How do you become an embroidery teacher? Lauren’s career is woven with a thousand shades that allow her today to offer a wide choice of techniques to her students.
Photos – © Lauren Yeager – photos protected by copyright – thank you
Text – Lauren Yeager answering questions by Claire de Pourtalès
My name is Lauren Yeager, and I am originally from a county north of St. Louis, Missouri, in the USA. When I was growing up there really wasn’t much to do when you were a kid, especially if you weren’t interested in sports. So, I made things for fun to fill the time after school and on the weekends. At first, I made costumes and things for dolls out of little bits of fabric and thread. None of my living relatives did anything like this, so I didn’t have any idea of how things were supposed to be put together. I just had fun giving it a try. The materials were beautiful to me all on their own, so it didn’t particularly matter what I made with them.
At that time, I was becoming fascinated with heirloom hand-me-downs that other people owned; I’d visit a friend and there would be some kind of quilt or wall hanging that looked handmade and unusual or very old, and I would ask my friend’s parents about it. I would get a long family story about who had made the object and why, who owned it from there, and how far it may have traveled over the years.
The idea of a family history recorded through objects wasn’t the kind of thing I had encountered before. The stories were vivid and sounded like personal household folk tales; many of them sounded very embellished or just fake, but it was fun to hear about people who’d lived before, and what sort of lives they had before computers and all of the other things we have now that you can just buy and not need to make.
The making continued as I got older; it shifted into making costumes for people, rather than dolls. During high school, I continued to be interested in history and materials, but costume-making really got me thinking about moving into a profession of making. I liked to compete, and made wildly embellished costumes, primarily based on one of my favorite artists Yoshitaka Amano‘s work. The paintings that Amano created were very beautiful to me, and they were full of colors and patterns, lots of contrast and variety in every piece. They conveyed intense moods that could be heavy or light, and even now when I get stuck on work, I pull out one of my Yoshitaka Amano illustration books and try to break through the design block by looking at his paintings. Color in design is, in my mind, the most important element of making a piece.
I was a competitive costumer from high school into university, and I always took care to design things that needed embellishment. It wasn’t anything complicated at first, but I would do a lot of it. Garments would have 10,000 hand sewn beads on them, and there would be handmade trim and the fabric painted. I plugged a lot of hours into all of them. Once I knew that I wanted to go into a purely handwork-driven profession, projects generally shifted away from things that would be worn. I think a lot of embroiderers nowadays don’t want to wear embroidery that they’ve made because they’re very worried that it would be ruined. But I do get to work on a few pieces every now and then for clients who want garment embroidery.
I have started making handmade 18th century garments in the last couple of years, but this is more for learning the process than for any theatre production or art installation.
In college I studied fashion design and hoped it would be a ticket into working for opera. I wanted to learn formally, in school, all the correct construction methods that I struggled with in costume-making on my own. I’d won a few awards by this point but knew that I needed to go further into the technical side of garment-making. I had a good time making my way through undergraduate school and worked for Nick Cave Art afterwards as a sewing technician. From there, I jumped straight into a Master’s program for costume design. At the time, I thought that was the best way to go for training, but I found that many costume departments in the USA don’t really prepare their students for high technical standards in construction.
At the school I’d chosen, I was sorely disappointed by so much focus on the concept, or design. Constructing the costumes themselves was more of an afterthought. There was also this sort of superiority complex that the student designers had over the technicians who actually built the shows each year. For me, this attitude was so short-sighted; all I could think was: if there are no technicians making the designers’ costumes, it didn’t matter how clever their paintings were at all. These designers also had a very poor grasp of materials and choosing things that were suited to a particular garment. Nor were they able to make patterns very well. None of this came from a lack of opportunity though; again, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that the technical work would always be another person’s problem.
I left the program not long into it, deciding that I would study with accomplished makers themselves, and continue working in Fine Art Production with hand sewing. Again, I went back to working for Nick Cave Art working on Sound Suits and art installations. I had always used machines in school and still use one now for making different items for clients, but I love hand stitching and embroidery, and had already known that a career in purely hand-made products was possible, if difficult. I knew about the Royal School of Needlework first, and that is where I got my start in studying embroidery at that professional training level. There were teachers making a living off their work with such a body of knowledge and experience!
I loved it and loved the history behind the art. As it was not possible for me to join in with the future tutor program as it was beginning, I thought that I would diversify my work with Japanese embroidery and study at Lesage as well. Lesage and the Royal School of Needlework are often mentioned as a place to study embroidery at schools that teach fashion, even in the USA. My favorite techniques include Stumpwork, Needle-painting and Traditional Japanese embroidery. I like elaborate and highly detailed work, and these techniques easily lend themselves to that. I do like to mix techniques from time to time; Stumpwork in my mind lends itself to that way of working, but aside from that, I think I focus on one technique at a time.
