“My earliest artistic influence was my mother, an amateur painter and intuitive colourist with a passion for flowers. My own creative pursuits continued while I raised a family, worked in the wardrobe department of the BBC and finally completed a degree in Fine Art.
Sometime in the 1960s I chanced upon a book called ‘woven by hand’ about a group of weavers at the Ramses Wissa Wassef School in Egypt. Their unique and beautiful work uses a technique called ‘eccentric weave’ that results in an undulating free-flowing style. So when, in 1985, I received a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, I seized the opportunity to visit the Wissa Wassef School. Students are encouraged to work straight onto the loom, resulting in huge works of great complexity and glowing beauty. They’ve haunted me and ever after I’ve been in search of that same lively, intuitive impulse in my own work.
Another major artistic influence was Kaffe Fassett, of whom I had always been a huge fan, admiring his creative energy and bold style. When he offered me work at his London studio, where stunning floral chairs and rugs in needlepoint were being designed, I found my metier. The years I spent there were a real learning experience, challenging and rewarding: a landmark in my career.
Since 1991 I’ve designed in my own name, mainly for Ehrman. I generally paint my design first, full scale in acrylic, and so have the joy and satisfaction of indulging in both media. I can feel ill with disappointment if a design fails to work out, or near drunk with elation when it succeeds.
Sometimes an idea will be in wait for years. I keep bulging files of cuttings, hundreds of postcards, books, china, fabrics, shells. I stuff everything into vases and bowls, from round onion seed heads to pampas grass or plastic flowers. I never take a walk without bringing home more booty to pile on yet another surface. This magpie like urge to hoard and display is difficult to live with, but does create a storehouse of constantly shifting arrangements of form and colour that inspire me.
The preparatory artwork is problem-solving time, where all my attention is given to the drawing, the composition and the general balance of darks and lights. I love this bit and don’t generally think about the needlework too much. Inevitably there’s a degree of compromise later, but the challenge of translation is an interesting one. Occasionally I struggle to find the right wool and discover instead a juxtaposition of two colours that will interact visually on the canvas: perhaps an acid yellow and a pale green that gives an illusion of lime. If the pinks are too cool, I try a few yellow or orange stitches. I seldom use true black, there’s much more warmth of tone in dark plum (or maroons).”
Elian died in 2010. For over twenty years she was one of our most important designers. Nobody else could stitch canvases in such remarkable detail and her unique and rich colour sense was all her own. She lives on through her work.