Coastal scenes layered in fabric
Inspired by the North Devon coastline where she lives, textile artist Rachel Sumner creates colourful collages from scraps of material, depicting unfettered landscapes and seascapes
Small boats rock on the tide in North Devon’s Taw-Torridge estuary as oystercatchers, curlews and egrets feed in the shallows. Away from the water, the landscape is a mix of hedgerows and fields, punctuated by sheep, small clusters of houses and the odd farm building. It is this combination of coast and countryside which inspires textile artist Rachel Sumner’s vibrant fabric pictures of landscapes and seascapes. She has been making her layered collages of fabric scraps and stitches for nearly 20 years, using appliqué and machine embroidery. “I love that the area is untamed,” she says. “You have sandy beaches, seagulls following the tractors in the fields, and there are old boats with peeling paintwork. Looking at all those colours under different light conditions inspires me.”
Rachel has had a love of textiles since childhood. “I had two grandmothers who used to make our clothes,” she says. “As children, we were allowed to go to choose fabric with them. With me, it always had to be natural material: cotton, usually. I used to hoard bits, and I remember once trying to weave with strips of fabric.” Doing a collage adds depth to an image, and she likes the idea that discarded scraps can go back out into the world and have another life. “It makes me feel comfortable about what I’m doing. At college, I had a fear of the blank canvas. I preferred to dye fabric, cut the bits up and see where it led. I use mostly cotton, silk and linen from my lifelong collection.” Rachel grew up in Northamptonshire and went to art school in Maidstone, Kent, but never took to fine art. Studying textiles as a subsidiary subject, she realised this was where her interest lay. After leaving college, she lived in France, where she started painting on silk, which was popular at that time. On her return to Britain in 1999, she settled in Devon where she had family as well as being attracted by the beauty and variety of the landscape. She dug out her old material pieces and started experimenting with collage again. “I wanted to do something that had more depth to it,” she explains. “Silk painting is like doing a watercolour. You’ve really only got one chance to get it right, whereas collage wasn’t all about the drawing. It was
something I could manipulate and build up more. It’s a hundred times more creative for me.”
While she is out, Rachel takes photographs which will act as reminders of a composition or a detail that catches her eye. But she does not copy those images in fabric. Her work process is much more intuitive. “There are several ways in,” she says. “Some days, I don’t know what to do, but I need to get back into the work. I will pull out tiny bits from my big tubs of fabric and see if I can make a square with them. Perhaps the next day, I’ll see that I could do a small study of a bird on that, though some pieces sit around for months before I’ll see what to do. “The other way in is when I have a definite idea in my head. I pull out bits of fabric and end up with a heap. The first stage is the basic background; then I add the details in layers. The enjoyment is putting all the disparate fabrics together and making a composition.” She doesn’t draw her designs beyond doing a simple initial sketch for placement purposes. Her larger pieces are spread in a light-filled studio extension at the back of her house. She used to exhibit with her late sister Mary, who painted country scenes. Her main sewing room is a small bedroom where she has two industrial sewing machines and baskets of colour-coordinated thread, sacks of fabric pieces and an old plan chest containing works in progress.
When she is working, she has a mood board in front of her sewing machine that includes the photos she has taken, often of colour combinations. “I have always been attracted to colour. I shared that with my sister
Mary. I like sea blues, and I get excited when browns and blues work together. I like toned-down greens, with hints of other colours, and I also like touches of bright contrast. Greens and browns are hard to come by in found fabrics, so I cold-dye my own.” Unlike natural dye, this does not fade. Once the picture elements are in place, Rachel holds them together with iron-on interfacing material and stitch. “I have to make the pictures to my own satisfaction. The idea of putting glue on fabrics that I love would be anathema to me,” she says. Stitch is also used for embellishment where necessary. “My work is quite precise. The stitch is the drawing element. I try not to overwork it, but I use some to convey rough vegetation or add texture to a tree. The stitch moves it on to a more refined image, but it’s also another colour opportunity.” She uses a handful of different machine stitches, mostly a form of zigzag for denoting waves on the water, for example, or to cover the raw edges of the appliquéd elements. At the end, she hand-stitches fine details. “It might be if I’m doing a flock of birds in the distance or for the birds’ beaks and eyes. It’s also a way of having a close final look at the picture.”
