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Nursury Tree Wired felt hand and machine embroidered with machine stitched wire branches and leaves. 15" x 12" x 7"


Never Ending Time Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation 15" x 12"




Artist: Nell Burns, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Interview 66

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Contemporary textile artist Nell Burns has a love of machine and hand embroidery, which comes from a childhood spent in the sewing room with her mum. She has been designing, dressmaking and embroidering for as long as she can remember.

Nell completed her HND (Higher National Diploma) and in 1998 her BA Hons in Fashion and Textile Design in the UK. Over the years Nell continued to ‘play’ and ‘experiment’ whenever she could with her sewing machine.

In the summer of 2005 Nell completed a City & Guilds diploma in Machine Embroidery, which helped to further develop her skills and to take the ‘playing’ and ‘experimenting’ to a higher level, utilising different techniques and mediums to create pieces of art. Shortly after completing her City and Guilds diploma, Nell left the UK and moved to Vancouver. Here she continues to develop her design work, whilst finding new and abundant sources of inspiration. Since 2006 Nell has been part of numerous group shows in galleries around the lower mainland.

In 2010 Nell had her first solo exhibition, ‘Clockworks’ featuring over twenty unique fully working timepieces. This exhibition was very well received and has encouraged Nell to take the exhibit outside of British Columbia in the future. Neil's Website


Artist Nell Burns

Sea Shells work in progress.Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation. 3" x 1"


Tell us about your work?

During the final two years of my degree I discovered my passion, or obsession, for embroidery, in particular free motion machine embroidery. I love the textures that can be created from thread. How different a thread can look on a variety of fabrics is something that I like to explore and experiment with. I love to explore texture with thread and fabric or just one or the other.  Everything I create has to include stitching of some kind – it’s become more like an obsession. However, I do enjoy experimenting with many different mediums and challenge myself with new surfaces to stitch or materials to stitch with. In every project I set goals and challenges for myself. These can be material or technique limitations, or the creation of 3D structures and patterns beyond what I believe to be possible!

My other obsession is time – maybe because I never seem to have enough of it. My recent work is a combination of both embroidery and clock parts. This project has been the creation of unique embroidered timepieces; all clocks are fully working and often chiming clocks. Working on a series for a solo exhibition has allowed me to create a number of pieces that incorporate many favourite techniques, along with a huge amount of texture and structure.


Time to water your garden Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation. 20" x 18"


From where do you get your inspiration?

Nature and my environment is a huge source of inspiration. From actual trees, the colours of the forest, landscapes, buildings, cultures, writing and quotes, provides me with a never ending supply of ideas and inspiration to recreate the image, get colour or texture inspiration and apply it to structural ideas, it’s never ending. I am always looking around, up, down and to the side. Inspiration is really everywhere.

For my fashion design the East, along with historical costumes heavily influences me. The curve of a building can inspire the silhouette of a dress. A fossil or microscopic view of a shell can influence embroidery or a print idea.  I am lucky enough to live in Vancouver and get to walk in the local rain forest or go to the beach with the dog.  I get inspired every day, seeing the trees, leaves, colours, mountain landscape, the beaches and sea. This all means I don’t have to go very far at all to get inspired! And the fun part is, it changes with each season. Whenever I go back to the UK the historical architecture also inspires me, something I never appreciated when I lived there!


'Clockworks Exhibition' Various fibre techniques.


Why did you choose to go into fibre art?

From a very young age, my grandma taught me hand stitching and basic knitting. I was so young that I don’t remember a time in my life that I have not sewn. My mum taught me to dress make and sew with a sewing machine. She is a talented dressmaker. Before I knew what dyeing was and well before I was allowed a sewing machine (around 8 years old) I used to ‘borrow’ my mum’s food colouring from the baking cupboard and paint it onto fabric to get the right colour for an applique. I knew that my child friendly paints or crayons would not work on fabric. My applique consisted of me copying characters from stories, Disney and Beatrix Potter for example. I used my drawings to trace the shapes to cut out in fabric to applique (very badly) together. I saw it as a fabric jigsaw puzzle. Over the years I have managed to merge the two together (dressmaking and embroidery) in my own way. Fibre, stitching, sewing, needle art of any kind is all I have ever known. It feels very natural


Time to make a wish free motion embroidery and needle felting. 11" x 18" x 20"


Which is your favourite fibre medium?

Embroidery, but I have a huge appreciation for all mediums. I love to felt, quilt, print and dye my threads and fabrics whenever possible. I am always open to ideas for new surfaces to stitch on, new materials to introduce into my work. I have a ‘let’s try and see what happens’ attitude to my work.


Berrylicious Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation. 5" x 28"


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your fibre work?

Embroidery is all I do. I am not artistic, but I can design, so I have to work within my capabilities. I always have a pen and paper with me. I do a rough sketch, doodle or write some words to describe an idea. It then mulls around in my head for a couple of weeks. I give it a stir now and then before its ready to be produced. Rarely do I work in sketchbooks, it all rattles around and develops in my head, I find it much quicker to work that way than on paper.


