Big, bold and contemporary. Statement jewellery has definitely been a growing trend in the fashion world over the past few years, and shows no signs of abating.
While lockdown may have wreaked havoc on high street clothing brands sales, it’s reported that jewellery sales continued fairly consistently, as customers looked to prioritise ‘feel good’ spending. As season-less accessories with the power to instantly transform a look, jewellery offers the perfect mood-boosting adornment to cheer up any stay-at-home attire – particularly if you need to be camera-ready for any unexpected Zoom calls. Fabric of the North meets three Northern makers who are creating beautiful contemporary jewellery collections, with eye-catching designs ready to steal your heart and make your outfit effortlessly pop…
For Fison Zair founder Katy Aston there is nothing more exciting than seeing striking colour palettes combined together with intriguing materials. She credits her degree studies in Textile Design for giving her a good grounding in working with colours, different materials, collections and products. “It was at this time that I decided to work for myself and create my own brand,” she tells me. “I stayed on to study for an MA and this enabled me to start developing a brand identity and how I could potentially work going forward, with a focus on colour and materials.” After gaining invaluable experience at iconic global brands including Paul Smith, Timorous Beasties, Tibi and John Lewis, Katy returned home to Sheffield to set up her own design studio.
The studio’s name is inspired by both her Grandfathers; Fison and Isaiah (‘Zair’ for short) and pronounced F-eye-sun Z-air in a “proper Northern accent” she tells me. Despite the exotic sounding names, they were true Yorkshire folk; skilled craftsmen who worked in the Sheffield Steel Works. Through their inquisitive, creative, yet frugal lifestyle, they utilised, treasured and repaired everyday objects. “Having never had the chance to meet them, I like to think of my brand as a continuation of their skills and legacy,” says Katy, “only set in a colourful, contemporary world.”
Katy’s design inspirations are drawn from many contradictions – cityscapes and landscapes, old and new, 2D and 3D – and she combines them with a vibrant and bold aesthetic. She never actually intended to work with jewellery she tells me; her true passion lies in interiors. “The jewellery side of things developed when I started working with polymer clay,” she says. “This was a medium where I found I could explore colour and develop prints and patterns that I could then take forward into interior products, but the jewellery side began to take off, and the demand was there, so I just kept making!”
“I love exploring materials and pushing them in new and different directions,” she tells me. “I love the temptation people have to touch and feel my work, that is where I really find satisfaction, seeing that customers have connected with my work and really found the joy.” Her jewellery pieces retain a similar feel and look to how she had originally intended her homewares collection to look, and she still plans to introduce a full interior product line one day. She already offers wall hangings as part of her core collection, which she introduced after being approached by Ali from Oldham-based online lifestyle brand Studio & Store. “The wall hangings were a way of focusing my energy back into homeware products. Ali loved my work but preferred more of an interior focus, which gave me the opportunity to really adapt my process and explore using polymer clay on a larger scale. It felt great to go back to the interior side of things, and I have really enjoyed being able to put my time and energy back into this.”
Prior to Covid-19, Katy had been offering contemporary jewellery making workshops in collaboration with Northern venues Object in Manchester, and Craft in Sheffield. “I started to get asked about workshops,” she tells me, “and lots of people were curious to see the process of how my work was made, so I decided to invest in more equipment to allow me to run workshops. It’s so interesting to see how people explore the material differently, and put their own stamp on the process. I think I enjoy that part the most.”
Her long-term plan is to further develop into interior products, textiles and prints, returning to the homeware market where her true passion lies. “I love collaborating,” she says, “and being pushed in directions I might not have thought about before, so I am always on the lookout for brands that fit alongside mine. I have a couple of exciting projects I’m working on at the moment, so keep your eyes peeled for that! I also keep getting asked if I can do virtual workshops or kits to try at home, so that is something I definitely need to think about more, and spend a little time developing.”
All photography © Joanne Crawford, used with permission.
Nook of the North
“My earliest memory of sewing is with my grandmother,” says Nook of the North founder Rebecca Hector Clarke. “We were very close, and spent lots of time making things together.” She believes her grandmother has a lot to do with Nook of the North’s experimental embroidery style. “I remember embroidering little flowers onto the corners of tablecloths, and making little embroidered purses. She had such patience with me, and a real ability to nurture. If I wanted to stray from a pattern, she would encourage me.”
