After gazing at the trinkets gathering dust in her grandmother’s cabinet as a child, Sarah Wilmott has begun her career as a jeweller and silversmith determined to create work destined to be touched and interacted with rather than neglected behind glass. This instinct has culminated in Mesh, a collection of multi-use tactile objects, designed to be alternately worn on the body and displayed on the mantelpiece; brooches pinned to the lapel one moment may be used as a lid for a vessel the next.
As the title suggests, mesh is also at the forefront of each piece, shaped curvaceously and beckoning a viewer or wearer to prod, poke and play with it. This unique aesthetic is achieved through techniques such as enamelling, CAD, anticlastic raising and press forming, and has recently earned Sarah a place on Shine 2023, which highlights the industry’s most promising new talent.
What first attracted you to a career as a maker, and how did you get started in the industry?
I suppose I've always been a maker. I loved art and design technology at school. I'd always participate in extracurricular activities at school like art club. I used to make Playmobil figures and Lego into brooches in my early teens. Then I found buttons and started making button brooches and necklaces as a teenager, and sold them to shops. I really enjoyed working with my hands and playing.
This is my second career, I got started quite late. I completed my first degree in my early 20s, which was in graphic design and illustration, thinking that that would get me a job and I'd love it. After four years of studying I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I really enjoy illustration and am interested in collage and printmaking, but I wasn’t keen on the digital aspects. After finishing my degree, I wanted to stay in Scotland and not go back home to Manchester, so fast forward a few years of working in cafes and bars.
I got a job at the National Library of Scotland, in visitor services. It really opened my eyes to libraries and archival collections, anything from medieval manuscripts to Beano comics. I became really interested in all aspects of collecting. Then I got a job working as a conservation technician. I was responsible for rehousing archives, such as working on the John Murray Archive, so I was rehousing some of Byron's love letters. I also worked on 20th century typescripts, and photographs, repairing glass plate negatives. So it was a total variety of repairs and rehousing jobs, from small scale repairs to larger vellum documents. I absolutely loved that job, then I got interested in exhibitions and worked part time in conservation. I was responsible for the smaller exhibitions and the pop ups and any other one day events where material was on display, and with helping the public programmes team to facilitate workshops around exhibitions.
Fast forward a little bit more to 2017, I started an evening class in jewellery, and that was me absolutely hooked. I stayed with them for 18 months, just one evening a week and I absolutely loved it. I was using my design skills from my first degree, and then translating that into 3D objects. I learned all the basic skills, and then realised that it was what I really wanted to do. Then in 2019, I took the plunge to relocate to Glasgow to study at The Glasgow School of Art. That's where I've been for the last four years.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine?
The collection I'm showing at Shine is entitled Mesh, and it's a series of tactile objects that can be worn on the body or displayed on your mantelpiece. All of the pieces have mesh at their core, incorporating these supple curvaceous forms that really invite the wearer or the viewer to touch and interact with them. I really want the viewer and the wearer to feel this urge to touch and interact with the pieces.
The majority of the pieces have a multi-use element, so they can be worn as brooches, but also they function as lids to the vessels that I've made. They're all made from sterling silver and enamelled copper, or gold plated mesh. There's also two whisky cups that accompany the collection, and these use touch in a slightly different way. As you get to the last drop of the whisky, your nose interacts with the mesh. So I suppose it plays on this sensory experience in a slightly different way, but it’s still rooted within touch and your senses.
What made you want to make dual-purpose pieces?
I'm really interested in objects doing more than just one thing. I think it may have spanned from always looking at my grandma's display cabinet in her back room. Every month, she’d ask us to dust it, and I’d think, none of these objects do anything. She’d have little trinket boxes, but they’d just be there to be seen, not used. I think that appreciation of being able to wear something and take it with you and create conversations around it came from there. Rather than something that sits and just collects dust. Wendy Ramshaw was a huge inspiration for me, the idea of sculptural pieces that are also wearable and structures that you can pull apart.
What have you learned from the process of planning and creating your collection?
