Comfort food is supposed to make your tummy feel like it’s getting a hug from the inside, so it makes a delightful kind of sense that Nicola Gibson makes soft sculptures of comforting snack packaging you can hug with your arms!
Gibson started on the scrumptious series for an exhibition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Norfolk Contemporary Craft Society in 2012. As Gibson explains, “I wanted to suggest something about 4 decades ago, and I think that food and packaging is something which is familiar to almost everyone, so the store cupboard seemed like a neat solution!” For these first sculptures Gibson was careful to verify that the packaging was historically accurate to the 1970s, and even consulted Robert Opie of the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising to ensure authenticity. “The ones which made the short list for the exhibition were just the ones which worked best,” says Gibson, but she continues to make fabric sculptures based on suggestions, commissions, and popular demand.
Using what Gibson describes as “a pretty ancient, industrial embroidery machine set up with an even more ancient laptop!” she starts the sculptures by embroidering a packaging design made from a jpeg onto a piece of fabric as if the food packaging were unwrapped and laid flat. As is sometimes the case with computer controlled processes, the embroidery machine that Gibson uses can be finicky and requires some finessing:
I import my design to the driver (the drivers are INCREDIBLY expensive! That’s why I’m beholden to a laptop which is about as old as the packing designs!) and send it to the machine. The fabric is stretched into a large frame, backed with stabiliser [sic] and it’s all CNC controlled, so in theory I just have to change the threads at the right time. Of course, in practice it’s much less straight forward and it pays to keep a careful watch!
Once she’s embroidered the fabric, Gibson carefully cuts it into the necessary shape and applies a combination of machine and hand sewing in order make sure that the sculptures come out just right. “I use a regular sewing machine for hemming and straight seams but experience has taught me that I get a much truer shape if I hand sew the elements together,” explains Gibson.
As a self-taught maker, Gibson experiments with processes and materials that will lead to the best possible outcome for a given project, and when it comes to recreating food packaging, she is very specific about what she wants:
Generally speaking, I’m looking for something hard wearing and tactile, so felt is a no-no but fabrics which can withstand lots of handling and feel good are most likely to get used. I also like working with wool because it’s strong can be coaxed into new shapes with steam!
Despite the challenging process required to create these works, like any quality food product, the extraordinary results that Gibson achieves certainly hit the spot!
You can see more of Nicola Gibson’s work on her website, including a fantastic series of sculptures made from knitted wire!