Sandra Heffernan, textile artist

sandra heffernan: materials innovator

By Patricia Belyea

WELLINGTON NZ Can you imagine traveling to northern Portugal for a 6-week artist residency focusing on embroidery? You would get time to work on one major project while staying in a medieval city that’s a World Heritage Site!

Kiwi Sandra Heffernan was chosen for this exciting assignment by the organizers of Contextile 2016. The biennial event, with exhibits, talks, and demonstrations, promotes framing textiles in the context of contemporary art.

I visited with Sandra at Massey University where she’s an associate professor at the College of Creative Arts. In researching the opportunity, Sandra realized that Guimarães is on the opposite side of the world from her hometown of Wellington.

Two cities on opposite sides of the world

The concept of her project, Through The Globe, explores the dynamic idea of traveling from the ancient city of Guimarães through the earth’s dark interior to the inky sea and starry skies of Wellington.

Before Sandra left home, she prepared materials for her proposed project. First she dyed two long pieces of linen with ferrous, walnut, an invasive weed, and indigo. Waste leather was die-cut into arty strips with micro holes down the middle. And indigo-dyed silk was laser cut into flower shapes.

Contextile 2016

Once in Portugal, the pressure was on. Week One was spent setting up and Week Six concentrated on the installation. That left four weeks to produce her art.

To start, Sandra’s residency required that she work for three days with embroiderers at atelier Oficina. There she learnt the characteristics of traditional Guimarães embroidery.

Contextile 2016

For the next four weeks, Sandra stitched. The two lengths of fabric were whipstitched together to make one. Embroidery, leather and silk were applied to the 47 feet of linen to form one cohesive story.


For the exhibit, Contextile provided Sandra with a low display plinth. Sandra then draped her art over six narrow wooden rods hanging from the ceiling with fishing wire.

Contextile 2016

On July 30, Contextile opened with visitors from around the globe coming together to explore textiles and art.

Contextile 2016

What’s next for this materials innovator? On Monday, Sandra flies to Italy to participate in the Venice Biennale.

Her submission, Sunwinelimeberry, is machine tufted with custom-dyed New Zealand wools. Down the length of the 26-foot long installation, Sandra embedded a strip of LED lights.

Language of Rivers by Sandra Heffernan

Once back home, this university professor will continue to help graduate students stretch with their textile projects. I can’t think of a better person to lead the way.

Photos by Contextile 2016, Frederico and Sandra Heffernan.