Hey, You’re Cool! Cross Stitcher Emma McKee
"Juice is temporary... sauce is everlasting"
Emma McKee is the Stitch Gawd. A cross-stitching designer, jacket maker, and all-around creative badass, you’ve likely seen her work on the likes of Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Saba Pivot, and soon to be on Smino.
Born in Kansas City, McKee began cross-stitching as a gift to her mother, who is British. “Her people do a lot of cross-stitching,” she says. “It wasn’t ever my thing—it seemed slow and tedious and pretty crafty. So, in an effort to do something nice for mom… I taught myself cross-stitch for this Christmas gift, and it turns out that I am really pretty good at it.” We’d have to agree.
Though she’d be the first to admit she’s not the best at keeping to five-year plans, the Chicago-based craftmaster does have a handful of goals, which include making “something for Michelle Obama and my other first lady, Rihanna.” (Sorry Melania!)
Emma McKee spoke with MASS APPEAL about her inspiration, her construction process, working with various artists, what happens when major fashion houses take notice of her sauce.
Let’s start with the basics: what is cross-stitching and how did you get into it?
Counted cross stitch is a medium of embroidery or needlepoint that is considered by some to be especially tedious! [Laughs] Usually, something that your mom or granny does. It tends to lean a little precious and old-fashioned—lots of flowers and bible verses, etc.
It’s weird—how I got into cross stitching. It was never something I was looking to do, really. I just wanted to make a thoughtful Christmas gift for my mom. She’s British and her people do a lot of cross-stitching. It wasn’t ever my thing, it seemed slow and tedious and pretty crafty. So, in an effort to do something nice for mom—I had taken my dad to the World Series that year and so this particular Christmas gift had to be especially thoughtful—I taught myself cross-stitch for this Christmas gift, and it turns out that I am really pretty good at it. I was very surprised. So, I leaned into it and started making my own patterns, started exploring with unusual techniques. I really took my new skill and made it work for me. So, you could say I fell backwards into it!
At what point did you see your work start connecting with a wider audience?
I think there were a couple big moments. My first ever ever press was an article on The Fader. That was crazy—that’s where I got the name Stitch Gawd. There was Chance the Rapper wearing me at his big hometown festival, on tour, and on the cover of Billboard twice. I don’t know if I would call it connecting with a wider audience just yet. It’s still pretty niche. My audience has always been fairly small but invested and I love that. I get to connect with so many interesting types of artists at this level and it’s still so local to Chicago. I’ve barely made anything for artists outside of Chicago. The funny part is that it has never been about a big audience or how many people see things—of course it’s amazing and wonderful when you have those moments, don’t get me wrong. I am much more concerned about how a piece reads to its intended recipient. That’s the most important part.
You’ve designed for some heavy hitters—Chance the Rapper, Jazz Cartier, Saba—how did those relationships come about?
You nor I have the time to get into the real particulars of each of these relationships, it’s all too crazy! [Laughs] Everything has come together in such weird ways and times. Chance DM’d me on Twitter asking about a piece, that’s how that jacket connection came about. But I have been around for a minute, so I’ve known a lot of these folks for a long time! Lots of good fortune and good relationships.
Chicago is a creative city. In the art community, I think there is a real effort to help each other and support each other and that makes it a lot easier, I will say that. People here respect good work ethic and talent and we keep it moving. We sometimes look out for one another. You’d be surprised, I’d say about 60% of everything I do is sheer logistics. I like to think I make it look easy, but those relationships and connections, and the art that comes as a result of them, are really a lot of hard work and a large network of people who want to see Chicago win.
What is your process like from piece to piece?
Wildly random. I learn a new skill from every piece at this point. A lot of the techniques I use are old-fashioned or traditional. Most everything is handmade. Almost always a new technique on a jacket will be my first attempt at something. So I would say overall, it’s pretty high stress, but exciting. I see a piece in its final form first and I work backwards from there. I ask myself ‘What do I know how to do to make this piece look as crackin’ as possible?’
