Skip to content

Audrey Walker Retrospective: Guest Blogger Christina Fairley Erickson

August 7, 2018

Audrey Walker Retrospective: Guest Blogger Christina Fairley Erickson

Christina Fairley Erickson with Audrey Walker’s “Adam” and “Eve” stitched textiles (2000) and drawing study for “Eve”.

I recently returned from a trip to the UK where I had planned several stops to view textiles of 20th century embroiderers, as part of my research for Gail’s classes.  One week before I was scheduled to leave on my trip, I received my “Embroidery” magazine, the publication from the UK’s Embroiderers’ Guild.  To my surprise, an article highlighted an upcoming exhibition in Ruthin, Northern Wales of Audrey Walker’s amazing embroideries.  And it was opening one day after I was scheduled to drive North through Wales up to Scotland!

As an artist who does a lot of pictorial work, I’ve been a fan of Audrey Walker’s work ever since my mentor and tutor, Gail Harker, introduced me to Audrey’s intricate stitched portraits.  So, without much hesitation, I worked out a change in my itinerary to stay an extra day in Wales, so I could see the exhibition on its opening day.

Detail from "Eve" by Audrey Walker 2000.

Detail from “Eve” by Audrey Walker 2000.

Audrey Walker’s six-decade long career in embroidery has influenced many contemporary embroiderers.  Not only is she an amazing artist in her own right, she succeeded Constance Howard as the head of the Goldsmith’s College Embroidery & Textiles Department (1975-88) guiding another generation of makers.  She focused on teaching her students to seek out and explore their ideas first, then to study the history and techniques to realize their artistic vision. Her first textile associate was Jan Beaney, who went on to become internationally renowned for her stitchwork, as well as being Gail’s tutor!  I guess I can claim Audrey is my embroidery great-grandmother.

This exhibition, in Audrey’s 90th year, is a retrospective of her work, with pieces coming from as far away as the U.S. (owned by private collectors) brought together at the Ruthin Craft Centre, the location of Audrey’s first solo exhibition 18 years ago.

"A Cumbrian Birthday" 1997/8 embroidery by Audrey Walker

“A Cumbrian Birthday” 1997/8 by Audrey Walker uses a tray cloth from Audrey’s childhood. The embroidery (approximately 30″ w x 20″h) represents the Cumbrian tradition of offering guests a class of port and cream crackers with rum-butter on the best china, when visitors came to see a newborn baby.

Audrey’s start in textiles began ten years after completing her degree in fine art (mainly portratit painting), after seeing an exhibit of fabric collages by Margaret Kaye (1912-2002).  Prior to that , Audrey associated embroidery with the domestic textiles of her youth.  Rather than continuing on as a painter, textiles became Audrey’s medium of choice.  She even incorporated some of her family’s domestic textiles into her artwork, giving a nod of recognition to the historic roots of embroidery.

Topics that have figured prominently in Audrey’s work include “momentary glances, encounters, inward smiles, the power of a gaze, vulnerability and the simple pleasures of life”.  Some of her figures have a wistful, enigmatic look or smile, reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.  Audrey’s process includes drawing portraits prior to her stitching and even drawing at the end of a day of stitching as a critique of her work or to an express an idea to develop in the future.

"Beach Woman" by Audrey Walker 1996, approximately 36" h x 28"w. 

“Beach Woman” by Audrey Walker 1996, approximately 36″ h x 28″w.  The larger-than-life size was to be suggestive of ‘heroes’.

Embroidery detail from "Beach Woman" by Audrey Walker 1996.

Embroidery detail  from “Beach Woman” by Audrey Walker 1996. Machine and hand stitched.

It’s remarkable to see the incredible detail that has gone into each of these large pieces.  The images are created through color blending with the threads.

“There is no doubt that building up an image with absolutely separate lines of colour – the threads – is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable activity.  But it can be infuriatingly slow and it has all kinds of hazards! …However, the very slowness of the process can be productive.  It allows a longer encounter with the idea and therefore the chance to explore it more fully and critically.  It offers opportunities for valuable interludes – for instance setting a large piece on one side for a time in order to work through related thoughts on a smaller scale or in a different medium.  The problems in the larger piece are often solved through side-stepping into related work.”  (Audrey Walker ‘Insights’, 1999.)

Audrey was a regular participant in the “62 Group” exhibitions from 1966 – 1981.  Starting in 1962, the 62 Group of Textile Artists was created as support for serious professional textile artists.  Audrey joined in 1964 and remains an Honorary Exhibiting member.

"Encounter" 1998 by Audrey Walker approximately 36 h x 54" w.

“Encounter” 1998 by Audrey Walker approximately 36″h x 54″ w.  Originally intended as two separate pieces, Audrey reworked the piece through drawings and small embroideries to overlap the images.

