Emily Tull – exciting talk by textile artist extraordinaire

Emily Tull is a textile artist based in Kent. Her talk gave us a wonderful overview of her career, inspiration and process.

Emily is obsessed with faces. Starting with what she states as crude experiments (but were still exquisitely detailed), she initially concentrated on eyes and mouths. A loose weave fabric was the base of the work and muslin is used for the skin as it is a good surface to sketch on, distresses and is stitched on relatively easily. Emily had become frustrated painting, finding she was able to include more detail with stitch.

A series of 8 male portraits followed, all of people she knew. The work was initially monochromatic but moved to more subtle colour as the work progressed, although she owned a very limited thread palette at this point. Hessian was the base with muslin used to accentuate certain sections of the face with simple marks making the image come alive. After completing the first 3 portraits, she liked the effect but wondered if the style would appeal to a wider audience. With this in mind, Emily approached a number of galleries and received positive feedback; in 2008 she received a Highly Commended after entering the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists) Portrait Prize and at this point she though “this could work”.

Emily’s portraits were not of the whole head but rather accenting parts, leaving the viewer to complete the picture. She likened the work to putting faces back together, mending people’s souls. She invariably uses people she knows for the inspiration as she adds a little of the person into the portrait.

The size of the work increased, working canvases 2ft x 3ft, but working at this dimension causes physical discomfort to work on. Additional fabrics were introduced such as cotton, silks and linen, with the larger pieces now being used.  Often distressed with sandpaper, the background fabric helps to define the shape of the head, hinting at shapes that aren’t there.

At this point, Emily felt she had gone as far as she could with this style and decided to change to a sketchier design. Taking a 3ft2 old bedsheet with wadding on a wooden stretcher, she used just black, grey and white thread, filling in areas with long stitches. She found this technique to be more expressive and depicted movement well.

IMAGE Lord Melvyn Bragg hand stitched

In 2010, Emily moved on to wildlife portraits, first created a cockerel using velour, netting and some stitching. All of the fabric came from her mum’s scrap bag, collected from years of Irish dancing costume making. Using fabric enabled Emily to cover an area with colour very quickly and she enjoyed the challenge of using only those scraps she had on hand.

The collection of winter themed designs based on garden birds was completed on white fleece. Small stitching was used for the finer details and Emily used this collection as an opportunity to further increase her thread collection, although she does prefer to use what is on hand rather than purchase new. Emily often looks to charity shops to purchase her threads.

As this collection grew, Emily began to add backgrounds to the animal studies, initially abstract but becoming more realistic over time. On the Gannet a layer of organza was used, with the head being directly sketched on to the cotton, cut out and applied to the background. The stitching continued to develop, with the gannet being much more fully stitched than the portraits, blending colours and stitch lengths to provide the detail. Emily said that she learnt what she was doing working on the wildlife images.


With this developed knowledge, Emily returned to portraits, where her stitching became much more dense, includes a broader colour range (the thread collection has now moved on to a crate!) and the work much more detailed. The muslin has become much less important, with sketching done directly on to the background. Prints as well as plain fabrics are included in the portraits, although colours are still subtle rather than bright; these are distressed with sandpaper, a technique Emily really enjoys.

Inspiration for the technique has come from ripped wallpaper, ripped billboards and peeling paint. Using these references, Emily layers the fabrics, away from her earlier technique of outlining with the faces fitting and sinking into the other materials.

Emily is a big fan of sketch books, using them to sketch into, hold reference photographs, doodles, collages and notes and describes them as a conversation with herself. Titles often drive the piece of work and these can come from song lyrics, poetry or she will hear something that makes it into the sketchbook to be a used at a later date. When doing a portrait Emily starts with the eye and moves on to the other parts when happy with this; this is the only part of a set routine she employs. The eyes are the slowest part as these need to be exact; hair is often the quickest as it uses long stitches. Long strands and loops are used for texture, but Emily tries not to stitch too thickly as this is tough on her fingers.

Emily works on a single project at a time, her impatience often drives the project to completion. Depending on the project Emily may stitch on it between 2 and 8 hours a day, depending on her comfort; some projects can result in sever neck pain, particularly if the project is large. She usually stitches with two hands, one under the work and the other above, working stitches individually.

More recently, Emily has been working on wallpaper. This has taught a few lessons; shiny paper needs an angled stitch, light drawing of subject and considering how the paper responds; too many needle holes reduced the integrity of the paper resulting in areas that are cut out. Unsurprisingly, less expensive wallpaper is not so good for stitching. Emily began with stitching wildlife on wallpaper based on Victoriana; the hummingbird was stitched on muted paper to make the colours pop. Because of the dense stitching, the work came close to degrading the paper.

Moving on to other substrates, a fox and seagull have been stitched on to the polystyrene supports for pizzas, a sand martin stitched on to plastic netting and a crab emerging from a plastic bag. As different bases have been used the work became more sculptural and dimensional in its appearance.

Emily was an interesting guest speaker and generous with the information she shared on her techniques. For images of her work and information of her workshops, please visit www.emilytull.co.uk

Report thanks to Tase W.

Photos thanks to Emily Tull


Scroll to Top