Black Bulb Vase (2013)
23 cm x 11 cm
silk, ceramic, thread
Ceramic Patchwork is Zoë Hillyard’s creative and distinctive solution to the challenge of mending broken ceramics, which sees her apply the tradition of hand-stitched patchwork in a completely new way. Since reconstructing her first bowl back in 2010, she has been refining and exhibiting her award-winning work ever since.
Can you tell us about your background in textiles?
I had a ‘granny seaside’ who taught me to crochet and knit. Her bags of yarns, plus the boxes of frilly dressing-up cloths she amassed for us grandchildren to play with, were things of wonder to me on half-term visits. My other brilliant grandparents introduced and taught me watercolour and oil painting so I was exploring materials early on. An Art Foundation course was a natural step after school, which then progressed to a degree in Textile Design. Coming from a family of engineers, I suppose it wasn’t too surprising I was ultimately drawn to constructed ways of working, choosing embroidery as it offered scope for exciting possibilities for exploring diverse structures and materials.
How did you discover ceramic patchwork?
Ceramic patchwork is the continuation of ideas and interests that go back years. Interests in; aged surfaces, recycling materials, nomadic cultures, resourcefulness, make-do and mend and customisation.
I discovered a love and ability to work in three-dimensions after leaving university, from experience as a knitwear designer of bespoke tailored garments for Marion Foale. Back in university I was crossing traditional textile discipline boundaries, mixing knit and embroidery approaches. I was also recycling materials, loving their aged surfaces and seeking to value the stories they represented. The film, Dances with Wolves, completely captured my imagination and went on to inspire my degree show work and travel to remote places with unique cultures continues to be a key source of inspiration. I have spent time working and researching in Peru, Mongolia and India looking at the role that craft and design plays within livelihoods and how cultures use (and reuse) materials.
With these themes and experiences as the back-story to ceramic patchwork, the practical conception was a far more mundane event! I broke a bowl in the kitchen one day and knowing I didn’t have glue in the house, thought how else could it be mended? This very practical problem led to a creative solution, which has in turn grown into an exploration of new craftsmanship and a new form of expression that encompasses all those areas of personal interest. Ceramic Patchwork is all about treasuring rather than amassing possessions, celebrating the stories that materials gather on their journeys.
Why does it appeal to you ?
It appeals to me conceptually, because it has come wholly from my imagination (back in 2010 I took pains to check that it was a way of working that was not being done already) but also practically, as it is a fascinating mixture of known parameters and the unexpected. Modern life is busy: ceramic patchwork demands that I slow down, think longer-term. As each piece is always unique, I am kept on my toes. There is a jigsaw intrigue to each piece, as once started, the personality being built stitch-by-stitch is only really fully appreciated when finally ‘completed’.
What is the hardest part about creating the pieces?
It is a process that has taken years to refine and I continue to learn with each piece, building experience that enables me to execute shapes and create pattern and colour qualities that are successful. Beware – rather than ‘ceramic patchwork’, my dad calls it ‘crackpots’!
Where do you source your ceramics and fabrics?
My love of materials with stories means I have been a lifelong frequenter of car-boots and charity shops. Vintage markets and word-of-mouth also bring me in touch with amazing objects and I love combining pieces that each have a story. Increasingly I am commissioned to make work that incorporates materials with sentimental value, which is a real honour and responsibility. I also develop my own fabrics and have made bespoke collections for the British Museum using digital printing to transfer key imagery of archive artifacts onto silk.
Where are you based and where do you work?
I have a small studio space at home that contains boxes of silks and shelves of vases. The beauty of my work is that it requires minimal equipment, so when I have a tight deadline, I have been known to stitch on buses and trains.
Can you talk us through creating one of your pieces and roughly how long do they take?
Practically, it starts with a hammer! How the vessel breaks is left to pure chance. The length of time it then takes to reconstruct it, by wrapping and joining fragments with stitch, basically depends on the number of pieces it has broken into. It is never measured in minutes, but hours or days. Experience now enables me to provide reasonable estimates to clients, but it is not an exact science. Complicated shapes can mean navigating a top rim or an internal curve can take as long as the remainder of the vessel. Occasionally pieces need to be unpicked and fragments re-rapped to resolve colour, pattern and structural aspects of design. But in reality, pieces take a lot longer. I have vases waiting for the right combination of silk pattern and colour. Equally, I have amazing textiles awaiting the right ceramic form…
What inspires you?
Many things inspire me! We live in an age of dizzying access to imagery and information; however first-hand experiences, of people and places, remain the most powerful. I seize the chance to travel at every opportunity as a way of refreshing my outlook and challenging my views and values.
Do you also lecture?
My week is split between being a creative practitioner and a Senior Lecturer, currently working within the School of Fashion and Textiles at Birmingham City University. It is a mix that is challenging and creatively rewarding. Each feeds the other.
What is you most proud of so far?
I am proud to have developed a way of working that is new and original, in that it is a fresh application for a traditional process. It has been wonderful to see the delight and amazement on people’s faces as they discover my work. People comment on the rarity of seeing things that are really innovative and it is heartwarming that they recognise it in ceramic patchwork.
It has been fantastic to work on projects with prestigious institutions like the British Museum and the National Trust, but equally special to have made heirloom pieces for families to privately commemorate significant lives.
Do you have any advice for aspiring textile artists?
Think laterally not literally. Feed yourself creatively, but stay informed and tread your own path. Originally and integrity is important. Find what makes your heart beat fast. My students are familiar with me encouraging them each to be a ‘curious octopus’ (Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor) in relation to idea generation. In essence, reach out in multiple directions to draw together diverse influences from which to develop a landscape for original thoughts and relationships.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working towards three exhibitions and there is a commission to resolve and another in the pipeline. I have recently been out to Nepal to research how people used, and are reusing materials, after the devastating earthquakes of 2015 and this is going to inspire new work in the future.