Collection Focus: Context by Sara Impey


This interesting piece from our Contemporary Collection perfectly showcases the maker’s iconic, signature style, using words and language to provide visual design and deeper meaning.

The idea behind Context was to subvert the assumption that textiles are always domestic objects associated with comfort and security. Sara Impey does this by using a range of words with different connotations related to textiles.

Some of the words are informative, listing fabric types ‘cotton’, ‘silk’ and  ‘organza’ and different sewing techniques like ‘patchwork’, ‘quilting’ and ‘applique’. Others emphasise the physical response we have to textiles, and words like ‘comfort’, ‘soft’ and ‘tactile’ conjure up pleasant feelings we have to the textiles around us. But of course, as the title suggests – context is everything, and an item may mean one thing to one person, and represent something completely different to another. We can contrast the emotional responses we have in the words ‘heirloom’ and ‘sweatshop’ – one suggesting a textile lovingly and carefully created and imbued with personal and family meaning; whilst the other has been made with little personal connection for little reward, and with little value placed on the skill or time of the maker. On a more personal note, Sara’s inclusion of the word ‘itch’ shows her own turbulent relationship with textiles as a lifelong eczema sufferer.  Other words with less pleasant associations are also include manipulate, unravel, fray, distress. 

Sara Impey in her studio. Photographer Douglas Atfield.

Sara’s work specialises in using words to comment on social and personal issues, and she enjoys the challenge of mixing the visual with the verbal in the creation of her pieces. As a trained newspaper journalist, she takes her inspiration from language and the written word, and her words – and therefore work – have a powerful impact. Certainly her most recent works will resonate closely with audiences, exploring familiar political, social and global topics such as Brexit and the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Whilst her works sometimes have a serious subject matter – such as ‘Losing the Plot’ which explores dementia – she also likes to add an element of humour, which gives the viewer a glimpse of her personality. Her aim is also to overturn expectations about stitched text. In these pieces, she deliberately makes some of the subject matter of her text quite trivial, undermining the notion that text on textiles always has to be serious and portentous.

Her work is noted for its precision, and it is interesting that viewers often mistakenly believe her hand, free-motion machine embroidered letters to be digitally embroidered. Sara has developed her signature style of text writing over her years of quilt-making. Her early pieces used simpler free-motion zigzag stitches, but as her skills have developed she now fluently ‘writes with her needle’, and even finds she can do it whilst thinking about other things – although she does sometimes make a mistake!

Sara’s book, Text in Textile Art was published by Batsford in 2013. Her work features in a number of public and private collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the International Quilt Museum, Nebraska and of course, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection. She also belongs to several groups, including Quilt Art, and is an honorary member of The Quilters’ Guild.

The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection is kindly sponsored by Bernina UK.

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