Stitched leaves: Southern Song

All images: Hillary Fayle

Artist Hillary Fayle combines fine art with her love of nature in this meticulous series of hand-embroidered leaves. Although she uses a nontoxic preservative to stiffen and protect the delicate leaves, it takes an enormous amount of patience and skill to finish a single piece.

Continue below for an interview with Fayle about her inspiration and the process behind these remarkable works, and be sure to visit her website to see more of her work or commission a custom piece!

Stitched leaves: Delhi

MNN: Tell us a little about your artistic and educational background.

Hillary Fayle: Since I can remember, I have always been passionate about art. I grew up with my family considering me an "artist." It took me a long time to think of myself as an artist, though. I felt I needed to do something to earn this title.

I went to Buffalo State College and earned a BFA with a concentration in fiber design. At the time when I had to choose a concentration, I was unsure of what I should do, but fiber design just sort of fell into my lap, (it was the last day to choose and the spots in ceramics had been filled!). I realized shortly after, that working with fibers and textiles is really what I have always been interested in, and was absolutely the right decision for me. I then graduated and after a hiatus of a few years where I lived in a beautiful but isolated area in northern New York, I decided to pursue my MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Stitched leaves: Yellow ginkgo

What inspired you to combine embroidery techniques with organic materials?

During my time at Buffalo State College, I was afforded the opportunity to study abroad to learn embroidery in Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, U.K. That was a fabulous experience. I loved my time there and it drastically changed my artistic practice.

I was totally infatuated with needle arts, and when I returned in the early summer, I headed straight to my summer job, which was working at an environmental conservation summer camp. The camp has been a second home to me since I was 14, and was where my love of nature was fostered. I had my thread and needles with me there, but no fabric. My cabin was right under a big, beautiful aak tree, and one day I just looked up and thought that maybe the leaves would work as a substitute, which of course, they did.

Stitched leaves: Silver Weave

What's the process behind creating the stitched leaves?

If the leaf is not still attached to the tree, sometimes I press it first, which helps to stabilize them a bit as some of the moisture leaves them. Essentially, I look at the leaf, evaluate its shape, color, any marks or characteristics that might shape what I do to it. Based on this and the strength of the leaf, I decide what should happen to the leaf, usually either cutting into it, joining it to another leaf, or using it as it is.

Then I begin to stitch into it, creating layers of basic stitches upon which I add to. I often add too much, and then decide it's too complicated and then go through the tricky process of backing up, taking stitches out, until it's more balanced.

Stitched leaves: Roak

On average, how long does it take to finish one leaf?

There really isn't an "average" to this. Some pieces can take much longer than others, it all really depends on what I am doing and the type or leaf and how old it is.

Some leaves or flower petals are so delicate that they seem to take ages just to put on layer of stitching on, pulling the thread through so gently and slowly so as not to tear the leaf in the process. Then there could be a snag, which anyone who has sewn or worked with a needle and thread will know about; thread wraps around itself into a little knot that you don't notice until it's too late and you go to pull it through and "AH!" — you've just blasted a huge hole through your leaf. So starting over on these pieces is still something that has to be considered, which doubles the time involved.

I have gotten considerably faster with practice, but numerous hours still go into each piece, just for stitching. Then there is the pressing, and re-pressing afterwards, and the framing, etc.

Stitched leaves: GinkgoDuo

Aside from leaves, what other materials have you stitched?

While I was finishing up at Buffalo State, I was so intrigued with this stitching process that I tried to combine it with the other media I was working with at the time, which was mostly clay. I would drill patterned holes into the vessels I made before I fired them, and afterwards, would stitch through the holes. I haven't really worked with ceramics since I left school, though.

I've been more interested in natural or re-used materials, such as acorn caps, laundry tags, used coffee filters and tea bags. I have also done installations outdoors where I stitch into the trunk of a tree, or its roots, or anything that I might find outdoors. I recently did an installation in the Catskills in New York where I used an old rusty fence on the edge of the woods.

Stitched leaves: Silent Center

What's next for you?

I've recently received a large number of requests for commissioned pieces, and I'll be quite busy working on those this summer, up until school begins in the fall. I'll be consumed by working on my thesis until May, but I am doing a show at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens outside of Richmond this spring. It's hard to say what I'll be focusing on, since I am cycling through ideas so rapidly and experimenting constantly.

Graduate school has provided me with a really great opportunity to experiment and really go off the deep end with some things that I normally wouldn't work with, and I hope to really dive in this year and see what other directions I can go with this.

My passion for working with leaves and natural sustainable materials has not lessened, so I feel this will be a focus for a long time to come.

Stitched leaves: Snowshoe
Stitched leaves: Oak
Stitched leaves: Red Maple
Stitched leaves: Three ginkgos
Stitched leaves: Dreams
Stitched leaves: Maple Tap
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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.