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The Revitalization of Chain Stitch Embroidery
(Jacket by Jason Redwood)

From varsity lettermans to vintage poodle skirts, elaborate embroidered garments have been instilled in our culture for ages. With the rise of technology, the majority of embroidery today is now digitized. A computer digitizes an image and with the push of a button, sews the design onto the fabric. However, there has been a resurgence of chain stitch artists that create embroidery one stitch at a time with vintage chain stitch sewing machines. These talented craftsmen use thread to illustrate works of art without relying on a computer.

Here at J.Forks, every piece of jewelry we create is made by hand, so we have a special place in our hearts for handcrafted artwork. That especially rings true when it comes to chain stitch embroidery, and we wanted to learn more about this artform and the masters behind the thread.

We recently spoke to a few of our favorite designers that incorporate chain stitch embroidery into their work. They revealed their inspiration, their motivation, their take on current trends, and how the fashion industry has integrated chain stitch embroidery.

Jerry Lee Atwood - Union Western Clothing

Tintype of Jerry Lee Atwood

(Jerry Lee Atwood | Tintype by Jeff Howlett)

 

What inspired you to start chain stitch work?

Around 2001, Atwood worked the late shift at a coffee shop that was on the verge of closing. To pass the time, he would create chain stitch embroidery by hand. During this time, he gained interest in western wear. “Someone lent me a book about western wear, so I taught myself how to sew and wanted to make western suits and western shirts.” This book revealed the chain stitch sewing machine, which instantly excited him as he could embroider more if he was not embroidering by hand. “I just started scouring the internet looking for these machines. And at that time, there was nothing online about how to use them or even what they look like.” His research unveiled only old black and white illustrations. “So, that is just kind of how I discovered chain stitch machines, and after that, it was a very long quest to acquire one.”

What is your current motivation and inspiration?

“In western wear, I am always trying to find something new that I can bring to the table.” Atwood takes inspiration from tattoos and vintage textiles, specifically of Japanese origin. “There is a certain aesthetic that is just kind of natural, almost hyper-realism. There is a flow to everything in their textiles and tattoo art.” Atwood references a cloud-like design found in many underwater scenes in Japanese tattoos that he is integrating into a lot of his work. “It is a design element that I really like to bring things together when things are just floating in space, and I call it ‘the cosmic wave’.”

Do you believe that chain stitch is inherently western?

“Oh, no, not at all.” The first chain stitch sewing machine was invented in France by Antoine Bonnaz in the 1860’s and was later purchased by Cornely, who manufactured the machine. “They kind of came into their element during the Victorian era with couture clothing. This is when people started having the means to buy clothing in stores rather than making it themselves, and these machines really replicated hand embroidery.” Atwood also notes that these machines constitute chenille fabric, which is the fabric that is used for mascots on varsity jackets. “These machines were used during the late 19th and early 20th century as the standard for embroidery. I associate it with vintage because that was when it was in its heyday, and it started falling out of favor by the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was pretty much phased out in the early 90’s and replaced by digital embroidery.”

Who are your favorite chain stitch artists?

“I have become friends with so many of them, so that is hard for me.” Atwood respects many artists, but after some thought he mentioned Jason Redwood. “He blows my mind. He keeps getting better and better.” He also admires the chain stitch embroidery that is produced by Fort Lonesome. “It is kind of a whole group of people. All the things coming out of their shop are really great regardless of who has done it.”

How is chain stitch integrated into fashion today?

“There are all these things that keep showing up in contemporary clothing that are specifically influenced by the embroidery from [vintage] clothes.” Modern fashion is pulling from vintage workwear motifs such as embroidered jacket patches that emulate motorcycle clubs and antique automotive garage signage. “[These logos are the] one element from vintage clothing that can most efficiently be brought to modern clothing and have the nostalgia and have that impact. You are seeing embroidery everywhere right now. It is definitely trending.”

 How do you integrate chain stitch into your work?

“Because I make western wear, it is pretty easy for it to cross over into what I am doing.” Atwood does not necessarily want to be pegged as a western wear designer because he does make other garments too, but he says, “ I definitely always want to have elements of embroidery because I love embroidery so much. So, I am always going to try to add some sort of embroidered element into anything that I make.”

 

Lacy VanCourt - Die Trying TX

What inspired you to start chain stitch work?

