Workshop on the Web

Celebrity interview with . . .

. . . Sue Rangeley


Sue, we usually start by asking our celebs how they got into textiles. Can you tell us that, please?

I can remember first getting excited about threads, fabrics and all things sparkly at about the age of 7. My brother and I would often go to tea with a neighbour after school (a village primary school of 18 children in the mid 1950s, where craft activities were also a key part of the curriculum). The memories of her opening drawers, stuffed full of fabrics and threads, is still vivid, and she was a great inspiration for getting me first started with a needle and thread. I loved fancy finery as a child and can remember also where that passion for fashion emerged - always being given 'dressing-up' clothes, a beautiful 1920s dress in shades of pale coffee chiffon which I would wear. Also seeing my Mum's 1950s dance dresses all twinkling with rhinestones - I loved all that.

But as a child, making, creating, my imagination was always working on some project: tiny felt mice with sequinned dresses, a fancy dress outfit for a party etc. Secondary school was still an inspiration for stitching and we had free rein in the needlework room for creative and the precision stitching of button-holes and dressmaking techniques. While others loathed them, I was in heaven with this meticulous sewing!

In tandem with textiles and needlework at school, my other passion was the art room. From an early age, I was very keen on drawing. I think I remember winning an art competition at school. So, Art School followed, first a foundation class at Loughborough, where the textiles played a key part. I went on to study Fine Art but was always stitching and making fantasy clothes, outfits for Arts Balls, 'Flower Power' jackets in the late 1960s (see right).

Pic 1 00011

Art and embroidery have always been intertwined since my childhood and growing up on a farm in South Northamptonshire gave me the inspiration for themes which emerged later in my work: wild flowers, gardening, butterflies, collecting and observing, sketching and then - - embroidery.

Pic 2 Image Studio1


I believe that you produced some embroidered jackets for Bill Gibb. It must have been so exciting being part of that world - can you give us a brief description of the highs and lows?

Yes, working for Bill Gibb was another key stage in my career, a door opening onto the couture world. He was brilliant at giving the opportunity of really seeing your embroidered fantasies come to life and to let your work develop. Always sitting along with the creative side was the tougher business side of couture fashion, which made me aware of the realities of costing work and delegation (when I was doing the orders for Bill Gibb, I had 2 or 3 assistants). So the highs were: seeing the embroidered jackets I had embellished come to life and walk down a cat-walk in his Bond Street showroom - seeing the celebrities at the show, Joan Collins - lots of actresses wore his clothes.

The press and publicity for his work, and my pieces appeared in Sunday Times and Vogue. The first jackets that I did for the collection of Spring/Summer 1977 were a big success and I made over 80 pieces, which went into Harrods, Bond Street boutiques and into New York stores. I still have the original patterns, sketches and samples. The jackets were sometimes selected for films and television wardrobes. One was chosen for an episode of 'The Saint' (wow that sets the era). Also, one very beautiful jacket, which Barry Lategan photographed for Vogue in 1978, is now in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. With the current revival of all things 1970s, maybe I should look out those Bill Gibb samples, and make a little jacket?

Pic 4 Bill Gibb Flower


Where do you find your inspiration? You produce the most wonderfully sumptuous quilted and stitched surfaces. Do you find that the ideas dictate the technique or do you always have a particular working method in mind when you look at source material?

It is difficult to define the exact beginning and end of each creative journey. Sometimes the embroidered pieces will be driven by a very definite theme, such as the painted roses and entwined rouleaux. I had done a series of water-colour paintings and sketches of the different roses in my garden in the Cotswolds; the delicate tints were translated into painted silks, organzas, airbrushed rouleaux (a technique that I developed in the late 1970s in combination with quilting). So the embellished rose heads sit like specimens in a flower show, but ready to form a feature for a fashion pieces. From a sample like this, I would then develop design ideas for fashion, and then another journey and series of ideas kicks off.

(PIC 5 dsc 0723)

Another theme which I enjoyed working on recently, again linked to my garden, was to study the fragile beauty of skeletal plant structures. This inspired an 'in-depth' series of samples where I played with the icy palettes of frozen plants, worked with angelina, dissolvable techniques.

