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Jess de Wahls makes feminist art from your old clothes

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I like flowers that are rough around the edges; wild flowers, flowers that are a little otherworldly.

Originally from Berlin, Jess de Wahls  is now a bona fide lynch pin of the British textile arts scene. She creates hand-sewn portraits from recycled clothes and colourful embroideries, using figures and flowers to tackle issues from gender inequality to waste culture. 

“I love embroidering flowers, they lend themselves really well to the medium,” Jess explains. “Not only because of their colourful qualities, but also because of their ambiguous meanings.” We talked with the prolific creative about her favourite blooms, re-used fabrics and flowers that look like female genitalia.


What do flowers have to do with feminism in your work?

Jess de Wahls: The flowers themselves don’t really have a lot to do with feminism, but they can make the subject more accessible to people. If people are interested in the picture because it looks pretty, they want to know what it is and it gives them a way in.

Women have made so many advances that many people think it’s all good; that women and men are on the same level. But I think that there is still a lot of gender inequality. My work communicates how I feel about that.

Why do you say that flowers have ambiguous meanings?

If you look at flowers closely, they often look pretty feminine. There are a lot of orchids that look like vaginas. There’s a flower called clitoria, for example. I think that flowers can ease people’s reactions. People tend to hide female genitals, as if they’re something dirty. I actually made my own interpretation of L'origine du monde [Gustave Courbet’s oil painting of a woman spreading her legs].

But not all of my flowers have these ambiguous meanings. Sometimes I just use them because I think that they’re pretty.

You use recycled materials. Where do you get those from?

Everyone who knows me knows that I collect fabrics. So for years people have been giving me their old clothes. I don’t use jeans or woollen stuff, but I like anything else that has an interesting texture. I make sure that people remember that when they go through their wardrobe. Don’t throw it away, give it to Jess!

What’s your main reason for using recycled materials?

I actually have two. First, I like that it is a self-imposed restriction on the material i use, which sometimes means that I have to improvise. That makes it unpredictable, and makes it impossible to create the exact same work again.

The other thing is that I want to encourage people to recycle more and think about waste. The amount of waste in this world is ridiculous. People buy cheap fashion and then throw it away because it’s shitty quality. So I want to make something that gives people the incentive to look at their wardrobe and use something they already have or combine it with other embroidered fabrics.




Is embroidery becoming more popular?

The group of people who actually embroider as an art-form internationally, is not that big yet. I give workshops in London, and probably will do so as well in New York, Los Angeles and Australia next year – but I just learned it myself by watching YouTube, which actually is kind of hilarious.

In general, I think that embroidery as a product is definitely getting popular again. In the seventies women made the point that it’s a valid art form, and not just the craftwork that your grandmother does. And these days there is this oversaturation in the market of basically everything, so people want to go back to handmade things. Creating your own style is part of that. 

Finally, what are your favourite flowers?

I use a lot of poppies – I’ve even got them tattooed on me. I also like peonies and chrysanthemums. Unlike roses, they’re rough around the edges. I prefer wild flowers, flowers that are a little otherworldly. 

When giving someone a flower, don’t just give any flower. Make it special, and give them their favourite. 

Photography: Fiona Makkink