“It was kind of accidental.” VanCourt grew up with both an interest in traditional western wear and an awareness of chain stitch embroidery. About four years ago, she came across a chain stitch sewing machine and purchased it simply because she knew they are incredibly rare. “I did not intend to start a business, and I did not really know what I was going to do with it. I just thought it would be a really great craft to learn.” After about two years of learning how to operate the machine and hours upon hours of practice, VanCourt says, “I really fell in love with it, and I started a business.”

What is your current motivation and inspiration?

VanCourt, who is a painter by education, pulls inspiration from painting, old country music, and the look of the southwest. “I definitely have always been drawn and inspired by western motifs and the flora and fauna of the southwest.” She is also influenced by traditional crafts that people make with their hands.

“No, definitely not.” VanCourt explains that chain stitch had roots in traditional western wear, but it is not necessarily western. “I think it is a medium just like anything else. Just like you use a potter's wheel to make pots or tools to make things out of wood, it is just a tool used to create things.”

Who are your favorite chain stitch artists?

Jason Redwood. He is just a master at the medium and an all-around incredible artist.” VanCourt also loves the work by Manuel. “He was doing it before any of us.” She also references Jerry Atwood who began a chain stitch forum a few years ago. “He was definitely helpful to me when I was first starting out.” Another one of VanCourt’s favorites is Vera Vasiley. “Her work is just amazing!... Elpatcha Embroidery does a lot of patches, and I just think she is is a really cool person. And World Famous Original, he also is a chain stitcher in California, who I think does great work and is really incredible.”

 

How is chain stitch integrated into fashion today?

“On a bigger scale, I know that chain stitch is really on the radar of the fashion world, but it is still such a niche thing.” VanCourt accredits raising awareness of chain stitch embroidery to contemporary country musicians who are wearing vintage inspired suits. VanCourt also credits individuals who are responding to the idea of personalizing garments. “I do some custom work, but 90% of my business is selling my patches.”

How do you integrate chain stitch into your work?

VanCourt’s background is in fine arts, and she has been working professionally as an artist for almost 20 years in various mediums. “It just so happens that I got really into this particular medium. Now this is what I am making and it has turned into this line of patches.”

Jason Redwood Art - Jason Redwood

What inspired you to start chain stitch work?

Redwood’s inspiration to start chain stitching came after the birth of his son four years ago. He started by making hand chain stitched embroidered jackets for himself, his wife and his son. At that point people starting inquiring about the jackets wanting one of their own. Redwood was hesitant because of the amount of time required to hand chain stitch a jacket. He researched other chain stitch artists and asked them questions, particularly his friend Tul who was a part of Truth Never Told. Then, he set on a quest to find a chain stitch embroidery machine. “I kind of walked around downtown LA looking for a chain stitch machine. I came across one, brought it home, and I just started going in on it.”

What is your current motivation and inspiration?

Redwood draws inspiration from other chain stitch and embroidery artists. His motivation stems from always trying to improve. “Like every piece I do, I try to do better than the last.”

Do you believe that chainstitch is inherently western?

“No, I feel like it has a big history in the western apparel and fashion, obviously.” Redwood goes on to explain that prior to chain stitch becoming mechanized, it was used by people who could not afford nice clothing and wanted to adorn their clothes. “So, I feel like it is not inherently western, even though people might see it, I do not see it that way.”

Who are your favorite chain stitch artists?

“In no particular order, Tul Jutargare and Tommy D of Truth Never Told are the most inspiring chain stitchers or the ones that influenced me the most. Also, Ben Goding and Jerry Atwood were kind enough to answer some questions here and there.” Redwood also enjoys the works of Stay Chill Bill, Die Trying TX and the girls at Fort Lonesome. They all have their own techniques. Even the people that are first starting up, I love seeing what they do. I respect everybody that puts in the effort to learn it, because it is not something that you can take an online course.”

How is chain stitch integrated into fashion today?

“I feel like there are a few different aspects. Brands will hire us to do events, which brings more of an interaction between the customer,the brands and the artists that are chain stitching.” Redwood also mentioned that higher-end pieces are created for celebrities. Lastly, chain stitch is also incorporated into personalized gift items for the general public. “It makes things unique for people and more accessible if they do not have the time to change their own pieces; they can have it done.”

How do you integrate chain stitch into your work?

Redwood’s background lies in creating graphics and illustrations for skateboard brands, motorcycle companies, and custom car builders. “I think taking those aspects and mixing it in with the fine art training that I had in art school classes, I try to take a different approach to how people usually shade and color things. I just kind of bring new aspects into it, and hopefully it inspires others.”

