‘Make do and mend’ gets the Midas touch

There are few materials that are safe from Sally Collins’ gilded clutch. Give her an old jumper and she will unravel it and make it into a necklace. Pass her an old paper doily and she transforms it into a broach.

The 25-year-old, who brings the Midas touch to the adage “make do and mend”, is exhibiting next weekend at Brilliantly Birmingham, the city’s celebration of the best new and emerging contemporary designer-maker talent from across the UK and around the world.

Sally has captured the zeitgeist of this credit-crunching, eco-friendly age with her jewellery that combines second-hand fabric, crochet, lace, heat-treated copper and gold-plated elements.

“I like to combine the gold plating with traditional domestic crafts like knitting, crocheting, and lace and fabric,” says Sally.

“I have called some of my pieces Hybrids because they’re a mixture of a necklace and a broach. It’s like broaches with chains that meet on either side.

“My work is a meeting of lots of different things. It’s also a meeting of old and new. I use the traditional crafts that my mum taught me. She taught me to knit. I learned to crochet. I like to use these domestic, traditional crafts in a modern way.

“That harks back to the make do and mend tradition, which was particularly prevalent in World War Two. I like to use old fabrics, dresses, curtains, things I’ve picked up from charity shops. I like to take something that is old and forgotten and imbue it with new life. I’ll take an old jumper and unravel it and reknit it.

“It’s a way of looking at recycling and the ethos of sustainability, using these traditional crafts in a modern way. Personally, I like putting colours and materials together. I get a funny feeling when I put certain fabrics next to each other and think, ‘that really goes.’

“I also like the history. When you hold an old piece of lace you can actually feel the history in it, so rather than let it stagnate, I like to put new life into it.”

Sally also likes the idea of women handing their craft down through the generations.

“I was finalist in the Student Knitted Textile Awards,” says Sally. “I talked to some of the older generation about knitting and some of them gave me some of their needles. I was given some beautiful old crochet hooks with ivory handles. They’re absolutely fantastic.

“There’s something really nice about carrying on history and tradition in that way. I’m quite romantic like that.”

Sally says combining the traditional materials with the metal came easily to her.

“It was very natural being brought up with these domestic crafts to combine it with metal. The fabric is so colourful, so fluid and there is the hard edge to the metal. They really complemented each other.”

Sally has made jewellery with a particularly personal touch by creating pieces to commission using fabrics that have a special meaning to the wearer.

For example, she used to be a nanny. When one of the children she cared for grew out of an item of clothing, she used the fabric to make some jewellery and named the piece after the child.

“I’ve done a few pieces like that. It’s something I’d like to do more of. It’s commercial, but that word can be interpreted in the wrong kind of way. All that means is that somebody might want to buy it, which doesn’t need to mean you’re selling out.

“I make jewellery because I love it but I also want other people to love it. If someone wants to wear your jewellery, that’s a huge compliment.”

But do people want to wear her jewellery? Her pieces might look good and be interesting conceptually, but are they really wearable?

“The Hybrid pieces are not as heavy as they look,” says Sally. “When you wear them, there’s a nice movement to them, they dangle down like wind chimes.

“My collection is made up of some really small pieces, like 3cm by 3cm and it builds up to larger pieces. People who might not be able to wear a larger piece could find a small piece that is affordable and wearable but someone else might chose a larger piece for a more flamboyant and extrovert mood.

“Wearability is a difficult thing to define. I would say you must be able to pin the jewellery on to the wearer. It’s very important to me that it is attached to the body, but some pieces command a little bit more from the wearer than others.”

Sally is undoubtedly a rising star in the world of jewellery. She started making her own pieces out of ring pulls and other materials she found from the age of about 14.

“I’ve always done that recycling thing,” she says. “It’s just that now my designs are more sophisticated. It’s not just taking something and showing it on your neck. It’s altering it, putting your own print on to it, giving it a new lease of life, adding to its meaning.”

When she finished school in Rutland, where she comes from, she did an Art Foundation course at the London Guild Hall. She then graduated with a first-class honours degree in Silversmithing and Jewellery at Loughborough University.

She went on from there to get a distinction in an MA in Silversmithing, Jewellery and Related Product from Birmingham City University. She now works as a tutor at the university and designs and makes in studios in the Jewellery Quarter.

“I love the Jewellery Quarter,” she says. “It’s fascinating. I love the history. It’s full of those little hidden workshops. You can peep through and think ‘Gosh, that’s where the FA Cup was made.’

“I’m a bit of a romantic. I like to walk around and feel the history, but it’s really handy too, having all the makers and suppliers in the same place.”

Before Sally started her MA she took part in a scheme called Heroes which enabled her to see traditional craftspeople wielding their skills in the Jewellery Quarter. She learned a traditional technique putting ornamental patterns on to metal.

“I would really like a career as a kind of European jeweller,” she says. “I’m showing in Florence and Amsterdam this year. There’s a market for large scale work in places like Germany and Italy and I hope to get into that.

“But I want to maintain my links with the Jewellery Quarter. It’s a unique place. I want to carry on lecturing. I like taking the knowledge I have learned and passing it on to other people. It’s all part of that recycling, make do and mend thing. Making jewellery is incredibly hard work but it’s absolutely fantastic as well.”

n Brilliantly Birmingham runs from Friday, November 28, to Sunday, December 21, in a range of venues, including Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Custard Factory, the Jewellery Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, the RBSA and the BCU School of Jewellery. Sally’s work can be seen in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery as well as in the festival’s core exhibition, Flux, which features the work of up to 30 innovative designer-makers.