Today we’re talking to textile designer Leah Nikolaou, who combines her love of nature and textiles into unique, mixed media embroidery kits.
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Tell us about yourself. What do you make?
I’m Leah, a textile designer from the small rural town of Frome, in Somerset, in the UK. I make pressed flower art and embroidery kits that fuse together my two favourite hobbies, flower pressing and hand embroidery in paper.
My inspiration comes from nature, from the wildflowers in my local area as well as flowers home-grown from seeds and bulbs in my garden. I’m no gardening expert but trial and error always produces something blooming beautifully each year.
Read also: Best flower press kits
I’m always favouring space for plants that repeat bloom so there is lots of opportunity to try again to achieve the detailed paper-like pressings that define my style. I then combine my specimens with paper and stitching to create my artwork.
I choose hand embroidery to create my stitches and thick chunky wool because I love the contrast it plays with the delicate ethereal pressed flowers. They weren’t the most natural materials to put together but my work is very much about finding a harmony between the two.
I experiment using the pressed flowers in their real state and also in capturing them in their optimum state through photography. I then use the photographs in my embroidery templates and digitally print them onto museum-quality papers.
Fine art papers allow the beauty of pressed flowers to really shine. Their textured surfaces make them appear like watercolour paintings with life-like accuracy. This definition juxtaposed with the childlike naivety of stitching chunky wool into paper is what excites me to keep experimenting.
What do you consider your best or favorite piece of work?
My favourite piece of work is always the one I’m working on. At the moment I’m working on a poppy that I pressed in the summer.
From my current collection, I would say it’s my ‘Iris and Spring Flowers Embroidery Kit.’ The iris is one of the most incredible flowers that I’ve pressed and photographed.
I managed to capture the fine details that developed as it dried in high definition. The hand embroidery too was a result of lots of smaller experiments that just seemed to come together and work.
Each element of this piece for me was a success.
Read also: Best embroidery classes online
Tell us about your workspace
My workspace is tiny, approx 3m x 3m. It’s a spare room in my house in Frome. I’ve been working from here since we relocated to the countryside in February 2020, literally weeks before the first covid pandemic took us into lockdown.
Because it is in my house and my husband particularly loves a clean and tidy house, I strive to keep my mess in order! We do have plans to build an extension that will free up more space but we are a couple of years away from that at the moment.
However, my garden is also an extension of my workspace as it accommodates my flower-growing experiments. The garden was a mess when we moved in, having had a mattress burnt in the middle of the grass by previous owners.
We landscaped it during the first lockdown, doing the majority of the work ourselves. In fact, we took it back to a pretty blank canvas, just leaving a few bushes, two apple trees, and a huge holly tree.
What is your favorite material or tool to work with?
Wool, chunky wool. It’s always been my favourite material. I started working with chunky wool during my MA at the Royal College of Art in London.
Back then I was mainly hand knitting but the textural naive quality of chunky stitches in whatever form I just love!
Read also: Best chunky yarn for arm knitting
How long have you been embroidering paper? How/why did you decide to make the shift to paper as a backing material?
My work has gone through several developmental stages, one of which was hand embroidering pieces of sticky paper onto leaves as well as linen and cotton fabrics.
However, my experiments have always bought me back to paper.
I have been embroidering paper for a few years now which started as a means of being able to preserve and transfer the highly detailed images of my pressed flowers onto my embroidery designs.
What is the most challenging aspect of your craft or business?
The most challenging aspect of my business without a doubt is getting found by my target audience in the vast sea that is social media and the internet and teaching myself about digital marketing.
There are so many strings a designer needs to their bow and it took me a while to realise I couldn’t just design and list a product on my website then expect people to find me.
Any advice for beginners?
My top tips for anybody wanting to try paper embroidery are:
- Use corrugated card as a mat to pierce on (good use of delivery boxes!).
- Use sharp darning needles.
- Turn your paper around as you work for ease.
- For pieces bigger than A5, rest them on the edge of a table so that you have easy access to the back of your work.
- Experiment with different papers and have fun! It’s a bit like a huge dot to do but with wool rather than a pencil!
- Some vintage papers are far too fragile for wool but you could use thread rather than wool on these.
Read also: Best embroidery kits for beginners
Who/what inspires you? Any shoutouts to fellow makers?
The 17th Century botanist George Clifford hugely inspired my early pieces. He preserved and presented his pressed flowers from his travels in little 2D paper vases and urns. His and all of the botanical pressings archived by the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London are fascinating.
The work of textile artist Susana Bauer, I also find inspirational with her use of natural materials as a base to embroider onto. I also love Karen Barbe’s paper embroidery experiments as well as Liz Sofield’s textural thread and paper designs.
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