Sarah Cant

Sarah Cant Textiles In Performance, Bride Widow by Sarah Cant Pixie by Sarah Cant
Swan Headpiece by Sarah Cant
Memory Camisole by Sarah Cant

Sarah Cant is a woman of many talents; she has a PhD in French Literature, is a professional milliner, designs jewellery and multi-media textiles as well as the occasional theatrical costume. She puts this variety down to a love of change: 'I couldn't just do one thing all the time - I like change and challenge and playing with new ideas.'


You started your career wanting to be an academic, what made you change direction and decide to become a milliner?

It's not such an aboutface as it sounds. I did costume design when I was at school and at college in the States and then continued doing it on the side while I was at Oxford. While finishing my PhD I did a few short courses at London College of Fashion, among which was millinery. After I finished my PhD, I did 2 years of millinery training at Kensington and Chelsea in between writing and giving academic papers, and the odd costume project. I then did a work placement for Stephen Jones, and ended up working for him for about 10 months. Eventually I had to admit to myself that it wasn't possible to be an academic, a milliner and a costume designer, so I decided to concentrate on the millinery.

What did you learn from Stephen Jones?

It was really instructive, but what I learnt most was the way in which I wanted to work. I realised that I couldn't separate the making from the designing. For me the two elements are inseparable and I really care about making my own work. I find it difficult to hand things over to someone else to finish - my hands are directly connected to my brain and so I could never be a designer like Stephen. This self-realisation was reinforced when I did London Fashion Week, which I hated as I couldn't bear having my hats treated like a commodity - I felt as though I was expected to produce a new box of sweeties every six months which is not the way I want to work at all.

So if you feel uncomfortable in the world of fashion and design, where do you position yourself professionally?

Interestingly the first time I showed at Chelsea Crafts Fair I felt immediately at home. I am much more comfortable in the crafts world as it values the making as much as the designing and I know that I wouldn't value my hats if I hadn't made them myself.

What attracts you to millinery?

I love seeing people wearing my hats and the pleasure they give them. I don't make practical hats, they're for special occasions like weddings and there's a lot of satisfaction in making something for someone. I make a lot of hats as special commissions, but also I make hats for exhibitions etc as I enjoy making whatever just comes out of my mind. And you have to be able to show clients a range of hats as a starting point for a commission. I am always making new pieces as I hate making the same thing twice and feeling I am creatively treading water. I only make one-off pieces and couldn't recreate the same hat twice even if I wanted to.

How do you make your hats?

I always keep a sketchbook with ideas. Some pieces come directly from the sketches and with others I work out the form as I go along. With the more sculptural shapes, I work mostly by hand (not using solid blocks) and the work is very materials-driven so I often just like to see where the materials will take me. Shape is generally more important than colour and I love feeling and moulding the forms. I try to aim for elegant, organic forms as I feel that the more organic the shape the more natural it looks on the head - I like to give the impression that the hats have just landed on the head, just happened.

So how do your multi-media textiles sit alongside your millinery pieces?

I always enjoy change and I like making something that is a bit more ideas-based. If you put too many ideas into a hat it just becomes gimmicky - in fact the most successful hat is the most simple - but non-functional textiles allow you to explore ideas in more depth. For example, at the moment I am obsessed by memory and have been making wall hangings using found photographs and objects. I am fascinated by what we save and the suggestion of memory; I recently made an organza camisole (which could be worn or displayed on a wall) worked with handwriting taken from old postcards and another recent piece involved embellishing old luggage tags.

You now also make textile jewellery; can you explain how that developed?

It's a new part of my practice and grew out of the skills I developed making bridal headpieces. I'm always looking for smaller items to sell as my hats sell at a fairly high price point and you can't survive only making high-end pieces. The skills involved in making the necklaces and brooches are similar to the ones I use for my hats, the only difference is that the finished pieces sit on a different part of the body.

And finally, can you tell us a bit about your performance-based costumes?

I'm a member of the Studio Seven textile group based at Brewery Arts in Gloucestershire. Two summers ago we began creating collaborative projects which bring textiles to new audiences in surprising contexts. In 2007 we collaborated with a choreographer and composers to create a textiles-led dance piece entitled Textiles in Performance, which was inspired by and performed at Woodchester Mansion, an unfinished gothic building in Gloucestershire. In 2008, we created an interactive textiles installation which encouraged visitors to get involved, make their mark, and change the nature of the piece. We are currently devising a new project for summer 2009 combining these two models, for which we have just received Arts Council funding. Studio Seven has given me a chance to use some of my skills from past interests - particularly collaborating and working with ideas. It is exciting to use my theatre background to bring craft into a performance-based project, and to use my craft skills to create work that has to be experienced rather than purchased.