Introduction by Siham Ali

Woolworths, local history and sharing skills: We meet freelance textile artist Robyn Nichol

Taking inspiration from ideas around identity, locality, lineage, and heritage, Robyn Nichol is a Yorkshire-based freelance textiles artist and workshop facilitator. Despite not having any formal training in textiles, self-taught Robyn started out with YouTube tutorials, spending the time refining her skills and building confidence in her process. Today, her embroidery work is a labour of love, often taking up to a month to complete, but has so far caught the attention of brands such as Lazy Oaf, DMC and The FOLD. Here, she tells us how she found her feet in textiles industry, the importance of putting your health first and making the most of social media.

Robyn

Robyn Nichol


Job Title

Freelance Textile Artist and Workshop Facilitator

Based

Bradford

Selected Clients

Lazy Oaf, DMC, South Square Centre, The FOLD

Previous Employment

Customer Service Adviser, One Manchester

Education

BA Fine Art, Lancaster University (2014 – 2017)

Website

robynnichol.com

Social Media

Instagram

What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I’d say I’m primarily a textile artist who works from her bedroom, and who also facilitates workshops in collaboration with organisations. My practice is made up of hand embroidered pieces and digitally printed wall hangings, but I am also starting to experiment with appliqué (ornamental needlework), punch needle embroidery, tapestry, and knitting to avoid my work being limited by the process.

I tend to work with organisations or galleries whose intentions are to make the arts more accessible, particularly through uplifting their local community and empowering individuals to feel that they can take up a creative skill.

If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be?
(Below)

What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now, and why?
My Woolworths Pick’n’Mix cup! It reminds me of the weekends when I would go into Keighley (a town near Bradford) with my grandma, and the smell of the sweets hitting you as soon as you got to the Pick’n’Mix section. I used to just stare at the packaging for ages and then beg my grandma for one of those lucky dip bags. I’m planning on making a piece about Woolworths when I get the time.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Within my practice, I focus on the themes of heritage, identity, and locality, with Yorkshire’s historical textile industry acting as my main inspiration. I explore this history in a contemporary context through my family’s links to Keighley and Bradford.

The everyday objects and brands around me have also shaped the aesthetic side of my work. I take inspiration from conversations with my mates, my favourite foods, and Bradford’s establishment of the Independent Labour Party.

Robyn’s desk

What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
My series of embroidery workshops for South Square Centre, which focused on their archive. Originally they were supposed to be held in person but because of the pandemic, we needed to switch them to Zoom.

I was so nervous because I couldn’t seem to work out how I could show these tiny stitches on a webcam. In the end, it made me gain confidence. The fact people were about to spend time with a group of like-minded people virtually, meant so much to me. It was lovely to be able to bring the archive to life through textiles and it pushed me to start making skill-sharing content on Instagram too.

“I think patience and trust in your process is important.”

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I haven’t had any formal textile training for the past eight years, and I didn’t have access to any textile-related facilities at uni. It’s all been through looking at YouTube videos or images on Google, practicing techniques, and then refining my skills to the point where I’m fully happy with them.

I don’t think you need any specific training for what I do. There are so many amazing tutorials on embroidery (or any kind of textile process) on YouTube and also kits you can buy online to get you started. I got a great turkey dinosaurs one recently from Lacklustre Embroidery. There are also loads of textile artists on Instagram who are happy to share their process if you message them. I think patience and trust in your process is important.

How I got here

What was your journey like when you first graduated?
While I was at uni I’d already been making connections with other artists in the north. I had exhibited at some DIY and pop-up shows, so I carried on doing that when I graduated. I found the adjustment of having a lot of time to create, to having none at all, quite difficult.

I got a job in retail as soon as I graduated so I had to do my work at night, but I carried on applying for any exhibitions I saw and getting to know more people, and then got the opportunity to run my first workshop in May 2018. The main thing that helped me find my feet was going to exhibition openings and meeting people in real life; it gave me a lot more confidence and helped me improve the quality of my application writing.

Tyke Starter Kit, Digitally printed cotton drill, 2016

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
One of the best books I’ve read is Looking North: Northern England and The National Imagination by Dave Russell. It looks at how the north has been portrayed in television, radio, music, and sport. It helped me consider where my practice fits within all of this.

