After South African fiber artist Danielle Clough’s work went viral in 2016, embroidery became her “whole life”—but she’s determined to make sure it’s a joyful one.

Danielle Clough’s boldly colored works of embroidery have been taking the world by storm since her Instagram account (@fiance_knowles) went viral in 2016. Though the South African fiber artist has long been involved in the world of arts, her “thread sketching,” as she originally called it, began as simply a hobby.

Yet the ingenuity and beauty of her embroidery and fiber art have caught the attention of artists and crafters around the globe. Clough’s subjects range from the intricate details of a blooming flower to David Letterman’s face (with his now-trademark bushy, gray beard). Clough uses vibrant colors, and the surfaces she crafts those images on vary from old-fashioned tennis rackets to chain link fences, to the surface of a metal artist’s sculpture.

After working in photography, graphic design, and VJing (video jockeying), as well as a brief stint in fashion design (“And by brief, I mean two weeks,” Clough said), the 31-year-old fiber artist has turned her hobby of embroidery into a full-time occupation. “It’s my whole life,” she said.

You’ve worked in so many different artistic media. How did you get started in embroidery?

My mom was always sewing, and she made clothes and costumes for us when we were kids. So my connection with sewing was always clothing. When I was in advertising school, I sewed, but the stitches were like breathing—they were never the main objective. The main objective was usually, like, a plush toy or monster-shaped pillow. 

And then I stumbled upon embroidery. At the time, I called it “thread-sketching” because I kind of thought I’d invented it (I hadn’t). Anyway, I found some felt and a needle and thread, and I started “drawing” this rabbit, and I really loved the process. So, later, I did another piece with a scrap of fabric, and the passion just evolved from that moment. I remember feeling quite clearly, This is something.


At some point, though, it moved from a hobby to something bigger, right?

I was waitressing and doing mostly awful freelance design work, and then VJing, which was quite sporadic. I’d put some of my embroidery on Facebook and Instagram and was getting positive feedback, and people had reached out to me to buy some of my pieces. And I remember saying to somebody, “If I can just sew and VJ, I’d be happy.”

And then I was applying to be a part oDesign Indaba, which is this big design festival, and you had to have a website. So I created a website of my embroidery work, and some of the pieces went viral. Within three months, I had to quit all my jobs.


Was that before you started using things like rackets and fences?

No, I had a few rackets on the website, and those were the things that went viral.


Why rackets?

My friend had shown me this heart woven onto a racket, and I was like, “I can do that.” The next day, I bought a racket and tried it. I really liked the problem-solving aspect of it. I love working on alternative surfaces because there’s always some kind of puzzle element that I really enjoy.

 

How do you go about making the kinds of complex images you create on these alternative surfaces?

Most of my pieces vary, but for my ideal piece, I start by taking a photograph of the subject, and then I edit the image—for me, contrast is really important, as are the colors—and then I usually work from a black-and-white reference. I trace the line work onto whatever surface I’m embroidering on, and then I start “coloring it in” with thread. I just think of it as, you know, tracing and coloring in. Which is like a child’s dream.

 

Your inner child must be really happy.

My inner child and my inner 80-year-old.


You make it sound simple, but it’s not simple. It takes someone who’s very creative to conceptualize and carry out that kind of work.

I went with a friend to a gallery recently, and I said I still feel strange about being an artist. I’ve always considered myself creative but more in the problem-solving, crafty kind of way. But art is emotive, which isn’t necessarily the message I’m trying to translate.


Why do you think art has to be emotive?

You know, you go to a gallery, and there’s some kind of rationalization behind something, and I’m just like, “I really like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.” It’s as simple as that. And then I think, well, are you allowed to write that in an artist bio and put that on a wall in the MoMA?


I think you can.

Can you?


But I also think that distinction between what is art and what is craft has been used to devalue art by certain people—like women, or indigenous people, or people of color.