Never Ending Time Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation 15" x 12"


What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

I love and respect the work and of many artists (painters) contemporary to traditional, although I rarely find myself influenced by them in my work. I just enjoy visually what they do. To me, the biggest influences are historical architecture, costumes and embroidery. I am in heaven when the museums open up their archives to the public or embroidery guilds. When I see the work created hundreds of years ago, embroidery, clothing, artifacts or a building…. I always wonder what influenced them.


Nursury Tree Wired felt hand and machine embroidered with machine stitched wire branches and leaves. 15" x 12" x 7"


What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work?  

I live in a very artistic community. Local artists, as well as the traditional native artwork that surrounds the environment I live in constantly inspire me. The grand scale, yet simple aesthetic artwork created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude amazes me. They work on such a large scale recreating landscapes and environments that can seem very familiar.  The textures and colours created from their work is what I admire most.

I think the most impact on my work has come from fashion designers. Issey Miyake’s construction and technical abilities amaze, intrigue and confuse me. Turning fashion into installation art exhibitions is unique. I am particularly inspired by how he has found a technique and taken it to another level, with dedicated experimentation and pushed the boundaries to keep to his work fresh and unique.

Com De Garcons and Yohji Yamamotos sense of design and creativity is something I aspire to, both with my fashion design and embroidery.

The drapery skills of Yohji Yamamoto, how fabrics can be folded and tucked into each other to create the most amazing textures, always makes me challenge myself further with my own work.

Roger Wood’s intriguing "klockwerks" have certainly influenced some of my clock designs. Roger’s sense of design makes you curious to look deeper to discover all the details and objects that make the artwork so unique. All of his clocks inspire me with my embroidery design as well as my clock making.


Petrified Wood Free motion embroidery textures inspired by and stitched on petrified wood. 8" x 12"


What other fibre artists are you interested in?

My first book purchased on machine embroidery was by Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn in 1995: A complete guide to creative embroidery. This book inspired me to try water-soluble fabric, which is when I fell in love with machine embroidery. My fashion designs soon became heavily embroidered designs! The book still inspires me today - it’s a great resource. 

Pam Watts was my tutor for the City and Guilds diploma in the UK and she opened up my world to other products and techniques. Her style and ideas were a huge inspiration to help me think outside of the box and made me realize it’s OK to try anything!

I have recently discovered the work of Australian textile artist Annemieke Mein. Her artistic ability to create life-like artwork and 3D creations are of extraordinary skill, which really inspires me.

As a fibre artist who lacks artistic abilities, I am hugely in awe of Carol Shinn and what she creates with a sewing machine and thread.


Tea Time Free motion teapot clock with embroidered teabags. 13" x 13"


Do you find it more difficult to show and sell your work than non-fibre artists? 

I have seen a number of galleries in British Columbia exhibit fibre, so I don’t believe exhibiting is hard to do. I think the time factor plays a large part in the pricing of fibre art. For example a canvas painted one solid colour with contrasting dots would be easy to recreate in embroidery, but it would take considerably longer. I have worked in a few art galleries and seen a variety of exhibitions in all mediums. There is a huge amount of appreciation for fibre exhibitions. Everyone connects to embroidery. It triggers memories of grandparents or parents embroidering, weaving, darning, rug hooking etc. Most people know how difficult it can be to sew a button onto a garment if it falls off. We wear it, sit on it, cover our windows and sleep in it. So all ages, cultures, male or female seem to understand and appreciate the work involved. Whether they like it or want to buy it, they understand the time and energy put into it. No other medium in my experience generates such a strong positive reaction from the public.


Circle of Time'Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric. 11" x 23"


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

I have been lucky enough to recently up-size my studio. It’s very organized. Everything is organized and stored by colour – buttons, beads, ribbons, fabrics and threads. When creativity hits, it becomes an explosion, everything everywhere. I can’t work long in chaos, so having everything so organized, means normality can resume after ten minutes of clear up. I have artwork that inspires me on my walls. My first few pieces of embroidery hang on my wall to remind me of how much I have improved! I have two large corkboards, which I have as story/mood boards for current projects. Currently one is full of clocks and time quotes. The other has trees & bark on it. I have two machines permanently set up and a tall workbench for my pattern making and cutting. The computer is nearby one machine, as I have been known to ‘surf’ while stitching! It’s a very relaxing space and a place where I love to spend my days playing.        


Sparkle Time Free motion embroidery shoes with clocks. 9" x 5"

Rings of Time'work in progress Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric tension and direction manipulation 12" x 21"


What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

I think it is becoming the new contemporary art form. Many people still see fibre as craft, which I don’t agree with. It’s reassuring to see so many art galleries accept fibre as an art form and to see the public’s reaction to these exhibitions. I hope more galleries open their doors to fibre to broaden the audience to the amazing and talented fibre artists out there.


Tick Tock Steampunk gear clock Free motion embroidery. Fully working manual Gear clock 9" x 10"


Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

Bigger, better more texture than there is now! I would also love to have an exhibition outside of British Columbia and possibly international one day… and of course I want to see more clocks!  I want to also keep pushing my capabilities and products and techniques that I use to keep creating new and exciting work.                                                      


Nell's studio.


What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

Finding and being inspired by other fibre artists. Having just discovered it, I certainly want to find out more.


Nell's studio.

Nell's studio.

Nell's studio with dog.



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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.


Tree of life Free motion embroidery on water soluble fabric. 12" x 12"