Kate Westerholt is a cross stitch sampler designer with a difference. She takes 18th century colonial motifs and combines them with modern film quotes and song lyrics in an attempt to question what our modern day culture will actually mean in hundreds of years’ time. Her work has become extremely popular, getting interest from Vogue, Topshop and the V&A museum in London. I decided to talk to her to find out a little more about her passion for stitching…
What’s your earliest stitching memory?
My mother had a friend who was a home economics teacher and she taught not only me but my sister and her own daughters the basics, so that got us started. Then I designed a really simple little nativity scene when I was young and we made that into Christmas tree ornaments. My dad actually still has it, it’s on his tree and when I go back home I keep meaning to ask if I can bring it back with me – it’s part of my cross stitch heritage!
How did you first start designing – did it lead on from these early experiences?
No, that was one of the only pieces I did and I kind of gave it up when I was a teenager and started doing different things. But then I had a conversation with a boyfriend’s aunt when I was in my late twenties and she suggested I take it up again as a hobby. I had the idea that if I could make it ironic and funny, I may be interested again. So I started to experiment and found it really relaxing. I started to really want to do it, there’s something sort of Zen about it, as in you’re in the moment and paying attention to what you’re working on but also it doesn’t take so much attention that you can’t have a conversation with somebody as you’re doing it or watch a movie or something. There’s something contemplatative about it and I really like that and if I haven’t done it for a bit I start to really want to do it again.
What’s the inspiration behind the wording for the samplers - how do you pick the song lyrics you use?
I look for ones that have lyrics that people can recognise – I’ve done as many with songs as I want to – I’ve still got ideas like one I’m working on now of a farm scene. A lot of the time I’ll find motifs I want to use before I think of the words, sometimes it happens the other way round but for instance in the farm scene, it’s very rural looking and that one’s either going to say “I like the nightlife baby” or “I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day”– the Kiss song. I’ll probably do one of each and just choose different motifs for them. With that one, I looked at very rural scenes with cows and sheep and chicken in a field and thought well, what is an ironic thing you could say about them.
With other ones I get the text in mind, then look for a pattern that may fit with that. Another one I’m doing is going to say ‘I was young and I needed the money’ – you can interpret that in many ways, I don’t want it to be too literal. I like the idea you can do something different with it and for it to be open to interpretations. I have one idea of a man standing and a woman seated by him and he’s taking her hand in his, so it’s actually a sweet little scene. It’s open to interpretation, so maybe people will think she’s marrying him for the money or maybe the other way round or maybe they’re selling each other something. That one’s going to look kind of Victorian. I came up with the text of that one before I had the pattern.
Have there ever been any designs that went so wrong you couldn’t show anyone?
No. But the nice thing about it is that you can rip up and start again. So I do a lot of ripping up and I’ll put a motif on and think that tree doesn’t look right so need to replace the tree. But I’ve never started from scratch and thrown anything out. But I have spilt things on samplers. You’ve got to watch where you place your tea – I’ve learnt the hard way. It happened with one of the most time-consuming designs I’ve done and I was about two-thirds of the way through. Even that I use as a template now so I’ve still got some use out of it.
You’ve designed a cross stitch sampler for Vogue – how did that feel?
It was such a thrill, so amazing. But it was funny – there’s sort of a story behind it. I got the commission three days before I was booked to go on holiday to India and it was a holiday where we were travelling around India and covered a lot of ground. I was a bit panicked – they gave me a month to do it and it was a three week holiday! I thought I’m never going to be able to do this.
But it was fine, I had to take a lot of supplies with me but it was nice because there were a lot of train journeys, so I’d sit on the train and I got to meet a lot of people that way. India has such an amazing history with textiles, so women were coming up to me, asking if they could see it and talking to me about the colours I was using, it was great. And the light was so different there than it is here, so bright colours looked a little more muted when I got back! I wanted it to be really special and was really pleased with it.
