Meet: Tina Crawford
Tina Crawford is a free embroidery artist, which means she uses the sewing machine without any drawings or markings on the material, so a line is made instantly. During the lockdown, she created ‘Connected by a Thread’, a massive project where over 100 stories were embroidered, showing what people got up to during the first UK lockdown. It is currently housed in the Science Museum.
A Central Saint Martins (CSM) graduate, Tina spoke to us about the creation of Connected by a Thread and what she’s been up to since.
You graduated from Central Saint Martins, UAL. What your time at the College was like?
I started in 1991 which now feels like a lifetime ago! The bar was really smoky for a start! The course was nothing like it is now- I was incredibly experimental and liked to use other materials but it was very traditional. I remember Ron, our tutor saying to get the skills behind us at college then be experimental when you leave - I didn’t listen but he was so right! It’s much harder to design with transitional constraints- it’s very easy to be different!
Tell us about your career after graduating. What is your practice/main medium? Are there any highlights that you’re particularly proud of?
When I graduated I actually went off to work in TV and my first job was on a kids art programme called SMart. One of the presenters was Jay Burridge who graduated the same year as me from Fine Art. That was my favourite job but since I’ve been fully working on my art I’m most proud of the lockdown piece, Connected by Thread. I’ve been using textiles and free embroidery since about 2000 after I completed an adult education course.
You mentioned your piece 'Connected by a Thread', can you tell us more about this?
Without being able to work in my studio, banished to my home with only my sewing machine, no stack of fabrics to choose from, but I was itching to work. Right at the start of lockdown, I knew I wanted to create work as a reaction to it; I wasn’t sure what.
The idea of isolation conjured up images of embroidery hoops (which I don’t actually use to work with) connected with threads. I genuinely found social media a lifesaver, Twitter in particular – it can be an awful, judgmental place but in the first couple of months of isolation it was a community – I tapped into this. I put out tweets asking for photos of your #lockdownmoments and they came in; gardening, bird-watching, baking, everything was actually quite joyful and I didn’t expect it – I thought I’d get loneliness and rationing of loo rolls.
I started embroidering what came in and ‘framing’ them in embroidery hoops with the idea of connecting them. But quite soon in the Stag and Bow (a lovely haberdashery emporium in Forest Hill) had an offer on Instagram for the collection of off-cuts and scraps from a group that had been stitching NHS scrubs – I leapt at it! (Well, my husband cycled to Sydenham for them). Once I got the scraps I knew how my piece would look. The off-cuts were different shades of blue and I wanted to just stitch in white.
I embroidered each photo but once finished I dragged the thread so it was still connected to the next with a gap between the next scrap and so on... Each piece was connected by a thread exactly how I felt social media was; we all seemed to come from the same place. More stories and photos came in and I accidentally changed the hashtag to #lockdownhighlights because of the positivity; babies were born, birthdays celebrated, and lots of love for pets all the time. I kept the continuous thread going on to the next story …. There is one point where after I cut the thread- I’ve stitched a single black square, not only to mark the social media pause of BLM #blackouttuesday but also to represent those that were disconnected and very much isolated.
It's a massive piece, was this planned? How hard was this to deal with in the making process?
I knew from the start how big the piece should be, that was easy: two metres by two metres, the distance we should have kept from each other. When I started laying out the piece, I realised just how big two metres is and the problem of laying out the whole work arose - I didn’t have the space at home. The continuous stitching on the scraps was almost like a very long length of bunting so I cut it into pieces that were two metres long and layered them. I originally wanted to free embroidery haphazard in red over the whole piece to secure it together and to have a visual of the virus, but after seeing the small pictures I’d created I didn’t want to interfere with it; the idea of having a backing fabric was originally something I’d resisted but I began to love the idea – a tactile material that you’d instantly want to touch because what can’t we do during the pandemic? Touch.
I chose a rich red velvet; red meant so much: danger of the virus, blood, a warning, Lockdown started to loosen, things were going back to normal and the piece needed to be finished. The border is made from yellow dusters embroidered with text and the backing is a rainbow made from microfibre cleaning cloths.
This piece was completely time-sensitive – if I tried to start it any other time it wouldn’t work; people are restless and fed up, the community is broken, but for a very brief time we came together, we clapped for keyworkers, we baked, we spent time with our families, we gardened, and we stopped.
Do you have a favourite story?
My favourite story by far is from Susan, and the picture was of a necklace. Her first boyfriend from when Susan was 16 had been back in touch over lockdown, they chatted, they Zoomed, then he had made and sent her the necklace. The pair of them, over 30 years later are now lockdown seeing each other as a couple. It was almost too perfect a story, so beautiful.
Since you completed it, what has been the reaction to Connected by a Thread?
The reaction was great - I got a few institutions keen on it and it’s now got a new home in the Science Museum.
What is next for you?
Lockdown showed me exactly where I want my work to go, and it’s not with private collectors. I really want to work more with institutions - art should be for everyone and I want as many people to see my work as possible, not the highest bidder. My work has got more conceptual recently and I’m getting so much more from it. I’m also talking to a couple of museums about other work.
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