This interview was originally posted at Haute Macabre on January 17, 2020
Embroidery is not for the impatient. Those tiny stitches, painstaking and precise, individually add up to a practice and a pastime that quite literally passes a lot of time. I tried it myself nearly a decade ago, and it took me all day–probably 6 hours total–just to stitch seven words.
Web weaving textile artist Lyla Mori of Moonflesh is well acquainted with this deliberate, decelerated passage of time, and observes it as a vital piece of the slow, ritualistic process comprising the stitches of her embroidered still-life tableaux. These thread-veined creatures and ghostly botanicals, embellished with precious found objects, are ideas and dreams transformed into something tangible through Lyla’s unhurried handiwork and are imbued with measured intent & the most patient of magics.
I never again attempted embroidery, but through a few collaborative commissions (featured above, and immediately below) Lyla has brilliantly captured and brought to life a handful of my own shadowy ideas and spectral dreams. I can’t help but admire these visions anew each time I catch sight of them on my walls; so many dainty, diminutive stitches, the results of which cast a hushed and bewitching spell on the viewer–a feat which is made that much more impressive when you have an awareness of and firsthand experience with (even if it’s just a day’s worth!) of the toil and trouble that goes into this type of craft.
I had so many questions for Lyla about her Moonflesh embroidery, which she has set aside her needle and thimbles for a moment and generously lent her cushion-hearted occasion to respond. See below and learn more about the human behind these darkly expressive offerings, and the countless eternities spent with each stitch in the practice of this timeless craft.
How did you start embroidering? What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Lyla Mori: Embroidery came to me at a time when I felt incredibly lost in the world. I had just moved to a new state that I had only visited once before. I worked a minimum wage job that left me feeling completely depleted and unfulfilled. I felt lonely the vast majority of the time due to having no friends in the area. One of the few solaces I had was creating art — mainly drawing in pencil and ink, or painting.
Even in trying to actively recollect now, I can’t remember what specifically drew me to embroidery. Why embroidery, and not some other fibre art, or jewelry-making, or sculpting? I’m not sure, but I think a part of me felt intrinsically drawn to it. I never meant for it to become a business for me as it is now — it was just a way for me to relieve stress and channel creativity in my free time. What really inspired me about this art form was its capability to hold the intention of the creator. I remember the very first piece I ever created was a protection sigil, actually. I wanted something to hang up on the wall to protect my home, but I never imagined that the slow process of bringing the piece into tangible space would feel like performing a spell or ritual!
What were some of your early inspirations? And do these themes and motifs continue to show up in your work today or have they changed/evolved over time?
Once I started seriously practicing embroidery, the motifs and imagery that I like to explore had pretty much been set in stone — mainly mythology and folklore, witchcraft, herbalism, creatures of all forms, tarot, Victoriana, spiritualism, etc. In the beginning, I created a LOT of moths. They were a spirit and creature that brought a lot of joy and comfort to me at the time, so my work reflected that. In the past few months, I’ve been conjuring up many a snake. As is often the case with human nature, I find my interests in these specific subjects ebb and flow — something will take the forefront of my mind for a long while, and then fade away – only to revisit me again in the future.
I also find it interesting that the subject matter that people request to be commissioned often reflects what inspires me at the time. Because of this, I find that I hardly ever have to turn down a request! I truly believe that the imagery I desire to manifest is met by the right person who is looking for just that thing — we find each other at the right time and the pieces click into place.
Tell me about the materials that you work with (beads, keys, crystals) and what significance their inclusion lends to the piece.
I knew pretty early on in my journey with embroidery that I wanted my pieces to include objects that hold meaning for me. I love crystals and learning about their specific correspondences, power, and historical uses. I’m fond of the idea of the subject matter and the crystals collaborating on summoning a certain desired energy — whether that be bringing about protection, love, prosperity, magic, etc. Antique keys were a later inclusion into my work. I started collecting them mainly as a devotional practice to the goddess Hekate.
