Louise Gardiner

by Helen Johnson

Louise Gardiner, colourful contemporary machine embroidery

“...you can’t just wait for it to land. I’ve always been driven by knowing I have something unique, and if I don’t get it out there, no-one will come and find me.”

Louise Gardiner’s work sparkles with energy – energy that tumbles out in conversation like a Niagara Falls of ideas. She’s renowned as a ‘contemporary embroideress’, but says, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘sewer’ – I just use the sewing machine to draw.”
“I didn’t choose embroidery: it chose me, when a technician at Goldsmiths College put me on the sewing machine and gave me free range. I liked it because I didn’t have to plan or revise or study, mark making was instant.”
She’d gone to Goldsmiths on the recommendation of tutors on her Foundation course at Manchester Metropolitan University. But that was many years ago, and Louise has spent a working life developing her artistic direction and her business. She says, “I’ve always had a freelance spirit, so after I graduated, I decided to put on an exhibition. I hired a building, made and framed 25 pieces, and organised a first night party.”
Louise’s work sold from the start, and she saved enough to go on a 12 month world trip. That was 17 years ago, and on her return, she set up a studio at home, and got a job in a bar to help pay the bills. She says, “I yo-yoed between London and Manchester, always looking for opportunities to develop my creative work.”
She adds, “I found opportunity where others might not ask. For instance, I did an exhibition in the roof at Chelsea Design Centre during London Design week. My work has matured since then, and I can’t believe that I did it at that time, but people liked it.”
“By the age of 30, I’d established myself reasonably well in a few galleries, and was making a small living from my work. Then I decided to go to Manchester to do an MA in illustration. I played with film and video for 6 months. I loved the spontaneity of film and this loosened my creative work up and strengthened it at the same time. During the MA, I continued doing embroidery commissions and exhibiting.”
“Afterwards, I had a huge amount to pay off, and I did some teaching. I was invited to cover for a sick art teacher in a school, teaching A level. It was meant to be only for a week, but it ended up being two years.”
Louise has taught specialist workshops ever since, first for the Embroiderers’ Guild and then organising workshops herself. She says, “Teaching is a break from the solitary confinement of embroidery, but I need that solitary time too. So I love the variety of teaching occasionally.”
And, she adds, “Teaching workshops helps people to re-light their va-va-vroom and promote free machine embroidery as an exciting medium. Everyone has creativity, and it’s therapeutic to get together and be creative in an historic textile environment.”
After paying back her student loans, Louise decided to move to Bristol, where she had family connections. The move sparked a leap in her creative work. She says, “I knew I wasn’t going to survive unless I worked very hard. So I started networking, applying for bigger commissions and so on. My work began to develop and get more professional. I got more commissions, and worked with various galleries.”
“I got my first large commission, for Gloucester Royal NHS Trust. It was very challenging, and a big learning curve to work with a massive organisation like the NHS.”
To do all this work, she took a studio at Jamaica Street Studios in Bristol. She says, “It was a pleasure to have a studio and work in a creative environment alongside other people. It made me realise what long hours I worked – I was often there late at night, working solitary hours. So to be around others, having tea breaks with chats and laughs, was such a pleasure.”
“But,” she adds, “I also found it disheartening when people lost their creative mojo, renting studios and not using them. If you’re not making a living from art, it’s hard to juggle time.”
But she and other full-time artists at the studios were unhappy about having under-used units there, and, she says, “We began trying to get a more pro-active, vibrant atmosphere. If people weren’t using their studios, we tried to persuade them to come in more, or to move on.”
She adds, “I quickly got involved in the running of the place. No one really sees the unglamorous jobs as a manager: getting the toilet mended, paying the bills – it was an old building, but I loved it.”
“And it did work. We got fresh blood, new artists, and had one of the best Open Studio parties in Bristol - though it wasn’t just me, we worked as a team.”
One of the successes, “Was introducing Critique Sessions. They catapulted people into much more exciting work, that they were capable of, but they had got into a rut.”
Over these years, Louise says, “I really grew as a professional artist, and as a business person. It wasn’t always easy, but I matured, and made some great friends in that building.”
“Over that six years, I went through several stages of my work. I’d done a lot of quirky, colourful and commercial framed pieces for galleries. They sold well, but I began to feel like a rat on a wheel, with less room for creative expression. So I stopped working with commercial galleries, and did more themed shows, lots of private commissions, and big public health commissions.”
One of the things she has learned over the years, she says, “Is you have to make your own opportunity: you can’t just wait for it to land. I’ve always been driven by knowing I have something unique, and if I don’t get it out there, no-one will come and find me.”
An example was when Louise went on the radio. She says, “I’d just finished another commission for the NHS, this one about breastfeeding. I used it as a reason to ring Woman’s Hour. I spoke to a lady, and she said they’d just featured breast feeding, so I suggested life as a contemporary embroideress? – and they liked it.”
The radio slot triggered other events. Louise explains, “My website was already doing fairly well, but this high profile exposure resulted in lots more hits, so when people searched for embroidered illustration, my website floated to the top of the list.”
“That led to a large commission with Liberty of London - a real benchmark for me.”
“It also led to my being approached to do an embroidered font for the Kirsty’s Home Made Home TV series and book. I saw an opportunity there, and pitched the idea that I teach Kirsty Free Machine Embroidery. This led to even more web hits, and helped build my public profile.”
Sometimes, opportunity did come serendipitously. Most of Louise’s shows were in London, Manchester or Bristol, where she’d built contacts. But one day, she says, “A very handsome Indian curator came to my stand at Origin. He said he was doing an exhibition in India called Magical Reality. I took a risk and said yes right away.”
Louise went to India to meet the curator and, she says, “He introduced me to a prestigious gallery in Delhi, and I sent 7 large embroidered canvasses.”
Things were going well, but, she says, “My whole life was based around the Jamaica Street studio. It was fantastic, but all consuming.”
She realised that the time was right to move on when she was invited to speak and also teach a series of workshops for the 2010 conference of the New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guild. She left Bristol and toured New Zealand for 3 months, travelling in Thailand and India again on the way home.
She says, “While I was away, the National Trust invited me to do a solo show at Quarry Bank Mill in my home village of Styal in Cheshire. So as soon as I got back, I had to find a studio in Manchester and make 28 pieces.”
“I worked like the clappers, often late into the night. I also designed display cabinets explaining the process of my work.”
The show was successful, with originals selling, and also limited edition prints. It’s an avenue that Louise hopes to build on. She says, “I’m hoping to bring out a range of bespoke prints and merchandise, through the National Trust. In the long term, she adds, “I know that my life as an embroideress is limited, because it’s a physically demanding medium. I now archive my work through professional photography. It’s expensive and time consuming, but I feel it will enable me to explore new avenues. I’d love to do a book.”
But first, she wants to make large pieces, and says, “For the first time in my life, I have a waiting list of commissions. It’s lovely to have that security – but it’s daunting as well because they’re all large, with diverse subject matters.”
She reflects, “It’s amazing how many different stages there are to being a freelance artist. You can’t be precious. You always have to push the boundaries; become more professional, and more commercial – but carefully and wisely. I like to have several strands to my career to keep it lively: private commissions, big public commissions, book illustration, and teaching.”
Despite decades of creating, Louise shows no sign of running out of steam. She says, “There’s opportunity all around – sometimes I feel like an ideas machine.”
“It’s going to be interesting.”

See Louise’s work at: www.lougardiner.co.uk

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