But I also love the idea of just being a crafter. It’s like being an artisan—being a baker or being a sign painter. There’s so much freedom in being able to make something without there having to be more significance, without the critique. I think we often say, “I want to be seen as an artist,” but why are we so hard on the fact that something is a craft when we can be badass crafters?


Whether your work is craft or art, I think it’s impressive that you had this passion for “thread sketching” and just pursued it wholeheartedly.

I never thought it would be what it is, and I never had an idea of an outcome. I just work really hard, and I try to follow my instincts and my intuition and to live within my values so that the things that come into my space are right for me. I think so many people have this idea of where their art should be, and they get so caught up in the outcome that their work doesn’t have any room to build. But for me, I just enjoy the process of making and sharing.

I know you’re focused on embroidery now, but it seems like you’re also exploring some other kinds of fiber arts.

I’m definitely looking at more mixed media stuff. I’m also taking a workshop on weaving in Johannesburg soon, and I’m really fascinated with colors and the process and the history behind the colors. For the most part, though, my focus right now is just on getting better. My challenges can all be rectified by getting better.


What challenges?

Feeling trapped in the social media world and what it means or your reach not growing—that doesn’t matter if you’re improving. And the popularity of embroiderers is growing so rapidly, it’s easy to feel like you’re about to lose footing. I don’t want to be competitive, though, and I don’t want to feel jaded by other people finding something they love. That’s why I teach. People can be very tight about what they know. It’s like everybody thinks that there’s this pie, and you have to fight for your piece. But there is actually no pie. 


Did you find pockets within the arts community that were more open to sharing?

The craft and embroidery community has been incredibly open. People will send me threads from across the world. People phone me up to give me rackets. You go into a little old lady’s embroidery shop, and she’ll give you 50 years of knowledge for free. But I found when I was doing other work, like design work and photography, there was quite a competitive element. Now that embroidery is more popular and more commercially viable, I’ve noticed other people becoming quite tight. So I do workshops to override that feeling of wanting to hold onto my knowledge.

Have you had any notable experiences in your workshops?

I had this 15-year-old girl come to one with her mom, and she always sends me updates now, and her embroidery is so beautiful. After the workshop, she said it was one of the best days of her life. And to facilitate something like that for someone….


It’s pretty meaningful.

Everybody’s trying to write a life story, and I’m trying to rewrite my brain so it’s not a love story.

I think it has a lot to do with media, but we all kind of imagine that our own little rom-com is happening. And whoever walks through the door—someone spills the coffee, and we’re together forever, and we’re happy. And I think we all have some idea of this narrative—whatever it is that’s been put into us from a young age—that we realize, in adulthood, is all wrong.

I had this moment—it was obviously after a breakup because that’s when you have all your moments—where I was like, “Why does this feel like a failure?” And I started looking at all the other aspects of my life, and it was just after I’d had one of those workshops, and I was like, “Oh, there’s so much more impact we all have on each other.” Like, that girl being at that workshop changed so much in me. 


Any advice for aspiring artists or crafters?

You have to find a part of the process that you love. If you know what part of the process you love, and then you build your life and your path around that—your life will look the way it’s supposed to, and your craft will have its own voice and style. I think that’s what so many people are looking for, but they don’t know how to cultivate it. It’s just about finding that thing that brings you joy and leaning into it.


So, you’ve given up your hobby to make it your passion. What’s your hobby now?

I’ve taken up crosswords—another hobby for a 70-year-old. I don’t know what I’m gonna do when I’m retired.


Maybe you’ll do things that young people do.

I’m gonna go full cyberpunk raving. With purple hair. Maybe a dog collar. I’m not ready yet, though. Give me fifty years, and maybe then I’ll be ready.


Alexis Stratton is a native of Illinois but has called many places home, from New Orleans to South Korea. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Carolina, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies, and their work has appeared in Matador Review, storySouth, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Blue Mesa Review, among other publications. Prior to becoming a freelance writer and editor, they worked in domestic/sexual violence prevention and LGBTQ advocacy in the U.S. South. They currently live in Colorado.  

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