Name: Hillary Waters Fayle
Location: Richmond, Virginia, USA
Education: MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University
You have degrees in Craft/Material Studies and Fiber Design. What does that mean, exactly? What did you study?
I have a BFA and an MFA, so Fiber Design and Craft/ Material Studies are both smaller concentrations within the art category. My bachelor’s degree was more design oriented, with more emphasis put towards drawing, layout, and pattern-making, what you might think of as textile design. There was room for exploration, though, and I had the chance to study embroidery, which I fell in love with. I graduated and went back to get my MFA a few years later, at VCU, which has a Craft/Material Studies department. In C/MS I found a group of artists and makers who were dedicated to using highly skilled technique and the long tradition of their craft to realize their artistic vision.
What inspired this choice of study?
I actually chose to study fibers/textiles in a roundabout way. I had intended to study ceramics when I began college, but on the last day before school was to begin, I was bumped from the ceramics department and had to declare another major for registration purposes, the school had told me. Fiber Design became my new major almost as a default, but I really do feel, looking back on it, that it was the Universe’s way of steering me towards where I needed to be.
In the course of your studies, what has surprised you?
I am surprised at how much I don’t know! I feel like I should be a bit of an authority on textile and embroidery techniques after studying and practicing for almost a decade, but around every corner there is something new, which is actually really wonderful and refreshing.
What were your favorite and least favorite classes?
I did not particularly love the computer-based design courses, but I wish I had tried to embrace them a bit more, in retrospect. Having some of those skills now would actually be helpful in some different applications. At the time, I didn’t really embrace them because I just wanted to be working with my hands, but now I see the value of time and how much time can be saved with the assistance of a computer. I had the chance to study embroidery in the UK during my time in college, which was absolutely the best thing I ever did in school, for a few reasons. I spent hours alone every day drawing and stitching, just working. I learned so much about embroidery and textiles, but also think this experience really sparked something in me. I think in addition to the art I was making, I filled three sketchbooks in five months. It was a very productive time for me.
What was your first exposure to embroidery and what did you think of it?
I remember my grandmother doing cross-stitch when I was a child, that might have been my first exposure to stitch work. I remember enjoying textiles at a very young age, attempting to sew clothing for my dolls and such. I don’t remember when I actually learned about embroidery, but I think I was always drawn to it.
What was your first embroidered piece and what motivated you to undertake it?
I recall trying to embroider plants and flowers onto scrap fabric when I was about eight years old, but I was probably in college when I began to use it seriously in my art. I was working with a lot of paper and fabric and plastic bags then, before the leaves, and the embroidery was more of an embellishment, rather than a focal point of the work.
When and why did you start embroidering leaves?
When I returned from the UK, I was working outdoors at a summer camp which focused on education in environmental conservation. With nature all around me and notions of stewardship and respect for the environment at the forefront of my mind, I attempted to take the stitching I had learned in Manchester, and apply it to the most abundant and naturally sustainable material I could get my hands on, which of course, was leaves. When it worked, there was this moment where I knew I was onto something, it just felt really whole and totally satisfying.
What’s involved in stitching leaves? Have you developed specific techniques for the job?
Choosing the right leaf is important. Using very fragile leaves or leaves with certain vein structures can be tricky, and actually some leaves don’t hold up well at all to the piercing and the tension of the thread. At first I experimented with adding stiffeners to the leaves to coat them and strengthen them, but I’ve grown more and more of an appreciation for the simplicity of just using a needle and thread and the leaf itself, with nothing added or in between. There is a purity and honesty there that I really admire.
As far as actually stitching into leaves, of course there is a certain technique to it—a feel for how much pressure is adequate and how much will totally rip the leaf apart, etc. But other than that, I just keep trying new things—sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t!
Have you ever had a leaf-embroidery (or any embroidery) disaster? If so, spill!
The thing about the embroidery that I do, most embroidery, actually, is that it’s relatively small, so an embroidery disaster of epic proportion has yet to happen to me! (Fingers crossed it never will!) I have had my fair share of mishap, though, working on something for a very long time, just to have the thread knot up at the end and rip through the piece. Things like that happen, it’s just part of working with these materials. Very fragile, and things are bound to rip or break sometimes.
How do you preserve your leaf work?
Leaves last a long time on their own, and even longer if they are pressed. This is often how I preserve the leaves, allowing the moisture to come out of the leaves slowly and evenly. Leaves are organic, though and can react to their environment, shifting color or adjusting to humidity levels. Again, there is an honesty to working with this material and letting it be what it is, rather than try to make it something it’s not, by coating it in plastic or poly-vinyl.
What is something that you haven’t yet embroidered that you would like to embroider?
There are so many leaves! To be honest, I’m kind of dying to embroider something really large, I think it could be pretty fantastic, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet. There aren’t a lot of gigantic leaves where I live right now, so I’d love to maybe try to do a residency or visit somewhere warmer where I might have the chance to try that.
What has been your favorite project or show to date? Tell us about it.
Choosing a favorite piece is really difficult. I think when something really unexpected happens or when I make something new from material that I’ve had for a long time, it can feel amazing and rejuvenating. I really enjoy working collaboratively from time to time as well, learning from working with and around other creative people is usually a great experience.
What would you like to be doing five years from now? Ten?
In five years, I hope to be a bit more grounded in my life. My living/studio situation right now feels cramped and temporary, which makes things difficult at times. I would hope to be making work all the time, but maybe working less at my day job(s) in order to do this. In ten, maybe there is a partner, and a family, but I think I want to be doing basically what I’m doing right now; just struggling less to do it. I’m working three part time jobs and making art after that, so in the future, I’d love for the art to be able to support me a bit more, so it can be more of a focus in my life.
Besides your website, where can we see your work? Tell us about any shows you have coming up.
Right now, my website, www.hillarywfayle.com, and my instagram feed, @hillary.waters, are the best places to see my work. There are a few shows in the works right now, but I’ll have work in a group show at Page Bond Gallery, in Richmond, VA, opening April 29.
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
Favorite thread: Generally I use cotton threads that have come from garage sales, or people I know just giving it to me, but I have a collection of hand-dyed synthetic thread that my boyfriend made for me which is very special to me.
Favorite tool that is not a needle or scissors: I would say It’s a split between my exacto knife and my jeweler’s tweezers, I use them both all the time.
Name something edible (besides a leaf) that you can embroider. Banana.
Would you rather embroider with barbed wire or spaghetti? Spaghetti.
You’re writing a novel, and the hero is an embroiderer. What’s the plot problem s/he must overcome? HA. It might be a dense and action packed plot where an art restoration dealing with embroidery reveals some sort of DaVinci Code-esque mystery of the old world. Secret societies and references to thread, needles, and different stitch patterns abound, and our hero saves the day (of course), by defeating evil through their mastery of technique and ancient stitching knowledge. Or it might just be an autobiography where the main character must save her own sanity, one stitch at a time.
Name three books you love: The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver. Walking the Wrack Line, Barbara Hurd. The Lorax, Dr. Suess.
If your art were poetry, what form would it take? I think it might be lyric. Or a riddle. Or a lyric riddle.
Lyric riddle . . . yes!
You’ve been selected to participate in a show that combines textile art with performance art. Describe your piece for the show. I’m not much of a performer, that sounds stressful to me. It would be something I could record ahead of time, or just do, maybe something to do with stitching myself into a cocoon. I’m kind of interested in solitary moments and seclusion and what happens to our minds and our creative selves when we are in isolated environments.
You’re asked to decorate a National Monument with embroidery. What monument do you choose, and what do you do? I don’t think I would decorate it, but I would love to make a piece as a tribute to the George Washington Carver monument in Missouri. His dedication to nature, botany and agricultural studies, education and humanitarian are something that I have a lot of respect for.
Jen Funk Weber is Queen of Funk & Weber Designs, a cross stitch and counted-thread embroidery designer and teacher dedicated to stitchy explorations and adventures.