Is it true you’ve been asked to do a series of portraits of fashion designers for London Fashion Week?
That’s a tricky one! Somebody asked me and it hasn’t happened yet but it may do in the future. I’ve also got an offer to do a line of cross stitch designs for t-shirts at Topshop but I don’t know if that will happen either. They could come out looking really great.
And you’re working on designs for the V&A too?
Yes, they’ve taken ‘Get your freak on’ and a new piece I’ve done saying ‘Folk art, let’s dance’.
Any other plans?
I have an exhibition coming up – it’s a women’s craft show I’ve co-curated with Danielle Proud, on November 1st at a gallery in Islington. She’s doing some sculptures for it and I’m doing some cross stitch, we’ve got some other embroiders and a quilter.
Do you have any celebrity fans of your work?
Somebody told me that Banksy likes my samplers, but I can’t confirm that. But Damon Albarn from Blur and Gorillaz has bought two pieces. He bought the ‘Ghetto fabulous’ one and ‘The horse you rode in on’. I didn’t get to meet him though, that would have been fun. I also hear the guys from Corner Shop really like them as I’ve used the lyrics of one of their songs – ‘Born Disco, Died Heavy Metal.’
Is there one cross stitch design you wish you’d thought of first?
No, well I do look through the V&A samplers and I’m just astounded at how beautiful and meaningful they are, so I’ll look at old samplers and think that my samplers are a shallow imitation to those. When I look at the ones in the V&A I’m blown away by how much work and effort they contain. And there’s so much personality. There’s one that says “This is my dear father” and it’s a portrait by quite a young girl of her father in a military uniform and it must have been late 17 hundreds and it’s not even that the design is so amazing – I’ve seen more intricate ones but there’s so much emotion involved in it. Mine are kind of ironic and I hope they make people laugh but I think there are people out there that are doing cross stitch that has more significance to their own lives, which is part of what makes them historical.
I’ve just taken a trip to the US and went to my aunt’s house, which I haven’t been to in many years as she lives in another city to my parents. So I went to her house and we went into her study and there’s this quilt on the wall that my great grandmother had made and that I vaguely remember from childhood, but the entire quilt is covered in cross stitch. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea – and she said, yes we all did cross stitch. She took me downstairs and showed me some samplers she’d made and in another room some my grandmother had made, and I thought there’s this whole family history of doing not small but gigantic cross stitch projects. It’s like there’s something genetic, I was really moved by that!
What three cross stitch items would you take to a desert island with you?
When I was in India it was sort of like that! I’d take as many threads as I could carry in as many different colours as I really like having a huge choice, I like my little gilt stork scissors, they’re a bit ‘bling’! And lots of needles. Lately I’ve found this great cross stitch software programme too, but I guess that wouldn’t work on a desert island. If we could hook the computer up to some sort of bike system to get electricity that could work!
What event in your life would you like to record in cross stitch?
There would be two to choose from. The first is when I met Glen Matlock – the bass guitarist for the Sex Pistols before Sid Vicious. Everyone was in a bar and we had a ‘sing along with Glen Matlock’ session. It was great!
The second was when I was a little girl, about six years old, there was a blizzard in Buffalo. They happen a lot but this one was particularly bad and no-one could leave their house for about a week. I was living upstairs at my grandmother’s house at the time. I remember we went downstairs and there was a table with really large tablecloths in the middle of the room. We had a picnic under the table and my grandmother came and sat under there with me and we ate carrot sticks, peanut butter, raisins and healthy things like that!
Which cross stitch sampler saying most sums up your attitude to life?
I’m of legal age for whiskey, voting and loving. Now the next election is two years away, and my love life ain’t getting much better, so how about some of that one-hundred-percent! (from the film Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!)
– ok, not really, but it sounds funny and it’s one of my next pieces. Another is going in the show, and it will say, “I was young and I needed the money”.
To see more of Kate’s work visit www.katewesterholt.com