The coloured tree ‘jumpers’ are placed in the middle of the living room table like a grandiose centerpiece. Almost like exhibits in a museum, they possess a dual trait: they long to be touched, but are too precious to find someone courageous enough to do it. They belong to 30-year-old textile artist Kirstie Macleod, who’s coloured knitted leggings contrast with the industrial interior of her converted textile factory flat in Hackney.
She pets her curly black haired little dog, displaying a small tattoo on her forearm under her long sleeve. With her hair pulled up and a big jovial smile, she sips Earl Grey tea while sitting opposite the tree ‘jumpers’, the multi-coloured pieces of fabric that could be seen sewn around trees outside Hackney Town Hall earlier this year. “I wanted to bring a bit of happiness into people’s lives”, she says.
It is clear Macleod is not your average stay-at-home knitter, who sews scarves and hats for children or pets. Neither is she commercially driven. “You have people who create work to sell. Unfortunately for me it’s never that way, but everything I do is about garments”, she says.
Although Macleod calls herself a textile artist, she also does multi-media performance pieces; from embroidered dresses that she made in different parts of the world, to performing under water and art installations. “There is always an element of danger in every piece that I do. I wouldn’t say I like the danger, but it has to be in there”, she says with determination.
“Every piece, someone said to me, is like a ‘a sugar coated pill’. You see the immediate exterior, which has a visual impact, but then underneath there will be something a little more hard hitting”, she smiles.
Her art is very much influenced by the different places she has lived. “I grew up all over the world. I was born in Venezuela, lived there for four years, and then moved to Barbados, Nigeria, Japan, Holland and Canada. My whole life was very much about experiencing different cultures, colours, textures and that’s totally where my interest in textiles began.”
Her eyes sparkle as she recalls her first significant textiles experience. “I think it was in Nigeria, I was about 11 or 12 when I first started going to embroidery classes. That’s when I was first introduced to this world, but all the women in my family, going up generations and generations, have been involved in some kind of textile. Whether it’s knitting, tapestry, it’s always been there.”
She studied textile design at the University of Bristol, where she experimented with the idea of garments and dresses representing the self. “Instead of painting a picture of me doing something, it would be a dress doing something. It was a way of portraying myself without being in it myself. That’s how it all started.”
Macleod admits a need to be in control of her art at all times. After graduating, being a director without also being part of her visual performances made her feel frustrated. “I wanted to have more control over the pieces, so I moved on to doing big installations. I only felt it made sense if I was in them”, she says. “But I hate performing! I’m not an actress at all. I hate being watched, hate being looked at”, she says, paradoxically, in a theatrical manner. “Although, I was ever acting in them, I was just existing in the work; like sleeping, or embroidering. It was a very passive performance, always durational and very long, usually 3 to 4 hours.”
Macleod’s favourite performance to date is Lacrimosa, in which she was submerged under the sea, wearing a dress knitted by her and two assistants, from 30,000 metres of fishing line. “I put on the dress and the whole of it was weighted to the sea bed, so I couldn’t get to the surface. I knew I would survive because I had divers giving me oxygen under water. It was only a 10 minute performance, but I couldn’t have done more. It was freezing cold. You can’t see anything, and you’re wearing something that’s essentially killing you.”
Her appetite for challenging and creative installations have gained her recognition in some of the world’s leading publications. In her ‘Barocco piece’, which she considers to be her most successful yet, she wore a red embroidered dress inside a glass cube for four hours. The piece was performed in Dubai and other parts of the world and was featured in Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel.
Macleod says having control over her life is what she loves most about being an artist. She combines generating an income with her passion by making couture wedding dresses, and laughs as she admits that “being skint” is one of the downsides of putting her creative interests first.
“People say: why can’t you just do a painting? I just say: garments are the only language I know. It doesn’t make sense to do anything else.”