Textile artist Caren Garfen is not long out of college, but she’s already caught the eye of award-givers and opinion-formers. Sarah Frater meets the witty embroiderer whose dainty work belies its gently subversive themes
Why is miniaturisation so appealing? Is it simply the painstaking work we know is involved, or does it somehow trigger our longing for a perfected world? Look at a doll’s house or model railway, and you’re soon immersed in a safe, idealised realm that also makes you feel like you’re king of the castle.
Caren Garfen’s work has just this appeal. The textile artist embroiders text and objects on to silk screen printed cotton, with the hand-stitched letters just a few millimetres high and the objects rendered in the dinkiest of detail. Her tiny, meticulous work draws you in, but look closely at her tablecloths, oven gloves and tea towels, and a very different world begins to emerge. In her nimble fingers, and mischievous eye, this unassuming domestic linen morphs into something gently subversive and hilariously funny.
The tablecloth, for example, is called ‘It’s a cover up’ and features quotes taken from ads for household cleaning products (‘You’ll sparkle as much as your dishes’). The blind, which Garfen calls ‘Turning a blind eye’, has tiny hand-stitched bleach bottles that come not with beaming logos but the words ‘Clean round the bend’. ‘He should have treated her with kid gloves’ calls an oven glove, while a tea bag seems to answer ‘She would let him stew’. The detail is astonishing, as are the colours of the silk threads which reinforce Garfen’s themes – the tablecloth embroidery is suffragette purple and green.
How did Garfen think of making a silk organza teabag and stitching it with gender humour? ‘I embroider the truth,’ she laughs, something the University of Hertfordshire Applied Arts graduate does a lot. ‘Seriously, I’m interested in gender politics, and textiles, and how a sentence can be turned to reveal a greater truth. With the mugs and tea bags, a woman will think she’s finished the day’s housework, only she still has a thousand things to do. Even when she rests, she’s thinking about the washing or ironing. There’s no escape.’
Gender stereotyping in advertisements is currently fertile inspiration for Garfen, who was born and brought up in London. ‘Women and young girls are targeted from an early age,’ she says. ‘We are portrayed in a certain way, and absorb the images. That’s why the ads are there. They say what we should do, and how we should feel – just so we buy a certain brand of washing power!’
Despite saturation advertising, everyone knows that idealised world does not exist, and Garfen has caught the paradox in her work. However, there is nothing preachy or moany about her creations. As well as being paragons of dainty perfection, they are also sweet and funny, like Garfen herself, and quietly show women’s ambivalence about their housework and menfolk. There’s also a strange parallel in the process of making the work and the themes it conveys. ‘The embroidery is very time-consuming, like housework,’ says Garfen. ‘As is the silk screen printing – there’s washing up, ironing, and cleaning.’
Garfen graduated from Hertfordshire in 2007 (she started as a mature student), and describes the year since as a ‘whirlwind’. Some might consider that an understatement. It began with Wallpaper magazine choosing her as one of its top 100 graduates, followed by the Society of Designer Craftsmen giving her a Distinction Licentiateship. Then the Embroiderers’ Guild made her a Scholar, and the Art of the Stitch exhibition included her work. Garfen has also been commissioned to create the cover of the catalogue for an exhibition at Macclesfield’s Silk Museum, and last week she won the New Designers One Year On Part One award, which recognises the most successful graduate 12 months after course completion.
Garfen is reluctant to predict how her work might develop, or who future clients might be. Galleries have been knocking on her door, but she’s turned them away, at least for now. Garfen says she wants to continue with detailed research and detailed work, but doesn’t know if gender politics will continue in her textiles. ‘I am interested in women’s issues, but there has to be humour,’ she smiles. One look at her graduate piece, ‘Womanual – All Done & Dusted’, and you smile with her. In between the list of dreary jobs (‘vacuum all carpets and floors on a weekly basis’) are instructions to ‘polish off the chocolates’.