That’s the title of an exhibition I’ve just been to see at Farfield Mill. The last working Schiffli embroidery machine in the UK is at Manchester School of Art, and for this exhibition fifteen artists worked with the machine, creating pieces that are both hand drawn and machine embroidered.
While I’d heard of the Schiffli machine, I had only a vague idea of the process – it’s actually a pantograph principle where the artist draws the line large using a hand-held device, moving across their design and clicking wherever they want the needle to enter the fabric; and the machine, which has 86 needles, reproduces the line in miniature many times across the fabric.
Each small movement of the artist’s hand is there in the stitched line, so it has a very human quality, a feeling of directness and immediacy. As each needle can hold a different coloured thread, or variations on one colour, or every thread can be the same, or some needles can be left unthreaded, there is potential for exploitation of tone, colour and pattern on a grand scale.
I was very impressed both by the impact and scale of the work, and by the quality of the exhibition. The textiles were well displayed with plenty of light and space; there were samples available to touch; and in the background there was the constant rhythmic sound of the machine at work (the sound was an element of one of the works – Kate Egan’s installation ‘Stack’), which added another sensory layer to the experience. It was a really engaging celebration of a fascinating machine that’s clearly cherished and enjoyed by those who work with it.
It’s difficult to pick out just a few pieces for a special mention… I loved the colour and movement of Rowena Ardern’s ‘Endangered’, which used the repeats created by the machine very effectively; I enjoyed Jill Boyes’ careful exploration of effects made possible by the Schiffli; I was moved by Jane McKeating’s poignant and humorous rag books, drawing on her sketchbooks from a period after she suddenly became single; and I would have loved to go home with Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh’s ‘Armchair Politico’, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.
The catalogue is excellent, with several essays, plenty of images and detailed text, and a DVD about the technical processes (which was also on show at the exhibition).
Mechanical Drawing is at Farfield till 29 June and is also travelling to the Macclesfield Silk Museum and the Knitting and Stitching Show. Really worth seeing if you can; if not, all the pieces are represented online, along with excerpts from the catalogue, and a short video, at