Urban Cross Stitch
A life well-lived in stitches
Subversive cross-stitcher Phil Davidson tells us how he went from geneticist to pattern cutter to cross-stich designer and teaches us how-to make a Stitch Invaders Tote.
In the world of subversive crafting, there are very few individuals like Phil Davidson from Urban Cross Stitch. Attendees to Bust Craftacular events might recognise his wares which include finished cross stitch pieces, graffiti inspired cross stitch kits and all the means to turn your designs into cushions, tshirts, bags and badges. Inspiration for his patterns come from popular culture, video games and rude jokes, and are available in all difficulties.
You come from a fashion career working with the likes of Vivienne Westwood - how was that?
Working in fashion was a great life experience for me, but it wasn't my first choice of career, so I'm kinda used to meteoric shifts in career directions. I began my working life training to be geneticist, who was subsequently drawn into the dark side of fashion as a technical couture pattern cutter. My mom is a fantastic self taught sewer, but she wanted me to get a 'real' job that would have security and a defined career path to advance along,so I gave up art in high school around the age of 13 and studied science, but art was always there smouldering under the surface. but as per usual I never tended to follow the easy paths...
I had always had an interest in art and design coupled with a technical mind set.....I liked building things as a child, and then when I discovered that you could 'build' clothes as a pattern cutter I was hooked! In my final year of genetics, and with itchy feet syndrome, I decided I wanted to try my hand at being a pattern cutter in the glamorous world of fashion. So after some 'discussion' with my folks it was decided that if I could get myself into art school they would support my choice... Within three months I had created an art/fashion portfolio which secured me a place in Dublins Grafton Academy for pattern cutting, and then led onto gaining me admission to the University of Ulsters Fashion design course.
During my industrial placement year between 2nd and final year I secured a 6 month placement as an assistant pattern cutter with Belfast based fashion designer Una Rodden, this led onto me securing a further assistant design role at Ozwald Boateng on Savile Row,London, to fill the last 6 months before returning for my final year at University of Ulster. On returning to my course in Belfast, I began to realise how limiting the constraints of some courses can be, so two months into my final year, and after several 'discussions' with various course tutors, I decided to try to go for a more technical pattern cutting course which resulted in me being offered one of 40 worldwide places on Central Saint Martins Innovative Pattern Cutting Course...
During my career as a pattern cutter, working for the likes of Westwood, I learned that precision was key to everything. The slightest millimetre off was enough to destroy the line of a garment. I guess it's this level of accuracy and precision that I have taken from fashion and incorporated into my cross stitch designs... Where one single stitch can make or break a design...I am extremely greatful for the experiences I had during my career as a pattern cutter. I was fortunate enough to get to work with some amazing people who where always so willing to teach and pass on their skills to the next generation and I think it was their selfless attitudes of sharing techniques that influenced how my future career would progress.
When did you learn to cross stitch?
I wasn't exposed to cross stitching until pretty late in my life. I was 27 and had been headhunted as studio manager for a prestigious West London fashion house, where I worked quite happily for a few years but I had begun to again develop itchy feet syndrome.
During Fashion week I found myself working 18 hour days, and, as is the case with so many fashion insiders at show time, rather than trek home at night and back into the studio in the morning loosing those precious two hours of sleep, I had taken to sleeping under my desk in the studio on a fabulously comfortable wadded up bundle of calico,(basically this is low grade scrap fabric). It was on such a morning, while waking up at an ungodly hour underneath my studio desk that I decided I was too young to be working like this, solely to bring to life my employers creations, so that morning I decided it was time to branch out on my own and see what would happen. So I handed in my resignation. It was a bit of an impulsive/crazy decision, but ultimately it made me feel happy so I went with it. So there I was, living off meagre savings, with no clear idea as to what I was going to do with my life, but I just knew that I had to try being my own boss for a bit. And sure if it all went tits up I was still young enough to go back into fashion as a pattern cutting drone in some high street label.
To get a break from London I decided to go visit my folks who where spending Christmas in Arkansas, with some family friends. Little did I know that that vacation was going to set the course for the next few years of my life. While in Arkansas, Florence, and elderly family friend decided that she would teach me some crafting techniques to while away the hours spent sitting on the front porch of our house. She began by trying to teach me how to knit; I was awful; then how to crochet; I was even worse at that. Eventually, and with great patience, Florence decided that cross stitch was one craft that I could not mess up; after all its only a bunch of little X's stitched beside each other, how hard can that be? Low and behold she was right and I was hooked! I found myself being totally absorbed by the repetitive action of cross stitching, completely destressing with each X I stitched. I loved it. The only problem was that the designs that were available to me were far from anything that I would be happy to hang on my walls, and believe me, I am no stranger to kitsch!
On my return to London in Janurary 2008 I was addicted to cross stitching but desperate to find designs that would not become the subject of ridicule of my friends if I hung them in my east London home. I had always had an interest in street art and graffiti, so after hunting for relevant cross stitch designs and finding none I decided it was time again to take matters into my own hands and create something that I wanted to actually stitch and display in my home.
So out came the graph paper, coloured pencils, tracing paper and photos of my then favourite graffiti pieces. After several hours of scribbling, drawing and colouring I had what was a suitable graph paper representation of a well known street artists piece, and I proceeded to stitch.