"Observed Incident" by Audrey Walker 2002.

“Observed Incident” by Audrey Walker 2002. Approximately 28″ w x 60″ h (each panel). On loan from the Crafts Council.

Detail of knight's face with helmet and shield from "Observed Incident".

Detail of knight’s face with helmet and shield from “Observed Incident”.

"Stop and Smell the Roses" by Audrey Walker 2004.

“Stop and Smell the Roses” by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately 14″w x 20″ h. On loan by Jean Littlejohn.

Inspired by a tiny embroidery fragment less than 2″ high at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Audrey created “Observed Incident.”  The 14th Century inspiration had 3 knights in full armor with a watching figure.  She wished to salute the unknown embroiderer’s imagination with a large scale version of the topic.


"Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries" by Audrey Walker 1984.

“Life is Just a Little Bowl of Cherries” by Audrey Walker 1984. Approximately 20″w x 15″ h. On loan by Jan Beaney and Steve Udall.  Ground is a tablecloth c 1935 to celebrate Audrey’s mother’s domestic embroidery.  One of a series on this theme.

"The Big Blue Bowl" by Audrey Walker 2013.

“The Big Blue Bowl” by Audrey Walker 2013. Approximately 24″w x 18″ h.

Detail "The Big Blue Bowl" by Audrey Wal;ker 2013.

Detail “The Big Blue Bowl” by Audrey Wal;ker 2013.









The Big Blue Bowl is part of Audrey’s recent body of work where she is experimenting with a single line of stitch, rather than overlapping stitches, much like Kantha stitch.

"Gaze IV" by Audrey Walker 1999.

“Gaze IV” by Audrey Walker 1999. Approximately 14″w bottom; 11″ w top x 14″ h. On loan by Diana Springall.

Detail of Goldwork and Embroidery  in "Gaze IV" by Audrey Walker 1999.

Detail of Goldwork and Embroidery  in “Gaze IV” by Audrey Walker 1999.

Christina Fairley Erickson with "Temptation (The Collectors)" by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately 36" x 36" On loan by Diane & Marc Grainer, USA.

Christina with “Temptation (The Collectors)” by Audrey Walker 2004. Approximately 36″ x 36″ On loan by Diane & Marc Grainer, USA.

Once in a while you need to give in to temptation… as I did by going out of my way to make it to this marvelous exhibition.  I’m so glad I did!

Birds in Art, Design and Embroidery

June 18, 2018

Birds appear in all types of artwork and have done since Palaeolithic cave paintings were done. Birds have been chosen for symbols of myths and legends. We only have to think of the Rising Phoenix.  In some religions birds are a substitute for the human soul. Even today birds are chosen for subjects with their elaborate feathering, graceful sweep of wing or comedic form. Embroiderers can show with  the direction of a line or contrast of line direction a complex patterning of feathers.   Look closely at the bird photos done mostly by our students and also from historic collections how birds are approached in art and design and in stitch.  Thank you to  students whose artwork I have shown.  This is not a comprehensive collection.  There are many more birds in our student bird  library but unfortunately the photos are still on my computer rather than in my Word Press Library. In the future I shall pull a few more into this collection so you can see  other magnificent birds.   Gail Harker


Beasts and Animals in Design and Embroidery

June 6, 2018

Designers and Embroiderers alike have used images of their pets or other animals they have observed.  Imagined or real! It amazes me how interesting the forms or shapes are and what fun embroiderers/stitchers in particular have had with these images. Some of the techniques below include: Stump work, Machine embroidery, Even weave hand embroidery, Applique, Crewel Work, Lace, Quilting, Metal thread work, Soft sculpture and Raised Needleweaving.   The artwork is mostly from our students with a few relics from museums.  Thanks to our students for their imaginative renderings.  Gail Harker

The Overlord Embroidery + History of D-Day in Portsmouth

May 28, 2018



from Operation Overlord by Stephen Brooks and Eve Eckstein

Walking along 34 very large embroidered panels we look at and  listen through our headphones to the story of the invasion of Normandy in 1944, almost a re- enactment of the event. I have been visiting The Overlord Embroidery since its first London showing at the Whitbread Brewery  in the 70s to the grand opening of The D – Day Museum in Portsmouth in 1984. Our last visit was in 2014. As the Museum has just reopened after a major redo, I look forward to the next Tour that we take students to.

The D – Day Museum is a very special museum that was built to house the Overlord Embroidery along with documentation of the activities of the Allied Forces and their invasion (Operation Overlord) into Normandy. To look at their website, you could never imagine the size and power of The Overlord Embroidery to memorialize the event.