(PIC 6  see samples: embroidery sample on sketch, SAMPLE WITH BOTANICAL)


I know that your stitching and your drawing are closely linked. Do you always work from designs or do you sometimes just play and see what happens?

I think that I might have covered some of this answer in the above! I do like to play and experiment, introduce new materials so, after a drawing, perhaps a movement of pencil lines which describe a flower form might suggest not only threads, but wires, stitched rhythms of wire structures, and a 'play' session with materials begins. A structure emerges for an accessory (see images of samples set against drawings from the new book). This play stage can been seen as an indulgence but, for me, it is always a vital stage of the design process, a stepping stone towards a new creation. For my new book, I have spent a lot of time on samples and research, emphasising this important facet of the creative process. The depth of an idea and exploring processes shape new works and give exciting possibilities for a series of accessories or a fashion piece.

Pic 7 New Image


You are particularly known for your wonderful accessories which range from bags to the most beautiful wraps. Where do you sell these and what advice would you give to anyone following this route?

In the early 1980s, 90% of my work was sold through galleries in London and America. The little silk embroidered, appliqué purses of the early 1980s were sold all over the world. Now, by contrast, I am making fewer pieces and prefer to create directly with a client, perhaps a special wrap for a wedding, an evening bag commissioned to go with an outfit.

Marketing is a critical part of selling work now and, for someone starting out, it often works well to have a creative partnership, someone working on the selling/marketing and the creative/designer doing their individual special pieces. Students studying textiles now have to study that aspect of business and marketing. In this country, we have brilliant innovative designers/craftspeople and I know, as a designer/maker, it is often hard to do both jobs as creative artist and the marketing. This is a word which strikes a sour note for many but it is vital if anyone is going to build a business selling their embroidered textiles pieces. I am aware that I constantly need to pay attention to this and my future challenge in this area is to work toward putting on an exhibition of all the new works from my collection, created for my book - watch this space!


How much of your work is commissioned?

In the past few years, I have focused on creative pieces for my book and taken on fewer commissions. I felt I needed to plunge into work where I could explore ideas freely and go in some different directions. So, I have been balancing this with developing a series of very large scale botanical painting and drawings which I have sold successfully in the past year through two exhibitions - coming full circle back to my fine art routes. You can see from the pic how the drawings inform the textile process. I also enjoy teaching very much and running my classes, developing themes and projects for workshops; this sits perfectly with the work I've been doing for new samples and fashion pieces. It is always important for me to 'come up for air', and to develop new pieces which, in term, will inspire new clients and new commissions.

Pic 8 rouleaux


When I taught in Canada, the students were very excited about a recent class of yours. Do you often teach overseas? What about in this country?

Yes, I love doing my overseas classes and I have been going back and forth to Vancouver to give classes since my first tour of Canada in around 1988, so a long relationship. I have recently (Autumn 2007) given a Masterclass in Vancouver. Rather like the classes I run in Oxfordshire, where I have a core group of creative embroiderers who seem to enjoy coming back for new inspiration, I love meeting up with friends overseas when I run these classes. Teaching has always been part of my work. For 18 years, I was visiting lecturer at University of Central England on their BA Embroidery Course and now I continue to run specialist Masterclasses in the Cotswolds. Some of my teaching has also taken me into schools and I regularly receive emails from students studying creative textiles - so the next generation of creative embroiderers are waiting in the wings!

For future classes (see below) but I hope to be back in the USA and Canada over the next two years - enquiries bubbling away!

(PIC 9)


How has your work changed over the years and where do you see your career moving in the future?

I am definitely enjoying the balance of my fine-art botanical studies with the creative textile work, so that is ongoing for the future, with the aim of getting a show together with the paintings/drawings and the embroidered/textile works too. Over the past three years, I have been working on samples, research and writing this book on my work (due out early next year). I have really loved working on this, and would hope to follow through with similar publications. Some of the pieces worked for the book - the frost series are shown below.

(PIC 10)
Pic 11