I think my final year and creating this collection has given me time to play and really interrogate a material and or an idea. Mesh was always in my work but it wasn't at the core. I started by pushing softer materials through the mesh to create these unique forms and then really discarding the mesh, until I asked myself, why am discarding the mesh? The mesh is beautiful, it’s really pliable, you can play with it and manipulate it in ways that I didn't think of before. So it took me going through that process to figure out that mesh was really important to me, and to develop this love for it.
I've definitely learned that I'm an intuitive maker, I do like to plan but I’ve found that I can only plan up to a point. I really like to look and learn and figure things out as I go along, that's how I work best. Lastly, I’ve learned to use my mistakes and not be so restrictive. If something doesn't work, just either go with it or move on, which is very different from my younger self.
So how would you describe your design style?
I like minimal design. I like clean lines. I don't really like a lot of fuss in jewellery and objects. I’m also not a huge fan of drawing and I don’t really enjoy it. I have a notebook for simple line drawings and mark making or rubbings, that’s what I really enjoy, or making collages. I go into paper samples quite early. I like creating these 3D sculptures quite early in the process, then I start working in metal straight away. I like to figure things out along the way, so I suppose my approach is to start the 3D process quite early in order to iron out mistakes. I've really enjoyed using CAD and 3D printing for this collection, but maybe in a slightly different way, because I've used 3D printing to make the tools and forms to press form the mesh or the silver, rather than to print a final piece of jewellery. I'm very much a beginner with CAD and 3D printing, but I’m quite interested in developing it further.
What do you enjoy most about being a maker?
It’s the joy of making. I'm a very practical, pragmatic person, and I love working with my hands. It’s been really interesting doing this programme and looking back on my journey from when I first went to university in my early 20s. Early on, I fought against working with my hands a little bit, and now I’ve realised that I need to embrace what I’m good at.
I'd rather be working away in the background than stand up and talk about my work, but what I've really enjoyed about this project is getting people's feedback on my collection, and really talking to my audience and seeing what they see within the pieces. I’ve found that when people look at my pieces, the first thing they say is that they want to touch it, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I want people to feel this urge to touch and play and feel that surface detail.
What is your favourite piece in the collection?
It’s really hard. I like all of the pieces, but I'm really drawn to this convex shape within some of the brooches and the lids. I feel that it really lures me in, I want to look deeper into it and touch it, it’s mesmerizing. I almost feel like it's coming alive. I think it's more the enamel on the mesh than it is the shape, and because how the mesh has been used in such a unique way, how the powder only sticks to certain bits. It's a bit of an optical illusion, you don't know if it's convex or concave. I love this idea of the piece drawing me in, and also I think it looks really good on the wearer.
What person do you think is most attracted to your collection, and to your design style in general – do you have an ideal client in mind?
It's more personal. I don't necessarily think about the end goal. I don't think about an audience or have a client in mind. That's something that will perhaps come later, as I'm so early in my career, I’m still learning to develop who I’m aiming my pieces at throughout this process. I suppose though they’d be made for someone who appreciates wearable objects, which isn’t something that you’d typically associate with jewellery.
The wearer needs to be someone that’s comfortable being asked about the piece and talking about it. The pieces don’t really sit there quietly, they don’t go unnoticed, they need conversation. They’re larger pieces that you can’t cover with a coat, you’ve got to wear them on your lapel so they’re maybe the first thing that people see. So I suppose, my audience is someone who is an advocate of my practice and advocate of me and my work and how I evolve as a maker.
What’s next for you - what are your professional and personal goals for the next two years?
I'm pretty lucky in that I've bagged myself a place at Bishopsland Educational Trust. I'm off there in September for ten months to take part in their residential programme. I'm really excited but also apprehensive and nervous about what comes next. I really want to continue with this project and push it to the next level, and I really want to hone my silversmithing skills and work on larger pieces. Also, I still really want to interrogate this idea of objects with a dual function, it doesn’t have to be both wearable and an object, it can be two objects, like a cup and a vessel. I’m really interested in that. I want to build my brand, and create a relationship with my audience so that if they come to me for a commission, I can make them something really unique. I’m just taking everything as it comes, but watch this space!