From Television to Textiles: An interview with artist and actress Lalla Ward

There isn’t normally a great deal of crossover between acting and art quilting, but textile artist Lalla Ward has crossed this unusual divide. Well-known for her role as alien Romana in the BBC television series Dr. Who, Lalla now devotes the majority of her time to fiber rather than film. And though she played an extraterrestrial on TV, Lalla’s art is very much focused on Earth—specifically, on its animal inhabitants.

Her thread-painted pieces are currently on display at the National Theatre in London until February 14th, but for those of you who can’t make the overseas trek, Lalla took a break from her many artistic pursuits to chat about her unique background in fiber arts and her fondness for the animals that she depicts.

How did you make the transition from acting to textile art?

I’ve always wanted to do art—actually, I don’t know why I went to drama school instead of art school. I think it was a test to myself; I was a very solitary person and hated doing things in front of others.  

I’ve always drawn animals (and have illustrated books for my husband Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist) but since I’m self-taught, I’m always looking for new ways to do things. About a year and a half ago, I read that you can draw with a sewing machine. The book said something about lowering your feed dogs—and I had no idea what these were. I had done some hand embroidery but I actually didn’t own a sewing machine.

I bought a secondhand machine which I loved because I didn’t need all those fancy stitches. First, I learned what zigzag stitch was and what feed dogs were, and then I started scribbling—and doing an awful job of it. I decided I needed to learn what I was doing so I went to a class that taught all the rules…but I realized that I’m so bad at the things that proper quilters can do: beautiful seams, geometric piecing, etc.

I realized this wasn’t for me so I got more and more into just scribbling with a sewing machine needle as you would a pen. I have found that very liberating. I just spend hours stitching shifting different bits of fabrics around. I listen to an awful lot of  music, endless rock and roll—there’s often Pink Floyd in the background.                                                 

Do you think of your lack of technical training as a barrier or an advantage?

Most sewing books spend hours telling you what subjects you could do—that’s never been my problem. I always have a million ideas but, yes, I have to get better at the technique.

At the same time, I think it gives people hope that I am so self-taught. At my exhibit, I’ve left a seven-page outline of how I work and I included my email address. I told people to email me with questions—but to understand I’m a total amateur. I got so many emails, you wouldn’t believe it. I think that’s what encourages people; if I can do it, they can do it.

I go to quilt fairs a lot and I have one or two suppliers of fabrics that I particularly love—and all those people have been so nice to me; they all come to my exhibitions. I’ve found this to be a very nice and encouraging world.

Do you feel that you have established an identity as an artist, rather than an actress?

People always refer back to my acting. Dr. Who has a huge cult following—that was 30 years ago, but you never really lose that identity, which is fine; I don’t mind a bit. But I hope I’ve established myself a bit as an artist. I probably haven’t as much with my fabric pictures, but having two exhibitions on that has certainly helped. My first exhibit was held last year, only three months after I got my sewing machine. It was to raise money for an endangered bird in Madagascar. I said I would do it, so I had to! It was a massive learning curve.


So all of your pieces now are thread painted?

Yes, I thread paint on a fabric sandwich: soluble stabilizer, a couple layers of organza, and then another layer of stabilizer. Sometimes I draw my drawing on the top layer of the stabilizer, but sometimes I draw directly with the sewing machine—I’m a bit foolhardy. I sew the entire animal with stitch, then soak out the stabilizer and trim around the edges. Then I appliqué the animal onto a background.

The subjects of your pieces are primarily endangered or rare animals and reflect a real interest in biology and evolution. Has this always been an interest of yours?

Yes, always—long before I met my husband. I read Charles Darwin when I was about 14 and I’ve always loved animals. My parents both worked in BBC radio, and people in broadcasting like to drink. They discovered that the one place you could drink on a Sunday and take your children was the bar at the London Zoo. So my brother and I used to fill our pockets with peanuts and maraschino cherries from the bar and go out into the zoo with no one else there. We knew the zookeepers so we would get the animals out and hold them—I have a picture of myself holding an enormous  python. That’s where my love of animals started and now I love drawing animals, watching their movements, seeing how they live; they are endlessly different, beautiful, and interesting.

Your current exhibit is called “Stranded.” What does this title represent?

It represents both the strands of thread and the fact that all the animals are from islands. Island evolution is utterly fascinating because, by default, these creatures are isolated from other communities. You do get some very strange animals. I’ve traveled to Madagascar and the Galapagos islands (mostly tagging along with my husband) where the animals will just come up and sit in your lap while you sketch—they’re so tame.

Can you tell us about some of the other media that you work with?

I also paint ceramics. I have thrown pots but I’m not very good but I’ve discovered you can buy bisque-fired pottery and then paint it yourself. I have a kiln and do the second firing on my own. Again, this is another way of making pictures.

I have done some knitwear design and have two knitting books—sweaters with animals on them, mostly—but I didn’t make the actual sweaters. I prefer jumbling about and crochet is better for that.

Now, I’m keen to combine ceramics and free-motion embroidery to create an embroidered mat and a glazed bowl that would correspond. For instance, a blue glaze on the bottom of a bowl and then footprints embroidered on the mat. I have
another exhibit coming up next year, and right now that’s what I would like to explore for it.

When you try lots of different media, you hone in on the ones you’re happiest with: for me, it’s painting, ceramics, and drawing with my sewing machine.

Titles of the artwork (from top to bottom):

  • Hawaiin Honeyeater (extinct) Moho noblis Hawaii
  • Red and White Moth (unidentified) Borneo
  • Ring-Tailed Lemurs Lemur catta Madagascar
  • Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa Borneo



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