We know many of our readers love textile art in all its forms. For Jo Avery, a lifetime of playing with fabric and yarn combined with a love of intricate textile techniques has culminated in a career as a teacher, entrepreneur and designer.
Ahead of her exhibition at The Stitch Festival, Jo tells us about her practice, from where she draws inspiration, and how she balances her love of a plethora of craft forms.
Jo, Where did your interest in sewing and quilting begin?
I spent a lot of my childhood sewing with my big sister Jane, especially soft toys. When I was ten years old Jane showed me how to sew patchwork hexagons together (what we would now call EPP). Much later when I started living with my husband and making a home for myself, I remembered how much I had enjoyed stitching those hexagons and so I bought some templates and fabric and started making my first quilt.
30 odd years ago, when we moved from London to Scotland, I joined a local quilt group. They taught me what to do once I’d finished my quilt top and introduced me to rotary cutters and mats. This was the start of a lifelong obsession. On that same shopping trip when I’d bought the hexagon template, I’d also bought an embroidery hoop, but it actually took me many years to start embroidering. In 2011 I started my craft studio and store and started teaching sewing, quilting and crochet. I had requests to teach embroidery too and so I started experimenting myself. I was very quickly smitten and have been embroidering ever since.
What inspires you and where do you draw influence?
My home here at Shangri la Farm, just outside Edinburgh, inspires my work more than anything else. We bought this seven-acre field with a bungalow and barn attached 12 years ago and set about planting thousands of trees and re-wilding it. Now I have the daily delight of walking through my birch and hazel woods and observing every minute change in nature and the seasons. Every day I am inspired by what I see and come back with a new idea.
I also get inspired by looking at other people’s quilts and embroideries and other art and craft mediums. But the initial spark can come from anywhere; an unusual shape on a logo, a pattern on a tiled floor, the cover illustration on a book…
I find my best ideas come while I am out for a run or a walk, or in the shower! I try to always jot my ideas down when I have them and then later when I need to think of something for a specific project I will go back and look through them. I always have more ideas than I have time!
It seems like you've dabbled in many textile art forms! Do you have a favourite?
Well that depends what day of the week it is! I seem to have a low attention threshold and so moving from one to the other keeps me interested. I always have a handful of different projects on the go at once and can flit between them depending on mood and circumstance. Of course, some are work sewing and need to be finished to deadline!
I will probably always go back to quilt making as my favourite craft, especially improv piecing alongside free-motion quilting where I can let go more and be more spontaneously creative. Making a quilt offers such a large canvas for creating art, and the finished item has the added advantage of keeping you warm and cosy. One of my first textile crafts was needlepoint and I would love to get back to doing that some day soon, but perhaps I had better finish up some work-in-progress projects first!
My ‘down time’ crafts are knitting socks or crocheting shawls. These are my go-to comfort crafts where I can just switch off and stitch away without having to concentrate. I find it very difficult to sit down to rest without something to do with my hands, it’s actually more restful for me to knit or crochet than to sit still and do nothing! So, either of these two are my treat to myself when all my work sewing is done.
Your exhibition at The Stitch Festival in March will explore your vibrant and graphic crewel work. What materials do you use and what is it that makes your designs 'modern'?
In earlier attempts at crewel work I was always frustrated with the crewel wool itself as it tended to break and twist. For the quilting side of my work, I use Aurifil thread exclusively, it has a wide range of weights and colours and is a superior quality to everything else on the market. It was discovering that a double strand of Aurifil 12wt wool thread was a similar weight to crewel wool that really started me on my Modern Crewel Embroidery journey and I now have two wool thread collections available from them. The best bit about using their 12wt wool thread for crewel embroidery is the extra fine detail you can get using just one strand. It also has acrylic mixed with the wool which makes it stronger and smoother. I now only use this thread for my embroidery, finding it so much easier to work with then cotton and with richer more vibrant results.
Coming from a patchwork and quilting background I have tended to use the linen/cotton mix fabrics that are part of most quilter’s stash for my embroideries. For the book I experimented with some different fabrics including hand dyed cottons and traditional counted thread embroidery linens. I think I still prefer Essex Linen by Robert Kaufman, it comes in a huge range of shades and textures which really compliment the embroidery.
The idea for the exhibition was to show-off all the projects I’d made for my Modern Crewel Embroidery book alongside the newer pieces I’d made since. My original approach for the book was to take the idea of a sampler (a way to show as many different stitches as possible) but use shapes in a modern graphic style and fill these with the stitches to emphasise the wool texture. I also took inspiration from my other craft loves with samplers based on patchwork, quilting and applique patterns. The result is 15 sampler designs which provide opportunities for mindful and soothing stitching with ideas to make your embroideries into a range of projects from pots to pouches to pincushions.
Since I finished work on the book I’ve been trying out more narrative styles creating designs that include peacocks, tigers and hares alongside more decorative nature based patterns. These all feature my trademark bright vibrant colours and modern graphic style but with a reduced range of stitches so that I can concentrate on the ‘colouring-in’ aspect of embroidery. I’m excited to share these with the public at The Stitch Festival!
What is your design and thought process when you are thinking up projects for your craft books?
My quilting book, New Patchwork and Quilting Basics, was aimed at beginners but I didn’t want it to be full of quick and easy quilts and so I aimed to offer a way to try out as many different techniques as I could fit in. My plan was to enthuse the beginner with easy and achievable first projects and then move them along to sample more techniques as their confidence grew. I wanted the book to last through the many years of a quilter’s journey, giving them something to return to when they are ready for more challenges. This also means the book has plenty to offer the already established quilter who likes a mix of different projects.
Designing the different projects took years to evolve as I had been noting down ideas for a long time before I finally got a book deal. I am always noting down new ideas which means when embarking on a large project like a book I have a good starting point and it doesn’t feel so daunting.
I’ve always loved taking traditional craft techniques and designs and giving them a modern twist, it’s something that keeps me interested and my ideas fresh. With Modern Crewel Embroidery I wanted to offer something quite unique as no one else seemed to be attempting to update this craft. Traditional crewelwork is absolutely stunning and there are some amazing reproduction patterns out there but nothing much for those looking for a more modern aesthetic.
I had got a taste for crewel work when I was part of a group that stitched a panel for The Great Tapestry of Scotland and though I went back to using cotton for embroidery afterwards I really missed stitching with wool. Using wool for embroidery (the word ‘crewel’ simply means embroidery with wool) adds an extra soft raised aspect to the texture and it’s especially forgiving for beginners as it fills so easily and doesn’t show imperfections as much as cotton. I wrote my Modern Crewel Embroidery book to explore stitching with wool in more depth and offer updated designs for a modern home.
I’ve talked earlier about using patchwork and quilting motifs in my embroidery designs but it works both ways. My Zinnia embroidery depicts flowers decorated with graphic patterns. While stitching this I realised I could use the same ideas to make an improv pieced quilt and created my Journey to the Centre of a Flower quilt. When looking at this quilt I realised that I could create another modern crewel embroidery based on the quilt! I really enjoy this back-and-forth inspiration between my two main crafts.
Jo Avery is an artist, a quilt and embroidery designer, maker and teacher. Her exhibition, Modern Crewel Embroidery, is at The Stitch Festival at the Business Design Centre, London from 3rd-6th March 2022.
Use the discount code SELVEDGE22 when purchasing your tickets for £3 off the cost of an advance adult ticket. Discount ends 23.59 02/03/22.
Find out more about The Stitch Festival here: www.thestitchfestival.co.uk