The inspiration behind Nook of the North’s signature style draws from three key elements; composition, colour and texture. “I’ve always been drawn to lines in design, in nature and photography,” says Rebecca. “Lines that make up etchings, pencil drawings of hair or plants, cross hatchings, grids, weaving, warp and weft. I like translating all of these influences into embroidery, as opposed to embroidering in a more traditional way.”
Before setting up Nook of the North Rebecca worked in museums and galleries, and intended to pursue a career in curating after completing her Fine Art degree. She quickly realised though that working in this field meant that she didn’t have any time to dedicate to creating her own body of work. Three years ago she made the decision to take Nook of the North full time, fitting her creative work around parenting as a mother of three young children, and honing her craft by taking evening classes at Leeds College of Art.
Needlework had become a real passion of hers following the birth of her first son. “I wanted a project that I could pick up and put down easily,” she told me, “which is essential when looking after small children. I had some treasured pieces of fabric from my travels around Asia, which I made into clothes. I didn’t want to waste the offcuts, so I cut them into small circles, folded them and bound the edges with embroidery thread.” Her distinctive style developed from there, with the thread and stitching gradually becoming the focus of her work. “I make cleanly-designed practical jewellery, which has in the past been described by customers as wearable pieces of art,” she says.
Each piece is handmade from scratch and the result of a great many hours experimentation with colour. “The interplay of light on the different stitches I use alters the colour of the threads, and the way in which these colours then interact with each other,” she tells me. “More often than not, the final design incorporates a combination of threads quite different to the ones I’d originally set out to use.” As her craft has evolved she tells me she has become more confident about her choice of colours and composition. “Initially my colour choices were generally inspired by those typically used in mid-century design, however my work is less inspired by this genre now, and more so by which colours I feel work best together. This results in colour combinations that merge tones from the mid-century palette with more contemporary colourways.”
The shapes she uses have evolved considerably too. “In my earlier designs these tended to be quite geometric, however as the stitch plays such a key role in determining which shapes work, the designs have moved toward more organic shapes that flow with the stitch,” she says. “This has meant quite a fundamental change in the way in which I work, with the stitch shaping the designs, as opposed to the designs relying on the stitch fitting within the shapes.”
This more intuitive way of working has led Rebecca to develop a whole new collection of designs and pieces. “My process always starts with collages,” she says. “I have a collection of interesting shapes and colourways cut from magazines and photographs that I’m constantly adding to, and play around until I get the composition just right, laying possible colour combinations in embroidery threads and yarns. Often I’ll draw different compositions in my sketchbook, and include swatches and threads for reference. This is the part of the process that I enjoy the most. I then start to stitch many different designs in different colourways, until finally when I have a few pieces I am pleased with. Then I create the metal work to complement them.”
Earlier this year she decided she wanted to only source materials whose provenance was clear, and manufactured in an environmentally sustainable and ethical way. “All of the linens I use are produced in small batches in Eastern Europe,” she tells me, “where there is a strong heritage of spinning and weaving linen fabric. The linen is woven in a mill run on green energy and is Oeko-Tex certified. I then use Ecosilver, made from 100% recycled silver, or brass that is made from recycled materials, which I discovered is very common in the industry as it is much cheaper than making from scratch.” All of her packaging is fully recyclable, and mostly made and printed herself.
Alongside her embroidered jewellery pieces, Rebecca also makes embroidered wall hangings, which she sees as a natural progression of her brand. “I love creating embroidered pieces for jewellery,” she says, “but sometimes I need to work on something different. Sewing on such a small scale is quite restrictive and can hurt my hands, so working on a larger piece allows me to experiment with my designs in a freer way and offers an alternative for customers who like my designs, but don’t want to wear a statement piece of jewellery.”
Like many small maker businesses, Rebecca has seen a good uplift in sales over the past few months. “I thought orders would slow down,” she tells me, “but they haven’t! I don’t have time to do much wholesale business, so I think that things would have been very different if I relied on that side of the industry. It hasn’t been easy working around homeschooling our 3 children though, and for the summer holidays I have no childcare support at all. I prefer to sew during the day, but luckily my studio doubles as a playroom so we’re all in there together, which works surprisingly well as we all have our own little projects on the go. My daughter, Esme, has been embroidering illustrations of her favourite animals the past few weeks, and I think she definitely has inherited my love for textiles!”