Eventually, an idea struck me — either directly from Her, or Spirit, or the Universe, etc. — to incorporate them into my pieces. I search for antique keys in my journeys and adventures to antique shops and flea markets. I’m pretty picky about the ones I choose. I often have to wade through bowls and buckets of keys, some too modern, some far too rusty, to find one or two that feel right. Once they come home with me, they live on my personal altar until I feel like it’s time to create something. I find that this slow, ritualistic process imbues each embroidery piece with a particularly sacred energy. Beading is a pretty common component in all kinds of embroidery, but I like to include it because I’m an actual magpie and like all things sparkly and shiny. It’s lovely when I come across antique beads that were made before a time when the factory process was more streamlined — so each bead is slightly different from the next. I think it provides a certain kind of magic and whimsy to my work.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I always have to have a cup of tea or some other beverage, with a candle burning close by before I start embroidering. I also have to be in the right mindset to embroider. I stop embroidering if I feel overly tired, drained, or sad — I take the intention that I put into my pieces seriously, which means that it sometimes takes even longer to get a piece completed! However, I feel that this keeps the process clear and genuine.
My process is a little different when working on a commission, but when I make the pieces I personally desire to create, I always start with research. I like to read about the subject matter online, or go digging through the books I have at my disposal. I study references and determine how the subject can best be created with thread, as it’s different from working with pencil and paper and translating what you see directly. I usually make a few different versions of a specific design, then pick a favorite, transfer it onto fabric, and then the actual embroidery part begins!
Taking into account my Libra sun and rising (and Libra’s association with Venus), I have a great desire to be surrounded by beauty! I’m surrounded by plants growing tendrils up the walls, crystals of all shapes and sizes, olde objects, book stacks assembled haphazardly, art filling the walls, etc. My studio holds my workspace and my personal altar. The two inform each other, which I think is pretty appropriate with how I create my art.
Did you undertake formal training in college or within the industry, or did you find your ways into embroidery via a different route?
I am definitely self-taught in regards to embroidery. Frequently I get asked about what stitch I used for this or that, and I often have to respond that I honestly don’t know. I know there are places that people can formally study embroidery (like the Royal School of Needlework in the UK – how fancy does that sound!) and I’m sure the people who study there would scoff at my methods and techniques, haha! I wouldn’t mind, as I know that some of my techniques must be strange and round-about. But I think there’s a charm and a unique quality in pieces created by artists that are self-taught, and I hope my work has some of that.
How would you describe your work and artistry within the world of embroidery and craft?
Because of my penchant for things that seem dark and scary to others, I feel like a bit of an outlier in the world of embroidery! I often feel inundated with photos of embroidery pieces emblazoned with trendy words and cheesy, tongue-in-cheek phrases, surrounded by a smattering of bright florals. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a place for that sort of thing, just as I believe there’s a small place for my art – spooky/dark/macabre as it might seem.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I’m currently (/always) inspired by tattered old books, mysterious doorways, portals in nature, creatures sharing our plane of existence and creatures that only live in dreamscapes. I’m inspired by my talented artist friends and their creativity, passion, and work ethic. I’m inspired by women surrealists, my first loves: Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo. I’m inspired by the works of black femme writers and poets: Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Lucille Clifton. I’m inspired by the yokai of Japanese mythology and the prophetesses, seers, and sybils of Greek lore. I’m inspired by images of ancient relics and artifacts from across the world, and I’m inspired by the way the land I live on can still seem so alive underneath a thick blanket of ice and snow. I’m eternally inspired by this gracious, wondrous community that I’ve somehow found myself to become a part of!
What would be your dream commission?
I would love to create something HUGE, like a tapestry! Something that I can work on over the course of several months… I truly desire it but I simultaneously know that it would test my fortitude and composure like nothing else, haha! I believe the opportunity will come to me sometime in the future when the right benefactor comes around!
What’s something a lot of people don’t know about embroidering?
That it takes a damn long time! A lot of people are aware that it takes a ‘somewhat foggy, indistinguishable amount of time that probably requires a lot more patience than they care to put in’, but it’s hard to get a good grasp of it until you’re embroidering yourself. Even to this day it still surprises me. Sometimes while I’m working, I look down at the piece in my hands and realize that what I’ve spent the entire day embroidering is not even the length of my finger!
I think it’s a good lesson in valuing the time a person puts into their craft. Artists and art in general are wholly necessary to the health of humankind, yet it often goes underappreciated and undervalued. This is exacerbated tenfold when it comes to fibre arts, due to the fact they have been historically thought of as woman’s work. This fact just amplifies my love and passion for embroidery, and is a big driving force in why I desire to continue honing and tending to my craft.
Bonus! The Moonflesh shop update, “Wintertide Creatures” is scheduled for January 24! Lyla shares, “I’m forever captivated by creatures with wintery white cloaks — pale furs and feathers that help them go unseen in this cold time of year. There will be three pieces in this collection: a white barn owl, a white raven variant of my Clairvoyant design, & a white elk (major Emperor vibes)”