Harriet Popham

Embroidery Magazine Q & A

 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?


I am an illustrative textile designer working with print and embroidery. I work from home in Somerset and my rural surroundings feed in to my work, from our chickens in the garden to the veg grown down the road. These elements are juxtaposed with the inspiration that I take from architecture during city visits.  


Did you undertake any formal training? Where? What did you take away from that experience?

I studied surface pattern design at Swansea College of Art / University of Wales. It was the most incredible course and inspiring studio environment. I specialised in Textiles for Interiors and focussed on illustration and embroidery. I took so much away from the course but, in particular, the importance of investing time in drawing and development fuelled by first hand research.


What attracted you to working with embroidery?

I was introduced to free hand machine embroidery when I was sixteen. I remember the excitement I felt the very first time I experienced being able to send the stitch in any direction so freely, and the quality of line the cotton thread on stretched calico created. I have always loved the tactile nature of embroidery, and people’s response to it. People associate embroidery with time investment and the idea of ‘a labour of love’ and although freehand machine embroidery is a much faster process those connections seem to translate. I began using the techniques I used for stand alone embroidered illustrations to embellish for my interior textiles.

 

What inspired you to start your own business?

After graduating in 2014 I was very open to various opportunities, freelance work, interviews and internships that came about from exhibiting at the wonderful show New Designers. My first commission was for a wallpaper on which I spent a solid week drawing only to be told that the customer was after a very different look to the one the company had requested. This was not a great introduction to freelance work. I then decided to return to working on my own designs that I was passionate about, I produced a range of printed and embroidered canvases and put on my first solo exhibition where pieces sold really well which gave me confidence to keep going.


Despite the initial challenges and the increasingly common expectation that creative graduates must intern for a year before being offered work, I actually feel that it is an incredibly exciting time to be a designer / maker. Online sharing platforms and shops like Instagram and Etsy are encouraging more and more people to start their own businesses. We the makers have the opportunity to share and connect with creative communities, be seen by interested customers and find makers to collaborate with. I love so easily being able to see what talented and imaginative individuals are creating and the businesses they are building for themselves.

 

Can you describe your studio?

I work from home in a room that overlooks our garden. There are always birds outside the window which is lovely. The walls are covered in drawings, fabric samples, to do lists and plans. I’ve got two desks -one for the digital side of the design work, emails and business stuff and another for all the creative bits, where I do all my drawing and embroidery. I find it helpful to separate the two. You will often hear the Harry Potter audio books read by Steven Fry blaring out over the top of my sewing machine.. (a strong recommendation for anyone working from home!) I love my workspace, its a little haven and I feel very motivated in there.  


Can you tell me about some of the commissions you have completed?

I was commissioned by Sheffield Museum to design a 40 sq metre vinyl for their Millenium Gallery. The design took inspiration from items within the Gallery’s John Ruskin collection. Ruskin's enthusiasm for architecture and nature studies is reflected in the intricate illustrations of Sheffield’s buildings presented inside bird silhouettes. The birds sit between leaves from Sheffield’s Winter Gardens illustrated in Brusho pigment, acrylic paint, block colour and fine line drawings. This project was an absolute pleasure to work on from the very first drawing to the incredibly exciting installation day.

In late 2015 and early 2016 I illustrated two adult colouring books published by Harper Collins, The colouring books were a really exciting and unexpected venture for me. The great British Cake Show was my first big commissioned project and it enabled me to take the plunge into pursuing a creative career full time. The first book has now sold over 40,000 copies.


How would you best describe your style of illustration, and your textile work in general?

My illustration is bold yet intricate. I draw animals and architecture in linear pattern and texture which i translate and embellish with embroidery. My fabrics are busy and densely packed with illustrations. As the fabrics are made up of many drawings there is much to see within each repeat which is intended to make the work fun and engaging.

 

What are the themes that your work addresses? What are you hoping to express through your practice?

My work is a celebration of surroundings playfully put together with a lot of time and love! I hope through my practise to create textiles that stand out from the widely seen speedily produced digital designs. Anyone who can manipulate an image on photoshop can be a textile designer these days. Undoubtedly, you can get some lovely results through digital design but my aim is to create fabrics that are unique and made luxurious by the time invested in research and drawing. I exhibited at London Design Fair in September last year and people really seemed to notice and appreciate this difference which is encouraging!


Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, etc? What tools do you use for your work?

I always begin a collection with a visit to the place I have in mind. I take many many photos to work from, so the imagery is my own. I also visit zoos, parks, aquariums and the back garden to photograph the animals that I want to place amongst the architecture. These research trips really fuel my enthusiasm for the collections. With it all fresh in my mind I then spend weeks drawing from these photographs, scan everything in and start to piece it together digitally. I send the designs off to be printed by top quality English fabric manufacturers and then add embroidery to the final fabrics. My tools are; my camera, a vast amount of fine liners, cartridge paper, my imac computer and my beloved Bernina sewing machine. I love every stage of the design process. However, being a one woman band it is not always idyllic creativity. A lot of time is taken up by dealing with suppliers, sampling, emails, finance and marketing. It all needs to be done to get the work out there though and when it all comes together it’s incredibly rewarding.

 

How do you come up with new ideas? Where do you turn to for inspiration?

Luckily, I am never short of ideas! If anything, I have the opposite problem. I always have about three new collections that I can’t wait to start in my mind but I have to jot them down in scribble form and save them for a later date in order to invest the time required into the current project. There are just so many beautiful places in the world and plants and animals of all shapes and sizes that I want to illustrate so while running on that theme I have a constant source of inspiration.


Who or what has influenced your work?

Linda Florence, an incredible designer who has done the most inventive and varied projects within her design practice, visited our Uni in my final year and told me the most exciting thing on my desk was an embroidered chicken on top of a building and the layering I was doing with print and embroidery. I valued her opinion so much that I ran with it.. and am still going now! My tutors at Swansea provided incredible support and they completely nurtured our individuality, pushing us to our full potential.


What’s the favourite thing about what you’re doing now?

My favourite thing about what I do now is the total creative freedom! I am really aware of how lucky I am to be making work that I’m passionate about.

 

 

What are your longer-term goals for the future?

Going forward, I really want to break into the interiors market, get some big stockists and collaborate with furniture makers to create some one-off printed and embroidered pieces. I would aim for further involvement with museums.

I am currently working on designs inspired by the United Arab Emirates so look out for contemporary buildings and gold embroidered camels!