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Stopped at the border
“Stopped at the border”Sally Hewett

The embroiderer stitching scars, ‘body detritus’ and erotica

We talk to Sally Hewett about her work with needles and thread, defined concepts of beauty and confronting disease

Self-described “stitcher and embroiderer” Sally Hewett has made a name and sizable Instagram following for herself by conjuring nipples, tongues, and scars out of needle and thread. But her first embroidered body part “happened by chance.”

“It was during the second part of my degree and I was taking a break from thinking about art by doing some embroidery,” she says. “I was stitching the centre of a flower using French knots and suddenly, before my eyes, the little group of knots turned into a nipple, the embroidery hoop surrounding them like a breast. It seemed to me I had struck a rich seam. The disjunction between the medium and the subject matter was quite delicious. I felt I had to continue with this idea and develop it further.”

Around 15 years later, it’s grown into an ongoing series of body parts and features rendered in preternaturally skin-like silk or lycra. “My practice centres around ideas of beauty and ugliness and the conventions which determine our definition of each,” reads her artist’s statement. Pieces range from the stitched up lips of a Syrian refugee (entitled Stopped at the border), to stretch marks and bruises, to an entire wall of butts, boobs, and tummies in pink and white angel skin for Feast of Venus.

Currently, the Kent-based artist is working on a series of body parts altered by surgery or disease. “I had been thinking about the body and how it records its history in the form of scars, stretch marks, freckles, pimples, et cetera,” she says. “The body as a documentary of birth to death, and continuing even after death. And I had also been thinking about how some people intentionally change their bodies in permanent and semi-permanent ways – like by exercising, weightlifting — and by more extreme measures like fillers and surgery, and how this makes the body something like a novel - a made up story.”

We caught up with Hewett to talk hair and “body detritus” in art history, the embroidery renaissance, and whether needlework is inherently erotic.

What led you to develop your signature visceral, lifelike 3-D aesthetic? 

Sally Hewett: I suppose I think of myself as a sculptor really. I’ve always been more interested in 3D work than 2D, and even before I started on my current stitched and embroidered work, I made plump and fleshy work largely based on the body. Really the move from that first little nipple to bigger and plumper pieces was a natural progression for me. I spent lots of time experimenting with how to make the pieces work and sometimes that also included elements of luck. A carefully planned piece, where I had made little experimental pieces to work out how to do it, would, when I started on the final piece, take on a life of its own and become something that I had not really anticipated.

You did your dissertation on "Hair and Body Detritus in Art". Can you tell me about how hair and body detritus have been treated in the history of art and how your work fits within it all?

Sally Hewett: A very big topic! When I was doing my dissertation I looked at lots of contemporary artists who use hair, fingernail clippings, urine, sweat, etc., in their art. Part of what I was investigating in my dissertation was what artists might be doing by using these materials and what it added to their art. One of the artists who had first sparked my interest was Emily Bates who made these three dresses. They look like three pretty little dresses on hangers. The piece is called Dipilator and the dresses are made from spun hair clippings that the artist collected from hairdressers. I think that makes you see them quite differently – there is something perhaps slightly repulsive about them. And Tim Hawkinson made this little bird skeleton which looks quite sweet until you realise that it is made from his fingernail clippings.

So by using these materials – body detritus – these artists are including in their art all the things associated with these materials. Traditional materials used in art like stone or oil paint don’t have these multiple associations – they are simple mediums. They are to some extent pure materials untainted by things outside art. (I’m sure lots of people would disagree with me on this!) I sometimes use hair in my own work but in quite a naturalistic way. It is not disguised in the way that it is in these two artists’ work so perhaps does not have the same power to disturb and unsettle the viewer.

You've said that your work questions what bodily characteristics are considered beautiful and ugly. By isolating body parts as artwork, how do you think you have altered people's ideas about this?

Sally Hewett: I’m not sure that I’ve radically altered anyone’s ideas – it would be extraordinary if I had - but I think by addressing those issues using the techniques and materials I do I might be able nudge the viewer to at least think about their taken-for-granted ideas about what is beautiful or attractive or ugly or disgusting. I think lots of people, particularly women, see the things I make as quite funny and maybe that means that to some extent women don’t actually take the whole thing about beauty too seriously. So I might be preaching to the converted!

Do you ever get people criticizing that you reduce people to their body parts and how do you respond?

Sally Hewett: Only one person has made that criticism directly to me – although there might be plenty of others who thought it but haven’t said it. I don’t think I am doing that. My pieces are not about particular people, they are more about ideas and how we see things. So although I do depict particular body parts, and they do start from real people, they are removed from the context of a particular body. I hope that allows the viewer not to see them as a particular person reduced to their body parts but as a depiction of things that many of us have in common which maybe we could see as delightful or funny rather than ugly.


Can you tell me about your series showing bodies altered by surgery and disease? What was the inspiration? 

Sally Hewett: The inspiration for the first piece in this series was my Granny – she who taught me to embroider and sew. She developed breast cancer and had to have her breast removed. She was a very skillful needlewoman as well as being very grateful to her surgeon for saving her life—she was delighted with how beautifully he had stitched her wound. Ectomy was my tribute to her.

The other pieces in the series have been inspired by people I know, or have read about or seen, who have physical or mental conditions which have had particular effects on their bodies. The reaction to these pieces (which I have to say I was a bit nervous about, given that I don’t have any of the conditions) has been almost entirely positive. I think some people are relieved to have things which are usually kept under wraps out in the open so that they can be seen and talked about rather than being kept secret.

The show you’re a part of, Stitch Fetish 5, features "stitched, woven, and knitted erotic artwork." Is there something inherently erotic about needlework?

Sally Hewett: I don’t really think there is. If anything some other media seem to be more inherently erotic, such as paint or clay. But I think there is something delightful about the way that many of the artists featured in Stitch Fetish 5 are able to use traditional crafts in such an erotic and enticing way. I think we expect particular things when we think of stitching and embroidery and when those expectations are completely overturned it makes for an exciting and powerful show.

For a few years now, there seems to be a revival of embroidery art, especially as feminist art, and recently they've gotten quite a lot of attention online. Do you think there's such a revival? 

Sally Hewett:  Yes, I think there is a revival. There is some extraordinary and wonderful work being produced. I really don’t know why this is but I wonder if it’s partly a reaction to the surge of computer-based art and work made to order by people other than the artist – work which is produced by means other than by the skill of the artist. Maybe the embroidery movement is a bit like the slow food movement – artists want to spend time with the work and want to be physically involved with it so that they can see it develop and change over time.

What about embroidery do you think lends itself so well to defiance and expression?

Sally Hewett: Embroidery has historically been associated with gentility and women’s work, at least in western societies, so the artist can use those associations to create disruption to viewers who are expecting one thing and get another. Perhaps the defiant message has more power if it is written using a gentle medium - like a silent protest where everyone stands united in their opposition to something but no-one makes a sound. What you expect is lots of shouting and noise and what you get is silence. I think that disruption of expectation gives more power to the protestors’ voice.