Craft Stars: Phil Davison, Founder of Urban Cross Stitch
His designs incorporate photo-realistic depictions of London's street art, colorful splashes of blood, and enough naughty words to sink the saltiest sailor.
Take an icon you love - a tidy home, a happy Santa - and Phil has taken his needle and made it into an edgy explosion of modern embroidered art.
Now the author of Twisted Stitches (2011, Fil Rouge), a cheerily Gothic revamp of traditional embroidery, Phil took a moment off from creating ace cross-stitch designs and kits to speak with us about the stitchy craft he loves, and the little old lady who helped him find his new career.
Hi Phil! I love the story you tell in Twisted Stitches about discovering cross stitch on holiday in the USA. But it makes me wonder - what kind of craft culture did you encounter growing up in the UK?
Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1980s and 1990s, I was exposed to some craft in primary school but nothing that was really inspirational. My mom is a very 'handy' person, always sewing or knitting or baking, so I guess she would have been my biggest craft exposure when I was young.
It was while I was on a student exchange in Arkansas, between finishing high school and before starting uni in Belfast, that my artistic tendencies were reawakened (the young Phil Davison was actually on a career path to become a geneticist before that fateful trip!)
Malvern, the town I lived in in Arkansas, was very small. The next town over is a place called Hot Springs, an amazing 1930s Art Deco town that prospered in the early years of the 20th century as a holiday destination for wealthy Americans.
Left: young folks dance the night away at Hot Springs' Art Deco Arlington Hotel.
When I arrived there, in the late 1990s, it had become an artist town. Every other store was an art gallery selling the work of the artists from the thriving local art scene. I was exposed to more galleries in that one year in Arkansas than I probably had been in my entire life in Belfast.
On returning to Belfast, I started into my genetics course but quickly realised it wasn't for me. So an early career change led me to study fashion and textiles. This led to a career as a couture pattern cutter, which resulted in me moving from Belfast to East London.
In London I was exposed to on a daily basis to the most amazing street art, which I began to photograph at every chance I got.
After about 10 years in the fashion industry, I felt the need for a change and a new challenge. So I quit my job as head of studio for a London fashion house, and went out to Arkansas to spend Christmas with my family and re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life.
Florence, the grandmother of the family I had lived with as an exchange student 10 years earlier, decided to teach me how to cross stitch to help me while away the hours of sitting on the front porch.
I became hooked immediately. It was the simple repetitive nature of the act of cross stitch that struck me. It was like meditating and it just relaxed me, a complete change from my current hectic London lifestyle.
Upon returning to London I was yearning to keep cross stitching, but all the designs I could find were just so twee. So I turned to the stack of street art photos I had previously taken and grabbed some tracing paper and graph paper and coloured pencils and began to design my own charts, inspired by things I actually wanted to hang on my wall.
I stitched up the first one and when my friends saw it they soon were requesting one each. So rather than me stitch this same design over and over, I decided it would be easier just to teach them to stitch it themselves
I really wish I'd known about your Cupcakes! Cross Stitch! Cocktails! nights when I still lived in London - what was the inspiration for taking cross-stitch public in such a big way? Doesn't it require loads of concentration?
Really we just wanted to introduce people to the idea and process of cross stitching. Most people we have spoken to were taught a little bit in school when they were younger but as they got older the available designs of puppies and cottages didn't interest them so they gave it up.
You would be amazed at the enthusiasm that people show when cross stitching a design they actually want to hang on their wall.
We find that although it takes a bit of concentration to stitch, most people love doing it in a social setting, as they get to share ideas with other enthusiastic stitchers and learn new bits and pieces. Plus a lot of people come along to get their hands on our amazing cupcakes.
I bet! Your designs are gorgeous - in a deliciously Gothic sort of way - but also, often, quite complicated. What tips do you have for would-be cross stitchers in love with one of your patterns but are unsure how to begin?
Always start in the middle, or as close to the middle of the chart and canvas as possible, depending on the design, and choose a colour that there is a lot of. I tend to do the large chunks of colour; this would be black in most designs, first as this gives a good base to start from. Then it's just a case of filling in the other colours around that and building up the design.
All our designs mostly rely on the full cross stitch (x) - there are no fancy stitches to learn to complete one of our charts.
If you are a complete beginner then I advise starting with a mini kit and graduating onto the medium and large kits as your confidence grows, but if you are really too scared to stitch and desperately want to hang one of our designs on your wall, then I advise that you talk nicely to your grandmother and see if she will stitch it for you.
Alternatively you can buy a ready-stitched finished piece directly from Urban Cross Stitch and pretend to your friends that you stitched it up over those long winter months, we won't tell!
Some of your new designs recall the street art of the mysterious British graffiti star, Banksy. Do you ever collaborate with artists on your designs?
We have collaborated with artists for various Urban Cross Stitch projects in the past and will probably continue to do so. We are always open to all ideas and new collaborations for creating new and innovative cross stitch and craft projects to help revitalise craft.
We have worked with a raft of emerging artists based in East London, the results of which have not necessarily always been used for the current Urban Cross Stitch collections. These are currently still a little bit secret, as they are for a few new upcoming project ides that we have planned. So I have to be a little bit vague here, because if I told you, I may have to kill you!
Can you describe the process of bringing a cross-stitch design to fruition? And what's the ineffable quality that marks a design out as something worthy of Urban Cross Stitch?
Really the only quality that marks something out as a potential new design, is if I think I, and much more importantly Urban Cross Stitch fans, would be happy to hang the finished piece on a wall and let friends see it.
If the answer to that is yes, then out comes the graph paper, sketch book and coloured pencils. This rough chart is then refined on my ancient version of Photoshop and then printed out. There isn't really much else to it.
Judging from your designs, I imagine that you - like Crafty Crafty - are convinced that the zombie apocalypse could happen any day now. In the case that Cupcakes! Cross Stitch! Cocktails! becomes a target of the undead, which of your crafty tools will you use to dispatch the invaders?
I guess it would have to be my trusty embroidery hoop, perhaps with the outer hoop whittled to a razor sharp edge. This trusty piece of equipment could then be boomeranged at said undead, decapitating them before returning to me, a la Mad Max Outlander stylee. Yeah, that would probably be fun.
Also I find it handy to always have a backup of hard stale cupcakes to throw or catapult at the approaching undead; the only problem with this though is that our cupcakes are so delicious that we seldom ever have any left over to go stale!
Want to meet up with Phil and his Urban Cross Stitchers? Check out his site, Urban Cross Stitch, for details on meetings - and 'like' them on Facebook! And don't forget to grab your own copy of Twisted Stitches - ask for it from your local craft store or order it direct from Urban Cross Stitch.