Process or 'How you do anything is how you do everything' (attributed to Zen Buddhism) (and why not?)

Fleur Oakes


Detail from 'The Epiploic Cube', 20x20cm, 2019, for Imperial College London

The way I begin most of my work is by finding that I had started it a long time before but hadn't realised. I spend a great deal of time doing pure research, that is to say looking at stuff. It can be museum based (my second home is the V&A), book based or endless digital scrapbooks. The latter has largely replaced the paper scrapbooks which may or may not be a good thing. When contemplating a new piece of work though it is to all these that I go in my head. I may have a very abstract notion of the thing that I want to bring into the world and it is the decades of mental collage which helps me unpack the ideas. The fight is to pull out just a few coherent notions which I can weave into something both real and meaningful.

Goblin Financial Times 'Come Buy' 2020

My work with raised embroidery is so very time consuming that each idea really has to sell itself to me. I cannot waste thirty plus hours of intense focus on something that I don't care for once complete so I have to almost see into the future before I can give the go ahead. Over the years my sketchbooks have evolved from acres of unrealistic musings to novellas of fully realised compact working drawings with notations and thread specifications. Once I'm happy I start planning the construction, sometimes just a flat outline sketch, more often a three dimensional flatpack design for different fabric panels to be stitched together later. Recently one piece involved me having to work out an anamorphic projection, another a flattened contour map.

'What we need is here' 10x15cm, 2017

The most complex element though is the emotional one. I do not have a mixable palate of colour that I can intuitively reach for which means that my response to the piece cannot be of the moment. Instead there is a vast range of coloured threads, preferably hand dyed, that in order to access I have to leave the house, get on the train and then examine under bad lighting in a shop. In my mind I have to hold the memory of what I need and take the swatch of thought with me to compare it to what is available. Buying because I just love it is as fruitful a way of choosing colour as any and I don't need much encouragement! Each shade speaks to me of emotion and memories, and each is as elusive as the perfume of wood or rooms in long gone front parlours.

Detail from Gleipnir, a Cat's Footsteps, 1x20cm, 2017

Embroidery is slow motion drawing so I am constantly trying to capture my own inner world in the shifting light across the stitches whilst maintaining the communication to my fingers. Tension in the thread dictates the quality of each stitch which then has to read to the human eye as a coherent whole and not distract with tiny faults. All this in order to make a real thing that exists in the world.

My safety net is often music backed up by bird song and silence so I carefully curate what I am listening to in order to keep all the layers of concentration afloat. Favourites currently include Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and Sigur Ros. To an onlooker this just looks like someone sewing with music playing. Inside I am wrestling with the universe.

'All that was left behind' , 5x5cm, 2016


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