There are artists around the world who choose different mediums to showcase their art. For Harriet Riddell, it is a sewing machine. But instead of stitching up garments, this one-of-a-kind performance textile artist from Oxford, UK, draws through stitch. Propping up her portable sewing machine in public spaces, the 24-year-old, who learnt the art from her grandmother, uses a machine running stitch to draw places, events and portraits too. Observing the surroundings and people, the well-travelled Riddell creates (or rather sews) a narrative of her experiences, what she calls as stories under her label, InStitchYou. “Ordinarily, artists draw on canvas, while I treat cloth as my canvas. My work is produced live with an audience or in the public eye. By observing and responding to my immediate surroundings, I quickly and intuitively capture the moving world around me,” says Riddell, who recently exhibited at The Affordable Art Fair 2015 in London where she was the artist-in-residence.
At the autumn-winter 2014 edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) in Delhi, held in March last year, the artist documented the run-up to designer Aneeth Arora’s show. It was her first trip to India and one that left a lasting impression. “I have always been fascinated with textiles and a trip to India was on my mind. I spent three months touring north India. Apart from Delhi, I went to Jaipur and Dharamsala, and it was such an eye-opener,” says Riddell, over the phone from Darjeeling (she is on her second trip to India), before she heads home to London. She would be just in time for her five-day solo show to be held at The Nehru Centre housed in The Indian High Commission from May 18. It would also coincide with the launch of her self-published book, InStitchYou in India (£12 / available on http://www.harrietriddell.com).
The exhibit will see a collection of nearly 40 tapestries that show Riddell’s view of India, the sights she took in, the people she met and more. Her most elaborate piece is on silk. “I drew in a lot of curiosity as it’s not every day that you see a girl with a sewing machine in the middle of a market. I knew it would be challenging but I was up for it,” says Riddell, who spent a lot of time with Arora, after being introduced to her through a common friend. “I found some similarities in her work and the way we both love Indian textiles. I would be wearing a sari by Aneeth that will have my drawings for the launch,” says Riddell.
The experience of her environment and the people, she adds, feeds into her stitching. Snatches of conversation and scraps of material are also woven into her work. Be it stitching a sunrise view of the Taj Mahal sitting in a village, a card session in the neighbourhood park, sewing on a moving truck, a local passenger train and even a rehri (hand cart) — Riddell has had an adventurous ride. No surprise that most of her memorable experiences are those spent travelling. “My sewing machine went with me everywhere. I even trekked up the mountains with it and stitched till my batteries ran out,” says Riddell with a laugh. Her question to her subjects — “Do you mind if I stitch you?” — has always been met with bewilderment.
Back in India for her second trip, she has spent time in Kolkata, living with a family and visiting a tea estate in Darjeeling. “For me, India has been full of surprises. I have seen both sides — the poor and the rich. I am now working to find a way to use Indian handicrafts in my work,” says Riddell, who will be collaborating with Arora for a project later this year.
The story appeared in print with the headline Mind if I Stitch You?