Nicole Chui experiments with embroidery on photographs to add more depth and texture. We met up in one of London’s most Instagrammable cafes Palm Vaults to talk about work and how she became ‘London’s messy embroideress’.
How did you get into textiles?
My grandma embroidered when I was growing up and made a lot of English smocked dresses for me and my three younger sisters. In high school I had a project and it was open for us to do anything we wanted so I chose to focus on English smocking which is where it all stemmed from. You gauge pleats together and embroider over it. There’s Canadian smocking, American and all sorts that I discovered while completing my high school project.
Did you study an art based course in high school or was it just part of the national curriculum?
It was part of the art section. The project was called the “Personal Project” but ironically it was marked in an academic context. I basically showed the process of how I learned to smock because it’s part of human ingenuity which is one of the ways of knowing. It was a good excuse to hang out more with my grandma and was really fun.
Did she embroider for a living?
Half and half. She actually was a hairdresser but was a seamstress too. She learnt it during the war.
Does your mum sew?
No, not all! It skipped a generation.
What about your sisters?
One is in fashion journalism and the others want to study English Literature and History. We’re quite arty for an Asian family.
I understand, my parents are from Ghana and Nigeria so our cultures are quite similar. What did your parents think about you wanting to study art and fashion?
My mum was really supportive because fashion was what she wanted to go into growing up but her parents never let her so she went into pharmacy and my dad was also creative but never got the chance to explore it either. He was supportive but a bit wary of how I’d make a career out of it. It was actually some of my peers that weren’t that supportive, they were more concerned with how I would make money. I’m glad I stuck to it because I’m really happy with where I’m at today.
There are loads of options now and different things you can do with your work and embroidery. How do you go about planning what you’re going to make?
I don’t really plan as I treat it more as doodling. My work is more of an outlet to release what I feel on the inside that I don’t usually say to people on a day to day basis… things I wish I had said. I don’t tend to think too much about it because once I get too technical I start to lose the creative aspects.
It’s not as fun either.
Yeah and this is fun for me. I’d like to continue it being fun.
When did you start embroidering on photographs?
A few years ago, I didn’t have a textiles course in high school so I had to put my work in a fine art context. I started researching this embroidery artist Maurizio Anzeri who’s collaborated with McQueen and embroiders on vintage postcards that he finds. His work is quite technical and I tried to imitate it but it was too intricate. He uses tracing paper to draw out the shapes and then would stick and measure where he would place each stitch. I tried to do it but I was too impatient and ended up going the freehand route!
So it started from looking at his work and wanting to try something similar?
Kind of, it also stemmed from the smocking and then seeing his work triggered it off and then my context of keeping it as a diary and now putting it on Instagram as a platform and sharing it.
Do you find it difficult working on card?
Yeah it’s really difficult. I’m a really impatient person and like instant results which I guess is why I like Instagram but sometimes I have to take a pause and step back to make sure my work is as good as it can be.
And not just for show.
Exactly. I’ve done that in the past but removed it because I thought it looked crap.
To be honest it probably doesn’t look crap but because you know you haven’t done your best you don’t want to be dishonest.
Mmm it’s that personal journey of knowing it could be better.
What’s physically difficult about stitching?
The pain! I don’t use a thimble because it’s so restricting for me. It gets in the way.
What’s the biggest size photo you’ve worked on?
A4, I collaborated with my friend on some photos she shot for a magazine but I wanted to use it for my experiments. It takes longer simply because there’s more space to fill in.
Would you like to work on a bigger scale?
I’d like to and have it displayed somewhere. I feel like art should be felt so you get an instant reaction. That’s what draws me to textiles; the feeling of the textures. The sense of touch.
What do you listen to when you’re working?
A lot of hip hop and grime. Lil Kim is one of my favourites. I like Foxy Brown’s Candy featuring Kelis. I’m a big Aaliyah fan too.
What do you love most about textiles?
The feeling and I like mixing different textures together.
Where do you get your threads from?
I get them from a haberdashery in Hong Kong. There’s a district called Sham Shui Po and that’s where you can get all supplies. It’s heaven for anyone that makes stuff. It’s really cheap and you can haggle too. Shenzhen and Guang Zhou have good fabric markets too.
Do you go back to Hong Kong a lot?
I go back maybe once or twice a year.
What other types of textiles would you like to get into?
I’d like to try and knit. It’s a technique I’d like to conquer.
Are you allowed to use the textiles facilities at LCF?
I am but I need to do an induction.
What’s the name of your course you’re studying?
Creative Direction for Fashion. It came about around 2011. It’s fairly new. I think LCF are cooking up some new courses and they’re building a new campus in Stratford.
Would you like to add anything else to your photos apart from stitches?
I’d like to add pom poms. I bought a whole bag of them when I went back to Hong Kong and I’m dying to use them. I’m making shirts for a couple of my friends because they’ve been asking me to for a while.
What do you want to do after uni?
After uni I want to try my hand in production, maybe working for a creative agency. I want to continue with embroidery in my final major project and see where it will take me. I’d like to have an exhibition of my work but I think I need I would need to develop my own style more.
Do you only stitch on photos or have ever worked over magazine covers?
After I finished high school and moved to London, I collected magazines and stitched over them but I noticed that a lot of the ones I had were so similar like there was a pattern in the photography and writing. I started to just poke fun at it but also make it look somewhat aesthetically pleasing. The first cover I stitched over was an iD one.
Was it difficult to stitch through that paper?
Not really because I had a thick needle. Magazine paper tears quite easily though.
Does knowing about embroidery change the way you shop for clothes?
Yeah, I buy less and sometimes customise my own clothes. Knowing about embroidery has kind of put me off buying mass produced machine embroidered clothes because it takes away from the value of hand stitching.
It takes a special personality to be able to sit and embroider for hours.
Yeah and I really like being able to create textures.