A Stitch in Time

Over a decade ago, textile artist Kirstie Macleod launched her ambitious Red Dress project an artistic platform for women worldwide, many of whom are marginalised and live in poverty, to tell their stories through embroidery. Between 2009 and 2022, the Red Dress travelled the globe; its 84 pieces of burgundy silk dupion lovingly crafted by 336 women and 7 men from 46 countries, with all 136 commissioned artisans paid for their work. Read her incredible journey and the tales of her artisan sisterhood, who touched her heart as the project grew into something much more than a stunning red dress that continues to touch so many.

Talking to Kirstie from her rural home in Somerset, it’s clear that her childhood, travelling the globe played a crucial role in shaping her view of the world. “I’m one of three sisters and, because of my father’s work, every three to four years, we would move to a different country,” she explains. “That background was definitely a seed that inspired the project as I was exposed to so many different cultures, voices, languages and inequalities from such a young age. I’ve always been concerned about the state of the world, particularly women’s treatment.

I struggled with what I saw and always wanted to create a piece of work that brought these global identities together,” she says. This ambition saw the birth of The Red Dress Project 13 years ago. What began as a simple sketch on a napkin sparked a collaborative movement which has since become a work of healing, an emblem of expression and an invaluable platform for female voices to be heard. “I wanted the dress to stand out and be noticed, which is why the colour is so important,” says Kirstie. “It represents intensity, passion, love and hate, and it has a primal rawness that simply cannot be ignored.”

In the early stages, Kirstie relied on her textile network in London to help the project gain momentum, reaching out to her contacts at the Royal School of Needlework and relying on family connections to help drive awareness further afield. “I always had an instinct, a trust, that the right people would come to me through the dress, and they did,” says Kirstie. “My contacts helped; for example, my cousin put me in touch with Kitzen in Mexico, and social media played a part in spreading the word, but it certainly happened naturally and organically.” Managing a project of such scale didn’t come without its challenges.
“It represents intensity, passion, love and hate, and it has a primal rawness that simply cannot be ignored.”

“The first year I was given some funding but then there was a huge gap where I paid for the project myself,” explains Kirstie. “I was juggling the project with being a single mum to two small boys, so it was hard to keep going.” Overcoming language barriers with her increasing network of global embroiderers was another hurdle. “I couldn’t afford translators and the main communication was by email, so it was hard trying to get the message across, particularly with the distance and time zones.” Each artisan was also responsible for sending their completed panel back, which often meant lengthy delays, especially on the rare occasion when they would get stuck at customs.

However, every challenge has been woven into the dress’s history, representing a collective legacy that Kirstie hopes will last for hundreds of years to come. “Every time I received a panel in the post was amazing; feeling the energy of the embroidery was so special. It’s impossible to choose a favourite as each one tells such a unique story representing its own form of self-expression,” says Kirstie. “The Rwandan panel is so hard-hitting. It blew me away when I first saw it and it still makes my heart ache.”
The Aproade Embroiderers, supported by the Kisany charity and its Founder, Nicole Esselen, represent a group of artisans who have lived through genocide and lost families, relatives and children through war. Their panel, entitled ‘From Darkness into Light’, depicts a small child with a machete-wielding man standing over him and a nearby tree set alight. Tightly stitched black circles give way to wider, more colourful swirls, representing the women’s journey from desperation and darkness to sunlight and hope as they heal together.

Feride and Fatime Hallili from Sister Stitch, which represents a group of female refugees in Kosovo, tells a similar story of war and survival. Their stunning panel in white thread, called ‘Birds of Peace’, portrays four migrating white doves, inscribed with a poem of hope. The stitching reflects how the women were forced to flee for survival during the armed conflict in the 1990s when many lost friends and family members. With the help of Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MaK) they are now rebuilding their lives and forging a brighter future ahead. A kaleidoscope of colour, the dress is adorned with messages of hope, love and luck. It is also a celebration of a shared passion for embroidery and an empowerment that serves as an economic lifeline for many. Kirstie commissioned Zenaida Agular and Hilaria Lopez Patishtan, from Mexico through Kitzen, an initiative of Fundacion Leon XIII, which supports and empowers those in poverty to use their talents to earn a living. The ladies each embroidered the triangular goday, positioned on either side of the front panel on the dress.

Their vibrant and joyful designs are expertly crafted with unique technical skills and talent that are helping them to work their way out of economic poverty. Kirstie talks with pride and affection about the bonds that have developed over the years with her embroidering sisterhood. “It’s been so rewarding and humbling working with these incredible artisans, sharing the journey together.” Her hope now is to meet each in person, offering them the chance to exhibit their own work alongside the Red Dress in a venue of their choice. “It’s really special when I get to meet them personally and show them the finished dress,” she says. “I’ve only managed it a few times, with Amanda Wright in Wales, and Feride and Fatime in Kosovo. I also managed a trip out to Mexico to see Zenaida and Hilaria in Mexico, but, sadly, it was cut short due to Covid. My plan is to visit Egypt and Pakistan this year and then another two each year for the next ten years to complete that chapter of the story.”

“The first year I was given some funding but then there was a huge gap where I paid for the project myself.”

Unsurprisingly, the public’s response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive. “I am always humbled by how people connect with the dress and are moved by at least a few aspects. They recognise the beauty of the cultural collaboration and the power of its sisterhood connection – it has so many different layers.” Beyond the public, senior figures from the contributing countries have also championed the dress. Kirstie says, “Seeing Saranda Bogujevci, the deputy head of parliament in Kosovo, wearing the dress was a truly special moment because of what she represents for the country through her mission to build back and fight for female equality. Uniting senior politicians there through the dress and seeing how they reacted to it was an incredible experience and so rewarding. Every time I get an invitation to exhibit the dress, it’s a lovely reminder of its reach and the big web of connection, unity and equality that it has spun – it’s a genuine gift.”

Having created a lasting legacy, Kirstie is now working on a new collection of large-scale embroidered canvasses, inspired by her experience of guiding the dress through the world. For her, it offers an opportunity to process her myriad emotions, telling the Red Dress’ story in her own voice. Each of the 13 canvases she is designing will showcase the techniques, colours and motifs inspired by the project with, of course, the Red Dress taking centre stage. “It’s wonderful to be making again and drawing on the rich resource within me; I am yearning to express feelings and intense experiences through my work.” With that next stage of its story, the Red Dress has come full circle.

“Every time I received a panel in the post was amazing; feeling the energy of the embroidery was so special. Each one tells such a unique story representing its own form of self-expression.”