The resulting satisfaction of actually stitching something that I knew I was going to happily display with pride on my wall was immense, and I showed everyone who had the misfortune to visit my home, as they had their heads melted with talk of graffiti cross stitch... Soon these same friends were requesting that I stitch them their very own piece of street art, which I obligingly did. I soon began to realise that most of my friends in London worked in incredibly stressful jobs that allowed them little creativity, so I began to teach my friends how to stitch up their very own graffiti art works. This became so popular that I began to supply threads, charts, canvas and instructions to friends of my friends and ultimately this led to the first Urban Cross Stitch market stall opening on Bricklane in August 2008 in the Backyard market,which led us to eventually create Urban Cross Stitch and the rest they say is history...
Does it seem like a stretch from your history in fashion textiles?
I guess if I look back on it, then yes is a pretty big leap from pattern cutting to cross stitch design; maybe not as immense as genetics to pattern cutting but it's still up there.
I had no formal business training, taxes and accounting to me where a mystery so the the idea of running my own business was always only that, a lovely idea. Heap on top of that the fact that I had no graphic design/layout/formal art training and no, I never would have thought that I would become a cross stitch designer. Over the past few years I have had to teach myself all of these aspects, some with more success than others. It has been a sharp learning curve but an incredibly exciting one, in which I find myself waking up each morning excited to go to work!
I have also been incredibly lucky that Urban Cross Stitch has amassed such a loyal band of fans who allow me to spend my days designing messed up things for them to stitch!
Are there any other crafts you are into?
There are not really any other 'crafts' as such that I am into, although my dad; who ran a successful sheet metal fabrication business most of his life; taught me how to weld and recently I have found myself working on metal projects for my personal satisfaction...who knows where that will lead.
What makes the medium of cross-stitch so ripe for subversion?
I think there are numerous factors why cross stitch has become so popular. Of all the crafts, cross stitch is probably the easiest for a novice to learn and to manipulate into a modern day aesthetic, using slogans for example, while still retaining that charm of yesteryear and the idea of tradition. Urban Cross Stitch has however been continuously pushing past the limitations of purely slogan based work and presenting cross stitch as a graphic medium, which since our beginnings in 2008 seems to have filtered out from the niche of craft and leaked out into the worlds of fashion, art and design, and we are very happy to have been an integral part of this process/evolution of the craft. It's a great craft to begin with as it rewards the practitioner with fast visible results, and a modern day heirloom that is meaningful to them which can then be passed on to future generations. It also creates great confidence in the user that they CAN 'craft' so encourages them to go on and try other crafts such as knitting and crochet.
Really cross stitch is the ultimate gateway craft!
You've done designs from street art and pop culture, what draws you to these designs?
Really I create designs that have a meaning to me at the time of their inception. I may be particularly interested in a specific topic at the time, such as depictions of skulls in art and society or typography styles. I try to keep up with current trends but these days we are inundated with so much information from so many different sources that it is impossible to remain, and create a collection in the 'current' trend. So ultimately I just end up designing what I know I could live with in my home and what I think our fans would be happy to stitch up and live with.
Can you tell our community about your Cupcakes, Cocktails, & Cross Stitch! events?
Our Cupcake, Cocktail & Cross Stitch! events were initially a concept that we came up with in 2008 in our early days on Bricklane. It was to help us generate customer interest in a market that was dominated by tee shirts, and printed art. Trying to sell cross stitch to uninitiated customers is a pretty hard sell, so this free event was a way that we came up with to bridge the gap. We basically take over a bar, supply DJs, cupcakes, cocktails, and cross stitching materials and invite people along to try out the craft for free in a relaxed environment. Here they can chill, have a drink or two, relax and catch up with their friends and learn a new skill in the process... Our events, although initially conceived as a one off event became extremely popular, which lead to us hosting numerous events around east London and inspiring other craft enthusiasts to create their own similar events across the world.
Your 'Bollocks' design was used in a Saatchi & Saatchi event - how was that?
To be perfectly honest that was a complete surprise to us. It all started back in 2008, when one week at the Backyard market we had a lovely lady come along and peruse our wares on the stall. She paid particular attention to the Bollocks! design. After a few more visits she eventually bought the finished piece and left as a satisfied customer. Several weeks later the same lady returned to the stall asking if we could commission a companion piece for her recently purchased 'Bollocks!' piece, which of course we were happy to do. Through our subsequent conversations with this lady she revealed to us that she was a Saatchi & Saatchi curator who had been tasked with the responsibility to curate a private show so the afore mentioned gallery of on trend items which where indicators of the worlds of art, craft and fashion. Needless to say we were very happy to find out that our 'Bollocks!' piece had been included in this exhibition.
Do you work yourself on the completed pieces which can be bought?
Yeah I do. I think it is important that if someone invests money into a modern day future heirloom like one of our pieces, that they should be able attribute a specific maker to it. So anything that has been or ever will be bought from Urban Cross Stitch will have gone through my own two hands, that's why sometimes we have a bit of a waiting list; I can only stitch so fast. Lol!
How do you find new inspirations and ideas for your patterns?
I'm inspired by all sorts of juxtapositions that I come across in my daily life, and it really depends on which twisted ideas are currently working their way through my brain as to what gets funnelled out as a final Urban Cross Stitch design.
What have you got planned for the future of your company?
With my track record who knows what territories Urban Cross Stitch will venture into. We have a few projects up our sleeves at the minute; including a few upcoming gallery shows featuring some limited edition Urban Cross Stitch designs; but ultimately we are aiming for nothing less than world domination one stitch at a time! ;) So Happy Stitching guys and gals!
Couldn’t have said it any better myself!