feature: Making with a purpose, being persistent, and taking it slow with Carly Owens

The level of detail that goes into Colorado based embroiderer Carly Owens work is mindblowingly beautiful, so you know we had to do an interview with her! We asked about how she got into hand embroidery, her favorite piece she's done, how her personality shines through her work, and a ton more. Read the full thing after the jump!

Tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Carly Owens and I am a contemporary hand embroiderer based in Colorado. I work primarily in a historic embellishment technique called “goldwork” which utilizes metal wires and threads to create the embroidery. My work is a dichotomy between honoring traditional methodologies of making while also pushing them into a contemporary context in term of subject. I embroider wearables, because the traditionalist side of me loves when embroidery lives on the body, and I embroider textiles meant to live on the wall.

When did you start getting into hand embroidery?
I never thought that hand embroidery would become my preferred medium, let alone my career. I studied Art+ Design: Fibers and Fashion Studies at the NC State College of Design with the sole intent of pursuing fashion. It just so happened in the summer of 2016, when I needed to fill a study abroad requirement, a one-time program was being offered through the college to send students to the United Kingdom to study the practice of hand embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework as well as its applications through other institutions (such as Hand &  Lock, the V&A and Benton & Johnson). One of my close friends raked me into going and I’m eternally grateful that I did. This program changed my life and I felt that I had finally found an artform that suited my personality (i.e. I’m a slow, methodological worker and embroidery is meant to be done so). Also it was pretty cool to get to go to class in Hampton Court Palace, former home to Henry VIII, where the Royal School of Needlework is located.

What’s your favorite part about being creative?
Creating for me is more of a necessity. I’d feel pretty lost without a creative outlet because I have one of those brains where the gears are constantly turning. I love that embroidery provides me with a platform to speak through imagery and the ability to share that with others. Also I find that when you’re creative, you’re never really bored and that makes life all the better.

What’s one of your favorite pieces you’ve done?
During my final year of college, I designed this massive empire waist gown (the skirt of it was something ridiculous like 7 yards of organdy fabric) with a hand embroidered bodice. I was nudged by some of my professors to submit it to an international embroidery competition called the Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery. So I submitted some images and found out in July 2017 that I had been selected as one of six finalists in my category. At the time, I was in New York interning for the couture embroidery team at Marchesa, so I spent my down time continuing to heavily embroider this gargantuan piece in my small, cramped apartment. In September, after a total of 6 months stitching this piece, it had to be pried from my hands, packed into a cardboard box and shipped off to London where the prize was held. In November, I attended the awards in London. I didn’t place but was honestly just thrilled to be a finalist and relieved to be able to put the piece to bed. I had a total love-hate relationship with this garment while making it and never knew just how much emotional turmoil beads, sequins and french knots could cause. However, now I love it. It’s hands down the largest piece of work I’ve ever created and it’s a testament to what it’s like to put your literal blood, sweat and tears into one’s work.

Who/what are some of your biggest inspirations?
The list is endless. One of my biggest influences is my former professor Katherine Diuguid. She is an embroidery genius and is the individual who spearheaded the study abroad program to the UK. I am also excited to be studio assisting her and Nick Deford this summer at Penland School of Craft in Spruce Pine, NC. So if you want to spend two weeks in the mountains hanging out with me and some kick ass embroiderers you should sign up for their class (my shameless plug). I am also heavily influenced by art and haute couture fashion. I’m a sucker for artists like Mark Rothko, Dali, Louise Bourgeois, Grayson Perry, Georgia O’Keefe, Chaim Soutine, anything by an Impressionist, etc. One of my current favorites is London based contemporary artist Faye Wei Wei. Nature is another huge influence. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of Asheville, NC and now live in the Rockies. I go on a lot of hikes to decompress and I never cease to be mesmerized by my surroundings.

What’s some advice you’d give to fellow artists?
I’m probably not the best advice giver because I’m an overthinker and have a tendency to do things the hard way even when it’s totally unnecessary. However, I would say that there’s no one clear-cut path in life for whatever it is you want to do/be. There’s no magic formula, no Instagram algorithm, no checklist of things to accomplish to be successful. Just be persistent and remember that “success” is a subjective term. If the act of making/creating truly fulfills you the rest will fall into place and you’ll be a happier person for doing so. I’m not saying that this will happen overnight and that there won’t be some low times, but the little victories will taste all the more sweeter.

How is your personality reflected in your work?
I love embroidery because it’s meant to be done slowly which is exactly how I work. It’s very a ritualistic process for me. When I first started selling my embroideries, I was trying to pump out as much work as possible and I went into machine mode which sucked out all the joy for me. I’m not a brand, I’m a human, and the fact that my hands created my work carefully, meticulously, ethically and sustainably is what makes my work unique. When I realized this, I went back to making with a purpose and not putting a tight deadline on myself. I love that embroidery is like any other fine art medium in that you can make it your own.

Music you've been listening to lately?
Alvvays is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been listening to “In Undertow” on their latest album “Antisocialites” on repeat. “Les Amis- Actual Magic Remix” by Francois de Roubaix is another good one that just makes you feel good. Other favorites include Mitski, Oberhofer, Beach House and Snail Mail.

Favorite place in Erie to chow down?
Boulder is a ten minute drive down the road so I usually spend my free time there. Some of my favorite places to eat in Boulder are Sherpa’s and Tibet Kitchen which both have amazing foods like curry, noodle dishes, momos and damn good chai. I am also a tea fanatic so the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse never disappoints.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Sharing my work and my process is important to me. If you are interested in embroidery and have questions I am always happy to help. I also love collaborating so feel free to reach out. You can check out my work at www.carlyelizabethowens.com. Shameless plug again: the course I will be studio assisting at Penland is called “Stitched Perspective” and take places during summer session 6. It is open to all levels.

Follow Carly Owens on Instagram (@carlyowensembroidery)