A stitch in time: 6 incredible tapestries created on the road by a travelling artist

Artist Harriet Riddell travels the world with her sewing machine, stitching portraits and landscapes as she goes. Here are six of her best pieces, from the slums of Kenya to the tea fields of India

Team Wanderlust
07 July 2017

1: Ladies in the Indian tea fields

It was extremely hot while I was working in Kolkata, so I decided to take a trip into the mountains for a little break with my sewing machine. I thought the ladies picking tea there would make a great subject and wrote to Raja Banerjee, owner of the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong, for permission to work there. After stitching his portrait, he got one of his men to take me up to the fields on the back of a motorbike.

The ladies wore lipstick and pearls to pick the tea. They stopped to look at my work and have a giggle. I’m not sure why they wore lipstick and pearls. I guess they took pride in their appearance. They were very sweet women who were very intrigued with what I was up to.

The ladies worked incredibly hard throughout the day, shaded by little umbrellas. They even let me have a go, teaching me how to balance a basket on my head and pointing out which leaves produced the prime tea. It was a beautiful and peaceful experience.

Title: Ladies in the Tea Fields

Size: 121cm x 65cm

Medium: Machine stitched with Gouache paint on cloth used in the picking baskets.

Date: May 2015

2: Nairobi Slum

Working in Mukuru-kwa-njenga, a slum in Nairobi, was possibly my most intimidating stitch to date. I was surrounded by a large crowd of inquisitive children who clung onto me as I worked, swaying the table to and fro. I sat beside a man selling corn, who kept an eye out for me and pointed out little things I would have missed.

This piece was inspired by L.S. Lowry and his industrial revolution age work. I was trying to capture the everyday life of the slum. There’a a little boy playing with a tire like a hula-hoop and old ladies carrying all their bags on their backs.

I also wanted to capture the optimistic way of life there. People were always happily greeting each other with fist pumps and high fives. Life is tough in the slums but I didn’t want my piece to be a sob story.

Title: Perfect Imperfections

Size: 76cm x 52cm

Medium: Machine stitched with Gouache paint

Date: September 2015

3: Nairobi seamstress

Mama Taa lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. Whilst I was cycling through the slum, I found Mama Taa crocheting old plastic bags to make a new bag to sell. I set up my sewing machine next to her and gave her a lesson in my style of stitching.

She chose to stitch a little house. She told me of her house, how she had to rebuild it countless times because of the city council expanding the road by her home. “They knock it down. I build it, they knock it down. I build it again.” I admire her strength.

Title: Mama Taa

Size: 57cm x 94cm

Medium: Machine stitched on a plastic sack

Date: September 2015

4: Root Bridge, North East India

Deep in the East Khasi Hills, North East India, the villagers pass down their heritage skills in making these living root bridges from generation to generation. The bridges take 100 years to form and are an important way of connecting villages, but a recent influx of tourists threatens the way of life here.

I tried to be as respectful as I could, setting up on a flat rock jutting out into the river. I captured the ladies working hard, carrying baskets full of wood on their backs, and a man having his afternoon snooze with his basket pushed aside.

I took the time to chat with the locals and was careful to take my rubbish away with me. Litter is a real bugbear for the people who live here. Nearby Mawlynnong is said to be the cleanest village in India. Wood from around the town is used for broom sticks all across India.

Title: Root Bridge

Size: 88cm x 48cm

Medium: Machine stitched with Gouache Paint

Date: December 2015

5: Kibera

Situated in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, I spent three days in one spot documenting life on the edge of the ghetto. I sat near a women selling Mera (or Chat, a leaf chewed for amphetamine effects). She welcomed me to set up my machine near her tattered yellow umbrella.

Whilst working there, I learned of mob-brutality, mob-justice and a strong commitment to community. A thief ran past me with a fake gun, followed by an angry mob. He was caught and stoned to death just out of my eyesight.

Many people stood to watch, but I chose not to. When I had finished stitching and packed up, I rolled my machine around the corner to find the man left on the floor, with his legs crossed and all alone. The next day he was gone, but I was warned not to walk over the place where he had died as it was bad luck.

Title: Shine a Light on 42

Size: 115cm x 47cm

Medium: Machine stitched with Gouache paint

Date: August 2015

6: Printing saris in Kolkata

This group of talented craftsmen use block printing to adorn saris in Kolkata. I set up in their workshop and stitched the men hard at work.

I love to celebrate the individual: in this case, the skilled craftsman. I picked a few of the many wooden blocks and stitched them onto the piece. Afterwards, I collaborated with one of the men, who used these blocks to print the surrounding room onto the fabric.

Title: The Block Printers

Size: 134cm x 86cm

Medium: Machine stitched and Block Printed.

Date: April 2015

Harriet Riddell will be stitching portraits of visitors to Henley Festival 2017, from July 5-9. For tickets and more information, visit henley-festival.co.uk

Main image: Harriet at work in India (Harriet Riddell)

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