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Behind The Stitches: Karen Barbé

“I embroider because I want to understand something from the stitch, the idea, or yes, just to understand something from myself"


Sam: Where are you from and where are you based now?
Karen: I’m based in Santiago, Chile. I was born and have lived most of my life here. My next stop is Chicago where, fingers crossed, I’ll soon start a new chapter in my life with my husband.

Sam: Have you always been creative? How did you learn to embroider, knit, and sew?
Karen: My mom was my entry door to the crafting world. She was always making things with her hands (she still does!) so I grew up surrounded by lots of colors, materials, tools, and magazines. I learned to embroider, sew, crochet, and knit from her. This learning and exposure to a creative world prompted me to later pursue a creative career (I first got in to Architecture school and found out that it wasn’t for me. So then I changed schools and moved to Design).
Sam: How long does an embroidery typically take you?
Karen: It depends on many factors being the most important the complexity of the stitches and the total surface to be covered. Also, some materials are slower to work with, such as very fine or metallic threads. As a rough time reference, an embroidery can take me anywhere from two days to a few months. But this only considers execution time. There’s also a lot of time involved in planning, designing, choosing colors, preparing materials, tracing the design on the fabric, etc. So yes, embroidering is a slow endeavor.
"My main inspiration has always been the domestic crafts realm, a space that’s been nurtured by the women in my family"

Sam: Is it important to you that your crafts have functional applications?
Karen: No, that’s never been a thing to me. I really don’t care if my embroidery ends up inside a drawer. For me the learning, the joy, the motive of doing it lie in the process. That’s my true gain. I don’t do embroidery just to get a new cushion cover. I embroider because I want to understand something from the stitch, the idea, or yes, just to understand something from myself. Embroidering provides you with a precious time of self-reflection that feels so inspiring, joyful, and soothing that easily surpasses the mere need of making something for practical reasons. Having said that, I’ve always preferred to place my embroideries on surfaces that are functional in nature, such as tea towels, kitchen aprons, pot-holders, totes, etc. Those are textiles that are used daily at home so I like the idea of inserting my stitches in those spaces as a way of elevating common household items.

Sam: Can you talk a little about the incident a few years ago when your images were stolen? What was your first reaction to that?
Karen: Sadly that’s something that has happened to me quite a few times. Some people, and sometimes large companies, have used my images to promote their own embroidery classes or related events. It angers me to see how my embroideries—which have my own style and palettes—are used to promote classes that have nothing to do with me or my way of stitching. My embroideries have a formal and technical neatness to them, so it’s not only the legal implications of the situation that infuriates me but the lack of understanding by these persons of what an embroidery style is plus the way they mislead people who may be interested in learning one style over another.
Sam: What was your experience like studying at the Royal School of Needlework in the UK?
Karen: Magical! And exhausting! In 2015 I took the Certificate program that the RSN offers every year. That meant two months of embroidering every day, full-time, even on weekends or late into the night so as to be able to finish each of the module’s projects. At times I felt like throwing my frame out of the window, really!—I was so tired and frustrated for not getting some of the stitches right. But then, spending two months at Hampton Court Palace, a beautiful and inspiring place in the outer zones of London, was an experience worth any suffering. I learned lots of things that improved my skills, that’s for sure. When I went there I was expecting to find a different kind of teaching, a different kind of understanding than the one I encountered. RSN is a traditional school and as such their mission is preserving and transmitting the craft of embroidery in a mostly conventional way. In that sense, there was a part of my expectations that weren’t met but that feeling was totally surpassed by the experience as a whole.
"I just knew I needed to reconnect with that part of me that as a child and younger person enjoyed so much making things with her hands"
Sam: How does your connection to your culture inspire your craft?
Karen: My main inspiration has always been the domestic crafts realm, a space that’s been nurtured by the women in my family (I remember doing knitting samples with my great-grandmother). Also in Chile we have a culture that looks quite colorful (though not as colorful as you would expect from other Latin American cultures). The bright, even harsh, light that most of the year covers Santiago may also have an impact on my color use and sense of contrast.
Sam: What has been the biggest lesson your creative practice has taught you?
Karen: If you’re starting out your creative path, whether professionally or as a hobby, you’d probably like to know that your style, your voice, WILL emerge eventually even if you’re not sure what or why you’re doing the things you do. I always say “make, make, just make things” and your creative self will materialize before you. When I left my corporate job in 2007 I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do or create. I just knew I needed to reconnect with that part of me that as a child and younger person enjoyed so much making things with her hands. So I set out to put into practice all these textile techniques I already knew and also learned new ones like weaving and photography. After much practice and being involved in different projects, I was able to—as Steve Jobs put it—“connect the dots” and see what I was after. In this process, writing a blog where I deposited all my creative explorations, was capital to help me understand and build my voice.

