Creative People - Cathy Eliot

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Welcome to the magical world of illustrator and embroidery artist, Cathy Eliot.  London-based Cathy delights in nature and all things botanical. Inspired by a childhood spent exploring textiles and learning how to cross stitch at the knee of her aunt, she uses needle and thread to create captivating small scale works that are richly embroidered in beautifully understated colours and minute detail.

She stitches subtly-hued moths on to diminutive velvet pillows, sews intricately detailed garden birds, makes mini hoop decorations embroidered with golden horned reindeer and gilded pears, and samplers filled with intensely detailed flowers sewn on to linen hoops. She’s diverse, too - she recently designed a custom made embroidered cap for Jack Garrett’s latest UK tour. I caught up with her earlier this year to chat Matisse, mixing mediums and the ups and downs of making money doing something you love.

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Claire: Do you consider yourself first and foremost an illustrator or embroidery artist - or both in equal measure?

Cathy: A year ago I would have certainly said that I consider myself first an embroiderer, but over the past year I’ve been working on drawing more every day and actually making the transition into becoming a full-time illustrator. I am really pleased to have been offered a place to study on an MA in Children’s Book Illustration, and so I also need to work hard to make sure I keep up with their high standards. I still love embroidery, and still take commissions. I would love to incorporate embroidery into children’s book illustration, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely give it up!

Claire: Which came first?

Cathy: Embroidery definitely came first. Ever since I was little, my aunt would come round to the house with cross stitch and other sewing kits. We’d make all kinds of things with textiles, and that was always my favourite subject at school. But it’s really difficult to make a living out of embroidery - people don’t realise how long it takes, and so it’s hard to price your work in a way that’s both appealing to the customer and gives you a decent wage. Illustration takes less time and offers more options for products. Plus, the better you are at drawing, the better your embroidery designs become too!

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Claire: What sparked your interest in each media?

Cathy: Growing up doing a lot of textiles certainly paved the way for me to go down the embroidery route. I started to become more interested in illustration through seeing artists on Instagram and seeing how varied and expressive their work is. Clover Robin makes gorgeous collages, Darya Shnykina does the most romantic, modern illustrations, and then there are so many gardeners, florists, and nature photography accounts, which are all so inspiring.

Claire: Did you have any training? When did you start?

Cathy: I really wish I had gone to some kind of art school. It seems like a dream now to spend three full years playing around with different creative outlets and finding your confidence and style. Sadly, I thought I had to do something more ‘useful’ and studied Italian literature and language. I do love being able to speak Italian, so I shouldn’t complain! But I’m ecstatic to get to finally study art properly on the MA.

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Claire: Is this what you always wanted to do?

Cathy: I always thought, “I don’t want to be stuck in a 9 to 5, working for the man!” (looking back, I was a bit naive!). For a while I played a lot of music, but realised that in-between the music practice I was still drawing. I thought I had to choose between music and art, so chose to go with art, which then took the form of embroidery. I think I’ve always known I would end up doing something creative, although I’m still only doing it part-time. I really hope one day I can make a good, full-time, living from it.

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Claire: Could you give us an insight into how you work?  Could you describe the process and what's involved?

Cathy: For an embroidery hoop, I always start with gathering photos. Pinterest is really great for this. Then I do a really rough pencil crayon sketch to get the colours down, and then refine this into a more detailed pencil sketch. This gets traced onto the fabric and then I choose embroidery threads to match the colours as closely as possible, and to give a nice palette. Then the long process of stitching begins, usually spread over several days/weeks depending on how large and intricate the piece is. This is all accompanied by much coffee, breaks and tv shows in the background!

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Claire: How long does it take to produce a piece of work?

Cathy: For a 5” hoop, totally filled with flowers, there are a couple hours of sketching and finalising the design, and then maybe 10-15 hours of stitching, including time for undoing and redoing anything. For a 3” hoop, it could take a couple of hours. For a small drawing, anything from 20 mins to 2 hours, depending on how detailed it is.

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Claire: Which materials do you like to use and why?

Cathy: For embroidery, I love regular embroidery thread. DMC is more widely available but Anchor threads are very good too. And I like to use beautiful fabrics, especially linen. I’m just getting back into using beads, and keep meaning to try tapestry wool for embroidery. For illustrating, I love pencil crayons (Faber Castell Polychromos) and also gouache.

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Claire: Where do you shop for your supplies?

Cathy: It’s best to buy materials in person, so you can see and feel them, but sometimes when you know the specific colours and brands you want you can order online. Liberty has a really good selection of embroidery threads and other lovely sewing things. I do buy my fabrics online, from a shop called Merchant and Mills. They have such wonderful fabrics and you can order little sample swatches so you know just what you’re getting.

