WINNER ‘Progress toward circularity’ Marie Claire Sustainability Awards 2023

Interview with textile artist Leah Nikolaou

Textile artist Leah Nikolaou shares with us how she rediscovered her creative streak, the unique ways in which materials influence her projects and how sustainability plays a major part in producing her paper-based embroideries.

Discover Leah's beautifully composed embroidery paper kits that offer a moment of respite with mindful creative activity.

Leah in a garden surrounded by flowers

How did you start your journey towards creating your label? 

After having my daughter in my late 30s, I returned to my fast paced job with a property newspaper. It was a job that I took for a few months which was initially part time. 12 years later it had somehow become my full time occupation. I loved and hated it with equal measure. I loved the people and the money but hated the fact it had steered me away from the creative Iife I had begun, wanted and trained for at the Royal College of Art. After much soul searching, I decided to do something about it and started experimenting with areas of textiles that I loved, including knitting, embroidery and textile kits. I also reignited a passion for flower pressing as my daughter and I wandered a whole summer long picking and pressing flowers. It was just a natural progression that I collected up the materials I loved and called on my early career years, writing and illustrating craft kits, which came together as my eponymous label Leah Nikolaou.

Embroidering a letter "E" onto paper card.

How do you source your materials and decide on your designs and how does your practice centre on sustainability?

Trying to make my embroidery kits sustainable has been a huge challenge that has greatly influenced designs in my new collection. I decided that I wanted to use recycled paper as a base for my new embroidery collection and fell in love with the idea of black vegetable oil based inks printed on recycled kraft papers. I also found a printer specialising in sustainable printing. Once I had my hands on the flecked brown paper and started stitching samples, I knew exactly which direction my designs were going in! It was very much a case of the paper influencing the designs alongside the pressed flowers I collect and press. I also decided after much research into tapestry wool to use Appleton yarns as they source all of their pure wool from the Yorkshire wool markets here in the UK. I collect the flowers that I press from my garden and from a local flower farm. This summer, I have grown a lot of cosmos which I hope to influence my next collection.

Pressed pink flowers on paper

Do you have a favourite work you’ve made to date?

My favourite pieces of work are always changing as my collections grow but right now I’m super excited about my Advent Calendar Embroidery Kits!  The idea is that on each day of advent, a bauble will be embroidered onto a Christmas tree poster.  Each bauble is numbered like a traditional advent calendar. I love the idea that in the craziness that is the lead up to Christmas people will take 2-5 minutes for themselves to indulge in a bit of stitching and mindfulness.

Advent calendar embroidery on paper of a Christmas tree

What makes your products and label different?

All of my embroidery kits are embroidered into paper rather than fabrics.  This variety of papers is currently focused around left over wallpaper, hemp paper, brown kraft paper and other sustainable recycled papers. The juxtaposition of the two unlikely crafts of embroidery and flower pressing and the mix of delicate flowers against chunky tapestry wools have given my embroidery kits a distinct style.

Leah sitting at a desk with a paper embroidery in her hand