Written by Anna Mason and Nick Dimas
photo via Bryan Allen Lamb
It’s common knowledge that you must fail a few times to achieve success.
Emma McKee’s failures led her from falling off a skateboard in a Jiffy Lube parking lot, to an elevator encounter with Kanye West.
McKee is full of laughter while she explains spending hours trying to teach herself how to skateboard, though she says there was nothing funny about it. She moved to Chicago three years ago, after getting kicked out of Canada. Since then, an old-fashioned hobby passed down from her British mother has helped McKee become a vital part of Chicago’s vibrant hip-hop scene. She’s now known as the Stitch Gawd.
But cross-stitching was never part of McKee’s plans. At one point, she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and be an opera singer. She decided it would be too difficult to earn a living, so she moved to Toronto and funnily enough, became a hip-hop producer.
“It’s weird that [hip-hop is] such a mainstream thing now because it used to just be where all the weirdos would go to seek refuge,” she says.
McKee has always been an avid fan of hip-hop; moving to Chicago gave her easy access to such a community , allowing her to rub elbows with, and make clothes for Chance the Rapper, Saba, and Vic Mensa.
Using such an antiquated craft like cross-stitching—the embroidery that grandmas have been using to decorate throw pillows for hundreds of years—was her chance entrypoint into Chicago rap.
“Because [cross-stitching] is not mass-produced, people get really invested in it,” McKee says. “Everyone wants the coolest stuff, but when the coolest stuff only exists in one version, and it’s only for you, that’s pretty crazy.”
McKee’s first opening into the Chicago rap world was through a tweet to Chance the Rapper. She stitched his “3” logo on the back of an ex-boyfriend’s jacket and tagged Chance on Twitter—Chance noticed it and contacted her about the jacket.
“Chance pulled everything into focus,” she said.
Still, McKee does not take payment for her work: She chooses who gets her unique art pieces based on what that person means to her. She says each piece of cross-stitched clothing takes 20-120 hours to complete, which she does when she’s not working at her full time “regular joe job.”
“I don’t want any regular goofy to be wearing something I spent so much time on,” she said. Even though she decided not to follow her mother’s footsteps to a singing career, McKee’s mom is the inspiration for her cross-stitching work.
“My mom is super British and she cross-stitched as a kid… so I was like, ‘How can I connect with moms?’ So I taught myself how to stitch… and then I was like, ‘Oh, this shit is cool.’”