A Colossal Interview
Danielle Clough On Embroidery’s Lengthy History and the Tenuous Distinction Between Art and Craft
November 24, 2020
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Cape Town-based artist Danielle Clough via Zoom in November 2020. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace: Let’s start with what you’re working on at the moment.
Danielle: At the moment, I’m working on a series called Midnight Names. It’s just a series of portraits of people I know and love with their self-assigned alter egos, which is basically our Instagram names. They used to be assigned by other people, and it was only for celebrities. Now we get to choose how we put ourselves forward. I’ve always kind of loved that, so I’m doing portraits of friends and working layers of who I think they are and what their name directly relates to.
I’m also putting together an edition of kits that I can give people to be able to kickstart embroidery with my favorite things. It’s in small editions so that it can grow and change while I travel and find out new things.
This last period has been a lot of introspection and trying to find the best way to push out good work that is more in line with my values. A lot of inside time has given me that.
Grace: How has COVID affected your work? Have you been able to create throughout this time?
Danielle: Without knowing I have built up really amazing systems, so work-wise, it hasn’t really affected me. I created a Skillshare class that launched just before COVID hit. A lot of people were trying to hustle to find this other thing, and that was already set up for me, which was amazing and perfectly timed.
I work from home, and all my stuff is online. I’m super cognizant of how fortunate I’ve been. Obviously, all the commercial work dried up while everybody kind of tried to find their feet, and I lost these big commissions. There’s always this realignment that needs to happen because you don’t realize how much affirmation is in those external things, like getting the email from the client—there’s that little brand attached to it. A commission falls through, and you go, “is it me or is it circumstantial?” The biggest effect it’s had on me is probably me realigning my self worth and direction.
Grace: Has that been difficult?
Danielle: Yeah, being creative is an emotional game. There’s always some kind of feeling attached to everything, so it’s difficult. But it always has to sit on a scale of gratitude. I really practice gratitude so that the difficult stuff makes sense with the good stuff.
Being creative is an emotional game. There’s always some kind of feeling attached to everything, so it’s difficult. But it always has to sit on a scale of gratitude. I really practice gratitude so that the difficult stuff makes sense with the good stuff.—Danielle Clough
It probably drives people a little bit crazy because I tend to always go “but on the bright side!” It’s just the case of trying to practice gratitude as if it’s a skill. It becomes a tool in terms of having a bigger perspective.
Grace: That’s important, especially as you’re losing commissions or things aren’t quite working out.
Danielle: It’s nice to have the perspective of all the good things that are happening because I think creative people or those in the arts have strange ways of monitoring your value. It’s hard, so we end up finding numbers in different places. Numbers are how much you’re earning, how much you are producing, or how many likes you’re getting on Instagram. If you’re putting too much energy into one of them, that’s going to weigh you down. It’s good to have a step back and take an overall view.
Grace: It sounds like you’re able to handle multiple projects at once because you think in that broad way.
Danielle: Yeah, I normally have a few things brewing, but I’ll be physically working on one. Maximum three things. I’ll normally be doing two physical things, and one thing will be more strategy-based, like the online classes or the kits or working on prints.
I’d like to find a way to encapsulate the history of embroidery, where it is in the world, and what it really is. I’m currently working on a lot of research behind the history of embroidery in different places. It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s one of the most incredible journeys I’ve been on. That’ll be the three things. One will always be more strategy or conceptual and the other physical.
Grace: How do you see yourself within the history of embroidery? I don’t know if you’re quite ready to talk about it based on the research that you’ve done, but I’m wondering about how you see yourself in relation to the fact that women tend to be embroiderers and that it’s thought of as a very domestic task.
Danielle: The more I’m learning, the more I’m realizing how vast and long the timeline of this medium is and has always been. Henry VIII had this huge business of embroiderers. If you think about paintings of Henry VIII, he’s always overly embellished. He had this whole industry of men. There are rumors that he was an embroiderer, and it was a really sought after profession. The more you realize what it is, what it still is all over the world, and how different it is, the more you realize that our idea of embroidery being women’s work and domesticated is such a small part of this crazy long timeline.
They’ve discovered needles from Paleo time that were made out of bone. I’m realizing how big this world of essentially embellishing fabrics is. That’s why I’m really looking at sourcing as much information as possible because I think we become so set in our medium or politics. We become so set on this really small timeline, and when we realize how big the timeline is, we see patterns. We see the humanity. You become a lot more empathetic to where we are.
