In a corner of the historic Pithers Yard off Castle Cary’s High Street lies a Crayola red door. Adorned with hand-painted intricate designs that sneak out from the edges of the panelled wood like ivy creeping along brickwork, before you even enter The Red Dress Studio, you perceive that this a place with a distinct and recognisable identity and purpose. Artist Kirstie Macleod, the creative talent behind the award-winning Red Dress project, invites me through the door with a bright smile and calming energy, bustling to offer me a hot drink as an extension of her instinctive welcome, ushering me warmly towards a high stool at her surprisingly, almost clinically, empty sewing table which naturally takes centre stage in her workshop. Low music with the evocative strains of a sitar plays in the background, vibrant canvases (Kirstie’s own) adorn the walls and yarns organised by colour within small shelves and baskets on an imposing dresser draw the eye. While evidence of the Red Dress radiates from the photographs and posters of it around the studio, the dress is noticeable for its absence. I shouldn’t be surprised. When we meet, the Red Dress is on tour in the US, as part of an extensive ongoing exhibition schedule beyond the wildest dreams of Kirstie when starting the ambitious needlework project in 2009.

Great British Life: Details on the Red Dress have been created by 380 artists. Details on the Red Dress have been created by 380 artists. (Image: Dave Watts)

Originally designed to unite women beyond boundaries and borders through the shared act of embroidery, the dress has become a voice for often marginalised stories and a sought-after engagement piece for major galleries and museums. There are details to wrap your head around when understanding the Red Dress. Made from 87 pieces of burgundy silk dupion, it has been worked on by 367 women/girls, 11 men/boys and 2 non-binary artists from 51 countries. Some pieces of the dress have travelled abroad to commissioned embroiderers and then been incorporated into the whole composition, while some of the stitching has been added at exhibitions and events. Over the course of 14 years, at the beginning of which Kirstie wore the dress herself and embroidered onto it live from within a Perspex box as part of a series of art installations at locations including the Royal Academy of Arts, the Red Dress has become a carefully curated landscape. Covered in millions of stitches, each embroidery has its own space and any layering, such as the cobweb spun across the back of the bodice, is limited and deliberate.

Great British Life: Kirstie in her Somerset studio. Kirstie in her Somerset studio. (Image: Dave Watts)

My naïve disappointment at not seeing the Red Dress in person immediately dissipates as Kirstie invites me into the world of its conception and explores its ongoing ripple effects. Joined by Nina Gronw-Lewis, gallery manager at ACEarts, Somerton, where the dress excitingly lands for its second visit in June 2024, Kirstie shares poignant stories of the dress’ formation while Nina recalls its reception at the gallery. ‘We had people queueing down the High Street last time,’ says Nina, herself a textile artist and contributor of a snowdrop motif to the dress, explaining how someone travelled from the US expressly to see the Red Dress at ACEarts when it was first displayed there in January 2022 and how the most quizzical of viewers would end up being the ones pulled gently away. Kirstie adds that a visitor to the Vermont exhibition in autumn 2023 returned 10 times.

Great British Life: Artisan Hilaria Lopez Patishtan in San Chamula, Mexico 2020,Artisan Hilaria Lopez Patishtan in San Chamula, Mexico 2020, (Image: Kirstie Macleod)

The Red Dress, it’s clear, resonates, with those who encounter it, when it’s not even in the room, not to mention the intricate experience and meaning for those who added directly on it. Listening to Kirstie quietly describe the impact on a group of female survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from Bosnia and Herzegovina, several of whom were triggered by the experience of embroidering their stories, is incredibly humbling. It’s apt then that the extraordinary garment, at once artwork and artistic showcase, conversation and platform for discussion, is sometimes described by Kirstie as ‘her’. She’s rightly proud that she was invited to display the Red Dress, and also speak, at the Council of Europe session on equality and non-discrimination in January 2023, where delegates commented that the dress felt more immediate than the debates. A new embroidery by two female refugees from Ukraine was added during the event. Kirstie was inspired by the power of embroidery to bring women together when, building on her peripatetic upbringing and family’s textile heritage, she travelled to southern India in 2002 and spent many hours stitching a simple jacket alongside Karnatakan women. It lodged in her mind how a communal activity could transcend a lack of shared language, the meditative and therapeutic nature of sewing and the avenues an artistic endeavour focused on textiles could open.

Great British Life: Gisele, Esther and Esperance with the Red Dress in Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. Gisele, Esther and Esperance with the Red Dress in Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. (Image: Nicole Esselen)

The Red Dress has grown in scope beyond its physical creation. In direct juxtaposition to its inherently tactile nature and the hands-on way in which it came together, conservation is now a key element of its story. As it travels the world to exhibition venues there are factors such as lighting, humidity and pest control to consider and the dress, which is now routinely displayed simply on a mannequin, is now handled with gloves. Kirstie enjoyed collaborating with the National Trust at Tyntesfield in Bristol where the dress was displayed in May 2023. ‘They were great to work with and I loved all the tradition and history the dress was able to align with,’ enthuses Kirstie. ‘How the Red Dress is perceived, handled and now conserved has taken some getting used to for me.’ While some have expressed frustration at no longer being able to touch the dress, its overwhelming presence wins out and Kirstie advocates for the locations which exhibit it to initiate outreach embroidery activities with local communities. Following the official completion of the dress in June 2023, there are also now calico ‘sister dresses’ which accompany it and provide an evolution of the original project which she hopes will one day be exhibited alongside it.

Great British Life: Kirstie leaving Sinai desert with the Red Dress and heading to Cairo. Kirstie leaving Sinai desert with the Red Dress and heading to Cairo. (Image: Georgie Sleap)

There are so many wonderful stories to be told about the dress, such as Kirstie’s involvement with members of the blind community in Bath via deafPLUS, when any rules and conventions about handling the dress went out of the window, or her session with Sense in Birmingham where participants wore SUBPAC tactile audio systems using music that Bedouin women in the Sinai Desert had previously danced to around the dress. ‘I don’t mind how the dress is interpreted as long as it’s accessible,’ says Kirstie. Fittingly, the Red Dress has now been reincarnated in digital form with the help of lighting, photography and creative computing experts at Bath Spa University, widening opportunities to interact with it. The journey of the dress is by no means over and while initiating new creative projects from her base in Pithers Yard, Kirstie remains open to ways for the Red Dress to connect, educate and delight.

Great British Life: Main embroidery by Zenaida Aguilar supported by Kitzen Mexico 2018. Main embroidery by Zenaida Aguilar supported by Kitzen Mexico 2018. (Image: Sophia Schorr-Kon)

The Red Dress will be displayed at ACEarts, Somerton, from 1-29 June 2024. Entry to the exhibition is free, but donations in support of the gallery and in aid of The Red Dress Project are welcomed. Textiles created by Red Dress commissioned artisans including Sister Stitch are available via the RedDressEmbroidery Etsy shop. Kirstie also runs guided workshops inspired by the dress online and from her Castle Cary studio.