Kick-off 2019-2020: Harriet Riddell
A Performance Artist Stitches Premier League and Fashion Week
Written by Dr Birgitta Huse, 09.08.2019
“[A]nd then I swan in with my sewing machine” says Harriet Riddell remembering her time in Kenya. Her art works have been exhibited in London, Delhi, Nairobi and Toronto. She loves to travel. Coming from Oxfordshire she graduated from The University of Hertfordshire, UK in 2012. Whereas other students would paint or draw the live model, her mind, hands and eyes were busy stitching a portrait with her sewing machine. Her textile performance art incorporates the use of canvas and different types of fabric as well as coloured yarn with which Harriet creates visuals and documents the stories she has to tell. I visited Harriet Riddell in her Hampshire studio, the base of her venture called InStitchYou.
I first met you at the Winchester Hat Fair. I found that quite a contrast to travelling foreign countries to experience adventures. Do you like these contrasts?
I often go to Switzerland and do portraits during street performance festivals there. So I loved to be in Winchester, it is good fun. Previously I have done a lot of portrait stitching in summer in order to fund the rest of my year and my travels. I am usually in England during the summer months, or in Europe, and putitputitputit… but now I am changing this. With stitching portraits you go to shows, and you need to work really hard. I really enjoy doing portraits but so far I have done around 2000 portraits in my life. That is insane!
What are you going to do this summer then?
Next Thursday I will be stitching for the Liverpool Premier League football team. I will do a trophy with the football player’s names inside it. They will be filming me in the London Studio stitching it and this is going out on their Premier League Promo which will be seen by a couple of hundred million people which is quite exciting…but not when your tools are not working.
What happened? Thinking about the technique of freestyle stitching, the technique seems to be simple at first glance. But you have to take care of various things like the needles used, the tension and so on. You must have a very special relationship with your sewing machine.
Normally my machine and I have a great relationship though right now we have fallen out. I mean it’s working enough but next week it needs to work very well because this is going to be on TV.
Hopefully it will work out. Fingers crossed.
Later Harriet told me that she got a new sewing machine before the Premier League stitching. For those of us who are not familiar with football: “The Reds” from Liverpool presented a very special last season to us as they missed the Premier League Cup with just one point difference to the winning team. They won the European Champions cup instead. The Premier League Season 2019-2020 starts today August 9th with Liverpool and Norwich.
Let us talk about some of your works, Harriet, so we can understand what you are doing as a textile performance artist before you tell us about your plans for Fashion Week in Milan, please. You like to work at unusual places as for example a laundrette or a pub in London. How was it to work there?
The laundrette was the first place where I took my machine out when I was at University. It seemed appropriate because the laundry is as well cloth and fabric. It was interesting, quite quiet in the laundrette, a bit different in the pub. I got a lot more attention in the pub, some free pints. It was quite fun.
What did you stitch in the laundrette?
I stitched people putting clothes into the washing machines and the man cleaning the laundrette with a gold chain on his neck.
How much time did you spend in the laundrette? Stitching portraits from life you often take 25 minutes per portrait, did you limit your time at the laundrette as well?
In the laundrette I worked something like three hours. To capture an essence of a place you really need to stay there some time.
How do you get the ideas to work at these unusual places?
Initially I was very sporadic. In those days, I was always looking for a plug, a table and a chair. So I was limited to those places. That is why I worked in the laundrette, the pub, I also worked in cafes or even in a train as there is a plug for the laptop. But usually I just jump right in, go for what I see. It is quite spontaneous. I would have to ask permission from somebody. A lot of people would say no. I would head off into London with my machine on my back but people wouldn’t be up for it. So you might have been walking around for an hour or two before someone said “Sure, set up there.” Sometimes I did not really choose these places so much, they chose me.
Is it quite hard to find someone who is open minded in his daily routine and invites you in?
Yes, one example was Erroll in a greasy spoon. I asked if I could stitch in there and he said that I must pay for the electricity and if anyone complains about the noise of my sewing machine he is going to chuck me out. Also I must sit in a corner at the back. So I went to the corner and set up and started to stitch the conversation I could hear, Erroll frying chips. After I had stitched Erroll the menu he came over and pinched my cheeks, gave me free food and suddenly I was part of the family. It is amazing that kind of hostile greeting and then through the art it ideally becomes a communication that warms people and then they accept me.
You went to a shoe factory in China to do your artwork. What did you experience?
It was amazing. It was paid for by a company. I had just recently graduated and I felt lucky and completely free, me and my machine. I felt drunk with freedom. It was brilliant. And then walking into this factory where everyone was with their sewing machines. It could not have been a more opposite feeling. They were so still, their hours were so long and they would see their family two weeks a year. I felt that horrible contrast.
You want to bridge language gaps with your art. What was the communication with the people sewing in the factory like?
I made friends a bit with some people higher up in the office rather than the people on the floor. I was stitching on the same tables as the production line but the people there were really puzzled by me. They didn’t really want to interact. They did not have a look at what I was doing. They did not even smile much. It was a weird experience.
Do you also have any special impressions for us from your time working in Kenya?
Yes. Working in Kenya I found that there were people whom I would have to give money to set up my machine. I found that quite difficult at first because I liked the sharing experience rather than me taking. But I got to see their perspective, too. This is the poorest people, they have nothing and then I swan in with my sewing machine, a white girl privileged to travel the world.
Coming to your new and bigger project in Milan next year, what is this all about?
I want to work on an exhibition I am having in a Milan gallery in February 2020, the same month as Milan Fashion Week. Milan is a fashion city and I want to tell a story about the textile and fashion industry, develop this strong theme further. I have not really done this before. The focus will be on Britain’s history and textile industry as there was such a huge export of textiles. In October I will go to Taiwan to a factory and stitch how the clothes today are being made.
Milan might be the start of something for me because I want to make several big pieces that celebrate my portraiture and architecture but also tell this story. The more I look into it there is so much interesting information about the textile industry. I think my medium is a quite right one for documenting it. I think it will be an ongoing fascination within my work.
Thank you for talking with me about your experiences and your exciting new projects, Harriet. We are looking forward to see your new works!
To find out more about Harriet’s art visit www.harrietriddell.com. Harriet Riddell is still looking for funding for her Milan project, especially for her journeys in September 2019 in England that will form part of the project. You can watch the Premier League Production video with Harriet Riddell stitching for Liverpool Team here.