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November 6, 2023 —

Meet the Maker: Madeleine Kemsley

During lockdown, British illustrator and sustainable textile artist Madeleine Kemsley started to experiment more with her creativity. This has since led her to creating folk art inspired hand-embroidered clothing and decorations, from her Cornish home - and gaining a large online following...
British illustrator and embroiderer Madeleine Kemsley stitching in the dappled sunshine
British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's linen embroidery shirt
Shelley Welti
91 Magazine online content editor,

Photography

Rhona McDade
Photographer,
Goodrest Studios
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Hi Madeleine, why and when did you decide to start your business? 

After studying illustration at uni, I fell out of my creative practice for a while. I got caught in a cycle of working hospitality jobs full time to get by, as a result I didn’t have the time or energy to make things. I’d go from my daytime cafe job to working in a bar in the evenings. As someone who is quite introverted I felt really burnt-out. I was working hard but I wasn’t working towards anything.

It wasn’t until lockdown happened that I really had the space to think about what I wanted from life. I started to really enjoy experimenting and seeing how my visual language could be translated across different mediums. I decided to take a risk and start my little business.

British illustrator and embroiderer Madeleine Kemsley stitching in the dappled sunshine

What had you done previously?

Before running my own business and prior to my formal education, I have always enjoyed creating work and exploring tactile mediums. I first fell in love with textiles when I was really young. When I was four I asked my mum to teach me to sew and I just stitched about 30 buttons onto the front of a t-shirt. Once my skills had progressed from buttons I’d spend ages creating little outfits for my teddy bear, Scrappy.

How would you describe the brand’s ethos and your signature style?

I’d say my ethos is definitely rooted in sustainability. For my textile pieces, I only use vintage or reclaimed fabrics. Sustainable fashion is really important to me. I would describe my style as a fusion between mid century illustration and traditional folk art.

British illustrator and embroiderer Madeleine Kemsley embroidering linen

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's embroidery inspired greeting cards

Can you tell us a little about the processes used to create your work?

I go about creating things in quite a slapdash, impulsive way. I rarely plan anything. I sometimes start by just drawing my designs directly onto my fabric and go from there. The main thing that informs my creative process is colour. I really enjoy creating colour palettes and exploring colour combinations. 

I think that my choice of colours is what ties all my artwork together even through the various mediums I use. I look out for colour combinations in everyday life and take photos which I then extract colours from and create digital palettes to reference when I’m making things. Using vintage clothing also informs my work because I’m trying to create a harmony between an existing piece and my illustrative additions.

Which is your most popular product? Why do you think that is?

My most popular work tends to be hand embroidered linen clothing. I’m not too sure why that is! I think people enjoy having pieces that they can wear. I hope that my clothing pieces make people feel good about themselves. I always aim to create pieces that feel luxurious but still encapsulate a sense of playfulness. I have noticed that during the winter months clothing pieces tend to take a back seat and my Christmas decorations become the most popular product.

British illustrator and embroiderer Madeleine Kemsley using freehand embroiderer machine

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's linen embroidery shirt

Difficult question: do you have a favourite?

My favourite piece is a hand embroidered wall-hanging featuring two leaping horses that I created for my partner. I made it for his birthday early on in our relationship and remember feeling quite embarrassed giving it to him in case he thought it was too much too soon but he loved it. It’s the only artwork he has on display inside the little boat that he lives on. It was the first embroidered piece that I felt really proud of and I feel like it was the first piece that gained traction on Instagram and helped me build my online presence.

That sounds lovely! What does a typical day look like for you?

I don’t have a set structure that I follow although I’m trying to be more disciplined. On a typical working day; I wake up and cycle to my studio. I usually work from 9am until 1pm and then if I have any orders I’ll take a break to walk through the woods to go to the post office. In the afternoon I’ll work on a different project in my studio until around 5. I like to have two projects on the go at once to give my days a bit of variety. After cycling home, I like to make a fire and get cosy. I usually end up sewing in bed.

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's embroidery inspired tea towels

Folk moon embroidery from British embroiderer Madeleine Kemsley

How do you approach PR and marketing?

I don’t put too much thought into marketing. I just try to photograph my work as best as I can and then I put it out there and hope that it’s well received. I feel that it’s easy to lose focus if I start concentrating more on how the work is presented rather than the work itself. It is also important to prioritise the process of making my work which is where I get the most enjoyment rather than marketing it. I’ve been really lucky to have organically gained interest in my work just through sharing my photos on Instagram and am at a point where I’m just creating things that I love and hoping that others will love it too.

If you were to share any words of wisdom with readers looking to start a creative business – what would you say?

Something that helped me get my business going was reducing my financial responsibilities to allow me to start my business, with less pressure to achieve big things right away. I live in a little caravan which I renovated myself on a farmer’s land which means that my outgoings are really low. This allows me more time to be creative. I also still work one day a week in a cafe and that takes the pressure off and allows me more space to learn, fail and experiment which is all part of starting a business.

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's wall hanging

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's embroidery inspired greeting cards

What’s been your highlight so far?

Last year I received some funding to buy a freehand embroidery machine. The fact that someone decided my work had enough promise to grant me funding to continue to grow really spurred me on.

That’s amazing! How does your location inspire you?

I am lucky enough to live in a really beautiful part of Cornwall. The farm I live on is near the sea and I have lots of beautiful places nearby to draw inspiration from. I am also surrounded by a community of talented makers and artists that inspire me.

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's linen embroidery shirt

British illustrator Madeleine Kemsley's copper wall folk art

What’s in store for you over the coming months? 

Over the coming months I will be working really hard to get all my Christmas creations out into the world. I’ll be making hand painted wooden decorations, tin embossings and hopefully a few special embroidery commissions.

QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS

Describe your work in three words: Playful, nostalgic, tactile.

What are your creating rituals? I like to listen to music while I work. Usually disco or something dopamine-inducing to keep me motivated. I am quite restless so I like to take frequent little breaks to move about.

Tea or coffee? Lots of both!

Mountains or sea? Sea

Night owl or early bird? I’m an early bird but am occasionally susceptible to a late night if dancing is involved.

I wish someone had told me… I wish someone had told me sooner that nobody really knows what they’re doing! I have turned down so many great opportunities out of fear that I’m not qualified enough. In hindsight, I should have trusted that I was being asked because the person saw promise in my work. I think imposter syndrome has really hindered the progress of my business but from now onwards I’m going to have more faith in myself and say yes to more opportunities!

madeleineillustration.com

@madeleine_illustration

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