text I sew onto a garment, I think we’re really caught on legibility, in the western world. I’m not thinking about that when I’m writing with my needle, I’m following the mark. Of course – if someone has taken the trouble to hand-write a poem I’m going to make it as legible as that hand-written original.
“With handwriting we’re all making our individual mark, and when you connect with that you’re bonding with someone’s rhythm, their spontaneity, almost with their way of thinking. You see the nuances in their writing, and that’s just one layer before you engage with the content.
“I think when you get to stitch quite heavy words, you’re an actor, inhabiting that voice for that moment, and then you put the work down at the end of the day. It can be an emotional process – and the emotion can cloud the process but somehow you also need to access those sentiments. An artist needs to be brave to tell a story.”
The Power of Words
“I’m always on the lookout for the next story, or the next piece of text, or textile that is going to ignite me. If you’re not starting from that point of provocation the work is going to be flat.
“My stitching work and my collage work are very different processes. The stitching is visual; I’m starting with the look of someone’s handwriting and interpreting that in stitch. With the collage work, which is much more abstract, I start with a phrase, or a sentence, or something which is lit up for me – internally, if you like. Then I say it out loud, quite a lot, and I do a lot of sketching, or writing.
“With historical garments you often have access to an archive so you can, and have to be, the arbiter of that dialogue. Whereas if it’s a contemporary story it’s a different process: I have a conversation with the person who has given me the garment. It’s important to listen. There’s so much in actually listening and not being afraid to leave those gaps in conversation and see what happens. That’s also relevant to how I approach my own work: I don’t just jump in at the first idea. For me, the dialogue, the research, is as important as the making.
“It is like freezing time for a moment, with these stories, and showing a snapshot of that moment, so we can stop, and digest, and feel and empathise and learn. I think there’s something about this process, of taking time to stitch someone else’s handwriting, and the detail of that, that hopefully encourages other people to stop and think, and find something within, in that moment, too.
“For me it’s still about the power, sound and vibration of words: by making a mark consciously all those things can come together, whatever the tool.”
A Note in a World Song
“I have always loved this particular phrase, ‘you are a note in a world song.’ It’s part of a bigger dialogue spoken by an Indian saint Shantananda Saraswati and finishes with this sentence; it always rings true for me. It’s about coming out of what you think you are to a bigger arena of being, until the whole world is included. And it’s about listening, which I think is really important if you are a lover of words. So it has a practical as well as poetic appeal.
tutto il mondo e paese
“Harking back to my Italian heritage, this is an Italian proverb. I love the sound of it as well as the meaning. I discovered it last year in the inspiring Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe. It means, ‘people are the same the world over’ or ‘the whole world is my hometown’. It’s a vision of unity that I find inspiring and can be entirely practical in everyday life – it just depends on your perspective.”
(Interview first published on Pieced Work – March 31st 2016)