Mechanical Drawing - The Schiffli Project At The Hub Lincolnshire

By Caroline Lewis | 19 March 2008
photo of a repeated embroidery design of a figure of a boy in a football shirt


Exhibition preview: Mechanical Drawing – The Schiffli Project at The Hub, National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford, until April 27 2008.

Using an antiquated machine that allows a person to translate drawings into an embroidery motif, 15 artists have created new works for an unusual exhibition of textile art at The Hub.

The Schiffli machine, invented in the 19th century, was once the latest technology for creating beautifully decorated materials. The resulting product could also be deceptively intricate – the process does not require a high level of technical expertise, the user simply traces over their drawing with an arm of the machine and the myriad needles of the Schiffli do their magic.

There was once a thriving industry using the machines in Nottingham and the North West, until production costs took such embroidery work to the Far East. There are no Schiffli companies in the UK anymore, and modern Schiffli machines are computerised.

photo of two people working with a large machine creating embroidery on a vertical piece of fabric


Until 2007, the last working example of a Schiffli in the UK was sitting, unloved and underused, at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Moreover, it was under threat of being removed altogether because of standards of noise control and for the space it occupied.

Concerned about its uncertain future, the University’s Dr Melanie Miller initiated The Schiffli Project, inviting practitioners from a range of disciplines to explore the machine’s possibilities.

The resulting exhibition of works created using the machine was first shown at MMU at the end of 2007, and has now toured to The Hub in Lincolnshire.

The 20 works on show include subverted domestic objects such as Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh’s ‘Armchair Politico’; wall pieces such as a huge figurative work by well-known embroiderer Alice Kettle; and an installation referencing global conflict by Rozanne Hawksley, ‘Anthem for Ambition’.

photo of some designs on a piece of fabric


Other artists involved in the project are Rowena Adern, Jill Boyes, Nigel Cheney, Isabel Dibden Wright, Nina Edge, Kate Egan, Jane McKeating, Melanie Miller, Sally Morfill, Susan Platt and Lynn Setterington.

“One of the most striking things about the marks that the Schiffli makes is how modern they look,” says Professor Lesley Millar in her catalogue essay.

“If a neutrality of statement had been expected from these artists as a result of a sense of subservience to this machine, this is certainly not so; each artist has approached the machine through their own visual language.”

After The Hub showing, the exhibition will tour to Fairfield Mill Art and Heritage Centre, Sedbergh (May 3 - June 29) and Macclesfield Silk Museum (July 5 - September 7). It will then go on show at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Birmingham, London and Harrogate.

For more information about the machine and to see a video of it in action, visit the Schiffli Project website.

This is an exhibition preview. If you’ve been to see the show, why not let us know what you think?

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