Contemporary canal artists: the textile artists

From painting with sewing machines to pedal-powered portraits: meet the textile artists who’ve been inspired by our meandering waterways


Painting with a needle sounds like an impossible task. But with a handful of threads and a sewing machine textile artist, Margaret Fairfield, is a master at stitching urban canal scenes in, as she puts it, “a painterly kind of way”. She was prompted to focus her artist’s gaze on Birmingham’s canal network in 2014 to prepare work for an exhibition celebrating the city in the 21st century to mark the bicentenary of the Royal Birmingham Society for Artists (RBSA). Since then, Margaret has been stitching artistic interpretations of the Farmers Bridge Flight on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal – an urban waterway a stone’s throw from the RBSA’s gallery.

Exploring the 13 locks that make up this relatively quiet section of canal, she became fascinated by the juxtaposition of old and new architecture. And inspired by her study, she challenged herself to create a series of embroidered artwork for the RBSA’s commemorative exhibition – at the time it was a far cry from her customary still life subjects. Four years later and with over 20 pieces of artwork in her urban canal series, she has not only grown to love canals, but also become an expert at ‘painting’ these urban landscapes with her sewing machine. “It’s been a very popular subject,” she says. “Apparently nobody else has tried to [produce canal artwork] in quite the same way as I have.”

One of the appealing aspects of Margaret’s stitched artwork is her ability to include intricate detail in each A4-sized piece, such as graffiti on brick walls, cobbled towpaths, metal ladders and other architectural features. “My attention to detail has to be very good as I often meet local canal experts when I’m exhibiting and if I get any detail wrong, such as the handle on a specific lock bar, they would soon tell me!”

Creating machine embroidered works of art – often referred to as freehand or free-motion machine embroidery – can be achieved using a standard sewing machine, as long as there is the option to drop the feed dogs (the raised teeth that grip the fabric underneath the needle when doing ‘normal’ stitching) and exchange the standard foot attachment for a specialist foot, such as a darning or embroidery foot. Both of these simple adjustments allow you to freely move the needle across the fabric in any direction.

Using a small but varied selection of stitches on her sewing machine, Margaret creates the highly textured areas of her artwork by altering the width and length of each stitch, adjusting the machine’s tension and layering stitches on top of each other. “Colour and texture is what I aim to achieve,” she says. “I usually work with two different colours, one on the top and one underneath… if you tighten up the top tension you can get flecks of the underneath colour appearing on the surface.” This effect is evident in her depiction of the interior of a tunnel. “If you look inside a tunnel, particularly if there’s water underneath, the ceiling isn’t just one dark shade, but all sorts of different colours – that’s what I like to interpret in my embroidery.”

Pedal-powered portraits
Capturing people and communities making the most of our canals has become the focus for performance mixed-media artist, Harriet Riddell, who uses free-motion embroidery to create her stitched portraits – created in situ in public places around the network.

People are not just her subject matter, they also play a central role in the creative process. Each portrait sitter is expected to pedal a bicycle-powered generator to power Harriet’s sewing machine. Along with the challenge of enticing people onto the bike, Harriet also has to gauge how long a sitter will be prepared to pedal for to ensure she can complete the portrait. “Some people jump on the bike but get tired quite quickly or get distracted or need to rush off, so I aim to complete each portrait in about ten minutes.”

Last year, Harriet spent five days cycling along a section of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, towing her sewing machine and generator behind her in a trailer. It was part of Fabrications 2017, a festival in Pennine Lancashire celebrating textiles through the eyes of artists.

Along the way she stitched portraits of willing canal users on pieces of locally made fabric from a textile factory that had recently shut down, while listening to people’s stories about canal life – on each portrait she incorporated sentences from the stories shared with her. She was particularly taken with tales about the important role the Leeds & Liverpool Canal played in supplying resources to the many textiles factories that were active in the area. “A number of people from older generations told me they remembered big boxes arriving on the canal stamped with the exotic word ‘Mississippi’,” she recalls. “I found it amazing that cotton had travelled half way around the world to be made into fabric at local factories.”

Through her pedal-powered stitched portraits Harriet had a unique opportunity to engage with a variety of canal users. “It allowed me not to just be an onlooker, but [to be] part of their community for a short amount of time,” she explains. “And the people whose portraits I stitched also became an integral part of the artwork. I really love that.”

You can find out more about Harriet Riddell’s work on her website and she regularly blogs at . Margaret Fairfieldis a member of the RBSA and Birmingham Art Circle. Read more about the Canal & River Trust’s Arts on the Waterways programme, and discover art events near you, on the Trust’s website.

Margaret Fairfield, Harriet Riddell