Textile vegetables

From her studio, Rachel Nettles creates textile sculptures that look and feel as though they've come straight from the allotment. 


Sometimes when she’s exhibiting her works, artist Rachel Nettles notices people looking at her table a little quizzically. What on earth, she can see them wondering, is this woman doing with all those crates of vegetables at an art fair? So lifelike are her cauliflowers and cabbages, her pots of fennel, her bunches of carrots and beetroots that more than one person has been surprised to discover they are made solely from fabric and thread. And sometimes it can take a while for the penny to drop. Here we look at the love that goes into Rachel's creations. 


The setup

Rachel works in a small studio, not far from where she grew up on the outskirts of Manchester, now the base for her company Cabbages & Nettles. Its wall are plastered with the sources of her inspiration: posters of heirloom vegetables; postcards of work by painters – Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele – who inspired her as a fine art student; while every inch of floor space is taken up by plastic crates overflowing with myriad coloured threads or actual vegetables in varying states of decay.




The process

From these vegetables Rachel creates the templates she uses to cut out the plant’s body and leaves in a base fabric. She then adds texture and colour on her sewing machine, using a technique known as free-motion machine embroidery, which allows her to apply threads as an artist would paint, building up the different colours and thread weights, changing the top and bobbin tensions, until her base fabric is covered. She then stitches the different parts together by hand. Depending on its complexity, each sculpture can take her around three days to complete. “Even though they’re hard work, they are fun to make,” she says. “I do laugh at them when they’re finished.” To be fair Rachel laughs a lot, infectiously, and her exuberance seems to shine out through every stitch. You can see how much care and thought goes into each piece, and Rachel loves the challenge of working out how to create the veg; how she can get big leaves through her sewing machine, and ensure the textures and the colours are just right.

Over time, the techniques she uses have changed. When she started, three years ago, she admits it was largely a case of trial and error, but as she discovers what works she is constantly adding new fabrics and colours, and changing her stitching techniques and the stuffings she uses so her sculptures don’t just look like the real thing they have a similar weight and feel.


Useful information

Rachel’s textile sculptures are available from The Imaginarium in York (Tel 01904 466642), and 15 Collingwood in Northampton (Tel 01604 714644). Find out more about her work at cabbagesandnettles.com


Words Juliet Giles

Photographs Cristian Barnett

This article was taken from a longer feature in the Plant Issue 2016 of Gardens Illustrated (242).


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