An Instagram account I’ve always loved is @anastasia.tasou. Anastasia has an amazing approach to her platform and focuses on creating a safe space for people to vent, share something positive from their day, and make connections with people virtually. She also sells her work at really reasonable prices and has a podcast series that discusses accessibility in the art world.

Ed Hall’s banners have also been a really big inspiration to me since 2012, the labour intensiveness of each piece and pushing forward with textiles’ political history is something I relate to with my work.

“My biggest challenge has been gaining confidence in the processes I use.”

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has been gaining confidence in the processes I use and accepting that it’s ok that I don’t have as much time to dedicate to my work as I did when I was at university. Especially more recently with the assumption that you need to be posting your work online everyday – it’s just not a sustainable approach.

I love what I do because it’s a repetitive, long process (usually my embroidery pieces take a month to make) and is therapeutic for me; and if this has to come second after my main source of income, that’s fine. I think it’s the challenge of not comparing yourself to others and being confident that you know what you’re doing, you know why you do it, and no matter how long it takes – you to know you’re keeping your integrity.

‘There Is No Weal Save Commonweal’ (based on the Independent Labour Party mural in Little Germany, Bradford), Acrylic and wool blanket (2021) 

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work and career?
When I first started sharing my work online more seriously in 2017, I started to get exhibition opportunities because I was trying to share a variety of images like finished pieces, reference material, work-in-progress images, and exhibition install shots, ensuring that they were all high quality. I think social media and self-promotion were really important for me when I first started, I worked out the other day that out of 34 opportunities I’ve had, 13 of those have been because someone has seen my Instagram account.

I’d say just be unapologetically yourself; share whatever work-related content you’d like to, don’t feel that you have to post just to look like you’re doing something, and also if someone asks you for help don’t hesitate to give them advice. We were all starting out once, no matter how big your following is!

“Be unapologetically yourself; don’t feel that you have to post just to look like you’re doing something.”

I do still value social media now, but I’ve also worked on being more detached from it too. You need to ensure that you’re not making work just to share on social media. I put myself under an immense amount of pressure to share on Instagram every day to make it look like I had everything under control. In reality, I was pushing myself to work with four-day migraines and felt very stressed and irritated by my practice. If you’re happy with what you’re making then that’s all that matters.

Embroidery commissioned by Lazy Oaf, Cotton thread on calico (2019) 

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
My freelance work has always been supported by my main job, as I can never predict when I’ll get commissions and also how much they will be; and then my main practice I don’t earn any money from.

I’m in the process of closing my online shop at the moment (I had to make this decision as the stress of balancing so much was affecting my health) but this was the element that taught me the most about making money. It taught me how to make affordable work that doesn’t result in massive production costs like prints, stickers, or mini wall hangings. It’s ok to only use certain materials on loop if you can’t afford items that you’d like to make.

“It’s ok to only use certain materials on loop if you can’t afford items that you’d like to make.” 

How did you go about landing your first commissions?
My first commission was to make a piece of embroidery to promote Lazy Oaf’s new collection in November 2019. They’d only seen my work because I tagged them in an outfit picture I’d posted on Instagram! And then the pattern that I designed for (thread company) DMC happened after they’d seen my interview with It’s Nice That in 2019. I was so grateful to get both of these opportunities, particularly Lazy Oaf as they fully understood that my work was a time-consuming process. I felt supported and that they valued my practice, so it was a great first gig to get.

My Advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
It’s probably from my mum and dad; neither of them come from an arts background, but they always instilled in me the idea that ‘you don’t know until you try.’ It’s something I’ve always thought back to even if I didn’t get an opportunity, because I think every rejection helps you learn and refine, and trying something new builds your confidence in both your work and yourself.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role to you?
Start sharing your work online and tagging people whose materials or imagery you’ve used. Make connections with people in your local art scene, and also around the UK (a lot of this can be done online without needing to travel.) Research the context that your work might sit in historically, and apply for opportunities that align with your inspirations and interests. And then I’d say the most important thing is to constantly be open to seeking advice if you need it, or helping others who look up to you.

Introduction by Siham Ali