The Red Dress was an art project which started in 2009. After 10 years, it is now finished and ready to show. Stitched by 202 embroiderers from 28 countries, it bears the marks of wars (Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo), Palestinians refugees, Paris and Bombay luxury stitchers, artists from Wales and Columbia, women who try to make a living from their stitched work like in South Africa and Sinai. Most of those women are never listen to. Here are their stories, stitched in silk.
Let’s meet Kirstie Macleod, the artist who launched this amazing project.
Interview by Claire de Pourtalès
What is your story with embroidery?
I am an artist, Kundalini yogi and mother to 2 young boys based in Somerset UK, working with all things textiles. I have a particular fascination for embroidery and its diversity and potential as a means of communication (or subversion), it’s history and practice throughout the world both as an art form and in daily life, and the repetitive, meditative and healing effects experienced through its creation.
Did you stitch on it too?
Yes, there are lots of pieces embroidered by me on the dress, most are small additions to mark a particular event or moment in time. I also the did the spiders web on the bodice back…which was couched.
The Red Dress worn by Natasha Faye Hopkins © Dave Watts
The back of the bodice, stitched by Kirstie Macleod © Kiyah Cross
How did this idea come to you? Was a dress the first option?
I was commissioned to create a piece of work for Art Dubai 2009, and given a budget form the British Council – which was very exciting! I have a fascination with different cultures (having grown up in various far flung countries all over the world) and had a desire to create a piece of work that would unite and bring together as many different identities as possible – without borders and prejudice – to create a platform in which women can express, feel empowered and be heard. Using a dress seemed appropriate as it is such a potent symbol of femininity.
Who made the dress? Why “red”?
Myself and a very talented dressmaker called Gail Falconer, who I worked with for many years on a selection of high impact dresses for both art, performance and personal commissions.
Researching the textile heritage of the commissioning country – UAE, I learnt that red silk was particularly highly revered. I also love the strength of red, and it’s feeling of love, strength, anger, blood…these are all part of our human experience and felt very fitting for the feminine voice.
International Women’s Day, Bristol (UK) © Mireya Gonzalez
Tell us more about the whole organization
Mostly, it has just been me working on it – alongside other paid work and being a mum. It has been a very organic process – with most of it happening on my computer! I received a few private donations from art collectors and embroidery enthusiasts over the years but for the majority of the last 5 years the work has been self-funded. Finding the artisans was an organic process – using contacts I had from the art / textile world, friends, and through social media. Sadly, budget didn’t allow for me to travel with the dress each time, so instead panels of the dress were sent out to willing artisans to create work onto and then send back to me in the UK.
The only instructions to them were to create an element of their identity and culture – something they would like to share about themselves…a story they would like to tell. The artisans all used their own threads, which adds a huge amount of interest and diversity to the dress.
The Dress became more and more valuable (and heavy – it weighs about 20 kg today) as the project advanced. It became too expensive to ship, but I was able to travel with it in Sinai and Mexico, which was wonderful!
Embroideries from Colombia, Japan and Pakistan © Dave Watts
We can still see the goldwork stitches made by Albert Gauguin workshop (Paris) at the start of the project.
What were the reactions of the stitchers?
Initially some were uncertain – not sure about work layering up over the top of each other, but as the project gained momentum the artisans were very happy to be involved. In fact, in the later years I was approached by embroiderers asking to be involved.
We were able to show some very short videos on my Instagram account. There are 2 films underway – one a visual element for exhibition alongside the dress in exhibition. The other a full documentary. Both require funding to be finished…I am currently looking to secure that.
What did you do to keep it so clean?
Damp cloths and lots of love!
What impact had the pandemic? I think you were in Mexico then… Are you working on new ideas for the dress to be shown?
Covid had a very big impact. The exhibition at the Museo Des Artes Popular in Mexico City was cancelled and our trip cut short. I then got the virus (likely from my epic, emotional and long journey home). Then the world stopped – so the dress’s journey was paused for 6 months. I am only now getting back into working with it since my boys are back at school. There are lots of exhibitions in the pipeline…mainly in the States.
A group of stitchers from Chiapas, Mexico © Kirstie Macleod
Embroideries from Kenya, Kosovo and Sweden © Dave Watts
Any anecdotes, special moments or stories you’d like to share?
Meeting and embroidering next to the artisans in Mexico was very special – being able to experience their lives for a few days…see their homes, eat their food and sleep in their house with their family – incredible. The dress being awarded first prize at the Premier Valcellina Textiles Award in Maniago Italy in 2005 was a real highlight. Otherwise each time I received an embroidery back in the post – it was the most wonderful experience – being able to touch and feel the cloth that they had put so much of their energy into. Such a privilege.
The Red Dress worn by Natasha Faye Hopkins © Dave Watts
Embroideries from Sinai, Mexico and South Africa © Dave Watts
What was “the cube”*? What effect did it bring to the project?
When the project began it was an art installation with a not very subtle feminist element. I wanted to express a feeling of female oppression and containment, and also question how the viewer took in the image of the woman (me) embroidering onto the dress. Viewed inside a perspex cube as you would look at a jewel or artifact in a museum. Over the years I have changed a lot and am much calmer and centered in myself….instead of a big statement I am now looking to celebrate the feminine – she is now out of the box, standing tall, empowered and full of power!
* you can view photos on her website
The Red Dress exhibited at the Museo Des Artes Popular, Mexico © Kirstie Maclead
Catalina stitching her piece © Catalina Sánchez Gaviria
In addition to this interview, I met with Catalina who worked on the project. Here is her thoughts about it: “While I was born and raised in Colombia, I currently live in Lyon, France. When Kirstie reached out to be part of the Red Dress project, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I am honored to be rubbing shoulders with so many amazing women from all parts of the world. The idea of the embroidered piece was to portray our countries as well as ourselves. My piece brings together our rich biodiversity and the complexity of our society in hopes for a better future. Living abroad has had a significant impact on the project because you get to see your country from a different perspective when you are away, and in a greater scale, how you feel towards the spaces we inhabit. This is the type of experiences that brings together humanity and strengthen communities. I am absolutely grateful to be part of it. “
The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire