Creative Genius: Memory-Maker Sarah Wiley
Celebrate International Women's Day with this Virginia maker who turns memories into fabric keepsakes.
Sarah Wiley of Richmond, Virginia’s Huger Memories creates custom embroidery and applique fabric pieces that can conjure up a great blend of influences: folk art, Bunny Williams domestic preppiness and the kind of classic embroidery practiced by nanas and aunts the world over. My grandmother was a big cross-stitcher and often commemorated births, like that of my son, in a design. There is something incomparably heartfelt in the time and effort required of cross-stitch or embroidery or quilt-making. Those kinds of handmade mementoes beautifully lend themselves to a significant life event or occasion.
But say you don’t have a crafty granny or mother interested in embroidery? Enter Sarah Wiley. In a unique spin on the souvenir (French for “to remember”), Wiley takes cherished photographs, pets, people, whatever, and turns them into custom memories-made-material, in the process making a couture design fairly affordable.
More recently Huger has branched out into quirky tribute pieces like the Women We Love pillows featuring Oprah, Jackie Kennedy and design icon Iris Apfel (check out the fantastic documentary Iris to find out more). We thought International Women’s Day March 8 would be as good a time as any to turn our attention to Wiley and her distinctive dames and the often female-centric art of needlework.
You have quite the family history of creatives: a great grandfather Charles Dana Gibson who created the iconic Gibson girl—sort of the Sports Illustrated supermodel of her day—a great aunt founded the iconic British design firm Colefax & Fowler and your sister Dana Gibson is a designer. Were you immersed in design from a young age?
Yes! My mom is an artist—she paints. My grandmother is a sculptor and metalist. As a child, I was introduced to all forms of art and exposed to museums and galleries both in Virginia and when we travelled. I took art classes, in all mediums, instead of sports after school.
How would you characterize your style and the biggest influences on it?
As an interior designer, I would say my style is traditional but with a twist. The Bloomsbury Set and their house, Charleston, in England is my favorite. I love to look at the rooms in that house for inspiration. Mixing pattern, texture, and color is something I love to do when planning a room. For me, my art is like designing a room, only in miniature. I also like mixing patterns, which is a process very hard for some (I had design clients who had to be pushed to add pattern on top of an oriental rug!).
You use embroidery and applique to create your memory pieces: do you feel like you are keeping these old-fashioned forms relevant for our present age?
I prefer not to refer to my art as embroidery as the word makes me think of a little old lady with a needle and thread! So, I will answer like this: Hand embroidery is so different from what I do. Believe me, I have embroidered…I have also knit, needlepointed, crocheted, woven, cross stitched, sewn, beaded, felted and experienced many of the hand-made textile arts. And they are lovely arts within themselves. I stitch like a painter paints. I tell a story with my medium (fabric). I combine colors and forms that I hope emote a happy feeling for the recipient. I use an embroidery machine that to the true craftsman is probably not considered an art form. I use the computer to hand draw, and the machine to stitch what I have created and pulled together. So I believe my art is in combining the fabrics, stitches and colors to come up with the "painting," and to tell my client's story.
What is the most unusual photograph or memory you’ve been asked to stitch?
My art is all personal to the people I create for. One client asked me to create four dogs all on the same canvas. Not all were still alive, but what a happy memory for that person who loved each dog individually. Now they are all together.
Tell me about the idea of making a memory into a material object: why was that idea compelling enough to you to create a business around it?
It was by accident. I am very clever with my hands, and when I learned how to use the embroidery machine and then how to digitize, (which is the process of drawing and designing what will then be stitched), again by accident, I took it and ran. An older friend said she used to needlepoint her children's drawings and then add them to their pinafores and overalls. That is how I started: children's drawings reproduced from paper to fabric and thread, instead of being thrown in boxes under the bed. Pillows and frames become memorials long after the child has grown up. We all have events in our life that range from simple to huge. A first Christmas, a wedding day, a new or remembered home. These are memories that can be cleverly made into heirlooms.
Why have you selected the particular women you have for Women We Love? What made them relevant enough to you to commemorate them in this series?
Most of us have idols or mentors. I started with Iris Apfel. I think her age and her profession touched home with me. What a neat lady. And [what] a life she has lived! From Iris, I have added women who have been memorable in my life. I have found that though I am older, many younger women know and appreciate these women as well. The topic is endless. There are so many women who have influenced all of us.
Any new Women We Love in the pipeline?
I just finished Maya Angelou and took her to the seamstress this morning. Next is Frida Kahlo—several have asked for her.
You are also an interior designer: what are some design trends or features you are loving right now?
I love neutrals with pops of color. I started designing rooms when colorful and floral chintz was all the rage. Remember Mario Buatta, the "Prince of Chintz"? I enjoy neutral patterns and more calming solids popular today. I can add or change pops of colors very easily with pillows, throws and other accents.