Artist Emma Crawley brings a playful touch to the rug renaissance
Emma Crawley is the fabulous mind behind Tuftee, a custom rug venture. Having only tried her hand at tufting a mere five months ago, she’s already a natural at the traditional craft – and is just getting started.
Rug tufting has recently exploded into the creative consciousness, thanks to mesmerising TikTok videos that pair the high speed movement of a tufting gun with its colourful yields. Perfect for either walls or flooring, the plush, cosy vibes of each piece is impossible for DIY craft enthusiasts to resist.
Emma has never been averse to trying new things, having recently taken up motorcycling, and says, “Apparently, I’m drawn to hobbies that involve dangerous machinery, as I took up rug tufting too.”
The Aucklander’s work is charmingly cheeky, perhaps best demonstrated by her works featuring an array of derrieres. “I try not to take myself too seriously and love finding the humour that comes with being human,” Emma says. “You’ll often find me regaling others with the many awkward moments I experience in dating and in daily life. I have a reputation for showing up wearing a costume when it’s least expected. Not on dates though, I promise.”
Some of Emma’s other pieces include bananas, fairy bread, the slogan “Better living, everyone” and French fries, to name a few. A rug featuring the soon-to-retire director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, fetched $310 in a Trade Me auction, after attracting an impressive 42 bids.
Now Emma is taking her enterprise to new heights, with the launch of her hotly anticipated website.
What drew you to the rug tufting?
In 2021 I found myself overwhelmed, anxious and burnt out after an intense couple of years and ended up stopping work to recover. A few months into that time, I felt drawn to try something creative. Rug tufting is a very physical process that appealed to me – it’s easy for me to get stuck in my head, so I chose an art form that might help me connect with my body. I’ve discovered it’s a very mindful activity too, which helps with anxiety.
How did you learn to tuft?
I bought a starter kit online from All Things Effy and watched YouTube videos on how to do various parts of the process. They make it look so easy, but it took a lot of blood, sweat and swear words to create my first pieces. I’m glad I persisted, and that I still have all my fingers.
What’s the process behind making each piece?
I create a design, stretch some fabric onto a frame, then draw the design on it. Rug tufting is like painting with wool using a gun, so I fill in the design by threading yarn into a tufting gun and shooting that into the fabric. Once that’s done, I tidy up any stray bits or mistakes, then cover the back of the rug with latex glue to hold the yarn in place and add a backing. Rugs look best when they are sheared to even them out, then carved with scissors to get nice clean lines. The whole process takes quite a while.
A lot of your work plays upon New Zealand culture, whether it’s Ashley Bloomfield, “Better Living, Everyone” or fairy bread. What draws you to Kiwiana iconography?
That wasn’t intentional. I found myself creating designs that captured something familiar to us, but wouldn’t expect to see in a rug.
Body positivity is another recurring theme in your work, can you speak about your relationship to that subject matter?
Living in a world that puts so much value on how people look, I have disliked and distrusted my body for as long as I can remember. Over the past few years, I have been exploring the various ways that diet culture has, and continues to, harm my mental and physical health. These messages and beliefs about my body go pretty deep and are reinforced daily in media, so I have been intentional about refocusing where my worth and value does come from and surrounding myself with people and media that reminds me of those truths. All bodies are good bodies.
Feeling positive about my body can be a bit of a stretch sometimes, so I’m working on feeling neutral about it and finding gratitude in what my body allows me to do. For example, hugging my friends, riding my motorbike to beautiful places, eating mint chocolate-flavoured ice cream, getting goosebumps when listening to music that moves me, and yes, creating rugs with glorious bums on them.
What role does social media play in your work and how do you navigate it?
I created an Instagram account when I started tufting, mainly because my friends were interested in seeing what I made and some of the process. I often feel hesitant to share my creations because I’m learning as I go and there are lots of imperfections. But I have grown to appreciate that as part of the beauty of the pieces, as well as the process of developing new skills. There’s such a temptation to present only the best parts of ourselves and our lives on social media, but humans, life and handmade rugs all share the experience of being beautifully imperfect.
What’s been your favourite creation?
Oh, that’s like asking me to choose a favourite child! I enjoyed creating the rug with four bottoms of various shapes and sizes because it felt like a little celebration of bodies we don’t often see portrayed. Ashley Bloomfield was also a fun one to make.
Your Ashley Bloomfield rug drew a lot of press. What was your reaction to all the attention the auction gathered?
It was quite an unexpected whirlwind. After Trade Me featured the Ashley Bloomfield rug as one of the ‘Cool Listings’, I received a lot of hateful messages, which I hadn’t anticipated. The more positive part of the experience was seeing lots of people enjoying a cultural moment for New Zealand captured in a tufted rug, a medium that many people hadn’t seen before.
What pieces are you dreaming up for the future?
I have lots of ideas bubbling away in my strange little brain. I’m keen to keep experimenting with portraits of people, as well as a series inspired by my all-time favourite movie, The Castle, and I am getting a bigger frame made to experiment with some larger scale pieces soon.
Words by: Caroline Moratti. Photography by: Babiche Martens.