Sewing has been woven into the fabric of my life for as long as I can remember. Certainly, as a six-year-old, when I read Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, I was smitten by the descriptions of “cherry-coloured twist” and “button-holes so small that they looked like they had been made by little mice”. Later, when my aunt took me to Dickins & Jones’ haberdashery department, I had a joy meltdown. I knew that I had arrived in paradise. To me, this place was infinitely more spellbinding than Hamleys down the road. From then on, the annual Christmas pilgrimage to see the lights of Regent Street was always polished off with a couple of hours spent weighing up the comparative merits of one shiny braid against another.
On a school trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum, I then discovered the ravishingly beautiful 18th-century clothes in the costume court. Here were mesmerising outfits made of stuffs of wool, silk and linen, woven or embroidered extravagantly with colour mixes of cerise and chocolate, pale blue and snuff, or elephant’s breath and moss. Best of all, however, were the diamond buttons.
Aged 15, I left my Dorset boarding school and went to art school in New York to study fashion and the craft of making clothes. I, like Beatrix Potter’s little mice, learnt to sew tiny stitches and to pull cross-threads on calico, to drape on the stand, and cut and snip until the shape was right. Unlike them, I did not sing charming little songs. I found that learning to design and make clothes was complex and arduous. When I started my business, it wasn’t unusual to sit up sewing all night for days on end while preparing a collection or filling in orders. As soon as I could afford to hand over the sewing machine and needles to someone else better qualified, I did.
Last October, I went to Charleston in Sussex where the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived and worked, covering every available surface of their home with their own paintings, fabrics, prints and ceramics. Practically nothing was unadorned. What really caught my eye, however, were the beautiful cross-stitch needleworks. These were to be found on everything, from cushions to chairs to day beds and even mirror frames. Duncan and Vanessa would design the pieces and then Duncan’s mother, Ethel (and sometimes his aunt), would beaver away turning them into embroideries.
Inspired, I thought that I would give needlework a stab, and so I went back to my studio and got some rudimentary lessons in cross-stitching. I found out you can send via the internet any image that you fancy, which can then be printed on canvas and sent back, ready to embroider.
Here in my hand once again was the needle, discarded so long ago. I’m afraid that the absence showed, and from the outset things did not go according to plan. My wools got tangled in monstrous cat’s cradles and would twist and knot as if to spite me. My girlfriends sucked their teeth in disapproval at my tension. I also felt hampered by having to lug around a cumbersome wooden frame (which eventually got discarded on a bonfire on the banks of the river Nile). Predictably my first attempt at needle-working (one of Duncan Grant’s designs) ended up looking like the handiwork of a furious, drunken gorilla.
It is generally acknowledged that embroidery is not a particularly butch pursuit and I found initially (as a man) that I was very shy of pulling my piece (of needlework) out in public. In the end I just became oblivious to stares. In fact, I’ve found that most people don’t care a fig as long as you don’t poke them repeatedly in the eye with your needle.
My hope is that, with time and some much-needed lessons, my technique will improve and I will be able to hold my head up in the company of the Ethel Grants of this world. But in the meantime I have found a hobby that gives me peace, pleasure and satisfaction.
I have just finished my second piece of needlework. It is from a painting by my husband, Oisin Byrne, of a bunch of flowers. These were tulips that I had planted, then picked and stuck in a pot. He took them to his studio and drew them. I photographed the painting and made a needlework of it.