Land and sea
A recent seascape was Appledore Seagulls. “I kept seeing a boat that always has an amazing reflection under it, with a distant landscape across the estuary behind and a collection
“Where my fathers stood Watching the sea, Gale-spent herring boats Hugging the lea; There my Mother lives, Moorland and tree. Sight o’ the blossom! Devon to me!” John Galsworthy, ‘Devon To Me’
of seagulls on it. The challenge was to do the reflection. In the end, I used dissolvable fabric. I sewed onto it with white, grey and silver thread, then I soaked it in water. The backing dissolves and the stitches hold together.” She uses polyester thread in her work because cotton breaks if it is pulled back and forth on the machine. Rachel’s seascapes are more impressionistic than her landscapes. “The sea is very difficult to do, but you try to convey what it does to our senses,” she says. One example was Shoreline, a large work of a familiar part of the estuary near her home. “That one is the synthesis of repetitive walks and how I feel about moving through that landscape. It’s constantly changing, and the light is playing on the water. You can do decorative things with layers of blues and try to give the sense of enjoyment you get from the sea.” Rural scenes pose a slightly different challenge. “Landscape is often green on green, so you have to delight in the little things that can lift it. I did a picture of lapwings after I came round a corner and saw them dotted in a field with a lovely tin-roofed shed. It’s great when you find an old striped bit of fabric and, from a distance, it looks like a roof. I even look forward to putting in telegraph poles because they add a structural element and make the eye travel through the picture. I don’t want to pretend there are no buildings or people, as our landscapes are a product of human activity.” A recent work she has undertaken is of a disused dock
in Appledore. “I like vestiges of past industries, where old boats or lime kilns are being gradually claimed back by nature. They’re decaying, softening and blending in, and there’s such beauty in that,” she says.
Many of Rachel’s pictures depict her surroundings, but she has recently spent a lot of time working on studies for a book, Stitched Textiles: Birds. That has involved collecting research material on individual birds in order to get the basics right. It is a theme she has continued, recently completing a picture of a magpie’s nest, inspired by a tangle of scraps and thread she had, and her own magpie tendencies to collect. Rachel has also embroidered imaginary and abstract maritime scenes, including one seascape that featured a huge fish in the sky. “That represented my thoughts about getting your living from the sea and how important the sea was in this area,” she says. The less literal, fantasy-landscape route is one she would like to explore further in future. “I’m always trying to develop what I do. I don’t want to have a product and just keep plugging away at that. I need an intellectual interest.” In her more stylised pictures, she occasionally adds other found objects. These may include buttons, labels or a piece of rope. “I can’t throw them away, so I incorporate them. It’s just a bit of fun.” Humour is an important ingredient. “I have to have a smile in each piece. With birds, I’m particular about their eyes and posture because that’s where we see the humour in animals. Chickens are brilliant for that. They’re infuriating if you keep them, which we did in France, but they’re always looking around, and they’re a great shape, which gives you lots of scope.” Rachel enjoys making large-scale pictures, measuring up to 3ft (1m) wide, though there are practical difficulties with a work of that size. “You have to make it in strips to get it under the needle, then join them together at the end. It has to be a subject I really want to do because of the time factor and the limited demand.” These can take six months to complete, but she works on smaller pieces at the same time. Most are 12-16in (30-40cm) wide, though individual bird studies can measure 7in (18cm) square. These take approximately a week to make.
Rachel prefers her work to be left raw and often mounts on canvas, though buyers tend to favour having it protected under glass. She is a member of the Appledore Crafts Company, and her work is for sale in its shop.
In particular, Rachel enjoys handling fabrics that have personal resonances and can remember where two-thirds of them came from. “I’ve used tiny fragments of my mother’s wedding dress in the sea in pictures. It was pale blue with a swirly pattern. And offcuts from my aunt’s dresses have been passed on to me, so they go in. I like that because they are part of who I am.” That said, she is not sentimental about utilising them. “I’m quite hardline about it. Using them is based only on colour.” Although Rachel loves fabric, she designs pictures that are more about image than substance and is pleased that many people are surprised when they find out they are textiles. “It’s gratifying that men as well as women like them even though they’re textiles, because they respond to them as pictures,” she says. “I like subject matter that’s not too soft. I have a painter’s eye. I can’t get carried away by sparkly fabrics, and I don’t use much patterned fabric. The material is there to serve a purpose. I want people to judge my work as an image.”
Rachel places cut-out portholes on a collage featuring a boat (above). She uses her own photographs as a guide when building up the rows of streets rising from the water’s edge (below).
Sketches and designs are one starting point for Rachel’s compositions. On other occasions, she will pull out handfuls of material scraps for inspiration.
Rachel incorporates shades of one colour to add depth to her pictures. Her array of threads reflect this, with blues for the sea, which influences much of her work, and russet hues which lend themselves to landscapes.
Rachel hand-stitches a collage from the back of the piece. She likens the stitching to fine drawing, which creates detail and texture. Her needlework also adds more strands of colour.
Layers of the collage are built up from scraps of fabric and quirky found objects; in this instance, stamps.
A finished artwork, called Lapwing. The picture is based on a country scene Rachel walked into. The birds help to break up the predominant green of the landscape and create a focal point. › This country fields scene is awaiting the addition of a fabric bird. Tartan, gingham and floral fabric add light, the impression of texture, and interest.
An abstract interpretation of Bideford’s Long Bridge. Part of its fascination for Rachel is the fact that the arches are different shapes and sizes. She also designed a tourist banner for the town based on its bridges, old and new.
Bird subjects bring character and sometimes humour to Rachel’s pictures. She aims to capture their stance and attitude.
The bold depiction of a lighthouse juxtaposes what is happening beneath the surface of the sea with what is going on above. A variety of blues, green, mauve and white take the eye from the fish in the shimmering water to the one mirrored on the weather vane against a dark sky.