Moving forward, Rebecca would like the opportunity to translate her designs into other mediums, and particularly enjoys working with clay and making prints. She thinks creating texture in different ways would be really interesting. “I’d also love the chance to create a collection of large pieces to be included in an exhibition,” she tells me. “I’ve even daydreamed about creating conceptual pieces of jewellery for display in a gallery.” Thinking more short-term, she’s hoping to finalise workshop plans that she’s been working on for a while now. “As I’m usually on my own working from home,” she says, “it’d be really nice to work with others who also love textiles too.”
All photography © Joanne Crawford, used with permission.
“I have been making jewellery on and off now for 12 years,” says contemporary jewellery designer, Ciara Clark. “While studying 3D Design and Applied Arts I set up a contemporary jewellery brand called B.L.A.C. with my best friend and fellow student, Hannah Lindholm, and after college we got an Artist in Residency spot running a shop and gallery at Manchester Craft and Design Centre, which turned into a 4 year tenancy!”
After moving down to London to pursue various work experience and unpaid internship opportunities in the fashion industry, Ciara returned to Manchester in 2015 and launched a creative photography and design studio, We Are Kin, with her friend, Marta Julve. “Over all these years my brand has changed, adapted, been neglected, and been loved again,” she tells me. “I now work under my own name, which at first was a little scary, as I have in the past always hidden behind a brand.”
She tells me that her passion for jewellery developed through material exploration. “I initially thought I wanted to study fashion design, but always had a hard time getting fabrics to do what I wanted!” she says. “During my studies I found I was drawn to materials like metals, acrylics, woods and resins, and making jewellery became another avenue I could explore in the fashion world, but it also introduced me to the world of craft.”
Her work continues to be influenced by fashion, art and design. “My style and tastes have evolved over time as you might expect,” she says, “but my interest in exploring different materials and processes have played a huge role in that development, and I hope will continue to. One thing that has remained consistent in my work throughout, has been creating oversized, playful but very wearable jewellery.”
Her designs begin in a sketchbook with Ciara playing around with shapes, lines and form and thinking about how these might work as adornment on the body. “From there I work final designs onto Illustrator files,” she says, “and cut on laser or CNC, depending on the material. Everything is then assembled and finished by hand from my studio in Manchester. I have worked with many different materials over the years, all sourced exclusively in the UK, and it’s just me, so everything is made in small batches with minimal wastage.”
Her styling work with We Are Kin has played a significant role in shaping her recent body of work. “I really enjoy all the aspects of creating a product,” she tells me, “from design and branding to packaging and photography. I met Marta 10 years ago when we collaborated on a project, and through this relationship I have been able to build up my skills in styling, art direction and set design.”
“I have always worked in a way where I might have several different ventures on the go at one time. Working on my own, at times I enjoy, but I can find it isolating. Being a part of We Are Kin allows me to meet other people, which keeps me inspired and thinking creatively. Getting to shoot, style and work with so many talented makers and inspirational brands definitely helps keep the energy flowing. I am always buzzing after a shoot – the whole process keeps me motivated!”
The recent lockdown has naturally had a big impact on that side of Ciara’s work life. “Our studio had to temporarily close, which was, and continues to be, a challenge. I’ve tried to use the time productively by finally opening my online jewellery shop, and setting up a ‘home studio’, which is basically just my dining room table! I’ve spent time making jewellery from any last scraps of materials I had left, but so far this year I haven’t yet designed or made any new pieces. You could say the pandemic forced me, like so many others, to slow down, for better or worse.”
This past month has seen things slowly begin to improve and new opportunities present themselves. “Our studio has had to adapt the way we offer product services, we have introduced a drop-off and collect service for products which is proving to be a “new normal” way of working, that I think we will continue to offer.”
While she’s not a believer in making solid plans for the future, Ciara is hoping to create a new body of work ready for the Autumn and Winter markets, assuming of course that they are able to go ahead. She has also developed a recent love for homeware and interiors having recently moved into her first home and finding herself inspired to make a few mobile and wall hangings for the space. “I’m keen to do more of this,” she tells me, “and continue to evolve, adapt, ride the waves, and grab any opportunities that might present themselves.”
All imagery © Ciara Clark, used with permission.