Vera Vasiley - Rifle Range

What inspired you to start chain stitch work?

In 1990, Russian native Vera Vasiley was influenced by her research on traditional western wear to begin her work comprised of handmade chain stitch embroidery. Around 1998, she could not find other designers who chain stitched by hand, she discovered that there was another solution. “I came across a chain stitch machine….Eventually I got the hang of it, and that is what I have been doing since then.”

What is your current motivation and inspiration?

Just shy of 30 years of experience, Vasiley continues to draw inspiration from constantly trying to improve her work. “My focus is to achieve the highest level of garment, so it will be on the level of couture.” Vasiley also credits nature as inspiration for her work.

Do you believe that chain stitch is inherently western?

“Not really. It is an international way of embellishing a garment.” Vasiley elaborates that the chain stitch sewing machines were produced globally, which proves that there was demand for machines in different parts of the world. But when it comes to western fashion, she says, “The stereotype for a western garment is chain stitch embroidery.”

Who are your favorite chain stitch artists?

Vasiley has always admired Nudie and says, “He is kind of iconic.” Vasiley elaborates that when she first started, she tried to stay true to Nudie’s vision of western wear. He continues to reference his iconic vision while adding a modern aesthetic by creating a chic, elegant and sophisticated garment.

Currently, Vasiley is impressed with Jason Redwood. “He is very good. I like his techniques.” Vasiley notes that, like herself, it is apparent that he continues to improve and challenge himself. Vasiley believes that people like him will attract younger artists to the medium and help grow the artform.

 

How is chain stitch integrated into fashion today?

Thanks to younger generations, Vasiley says, “Chain stitch embroidery is in very high demand right now.” She explains that wearing chain stitch embroidery enables people to express themselves. “Embroidery is in such high demand because embroidered things make garments different from the average tee shirt or jacket. It gives it a little bit more of a personal thing.”

How do you integrate chain stitch into your work?

Vasiley is also a couture designer, and she loves blending both western wear and couture by bringing the best of both worlds together in her designs. “Whenever I do just a regular fashion garment, I am always taking something from western wear. But when I do western wear, I try to bring it to the highest level of couture to have style and sophistication.”

 

Ashley Radzisauskas - 76 & Riveted

What inspired you to start chain stitch work?

“So I am kind of a vintage sewing machine hoarder in a sense.” A few years back, Radzisauskas saw a chain stitch sewing machine operating in a youtube video and knew that she needed one. “My husband and I started looking on craigslist and the facebook marketplace for one of these machines, and I found one. I just kind of picked it up from there.”

What is your current motivation and inspiration?

“I am trying to figure out different techniques and how to blend color, so I draw my inspiration from nature.” A lot of her work consists of horses, and her most recent project is inspired by turquoise jewelry. She is learning how to blend the colors while keeping a natural look.

Radzisauskas has mixed feelings. Yes, in the sense that the western country singers popularized the look. “Everyone from Patsy Cline to Hank Williams had embellished suits.” But chain stitch was also used on other garments like bowling shirts, poodle skirts and varsity letter jackets. Radzisauskas referenced finding some bowling shirts from the late 40’s to the early 50’s while cleaning out her husband’s grandmother’s house. “So, I do not think it is completely 100% western.”

 

Who are your favorite chain stitch artists?

“Lacy from Die Trying Texas, her work is beautiful. It is colorful. She nails it.” She also likes Dixon Rand. “He does a lot of florals and nature animals, and he can blend colors like it is unreal. It does not even look like chain stitch embroidery. It looks like a painting.”

How is chain stitch integrated into fashion today?

“I think everyone is referring back to the 50’s and 60’s.” Radzisauskas defines it as a retro look with a modern twist.

How do you integrate chain stitch into your work?

Radzisauskas (who is also a phenomenal leather worker) has been creating hybrid leather/embroidery pieces. “I have been trying to make some leather bags and integrate the embroidery with the leather.” She is also making patches to add to bags, but enjoys working on jackets and shirts.

 

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While there are more incredible chain stitch embroiderers, the aforementioned are just a few of our favorites. These artists have taken the time to master an art form with little information and patiently taught themselves how to paint with thread. Their passion shines through their work, and it inspires us to step outside our comfort zone and develop new skills.

If you have not already followed these artists on social media, we strongly encourage you to do so. You will not be disappointed.

Stay tuned for upcoming interviews from more of our favorite artists!