Claire: Which medium do you enjoy the most?

Cathy: Each material has its own benefits and changes the way you work, but I think, for their expressiveness, colours and ease of use, my favourite is pencil crayons.

Claire: Where do you look for inspiration?

Cathy: Nature is probably my number one source of inspiration; flowers and plants are endlessly beautiful and can be found in myriad combinations and colours. I love gardening and so am beginning to learn the names of things, which is really satisfying! For embroidery, fashion shops like Anthropologie always have beautiful patterns and colour combinations, and of course Pinterest always turns up something gorgeous!

Claire: Do you have any art icons?

Cathy: I have always loved Matisse, he was really inspired by textiles and gardens so his paintings are bursting with lovely colours and patterns. A few of my favourite illustrators include Matt Forsythe, who uses really dreamy colours to create friendly characters; William Grill, who uses a minimal colour palette and expressive pencil crayons marks; Rebecca Green uses a wide range of mediums to put together really magical illustrations.

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Claire: Whats the most rewarding part of what you do?

Cathy: It’s easy to forget how lucky I am, to get to express myself creatively everyday, which I think is so good for you. Then you really hope that other people connect with your ideas. It’s really validating when people like your work.

Claire: What's the best piece of advice you've received?

Cathy: For better or for worse, I actually tend not to listen too much to advice. Everyone has such a unique journey. If something has worked for them, it doesn’t mean it will work for me. Having said that, I like Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules. It’s hard to argue with rule 7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.” I think you have to walk your own path and you can only find that out by hacking down all the brambles in your way.

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Claire: Do you listen to music while you're working? If so, what kind of music?

Cathy: Not really. I tend to have telly on in the background while I’m working, usually either something I’ve seen before, or something I can listen to without having to watch, like stand up comedy. Recently I’ve been watching the Great British Bake Off.   I also enjoy some podcasts, like No Such Thing As a Fish, a hilarious trivia show.

Claire: What was the last exhibition you went to see?

Cathy: I went to see the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, which was wonderful. I love his glorious, bright colours and swathes of flowers and trees covering the canvas. Plus he always inserts a creepy cat or two in the corner as an extra surprise - ha ha!

Claire: Do you get lonely or do you have a group of likeminded creatives you hook up with?

Cathy: Oh I definitely get lonely! I really wish I could afford a little studio space but the ones nearby where I live are incredibly expensive, and you don’t even get a fixed desk. It would be amazing to go to work every day and get to be with other creatives. I’m sure it is very motivating and inspiring. 

Claire: How do you relax when you're not working?

Cathy: I love gardening a lot. I’m really lucky to live in a flat share with a big garden and no-one else really cares about the garden so I can do what I like! This year I’ve planted around 100 seeds to try and grow my own flowers to fill the garden, which was mostly weeds before. Getting your hands in the dirt is such a good distraction from everything, and decent exercise too!

Claire: Who are some of the creatives you enjoy following online?

Cathy: I love Rebecca Green’s work - she’s always pushing herself, even though she’s already so very talented. She’s currently living in Tokyo, a place I’d love to visit, so it’s wonderful to see that world through her eyes. Her work is so lively and seems simple on the surface, but if you look closely, so much careful work has gone into each piece.

Claire: Where are your favourite places in the world to be?

Cathy: Anywhere green and peaceful. I find even the most basic gardens are calming and refreshing, even better if you are there by yourself.

Claire: Favourite shop?

Cathy: Any plant shop! Luckily most garden centres are out of the way, or I would never have any money.

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Claire: What was the last book you read?

Cathy: I read a fair few children’s books, the last one was Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. It’s really cute and then goes a bit dark when the millions of cats start eating each other! I really enjoyed Kassia St Clair’s book ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’, which is all about how colours for paint and dye have been manufactured throughout history. I feel silly for never really thinking about how difficult it was to create certain colours in the past. Now we have synthetic dyes, it’s very easy. No more paints made with arsenic, thank goodness!

Claire: What are some of London's best kept secrets?

Cathy: I’m not sure if I should reveal my favourite secret place in London! I really love Burgh House outdoor cafe in Hampstead. There’s one table which is quite hidden around a corner behind some shrubs, with trees overhanging above. The birds there are very used to the people, so you can sit and watch them hopping around very close up.

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Claire: What's next for you in your career?

Cathy: In September I’m starting an MA in Children’s Book Illustration. I can’t wait. I’m spending my spare time preparing for that - sketching, reading, thinking about stories. It’s going to be great to be in a structured environment and getting to meet more creative people. And I’m looking forward to getting a student discount again - ha ha!

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