Deirdre Nelson: Patience, Compassion & Empathy

Textiles mediate between public, coded identity and the private and personal. As a result, textiles embody contradiction and function as sites where the public and private coexist. Deirdre Nelson offers us a material representation of this tension in her series of garments that capture the textile’s capacity for duality. Cut from plain cloth, to unremarkable proportions, each of Nelson’s three white embroidered shirts offers a poetic evocation of emotions society tends to brush aside. From the cold impersonality of the manufactured multiple emerges what she refers to as “emotional warmth” – intricate stitches of texture and colour that disrupt the formality of the white shirt.

Typical of Nelson’s wry humour, trade in an impossible commerce is proposed. Emotions are not for hire. Experiences cannot be bought off the shelf. Nelson plays with these realities and uses stitch, not for the pedestrian requirements of mending and repair, but to communicate the underestimated need for emotion. The store bought multiple, created at speed by machine rather than hand, enjoys a new identity through the intensive labour of decorative stitch. As easily donned by man as woman, these white cotton shirts bring visible, physical touch together with the equally powerful, but often invisible, sense of emotional touch. Densely worked flowers decorate the interior, rather than exterior. In each, a single flower represents one emotion: white oval petals and the yellow centre of the daisy for patience; rosa eglanteria’s pink petals and thorn stems for compassion; the purple bell shaped pasque flower for empathy.

Generic power is tempered here with flower power: the once iconic freedom of the sixties that the subsequent decades taught many to doubt. Nelson revisits these associations of popular culture, but without a hint of irony. Instead she offers up a challenge to the starched white reality of protocol, a reminder that humanity needs more than the façade of a dress code. Embroidered badges of rank and name communicate hierarchy and achievement. Initials discretely stitched into collars signify ownership. Nelson’s embroidery evokes identities that are far less tangible. Identities that belong to the fluid world of emotion so often passed over for the concrete realities of title or status.

To wear one of these creations would in fact place Nelson’s embroidery beyond the visual, brushing up against the skin rather than poking out on a public lapel. Animated they seem to grow outward from the skin, technology’s belated, but much needed, recognition of touch. If they do not yet reflect the emotional state of the wearer, perhaps they at least act as a reminder of possibility. Nestled discretely beyond the wearer’s view, these garments now bear the burden of conscience. They acknowledge that society cultivates formal roles often policed by those in uniform, be it the overt codes of suit and tie or the simple desire to blend in rather than stand out. But they also suggest the need for something else. Our public responsibilities tend to operate by virtue of fact rather than feeling, rules rather than instincts. Nelson offers a critique of this reality and suggests, through stitch, that we could all benefit from a little more touch.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is a Reader in Textile Culture at the Winchester School of Art