Chance the Rapper, Smino and Major Lazer are among those who have some of Emma McKee’s custom work.
Emma McKee doesn’t mince her words. As the daughter of a Southern preacher and a British opera singer, McKee’s always had a strong voice. This confidence is especially crucial when it comes to guiding her quickly rising star as hip-hop’s resident cross-stitcher.
“I don’t make shit for people I don’t fuck with,” says the 30-year-old McKee on a rare, humidity-free summer day in Grant Park in Chicago during Lollapalooza. And while this might seem blunt, she knows exactly what she’s doing: “People are always trying to get me to say that in a nicer way, but I just don’t really know how because all of this [cross-stitching] is gratitude.” It’s this selflessness, mixed with an undeniable swagger, that’s got heavy hitters and up-and-comers like Major Lazer, Jazz Cartier and Saba wearing her designs. “All the people I’ve been making shit for have been very important to me, my development and my life in Chicago.”
A visa issue forced McKee out of Canada five years ago and, instead of flying home to her parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she decided to forge her own path in Chicago. She didn’t know anyone, but she had her favorite music to keep her company:
” Chance the Rapper, hands down, was really important to me in Chicago. I saw him do spoken word in a cafeteria and then just kind of followed him around,” McKee gushes while dipping a soft pretzel into mustard. “It’s really because of him that I made friends and went out in this city.”
It’s hard to believe that a woman as outgoing as McKee needed any assistance making friends or staying active, but it was really the power of Chicago’s blossoming hip-hop scene that made McKee feel at home in the Windy City. Now she’s such a Chicagoan that she has the four red stars from the city’s iconic flag tattooed behind her ear.
Once she found the music, it was easy for her to find her artistic voice through the traditionally stiff medium of cross-stitching. What started as a desire to do something nice for her mother — who had been begging her to learn the embroidering craft for years — and the ultimate test in trial and error patience, has turned into a life calling. Her unique pieces are vibrant, playful and, most importantly, a testament to the artists that have been there for McKee without even knowing it.
And while Chano might not remember running in the same circles as McKee back in the day, he definitely is aware of her work now, thanks to McKee finally understanding the worth of Twitter and posting the Chance patch online:
“I just had this compulsion to tweet … [so I tweeted the ‘Coloring Book’ piece I was working on], I tagged Chance and in 30 seconds [I got notifications] like ‘Chance the Rapper likes this,’ ‘Chance the Rapper is following you’ and a message where he was like ‘Yo, can I get that ?’”
Of course he could get that because, even if he never reached out to her for the giant, sherbet-colored “3” piece, McKee always made it with Chance the Rapper in mind. Each of her pieces, which take anywhere from 15 to 60 hours to complete, are created specifically for the intended individual as seen from the name labels that McKee sews into each one.
“It’s so gratifying to create for people who create,” says McKee. “Like, to make something for the creative people that are making shit that I love is just so beyond me. It’s just a very cool feeling.”
McKee’s aesthetic appreciation of her favorite artists is just that, she doesn’t want anything in return from her muses except for more art. That’s right, Emma McKee — the self-described “Stitch Gawd” — makes no money off of her art and that’s the way she likes it. An art trade system is the only way she can stay in control of her own art form:
“I wouldn’t want to rely on my cross-stitching for my income because I think that I wouldn’t like it anymore. You have such creative freedom when you’re not taking money from people because when someone gives you money for something that you’re creating, it makes them feel like it’s theirs and they can tell you how to make it and homie don’t play like that!” She laughs and sighs as she thinks about the freedom that she’s cultivated, “Do you know how nice it is to say ‘no’ occasionally?”
While McKee might revel in the ability to turn down requests, no is not a word that she’s been hearing very often lately from high-profile admirers or her own internal dialogue: “When you’re trying to figure out anything in the wide realm of things I’m doing with cross-stitching, you have to realize that no one’s done it before — or even wants to do it — so there’s no Googling shit! You just have to fucking figure it out yourself.”
Her resilient spirit is what keeps her cross-stitch dream alive and kicking even when she doesn’t know how to get her latest masterpiece to its muse: Kanye West. But McKee isn’t worried, she knows that the spiked sweater with his Twitter icon emblazoned on the front will get to the bombastic artist in due time.
“You put good out into the universe and you get good back,” says McKee as she tries to explain her unwavering trust in humanity. “But this has been on a whole different level. I started [making these patches] two years ago and last night I was drinking tequila with fucking Major Lazer! All because of cross-stitch!”
McKee will just continue to push her art forward regardless if people are paying attention because she loves it, but, fortunately for the music and fashion worlds, people are starting to sit up and take notice. And as for reconnecting with the man who first inspired her stitches? McKee knows that all the memories of those early Chicago days will come rushing back to Chance the Rapper eventually. “When Chance finally sees me he’ll have a moment and put two and two together,” she says with a sly smile on her face. “We actually locked him in the trunk of our car once! He’ll definitely remember that!”