My role hopefully will be in expanding that idea that embroidery is considered women’s work now, but it hasn’t always been and it won’t always be.—Danielle Clough
My role hopefully will be in expanding that idea that embroidery is considered women’s work now, but it hasn’t always been and it won’t always be. I’m seeing more men come into the industry and doing it more like a creative expression. These things have big cycles, and I think my very small part in this is hopefully a part of that change to make it better.
I could talk for hours about it and the history of cotton, wool, dyes, color. It’s so amazing that you become immersed in this world. You don’t even realize that you’re wearing the history, and you’re carrying it around with you.
Grace: Is this research culminating in a specific project, or is it more for your own process and understanding of the medium?
Danielle: A bit of both. It spurred this dream of having a show where I go to different parts of the world and experience and explore what traditional embroidery is or has been and what it looks like now. Our Western view of embroidery is very binary. It’s very much like this is granny art. This is women’s work. It’s not taken seriously in the art world, but there is so much to it. I would love to explore that for myself and share that, but just the value of the exploration and how that feeds into my work has been really cool as it is. Maybe something will come of it. Maybe it won’t, but it makes me happy, you know?
Grace: That’s a great reason to do it! There’s a note on your site that says you really work to manifest the best of human emotion and joy and happiness. I’m wondering if you can talk about that a little bit. I think it kind of relates to the history and what embroidery historically has been and what you’re doing with it now.
Whether I’m seen by somebody else as a crafter or as an artist, it’s really none of my business.—Danielle Clough
Danielle: That was written by my friend. I hate writing by myself because it’s like, “Danielle is… really hungry!” (laughs)
I love the space I get to occupy as an embroiderer, which is between a crafter and an artist. Whether I’m seen by somebody else as a crafter or as an artist, it’s really none of my business. I love that space because it gives me room to create without necessarily having to evoke meaning. I think art has a lot to do with concept and what it means and what it represents. Craft gets to live in this space of, “I just felt like making it.”
I love just making stuff that feels fun, feels light, feels colorful, and that evokes some kind of memories. I love pop culture references, and there’s a lot of connection that comes from that. You connect with this iconic image. You’re doing it through a medium that is nostalgic, too, so that idea of evoking joy and the best of positive emotions is because none of my work is necessarily confrontational.
It might have to do with discovering the history, but my discovery of the history or my love for knowing more is actually quite recent. It doesn’t really pertain to my body of work, which very much has been about doing what I want to do. I don’t want to know the rules. I don’t want to know the right way of doing it. I just want to make it.
Grace: Can you talk about how you got to embroidery? Don’t you have a degree in graphic design?
Danielle: I think in the States it’s equivalent to a degree, but it’s a three-year course in art direction and graphic design. I’ve essentially studied advertising in a very practical but commercial school.
I’d always loved fabric. My mom used to sew, and she used to make me clothes. I always thought I was going to be this amazing fashion designer. I was so sure, and I would make these really horrible jackets out of old curtains. I’d make a jacket that you couldn’t put your arms down, but I’d still wear it proudly. I’d always loved fashion.
Then I studied fashion design, and I hated it. I absolutely hated it, so I dropped out and went on this journey of figuring out what I wanted to do, which was through a process of elimination. I just tried everything. I did some styling and photography and realized I wanted to do a bit of everything. That was actually what I wanted to do, so I studied advertising. While I was studying, the school was above a fabric shop, so I would make stuff. I had already learned how to sew, and I would make these plush toys for other students. They would draw the toys, these monsters. Then we would walk downstairs, get the fabric, and make the plush toys. I would start drawing the details of the toys onto the fabric. That became embroidery because I doodled rabbits on a scrap piece of fabric that way lying in my bag from the plush toys. I basically thought I had invented embroidery. I called it thread sketching.
That was the journey. It started with thread sketching. I really loved that. I was always doing that at home or watching TV, between projects. It was never really anything serious. I kept making the toys, and it was this thing that ticked over in the background.
Grace: When did you make the jump to full-time?
Danielle: I worked a 9-5, and it just didn’t feel right for me. I quit. I was waitressing, and I was VJing, and I was taking photographs and doing freelance design, basically anything to make money. I was doing small embroideries, and then I did a couple of embroideries on the rackets, which I was always just doing and putting on Facebook and Instagram but nothing serious. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I made a series of rackets, and I got a message from Chris on the 15th of December. He posted my work (on Colossal) on the 6th of January 2016, and I had to quit all my jobs within three months. So it’s your fault!
It’s so funny because I actually said to somebody, “all I want to do is be a VJ and do embroidery.” I thought my entry into this was repurposing a lot of stuff, so I was getting old embroideries and putting them into pendants. I thought I was going to create jewelry from other peoples’ embroidery and was trying to find ways around that.
