“I don't like to be defined by any single part of my life experience”, Piece By Piece Home designer Elizabeth Pilkington tells us. “Whether it's being a mum, losing my mum, being a career person, being a cancer patient, being a creative person; it's all just me and part of my story…”
And it’s quite a story. While she now operates her design studio out of her Bowral home, the mother of two left behind a very different life in corporate communications in Sydney. The move was inspired by her impending motherhood journey, but the transition into design was brought about by something far more sinister: a breast cancer diagnosis. Her daughters were four and five at the time. “I stopped worked altogether for a full year”, Elizabeth recalls. “Everything became about survival and undergoing numerous surgeries and treatments, including chemotherapy. As I started to emerge from the shock, horror and invasive catalogue of medical intervention that was required, I found absolute solace in textiles.”
With Elizabeth’s own mother having passed away from the same cancer when Elizabeth was just 21, the experience was terrifying. But that fear gave her a new perspective. “Any fear about possible failure in a creative endeavour disappeared”, she explains. “Nothing was as scary as my children not having a mother. So, in a sense, having a life-threatening diagnosis did spur me on to focus my time and energy on what I loved to do, rather than what I thought I should be doing.”
We spoke to the designer about her world travels in search of vintage treasures, why bespoke design is her passion, and how motherhood changed her life…
Holding image: Abbie Melle
Photo: Abbie Melle
Tell us about your childhood…
I moved around a lot as child as my Dad was a school principal. I was born in Orange in the Central West of NSW, but lived in Windsor NSW, Palm Island QLD on a remote Aboriginal community, and also the Blue Mountains. I went to boarding school from age 14 in Bathurst, NSW. As my locality growing up was so varied, I have many stark and contrasting memories; from collecting shells on an empty tropical island beach and flying on a light plane to violin lessons in Townsville, to going for bushwalks in the Blue Mountains and attending B&S Balls in the country. I am one of four kids, so the only real constant has been always having plenty of company around as I grew up.
What prompted your move to Bowral? Was it a difficult decision?
We moved to Bowral about 12 years ago to start our family. I was heavily pregnant and living in Cremorne Point in Sydney, and working in Martin Place in a corporate communications role. I didn’t see how my current work life would fit with my view of the type of mother I wanted to be, so my husband and I started looking for homes in the Southern Highlands. We turned up one weekend, viewed a beautiful, quaint cottage in Bowral, and ended up buying it on the spot at auction 20 minutes later. Bowral has been a wonderful place to be as a family, but I still love to visit Sydney regularly and travel is an essential ingredient for my happiness.
We have recently sold our lovely home and are now preparing to build a home in the heart of historic Berrima, in the Southern Highlands, NSW. The 14 month design process has been exciting and exhausting, we now have approved plans from Council and will be commencing the build in the next couple of months. The plans include a separate studio for my Piece By Piece Home business.
You gave birth to your first daughter shortly after moving. Being in a new place without your support network at such a vulnerable time - what was that like?
I recall having a routine blood test shortly before the birth of my first baby, and the nurse asking me if I was moving to Bowral to have my baby because I have family and friends here. When I told her I knew no one here, she looked a little stunned and then casually, but firmly said, “Be sure to look after yourself and reach out if you need help.” At the time I was thinking her reaction was odd, but after becoming a mother I realised exactly what she was alluding to! Luckily for me I joined a local mother’s group early on and met some wonderful people who I am still friends with today.
My mother had died of breast cancer when I was 21, so I found the early days of mothering were also laced with grief for my own mother. She had already been dead for about 8 years when my first baby arrived, but I missed her more than ever. When I became a mother myself I truly understood how much my mother had loved me.
You were working in corporate communications in Sydney. What inspired the career change? Did motherhood make you reassess your priorities?
I had thrown myself into my career during my twenties and lived and worked in London and Sydney. I have always been ambitious on the career front, but I have always wanted to be a mother too. When I got pregnant in my late twenties I knew I wanted to give my full focus to my family, for the short-term, and so decided not to try and juggle both my career and motherhood. I loved being at home with my babies, but I also missed the buzz and brainpower required at work.
I started doing some Strategic Communications consulting work when my two girls were aged three and four. Then suffered a huge blow; I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. I stopped worked altogether for a full year. Everything became about survival and undergoing numerous surgeries and treatments, including chemotherapy. As I started to emerge from the shock, horror and invasive catalogue of medical intervention that was required, I found absolute solace in textiles.
I started designing one-of-a-kind textile creations and held a launch event one year later where I sold out of my pieces. Originally I was creating eclectic style quilts and cushions mainly, but I have since ventured into one-off fashion pieces too, like clutches.
Have you always been creative?
I have always loved to find things, collect things and make things! I didn’t ever anticipate having a career that necessarily aligned with these interests, hence studying Arts/Law for a year straight out of school. I then switched to a Communications degree and that suited me much better as I got to exercise creative thinking for businesses. After my breast cancer diagnosis it felt so good to fully succumb to the creative calling. Any fear about possible failure in a creative endeavour disappeared – nothing was as scary as my children not having a mother. So, in a sense, having a life-threatening diagnosis did spur me on to focus my time and energy on what I loved to do, rather than what I thought I should be doing.
I don’t like to be defined by any single part of my life experience, whether it’s being a mum, losing my mum, being a career person, being a cancer patient, being a creative person; it’s all just me and part of my story.