Sam: What do you do when you get stuck on a project?
Karen: This is hard because when I get stuck I don’t immediately realize that I’m, well, stuck. I start to feel a bit anxious, my explorations usually don’t yield the results I had envisioned and though I may insist on working on a specific idea, I have that sensation of never arriving. I may struggle a bit in this circle until I realize things won’t work out as expected. That realization feels like a small failure, quite discouraging. At that point I put away the project I’m working on to provide some distance and whip up another embroidery, something that just provides me with joyful embroidery time. This calms my anxiety and puts me in a creative mood again.

Sam: How often do you hold workshops? What’s your favorite part about teaching?
Karen: The frequency depends on what else is happening in my life (other projects, trips). My embroidery courses last between four to five weeks (that’s four or five sessions in all, one per week). That gives my students time to practice between classes and encounter problems that we can solve on the following session. Teaching has allowed me to meet wonderful people that can be as passionate as me about embroidering and that’s so energizing. Also, teaching embroidery has forced me to understand stitches in such a profound way that I’m capable of explaining the mechanics of it independent of the student’s skill level. That’s so fun and challenging because I’ve found myself creating stories and analogies to explain some stitches (I currently use an analogy of driving a car when I teach stem stitch).
Sam: Can you tell us about your book? Where did that idea come from?
Karen: The idea came from the need of my own students. When I started teaching embroidery I realized that some of the students weren’t satisfied with the results of their samplers. The stitches were done correctly but the colors most of the time felt off. Colors were chosen hastily, because we were just focusing on the stitching. So that’s when I decided to teach just about color and give the deserved importance that a palette has within a project. For teaching this class I drew from my own experience as a designer and as someone who has a sensitive and curious eye. A few years later I was talking to an editor, discussing possible ideas for a book, and this one was the one that caught. That’s how “Colour Confident Stitching” came to life.

Sam: Who are some of your creative inspirations that you think newbie fiber lovers should know about?
Karen: Two artists I always come back to for inspiration are Gunta Stölzl and Sonia Delaunay. Their textile work is almost a hundred years old now but it still feels so contemporary. I like their geometry, structure, and use of color. In that sense you can see I’m a designer before an embroiderer because I’m so attracted to textile structures. I rarely look for inspiration in embroidered pieces. I mean, I do of course, but not with the intensity that I use textiles as a reference to my work. That’s why textile artists are so important to my creative research.

Sam: What do you like to binge watch or listen to while you craft?
Karen: Podcasts! My list includes Design Matters, While She Naps, Your Undivided Attention, and Good Life Project. In the past I’ve listened to some popular podcasts such as Serial. When I’m in the mood for something more relaxing I tune in to Tara Brach’s meditating/insights episodes. Right now I can’t conceive embroidering without listening to something!


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If you want to see more of Karen's work you can follow her on Instagram @karenbarbe and visit her website.
Who should I talk to next? Leave your suggestions in the comments section along with any thoughts you have about Karen's interview. I’m always on the hunt for inspiring crafters. Also, don't forget to follow along on my Instagram account @bobbleclubhouse for your daily dose of all things fiber. Until next week, happy crafting!

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