Actually, I built my website to enter Design Indaba in Cape Town. I was building this all on the premise of I’m going to make products out of other peoples’ embroidery and that’s how I’m going to live in this embroidery world. I never thought it was going to be with my own hands. But the rackets were something I was making and that were on my website, which Chris picked up, and then that was that.
It’s amazing. It’s an absolute dream. I feel really lucky to have it happen. It was also in the heyday of Instagram when it was actually genuinely influential to people’s careers.
Grace: Do you see your graphic design, photography, or even VJ experiences show up in your embroidery?
Danielle: Definitely. My primary love for photography has been with film, and I know that is so hipster. I’ve always loved color, but film photography definitely influenced my ideas of colors. Photography in general has given me my understanding for light. I try to take all my own reference photos, so that is the base from where the embroideries build from. That’s a big influence.
Graphic design and advertising work into concept and self-marketing. What it has done is made me look and think of myself as a brand as opposed to an artist. I don’t look at my work necessarily as being fine art, also because the medium makes it craft. I look at them as products. It’s a different relationship.
Grace: Does thinking about yourself as a brand rather than an artist change your actual process?
Danielle: Maybe it’s a protective mechanism in the same way that I think about myself as a crafter. It makes me release a lot of pressure that I think if I considered myself an artist, I would put on myself. I could be wrong, but it’s my perception that art is a lot more serious. I’m not that serious. I see my work as products as opposed to art pieces. I treat them like art. I make sure they’re archival, and I want them to be beautiful. But I don’t treat my work like this is going to end up in MOMA one day. It has to be accessible. I want people to be able to connect with it. If I put myself in a fine artist category, I would maybe be catering to a different audience. But even the fact that I’m thinking of catering to a market is an advertising brain.
Grace: Yes, it’s definitely a distinct way of thinking. I’m sure when and where your work took off plays a role there, too.
Danielle: Yes, completely. It’s a very much on-the-ground, creative audience connection as opposed to being affirmed by a gallery or a school or a collector. That becomes an upper echelon kind of thing. I feel like I’m on the ground. I’m with the audience.
Grace: You’re creating for different people.
Danielle: I’m also quite intimated by the art world. Maybe that is part of it, as well. It’s a different realm and a different way of thinking. It’s not necessarily my default way of thinking. It feels like it demands a certain seriousness, or at least historically it has demanded a seriousness, that I don’t know if I embody yet. I might when I’m older.
Grace: When you’re working then, you start with a black-and-white photo?
Danielle: Yes. Ideally, I’ll use a black-and-white photo. I’ve also started trying to take the image farther away from the photograph, so I’ll do digital drawings. I’ve just started a couple of months ago with an iPad Pro. I use that photograph and do digital drawings. I work from that as my basis, black-and-white photos or layered drawings with pens on tracing paper. I’m always trying to remove myself from the idea of the perfect image, and it being right or wrong.
Grace: How do you choose the subject matter? Do they come from knowing your audience or is it more personal to you?
Danielle: It’s personal. It’ll either be dictated by something I’ve seen and love—I really want to do a Queen Latifa portrait because her song “Unity” has been stuck in my head for two months—or the surface will dictate the medium. I’ll really want to work on a piece of metal, but it’s limited in terms of how much detail I can get onto it, so I’ll do something more floral or abstract.
My friend the other day was like, “Have you been watching Bob Ross at all?” and I’m like, “of course I haven’t been watching Bob Ross.” She said, “it is the most relaxing thing. Just put it on and watch it.” I did it, and I had the best night of my life watching Bob paint. It’s things like that that end up happening.
I often choose the opposite of what I’ve just finished. If I’ve been working on a portrait, I don’t want to do another portrait. So I’ll do a flower. I very much like to jump around from subject to subject.
Grace: Can you talk about where the tennis rackets came from initially?
Danielle: I wish I had this moment of absolute genius, but a friend saw this heart that was woven around and was just wrapped with wool. I’m slightly competitive, and I was like that’s cool but I can do it better. I went to get a racket from the market that Saturday. That was it. It wasn’t my moment of genius. It was my moment of competitiveness.
Grace: What projects have you been wanting to work on? Is there something that you haven’t quite figured out how to do yet?
Danielle: I would love to do a really beautiful window display. I’d like to do more three-dimensional work, like installations. There really isn’t any material that I haven’t worked on that I want to, just more things I want to get better at. I’ve done stuff on scrap metal, like big flowers and portraits, but now I want to do more detailed versions of that. I really just want to get better at what I know and see how that grows. The new stuff will come from that process.
Shop Clough’s available embroideries on her site, and follow her work on Instagram.