A young Japanese woman with pigtails glances forward inquisitively as she listens to her headphones. Two women’s heads form a sleeping embrace. Two multi-racial girls sip at single drink with different straws. We are accustomed to seeing such intimate episodes in photographs. Leicester-based artist Alison Carpenter-Hughes innovates by portraying private moments in embroidery. I interviewed her during her two-month residency at 3331 Arts Chiyoda Tokyo Japan.

Carpenter-Hughes is a multi-media artist, writer and illustrator best known for her embroidery. When her Little Connie—a fragment of a baby being breast-fed—won her Needlecrafter of the Year at the UK 2019 National Needlecraft Awards, she was praised for producing “a superb example of craft elevated to art”. More recently, she has created a stark and slightly surreal Lover’s Eye harking back to the early-nineteenth-century fad of bestowing a painted miniature of the giver’s eye to a loved one. And she has also defaced an Indonesian Rupiah with an image of a tiger for the 2019 exhibition Cash is King 2: The Art of the Defaced Banknote at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Her work is characterized by an interest in capturing special, guarded, vulnerable moments in an emphatic graphic style, with fraying threads to create a tactile quality.

Carpenter-Hughes favors a method called “free motion embroidery” in which the thin metal bars with crosscutting diagonal teeth on a sewing machine called “feed dogs” are lowered, enjoying the total control this offers: “you are free to do what you want…You can follow the direction as you would a pen or pencil”. She first became interested in textiles because it allowed her to learn a craft with a rich and varied history with which she could explore a patchwork range of different subject matter: “I liked the idea that you could take inspiration from anything but also a sort of fine art element”. She takes inspiration from how artists such as Alice Kettle and Ana Teresa Barboza who have been “pushing it on a little further from just doing a pretty picture” and producing embroidered work that seeks to express ideas and emotions. Like a portrait photographer, she looks for what she calls a “moment in character” in which people reveal themselves.

For Carpenter-Hughes, making art is a mysterious process that can be as arduous as it is emancipating and exciting: “there’s a compulsion to make and, while you are making it, you can be full of anguish. It can be quite a painful process and you don’t necessarily feel like you are enjoying it while you are making it.” Typically, early uncertainty and difficulty is superseded by resolution and release followed ultimately by a peculiar feeling of estrangement: “the initial part can be a very painful process. But once it is finished it is almost like a sense of release…but there’s almost a detachment from it as well. Because you are looking at it and it is as if you have not made it. It’s a very strange process.”

She remembers her first residency at Studioname Leicester C. i. C. as a liberating but sometimes strenuous experience: “it’s an old factory building—we even had snow in the building…I was so cold I could barely move my hand”. She recalls the sometimes-arduous process of creating her award-winning Little Connie: “I kept on having to unpick the nose because the nose was looking like a pig’s snout. And the colour had gone all wrong. It was looking like a jaundiced ‘mini-me’ because I had put so much yellow into it…I was like ‘where am I going? What am I doing with this?’ and like a month later I came back to it and then I finished it”.

The threads that Carpenter-Hughes spins together provide a potent metaphor for human relations: ties that are enduring yet often fragile. She recalls the inspiration for the installation Forty Winks and two embroidery pieces Dad and Dad (Close Up) in which she portrays her father sleeping: “Before we did the first piece, he had had a heart attack the day before new year and he was in hospital for quite a while. And it was just that element of vulnerability for all of us, not just my Dad. Thinking about time and passing time and death and mortality.” The installation, in particular, stimulated a surprising reaction: “It really disturbed some people and they were saying it was almost like an imprint of someone had been left there—like he had passed and there’s this imprint of him”.

Carpenter-Hughes was selected to be one of a group of artists who created work responding to Arabella Dorman’s 2018 installation Suspended, in which hundreds of items of clothing discarded by refugees who arrived on the island of Lesbos in Greece were hung from the native of Leicester Cathedral. As part of a month-long community project, she facilitated workshops raising awareness and then included the textile and paper pieces made by participants in the completed work. “It made me think of a moth to a flame. Refugees coming to improve their lives, but they’re actually coming to something that may not be any better—or worse.” Carpenter-Hughes found working in a Cathedral an interesting challenge: “It’s quite cluttered…there’s not the practicality of being able to hang something from a wall or a ceiling because the ceiling goes on up forever”. Eventually, she decided to use some of the clothes left over from the original piece to create a series of patchwork garments, including a dresser shirt and a baby grow to represent a family. She reflects: “with art, you can hope to put a message out there, but you don’t know what kind of impact it will have. All you can do is to keep discussing things in different ways and hoping that the trickle might start going in.”

While in Tokyo, Carpenter-Hughes felt that the challenges of free motion embroidery chime with the temper of her surroundings: “I always describe it as like ‘the art of zen’ because you’re going incredibly fast but like a slow graceful swan on the bottom and you have to be mindful when you are doing it.” She has related to her environment visually and emotionally, citing “more aesthetic things—connecting with people’s faces and their looks”. She has even sought literally to assimilate the city into her embroidery, revealing “I have been using the elements of kimono fabric in lots of my work”. She has also developed an interest in traditional Japanese textiles, particularly boro, a practice common among Edo-period peasants in which clothing would be continually mended and re-patched together with fabric scraps. “It’s a form of patchwork, basically. Because garments were expensive things they would re-use constantly, until it got to the point where it would not be a piece of clothing anymore. Eventually it would be a rag… I’m thinking that these elements might come into my work in the future”.

In the future, she is interested in moving beyond embroidery to create a sculptural piece about language extinction: “a free-standing dress, with words floating off it…Language is organic and it is developing all the time. But there’s also elements of it that can be just washed away.” Although different in form, such work links with her insistence on the importance of engaging fully with the fleeting present: “It’s about how transient life can be. But also connecting with a moment in time. You’re capturing that moment but it is going to pass away”.