Artist at Work: Abigail Brown
With a lifetime of experience in needlecraft and a love for the natural diversity of winged creatures, artist Abigail Brown spends her days creating a growing flock of colorful and intricate bird sculptures from fabric. Working with layer upon layer of new and vintage textiles, Abigail thoughtfully crafts her one-of-a-kind feathered friends by hand, from sketching patterns based on real species to adding the final stitches that make each piece come to life. Recently, we caught up with the artist in her London workspace to find out how her puffins, parakeets, and peacocks take shape, one tiny piece at a time.
terrain: Could you tell us about how you started making art, in particular working with fabric?
Abigail: I spent a lot of time as a child with my grandma, who was a seamstress. The fabrics, sewing machine, and trailing threads about the house became second nature to me and as I grew up, working with fabric felt very natural. When I was choosing a degree at art college, my tutor suggested Surface Decoration, which combines illustration with fabric print. At the time, it seemed like the perfect choice, but I came out longing to make things, so I set about turning my drawings into 3-D characters for fun.
terrain: What makes animals, especially birds, such a source of inspiration for you?
Abigail: I've always loved animals, from the stuffed toys as I had as a child, to meeting other people’s pets, to welcoming neighborhood cats into my home. I get such great joy from watching animals and find it easy to turn them into little characters with personalities. I'm fascinated by the amount of different species of animals and their variations in form and ability, but I focus on birds because I just can't get such vivid colors making animals. I am constantly amazed by birds-- their vast variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.
terrain: Your birds are so detailed and unique. Could you walk us through the process of creating one?
Abigail: I start by studying the bird, collecting images from each angle so I can get an idea of its form and how patterns and colors work across it. Those images inform the drawing of the pattern, from which I shape the body, which is generally two pieces of fabric sewn together and stuffed very tightly with toy stuffing, with a wire structure for the legs and feet.
I build the legs separately, and then I sew the lines that hold everything together. The rest of the body is covered in carefully cut pieces of fabric, layered to create the feathers. I hand-sew the detail stitches that give the feathers a more realistic look. The eyes are tiny glass beads, and once they’re set in place the piece really comes to life.
terrain: You work with a blend of new and vintage fabrics. How do you select your fabrics, and where are your favorite places to find vintage textiles?
Abigail: I like natural fabrics the most—cotton, wool, linen, and silk—because they hold together better than synthetics. A lot of really interesting bits come from other makers, who give me small quantities of fabric they can’t use. The vintage pieces are charity shop finds and donations. I love the idea of reusing textiles and giving them new life because there’s always something of a past life in vintage fabric—the worn appearance, the slightly dulled color. It's quite magical to see it transformed into the feathers of a beautiful bird.
terrain: You live and design in London. What spaces in the city are especially inspiring for you?
Abigail: Ever since I moved here seven years ago, my favorite place has been the South Bank, a cultural hub along the Thames that’s alive with people enjoying themselves. I love strolling along the river and watching the sun glisten on the water or the city lights dance at night.
We also have great parks in London, dotted all around to break up the concrete. I live in East London on the canal near Victoria Park, which was the first public park built in the city. It's a huge, open expanse and a great place to find inspiration. I can watch all kinds of birds at play, and see foxes, squirrels, and dogs on their daily walks.