Telling stories through stitches

About the event

The textiles artist Alice Kettle discusses her new exhibition, Threads of Change

Alice Kettle’s large-scale, textile-based artworks challenge assumptions about the textile medium, bringing together the intimacy and detail of stitch with large-scale colour fields which appear almost like paintings. She discussed her new exhibition at Saïd Business School with Brandon Taylor, Professor Emeritus of History of Art, University of Southampton, and Visiting Tutor in History and Theory of Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. The conversation was part of the Art at Oxford Saïd series and preceded an artist-led tour of the exhibition.

'Threads of Change' full event recording


The golden thread of mythology


Kettle described her work at a sewing machine – ‘which is my trade tool’ – as ‘story-telling informed by the process of making.’ The works evolve and develop in an unpredictable way and tend to be very large in scale.

One such work is four-metre-wide The Odyssey, one of a trio of works inspired by Greece (where she lived for a time) which interweave personal stories, mythology, and contemporary narrative. Thread forms a central motif. Odysseus’s faithful wife Penelope uses the act of weaving and secretly unweaving a shroud for her missing husband as a way to ‘capture time’ and delay calls for her to marry again.

Kettle explained that she saw the story as about ‘an act of faith’ – Penelope is not only faithful, but she has faith that Odysseus will return – and that the process of making the work mirrored this. Because it is so large, and because the machine stitching meant that she worked on it from the back, and at times upside down, she could see very little of it and could only have faith that it would be successful: ‘It’s not like a painting. You can’t see what you’re doing and can’t stand back and look at it, unless you take it out of the machine,’ she said.

In another work, telling the political story of the rise of the Golden Dawn party in Greece, she draws on the myth of Theseus. In Crete, Ariadne gives Theseus a thread to help guide him out of the labyrinth after he has killed the Minotaur. ‘The thread has agency,’ said Kettle, and it also represents the way in which she feels her own life has been empowered through stitching.

Thread reappears again in The Dog Loukanikos and the Cat’s Cradle, where police who attempted to restrain Golden Dawn protestors are themselves tied up with golden thread, while on the left of the work three girls, a homage to Kettle’s own daughters and two sisters, play cat’s cradle, in which thread is animated into a range of figures. ‘Thread can restrain but it can also empower,’ she said.

Thread Bearing Witness


Thread Bearing Witness is the name of a large, collaborative project that Kettle launched in response to the refugee crisis in Europe. Another triptych, it comprises three works: Ground, Sea, and Sky.

In 2014–15 when the refugee crisis was at its height, one of Kettle’s daughters volunteered at one of the camps in Dunkirk. ‘I became very personally involved in this whole circumstance, and very closely connected to several individual stories,’ Kettle explained. ‘Also I saw my daughter profoundly affected and changed and traumatised.’

As an artist, her response was to think about textiles and the historical link they have with migration, finding a way in which she could use textiles to explore and record this difficult situation and its impact on people.

Sea she made herself. At first glance, it appears to be rather beautiful blue water with, perhaps, fish swimming in it. It is only on looking closely that the viewer realizes that they are looking at the sea from above, and that the black figures are in fact bodies – representing the many refugees who died crossing into Europe by sea.


For the other two pieces, she invited refugees – particularly women and children – to contribute drawings, which she then stitched into the narrative. She received drawings from refugee camps in Greece and Calais and from groups in the UK: ‘It became a way we could converse with each other so that we did not need a common language,’ she said.

Only Ground is part of the exhibition at Oxford Saïd, but even on its own it is extraordinarily powerful – and surprising. ‘I hoped it would present a picture of human dignity,’ said Kettle. ‘With Ground, I thought I would be dealing with images of horror. In fact I mainly got plants and flowers’: images of hope.

Collaborative Portraits


Amongst the other works in the exhibition at Saïd Business School are a series of portraits that were co-created with women from Pakistan – work that has been co-funded by Saïd Business School alongside the Arts Council of England's National Lottery Funding. The idea was developed after Kettle had been working collaboratively with women in cooperatives and collectives in Karachi. Having heard their stories, seen their expertise, and felt she had got very close to them, she wanted to work more with them. Again, the ‘common language of making’ was a means of communication and exploration, creating ‘a positive sense of the world you want to be in. We can change the world … by stitching.’