Remarkable embroidery portraits on show at Chichester's Oxmarket

Soul Stitches is the exhibition from Nettie Rowsell at Chichester’s Oxmarket Gallery from April 26-May 9.

Work by Nettie Rowsell
Work by Nettie Rowsell

Nettie, who lives in Bury, said: “During lockdown I decided to plan an exhibition to give myself a goal to work towards. Like many people I started out using the extra lockdown time effectively, but over a three-month period inertia crept in and I was more inclined to pick up the remote control than thread a needle.

“Committing to a planned exhibition gave me the boost that I needed. All art is there to be shared, after all, and knowing that others will see my work and perhaps be moved by it gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose. The title of the exhibition Soul Stitches was inspired by some words of thanks from a customer recently after I’d repaired an embroidered textile of his. He used the word soul to describe the new stitches and the old. I found that very apt because there is something soulful about the tactile nature of hand-stitched textiles: they feel personal and familiar.

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“All my work starts with a photo and my preferred subject is portraiture. I’m fascinated by the complexity of people both visually and psychologically. Most of my sitters are family and friends. It’s much easier to snap people you know because they are more relaxed and you can tell when you’ve captured their personality. Photographing somebody up close can be very intimate, which is one of the reasons I use just my iPhone. It seems less intrusive. Looking at a portrait in a gallery or a museum is completely different to looking at a person’s face while you’re standing at the bus stop or in the supermarket. With a portrait you can stare, study and take your time. You can be affected by an attitude or an expression – human to human.

“I work in stranded cotton threads with a backing of raw canvas, linen or cotton. My portraits are labour intensive and are sewn completely by hand, stitch by stitch. My aim is to create works that are textured and painterly in quality. This is achieved by placing threads next to and onto top of one another.

“In this exhibition I will be displaying some of my artwork as seen from behind. I’ll also be exhibiting a selection of the photo experiments, sequences and images that I haven’t stitched, and some that I have. I’m slightly wary about this as I’m no photographer, but hopefully those viewing my work will overlook my technical shortcomings and see the soul of it.”

Nettie added: “In my teens and 20s I worked for the family business making hand-cut polystyrene shapes for packaging, exhibition displays and theatre props. It was a very niche line of work.

“During this time I also took various college courses in life drawing and painting. When I left the family business in 2000 I started my own business Wallflower Etc, an online shop selling vintage and antique textiles and clothing. My experience in mending old textiles to sell in my shop led me to become a textiles restorer, which also led me to The Royal School of Needlework. It was there I learned traditional hand embroidery techniques and I became aware of the vast possibilities of stitch as an art form. My favourite and most influential artists in terms of portraiture and the human body are Jenny Saville, Shadi Ghadirian, Craig Wylie, Paula Rego, Rembrandt and Cayce Zavaglia.”