In the second of our new series celebrating independent makers, we talk hoops and hip hop with Jo Saunders, founder of gorgeous embroidery brand Sew and Saunders
The inspiration for Jo Saunders’ beautiful embroidery comes from a wide range of sources – her childhood home in Hampshire, the green spaces of London, Vogue magazine and… classic R&B and hip-hop. ‘It’s not what you might expect to hear from an embroiderer, but listening to RnB and hip hop music is pretty essential for me – it’s guaranteed to get me fired up and working!’
The backing track might be unexpected, but for those expecting traditional, heavy embroidery, Jo’s delicate, modern designs might be something of a surprise too. Is her style of work indicative of a general shift in embroidery style? ‘I do think there has been a change in terms of style and tone within embroidery towards cleaner, uncluttered work.’ Jo says. ‘When I look at the embroidery work done by my grandmother many years ago, it’s stunning, but generally quite ‘busy’ and ornate. Modern embroidery is still as intricate, but has a simplicity of design. I’m personally inspired by minimalist, ‘Scandi’ interiors and I want create pieces which work well in, and reflect, those sorts of spaces.’
With botanical design having something of a ‘moment’, Sew & Saunders stunning leaf designs are very much on trend. Was it a deliberate decision to focus her work on a popular look? ‘Not at all, it’s just a happy coincidence!’ Jo says. ‘The designs come from a love of botanical shapes and colours, rather than a conscious decision to follow a particular trend. Aside from the natural world – ‘I spend way too much time in Regents Park and Kew Gardens!’ – Jo’s work is also inspired by photography and fashion. ‘My favourite photographer is Tim Walker. I adore his work. I love the way every prop, model and setting creates different emotions and I try to replicate that with my wall pieces. I love playing with texture, and I’m also really inspired by fashion designers like Isaac Mizrahi; his textural work is stunning.’
‘I always have my collection of Vogue magazines open around the flat and I’ll often find inspiration for colour in one photo shoot, texture in another, and then try and combine both and channel it into one my designs.’ It sounds like ideas flow easily, does she ever get creative block? ‘Not really, I often have the opposite problem; trying to narrow my ideas down and get everything I’d like to make, made!’
Has her approach and style changed since starting Sew and Saunders in 2014? ‘I think my style had evolved a lot before I started Sew and Saunders. It’s progressed from heavily textured work, to a more organic, raw look which I really enjoy. I love using ‘simpler’, organic materials like cotton and alpaca.’ One thing that has remained unchanged over the years is Jo’s love of a cool colour palette. ‘I’m very much drawn to blues and greens. When I started to create my work for Sew and Saunders, one of my mum’s first comments was how I was working with the colours which had always been my favourites since I was tiny!’
While studying Fashion Design at Leeds College of Art and Design, Jo found a natural affinity for embellishment work. ‘I really enjoyed manipulating fabric and playing with texture,’ she explains. Her love of embroidery, however, began when she was a child. ‘I’ve been embroidering since I was around 12 years old. My family are very creative, both my mum and my grandmother are incredibly talented seamstresses, and sewing has always played a big role in family life.’
After graduating, Jo worked as an assistant stylist while trying to establish herself as an independent maker. It was not an easy road, ‘I got so many knock-backs and rejections – from stockists, craft markets and so on.’ Jo says. ‘The frustrating thing is that I let the rejection get to me, put down my needle and didn’t pick it up again for three years. That’s a definite regret; that I allowed it to dent my confidence and I ‘lost’ those years of creative output.’
Jo moved instead into retail management and now works full time at the HQ of a major high street fashion brand. ‘I love my job, but working full time means it can be really hard to fit creative work around it.’ Is time management a challenge? ‘It can be, yes. At really busy times I’ve been known to get a hoop out at my desk and embroider during my lunch break – which gets some interesting reactions from my colleagues! Creating the work takes time, but the admin side of things – responding to emails, shipping products, running my Instagram feed can also be really time consuming. Luckily, embroidery is a moveable craft and you can fit it in pretty much anywhere – I’ve travelled a fair bit over the summer, and a lot of my embroidering has taken place on planes and in airports!’
Weekends are a key time for Jo’s creative process and you’ll generally find her hard at work in the spare bedroom of her North London flat, which she’s turned into a workspace. ‘I’m really, really lucky to have the space, it’s full of all my crafting bits and pieces, fabrics, everything I need, plus stuff leftover from my degree course – overlocking machines and a few mannequins.’
‘I like to sit at my desk to work, with the radio on – Kiss FM if I need to get motivated! – with no other visual distractions, so I can focus entirely on my hands.’ Jo explains. ‘I work free hand and don’t really like drawing on fabric, so concentration is key. I use high quality cotton and linen mix fabric and DMC threads. I back all my work perfectly, so the work can be taken out of the hoop and just hung as a canvas – I like to offer that flexibilty with each piece.’
A small hoop can be completed in a couple of hours, but larger pieces, custom orders and more textured works can take much longer. ‘If I’m creating a piece with lots of intricate knots, like boullion knots, rather than whip and satin stitches it can take days to complete.’
As delicate as the work is, it must be hard on the hands and fingers at times? ‘It can be pretty intense, and once my fingers start to get sore, the whole process slows down. Sometimes, if I can feel my fingers slowing I put on a pair of rubber gloves to protect my hands – that’s a top tip for any keen embroiderers – get some rubber gloves, they really help!’
So, rubber gloves aside, are there any other tips she’d share with an aspiring maker? ‘If you’re passionate about something you’ll make the time for it, so just get started and then keep going! Recognise the importance of feedback and if you’re getting knock-backs or rejections, don’t get disheartened, just find out why and then try again!’
With over 48,000 Instagram followers and a steady flow of orders, Sew & Saunders has come a long way in just two years. Where does Jo plan to take the brand next? ‘I’ve recently started selling on Not On The High Street, which is really exciting. I’m also planning to expand my range of embroidered clutch bags, and to create more fashion pieces. My ultimate dream is to be stocked at Liberty – that would be absolutely amazing.’
Does that signal a move into fashion and away from her interior work? ‘Not at all. I’ll definitely keep going with the hoop and interior work. In many ways it’s where it all began for Sew and Saunders and wherever I go with the brand, there’ll always be room for my hoops! I adore making them, and the idea that my work is hanging on someone’s wall, often on the other side of the world… it’s such a buzz…it’s just wonderful.’
Describe your work in three words:
Fashionable. Botanical. British.
What are your making rituals?
Wake up, dance to Sia and get cracking!
Tea or coffee?
Neither – I know I’m odd! I don’t like either I’m an orange juice girl in the morning!
Mountains or sea?
Night owl or early bird?
Early Bird. Morning light is the best light to stitch in!
I wish someone had told me….
Don’t get distracted worrying about whether something might work or not, you won’t know unless you try!
Photos: Jo Saunders