When designing for an artist, how do you reconcile your personal aesthetic with their own?
Ultimately, every piece is for a specific person, so it’s basically a reflection of that person. I try to capture someone’s specific style in their design, no matter what it is. Their aesthetic and my aesthetic are both represented. They have to go hand in hand.
On average, how much time goes into a piece?
It really depends, but I could sum it up for you by telling you that they all take a lot of time. Quickest may be between 10 to 15 hours. Longest: a couple hundred? I don’t really keep track, to be honest with you. I just work until it is finished!
What’s the story behind your favorite piece?
My favorite piece was for my favorite rapper, Saba Pivot. Last February Saba’s cousin and collaborator John Walt was murdered. It was terrible. Saba was about to go out on the road on his first headlining tour, and it was just so terribly sad. All of it. And I had a feeling because I couldn’t think of what to say to Sab. I knew there was nothing I could say that would make a lick of difference so I did my best to stitch him something that might help. It’s a side profile of Walt—I thought Sab would want to bring Walt on the road with him. I wanted him to feel protected. I felt like it was what I had to give. That’s the thing about these stitches, it’s not just clothing. It is armor for the soul.
My favorite thing you’ve done is the “Acid Rain” piece. What’s the story there?
Oh! That is an old one. I made that for my friend Kevin, for his wedding. We used to go see Chance play tiny venues together a long while back. I make stuff not just for celebrities, rappers, and creatives. Sometimes my friends get lucky, too!
You’ve got an eye for fashion, obviously. What do you see as the next up and coming trends?
I mean, who knows? Could be anything. Gucci makes cross-stitch jackets now. [Laughs] I can only really tell you what I’m on next and even then, I’d rather let it speak for itself as it comes, ya know?
What do you make of Gucci’s venture into cross-stitching?
I think it’s really exciting. I’ve never ever seen a major fashion house do anything like that. Embroidery and needlepoint sure, but not cross stitch. I had never seen anything besides myself doing anything like that. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the embroidery and needlework world right now, but I had never seen anything close to the stuff I make until Gucci and Billionaire Boys Club’s 2017 Fall/Winter. I don’t know if they got it explicitly from me I have dressed some high profile folks, but you never know. Either way, I’m here for it!
When the big companies catch on to what’s hot and take it for themselves, where does an artist go from there?
I mean, you just keep going and doing your thing. When someone tries to do your thing for you, you just do your thing even better than before. Someone told me recently that the big fashion houses got the juice, but if you’re the real deal you got the sauce, and the sauce is everlasting. The juice is temporary.
I think when big companies steal ideas it’s important to call them out. Call them out and keep calling them out. Zara, quit stealing our shit! Urban Outfitters, quit stealing our shit! Just like that. There are whole divisions of companies that employ people to change art ten percent, so they can’t be sued. It’s gross, but people are greedy and lack vision, so it’s not all that surprising.
I think there is a big difference between being inspired by and stealing from. I think inspired by can absolutely live in the same universe—but stealing from an artist is pathetic. As an artist in the digital age, it’s also important to make sure you have good legal representation. Send your lawyer to get the bag.
What’s next for you? Have you ever thought about doing a line?
I’m not the best at five-year plans. My last five-year plan had me with a Jeep and a dog, and five years later and here I am with neither of those things. I just walk through the doors that are open and work my ass off, and hope for the best. My dreams come true every day because of that.
My only plan for the short term is to finish a large scale collaborative Chicago art project called The Stitch Tape. I am making it with some folks I have made ‘fits for. We’ve been working on it for a year now! That’s coming and I think it’s gonna be pretty wild. So watch for that!
I have some goals. I would like to dress a Chicagoan for the Met Gala. I’d like to show in a museum someday. I’d like to make something for Michelle Obama and my other first lady, Rihanna. I’ve thought about doing a line, not sure how exactly, yet. I am sure the path will show itself soon. It has so far!