Czech textile artist takes part in award-winning Red Dress project

Blanka Kolková

Czech textile artist Blanka Kolková is one of more than 300 embroiderers from all around the world, who have taken part in the British award-winning Red Dress Project. It was conceived by British artist Kirstie Macleod with the aim to provide artistic platform for women the world over, many of whom are marginalised or live in poverty, to tell their personal stories through embroidery.

Over the past 12 years, pieces of the Red Dress have travelled across 28 countries around the world, where they have been embroidered by altogether 239 women and five men. Other, small embroideries, were added by visitors to exhibitions and galleries, where the dress was displayed. Kirstie Macleod describes what the final garment, decorated with millions of stitches, looks like:

“It’s made of burgundy silk dupion, which I had got in Paris, and the total weight is surprisingly low for what it feels like. It’s actually 6.3 kilograms, but it feels a lot heavier. There is a three-kilo piece created in India and another one in Saudi Arabia which are incredibly heavy and have loads of metal work in it.”

“When I look at the Red Dress, it is not just a beautiful art piece, it is a symbol of a connection and sharing.”
Blanka Kolková

Kirstie Macleod, whose artistic work has always been rooted in textiles, says she got the idea for the project in 2009, when she was working as an installation artist in London:

“I did quite a few big installation pieces at various big galleries in London and one of them was seen by Art Dubai. They contacted me and told me they wanted to commission me to create a new piece of work, funded by the British Council.

“That was a really big deal, because as all artists know, it’s really hard to get budgets. So I literally thought: What would be my dream piece of work to create? And I just sketched it out on a napkin, straight away, and it was The Red Dress.”

Kirstie Macleod says she sought inspiration for the Red Dress project mainly in her childhood, which she spent in lots of different countries around the world:

Kirstie Macleod | Photo: archive of Kirstie Macleod

“I was born in Venezuela, but I also lived in Nigeria, Japan, Barbados and Holland, so I have a very multicultural upbringing and I have always been very fascinated by different cultures and identities.

“So I just wanted to create a piece of work that would draw together as many different identities from as many different cultures as possible without any prejudice or borders or boundaries making it accessible to everyone.

“Basically creating a piece of work that was nice and show what’s possible when we come together as one. I didn’t know if it would work, if people would be interested, and how long it would last. Twelve and a half years later the dress has become what it is, which is amazing, really.”

Once she conceived the idea, Kirstie Macleod made a call on social media, reaching out to artists and embroiderers around the globe, asking if they would be interested to take part in the project. It took some time for the project to get off the ground, but as the word got around, more and more people got involved:

“Most of the embroideries are professional but there are also lots of embroideries on the dress that are not. There are even a few tiny ones done by my son when he was six and there are quite a few first-time embroideries. But all the big commissions have been created by professional embroiderers or artists.”

“I just wanted to create a piece of work that would draw together as many different identities from as many different cultures as possible.”
Kirstie Macleod

In the first stage of the project, Macleod would send panels of fabric by post and whenever they were finished, the artists would send them back. The rest of the embroidery was added by over a hundred participants at various exhibitions and venues.

The artists were given a free hand in choosing the motif of their embroidery. The only task they got was to create something that communicated an element of their identity and referenced the culture that they are from:

“Some of the artisans really chose to create very traditional work, which may have been passed down in their families or towns for hundreds of years. For example in Mexico, most of the artisans did that.

“Others chose to make their work much more personal, it was a real sharing of their own experience, what they had been through. It wasn’t so much about the technical skill of the embroidery, it was much more about the message.

“I also asked them to use their own threads, so that also gives it a specific quality, because you get that contrast throughout the dress - different tones, different textures and different colours.”

Embroidery by Blanka Kolková | Photo: archive of Kirstie Macleod

Among the most striking embroideries are those created by women refugees from Palestine, or victims of war from Rwanda, Kosovo and Congo, but also the colourful and vibrant ones created by women from South America or by upmarket embroidery studios in India and Saudi Arabia. Kirstie Macleod also highlights the needlepoint made by Czech embroiderer Blanka Kolková:

“Blanka’s embroidery from the Czech Republic is beautiful and in that it ties the whole project together. She wrote the word Sisterhood or Sesterství. She saw the dress and she said to me: Of my goodness, this is a sisterhood project. I would really love to write this on the dress. This is what it is and I think it really does some up the whole project.”

Blanka Kolková, the Czech artist who contributed to the Red Dress with her own embroidery, comes from South Bohemia but she has spent the past seven year in the British town of Glastonbury where she has been running workshops in the local ZigZag building, a former sheep skin factory on the edge of the town, which has been turned into a community centre:

Blanka Kolková | Photo: archive of Kirstie Macleod

“I love to work with yarn, I knit and crochet, but I also like to make clothes. But because of the global overproduction of clothes, I strictly decided to make them from second-hand fabric to give them new life and send them to people to wear them again.

“There is another part of the building next to the Zig Zag factory, which has recently been reconstructed and turned into a community house and I was offered to make a community textile workshop there.

“It has just started. It’s called Fabric of Life and I built a team of ten textile artists interested to be part of it and we want to turn it into a community textile centre. So hopefully, one day, it will become one huge, textile playground.”

Blanka says she first learned about the Red Dress Project during the Somerset Arts Week exhibition in September 2019:

“I met a girl from Glastonbury and we talked about my textile work and she said: Did you hear about the Red Dress Project? She has been modelling it recently and she showed me a picture of it and I thought: Oh my God, this is just stunning. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Photo: archive of Kirstie Macleod

Blanka Kolková says that when she saw the picture of the dress, which was nearly finished by then, she was stunned by the beautiful embroideries but also deeply touched by the whole idea behind the project:

“For me, it is like a symbol of pure sisterhood, connection between women from all over the world, connection of different races, nationalities, backgrounds and cultures and a connection of individual life stories too, in all sorts of colours and in thousands of thousands of stitches made by the hands of hundreds of women.

“When I look at the Red Dress, it is not just a beautiful art piece, not just a garment, I think it is a symbol of a connection and sharing. It is also a connection in the name of kindness, because I think it is very hard to do embroidery and be angry. You have to be calm and kind to do something like this. And I think it’s all in it, in the Red Dress.”

Photo: archive of Kirstie Macleod

About a week after learning about the Red Dress, Blanka Kolková was invited to take part in the project and add her own embroidery, inspired by traditional Czech and Slovak folk costumes:

“When I found out I would be part of it, I was just about to go to spend Christmas in the Czech Republic, so I went back home and I googled and borrowed books from my friends about traditional styles of Czech and Slavic embroidery.

I think I made a mixture of different resources and I tried to choose colours that would look well on the red background.”

Blanka Kolková’s beautiful embroidery was one of the last ones added to the stunning Red Dress, which has since been exhibited in various galleries and museums all around the world, including Paris, London, Mexico City or Dubai.

Kirstie Macleod’s dream for the future is to bring the Red Dress to the countries of all the artists who helped create it, and exhibit it alongside their own work in their chosen venue, including the Czech Republic.