I started Studying Japanese Embroidery in 2013. The courses I took were a mix of in person and online, from a lovely JEC (Japanese Embroidery Center) Teacher by the name of Karen Plater. I am currently at level 9 of ten in their program. I feel like my patience and precision really developed with Japanese Embroidery. When working in production, often speed is very important; however, in embroidery, from a professional standpoint, speed really needs to be married to proficiency. Japanese embroidery is very exacting, and while learning different techniques, you really need to slow down at first to figure out how a particular technique works. It also gave me a good deal of experience in working with silk. I think it is very important to take care when learning a new skill or when working with a new material. When designing for myself, I tend to work in silks and metals, as opposed to other fibers.
I was able to study at Lesage as a sort of fluke. I had unexpected opportunities to go, and so I went! Lesage uses many different materials in a single piece. Generally speaking, most projects or kits that people might try out really only feature floss, or wool, and the whole kit or class will just be that one kind of fiber. I like that dynamic look of many materials coming together to create one thing. Also, for Tambour work, using the hook makes the work go more quickly than other techniques so you always feel like you got lots of work done when you’re finished at the end of the day, and that’s never a bad feeling!
I was a bit crazy and started everything at once, while working full time in an artist’s studio. Just to earn the time off, I typically worked 12-hour days on my day job, and then worked on my embroidery homework whenever I could. I don’t recommend this as it was very overwhelming at times, and very expensive. As for new classes, I kind of always have a look out for something unusual to do. I’m hoping to be back in Europe perhaps next year for some research if it can be managed.
As for the teaching part, I find that because access to USA-based craft schools is quite limited, people often don’t see value in this type of work simply because they’ve no experience of it. I want to share my training and make it available where it may otherwise disappear. I also think embroidery, as one of the oldest art forms in the world, has a lot to offer people, for expressing oneself through creativity, and it can also be a way to connect with the past both from a cultural perspective and a lived experience perspective. We live now in a world where the production of goods and what is sacrificed to make these goods is a very sanitized narrative in the US People tend to think that machines do most of the labor to make their garments, when it is often other people, in extremely difficult conditions. I think it is a good exercise to go through the process of creating something versus just buying something at the store. If a person spends hours and hours making something, odds are that the item will be more appreciated and better cared for in the long run, and they won’t be in a hurry to replace it with something short-lived and trendy.
What about your love of historical pieces?
The Meiji period of Japan is one of my favorite, as well as the Heian period. I’m inspired by the colors used and the focus on seasonality in different kinds of pieces. I’m quite fond of 17th century England as well, as again there is a sense of freedom of expression in the pieces that you see from that time. The compositions, while formulaic in some respects, have a lot of character; I get more of a sense of the maker’s personality in stumpwork of the period. While I do like to look at formally composed patterns that interlock and repeat endlessly, and a good deal of skill goes into developing something like that, I don’t like making embroidery like that very often. It feels restrictive.
Tell us more abou your wok at the San Francisco School of Needlework and Design
I have always enjoyed teaching, so I do enjoy teaching with The San Francisco School of Needlework and Design. I met Lucy Barter in 2013 who would go on to co-found the school with Elice Sperber, who I also met through my studies with the RSN. I feel like I always taught a bit, less formally of course, but now I just teach more often and on a schedule. I don’t think I will ever feel like I’m not a student. There are hundreds if not thousands of things to learn as an embroiderer, and you cannot in one lifetime learn it all. As for the pandemic, it shifted my work to teaching online, which I think for the long run is better for students who cannot travel as readily, so it’s become a larger school in that way. I meet people from all over the world who all enjoy stitching, and it’s very fulfilling.
Commissions for me can be a design bonanza where I get all of the creative freedom I can want, and they can also come from clients who have something particular in mind. Due to my wide variety of studies, I can do quite a lot of different things. You can live by commissions as an artist, but it is very important to negotiate a living wage for your work. Too many artists push themselves to appease clients who ask for too much for too little pay. In the beginning of a career, it’s hard to feel your value even when you’ve a cultivated skill, but you have to, otherwise the work becomes untenable, and you cannot survive on ‘exposure’ alone.
I have a question about your dark blue quilting piece. It does look like Boutis (a Provençal technique)…
It is a reproduction of an 18th century quilted petticoat. The original is from a book called: Fitting and Proper. I have for many years wanted to create a quilted petticoat and wanted it to be quite over the top as far as the actual design. I looked at many different petticoats and really didn’t fall in love with a pattern until I encountered the book I just mentioned. It is not Boutis, although I researched the technique a bit and considered it to be my method of making. However, the original used 18 stitches per inch and I didn’t think that finishing it for many years would be realistic. To achieve the closeness of the stitching and the continued line in the original, I chose a back stitch, and my stitches run about 4-5 per cm with a silk quilting thread. I agonized a bit about this, but again, even with my faster process, it took hundreds of hours to quilt over a 6 month period. The full pattern is 132 cm inches by 76 cm, and this had to be repeated, so in total: 264 cm in total width, by 76 cm high. The petticoat now has been trimmed and finished at the hem, but needs to be pleated at the top to finish it. Aside from wanting to make one, I imagine I will finish an ensemble and perhaps submit it to a competition, but I’m not really sure. I certainly felt compelled to make it.