The Overlord Embroidery took the Royal School of Needlework five years to work, and, at 272 feet in length, is the largest of its kind in the world. Perhaps the size is now surpassed but the quality is one of a kind.  Each panel shows a different part of the D – Day landing. Sandra Lawrence designed it panel by panel from war photos.  Lord Dulverton and  retired senior officers from each of the services oversaw the design details to ensure accurate storytelling and uniform detail.

What a major feat to create a pictorial event making soldiers and others seem realistic through appliqué and a handful of stitches. Familiar faces of the famous wartime personalties such as Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower came to a realistic likeness through the needle of one lady – Ruby Essam who had been at the Royal School of needlework for 50 years. 20 embroiderers and 5 apprentices worked on 34 panels over 5 years. The strategy, planning, designing, careful organization and the patient skills of the designer and needlewomen are a tribute to their efforts.  It is through memorials such as this that we remember those who sacrificed their lives.

 I have included a couple of photos from the book Operation Overlord – The History of D-Day and the Overlord Embroidery by Stephen Brooks and Eve Eckstein.  This is a well written book (1989) about the history of the Overlord Embroidery and the actual event of the largest amphibious operation in history. An Armada of approximately 150,000 men and 20,000 vehicles headed towards 5 landing beaches in Normandy on June 6th  1944.   

The only 2 successful amphibious invasions across the English Channel in history, The Bayeux Tapestry (really an embroidery) and the Overlord Embroidery are 1000 years apart.  They are both memorialized in fabric and thread.  The soft comforts of fabric and thread and the art form of the needle might seem to contrast with the horrors of war. But there it is!

Google the name Images Operation Overlord and you will come up with more images. See our visit to Omaha Beach in Normandy

                Gail Harker

Sensuous Snake Patterns

May 8, 2018

Regardless of what you think of snakes – if you begin to look at them as objects for visual study the lines, patterns and textures begin to jump out at you. That’s exactly what happened to Miriam Rabitz when she was studying Art and Design for the component of her London City & Guilds Level 3 program at our school in Washington. When it came to creating an embroidered item, she knew exactly what she would like to create.  She designed a body adornment that could be worn in a multitude of ways around the body.   Body Adornment ©Miriam Rabitz. Original Design of the item was inspired from Miriam’s Snake theme. Dimensional Bead Work and machine/hand wrapped cords.    Here’s a link to the next design course coming up in 2018.

500 Posts Today – an Embroidered Bookbinding

April 28, 2018

This is the 500th blog I have written.   I often wonder what motivates other people to keep on writing blogs.  Each one takes at least an hour – often 2 (I’m slow.)  What keeps me writing is the historical anonymity of women artists and embroiderers. I want this century to be different.  It’s my own passion and excitement for the historical and the contemporary art of embroidery that I want to share with my students and other fellow embroiderers. Let me know if you are inspired from some of my posts.  Gail Harker

The Whole Book of Psalmes – English 17th C. – Published London 1634.  British Library shelfmark  c17a24.  White satin embroidered with pictorial, religious motifs. This tiny book measures approx. 11 cm. in length (fits into the palm of your hand) and has an amazing amount of detail in it.  The front shows Jacob wrestling with the Angel, although it looks like they might be doing a little dance step.  Magnification and seeing this item in person shows me that most of the filling stitches are worked in a type of long and short stitch with silk thread. The tree is done in stem stitch with the leaves worked with a stitch now called Knot on a Stalk. Couched threads are used around the figures. Some of the threads are metal. The silver threads have turned black. The back shows Jacob’s Ladder with angels. The tree and cloud is worked with couched threads and leaves are long and short stitch with knots or little stitches at the tips. This is my take on the stitches.  Thanks to Philippa Marks at the British Library who has assisted my research and my students for past many years.  Have a look at the magnificent embroidered book bindings online at the The British Library.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Pilgrimage to See the Tulips

April 26, 2018

Why do people get so ecstatic when looking at the brilliant colors in the tulip fields here in the Skagit Valley in Washington State? Perhaps it is for the same reason that I do. To walk among the tulips reminds me, at that moment that I am part of a large magnificent world.  It is like walking with the gods of fortune. Just to get to the tulip fields involves a little walking, sometimes holding an umbrella over my head and at the same time watching that I don’t slip on the wet mud – just to take a few dozen photos of tulips and to walk among them.  Year after year, we return as in a pilgrimage to see the spectacle once again.  In art terms the spectacle involves areas of color that are juxtaposed against other unlikely colors and the sky to create fascinating horizontal contrast. Thanks to the local farmers who artistically create this for us.  Everyone, even the smallest of children recognize the elements of art in the Skagit Valley!  If you would like to see the end of the tulips this week – April 30, click on this link to see what is going on in the local area to celebrate tulips. I have put together a few of my favorite tulip photos that I have taken over the past few years…. to share some of the Tulip Magic!    Gail Harker

%d bloggers like this: