“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.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer when your girls were still in primary school. What was your initial reaction?
The breast cancer diagnosis was terrifying. My daughters were four and five years old at the time. My experience, based on my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, was that you die from breast cancer. Initially I just couldn’t see how I would survive this and the thought of leaving my two daughters motherless was almost too much to comprehend. Following lots of aggressive surgeries and treatments and discovering an incredible psychologist, I found my way.
Part of my recovery was definitely losing myself in the touch and visual appeal of textiles.
Tell us about Piece By Piece Home...
Every single Piece By Piece Home creation or artwork is an original, one-off. The commitment to one-of-a-kind designs allows me to be more nimble, adaptable and eclectic in my choice of colour, texture and materials. It may be a slower process, but it means every single piece is considered, super special….and there will never be another one the same.
All fashion and home decor pieces are designed by me and stitched by local dressmakers. I source vintage and modern textiles and embellishments from all over the globe. I have been luckily enough to travel to Paris, New York, Hong Kong and the West Coast of the USA to source textiles and embellishments to utilise in my designs.
Every piece you make is unique. Is that borne out of an interest in sustainability?
Sustainability does matter to me and I am proud to give vintage fabrics and embellishments a new life. Every piece being a one-off is also driven by other factors, such as the pure joy of the creative process, so if I create one design and then mass produce it, the creative process is much more limited. I also just love the notion that if you have a Piece By Piece Home design you know it’s bespoke and no one else in the whole wide world will ever have the same creation as you.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Art galleries always fuel me, as does travel. Seeing how colour combinations are used by other creatives always fascinates and inspires me. I love vintage auctions and flea markets. All these places get the creative heart beating fast!
What does your work/life balance look like now? Is it tricky managing your own business from home?
Work life balance is tricky! I have my small Piece By Piece Home business, I also consult with a local marketing agency, Banter Group, and of course I still want to be present for my two girls as much as possible. My husband, who I have been with since I was 17 (not part of my life plan to marry my first boyfriend, but he was too good to pass up!) is very hands on. He does travel for his work quite a lot though, so when he is away, I do feel the work/life juggle more challenging. I try to just be as organised as possible and take things day by day, just doing my best. Ultimately I feel lucky to be here and to be living such a full life.
You recently went on a sourcing trip to the US which was cut short by the coronavirus outbreak. Can you tell us about that?
Yes! My family and I were living in Portland, Oregon. We went there for my husband’s work, he is part of an Australian Ag Tech business. I was having an absolute ball sourcing incredible textiles and vintage jewellery and hanging out with my Aunt who has lived in Portland for over 20 years. Then COVID-19 hit. The kid’s school had started warning people about coronavirus, but we didn’t realise how bad things were about to get. When the NBA called off all games we knew things must be serious! My husband and I made the call to leave early in the COVID-19 outbreak and ended up changing our flights and leaving 3 days later. We had to cut our time there a month short, but Australia definitely felt like the best place to be during a global pandemic.
We went from being in down-town Portland in the Peal District to a remote family farm in Southern NSW where we self-isolated for 5 weeks.
What was your life in isolation like? Has it made a big difference to your day to day?
Every day as the pandemic situation worsened, particularly in the USA, we felt so grateful to be safe at home in Australia. Having lush green paddocks around us was also good for the soul, being cooped up in an apartment in Portland would have been pretty suffocating in comparison. I was able to continue my design work for Piece By Piece Home and my consulting work, so that was really positive. My husband and I both felt lucky to have employment at a time when so many people were losing their jobs. The home schooling side of things was definitely challenging; trying to work and support our girls in their learning was tough. I also didn’t like how much time they were all of a sudden in front of screens. Every day, rain, hail or shine we would all go for a walk together as a family and I think that helped keep us all sane!
What's next for Piece By Piece Home?
I have started to release some new one-off designs and they are being snapped up via Instagram. I am so grateful to the people who support my business and feel such pride when they tell me they love my designs! I am continuing to design fashion and home decor pieces, but I have also added one-off jewellery into my range, including charms. I have some beautiful pieces that I am adding to my website and shipping to customers in Australia and abroad. My new studio being built in Berrima is also a really significant step for me and my business. I can’t wait to style the interior, fill it with one-off pieces and welcome my clients!
Photo: Abbie Melle
What's on your list of loves at the moment?
Beauty is everywhere, so it’s hard to name just 10 on a list of loves!
- Nathalie Lete, a French artist who is whimsical and magical.
- Romance Was Born fashion designs full of unique accents and unashamed confidence.
- Vanessa Stockard, an Australian artist who expresses herself through her art and has a lot of important messages to share.
- Walks in the Southern Highlands with my family, surrounded by Autumn colour.
- The texture of vintage velvets, so lush!
- Fresh flowers every day, I need to have things that are colourful and alive nearby.
- Seeing restaurants and bars reopen, I can’t wait to eat at Eschalot and Josh’s Cafe in Berrima.
- Normal People, the Stan series. The book was good……but the TV series is great.
- Gucci Bloom perfume, I bought at at the airport on my trip with a friend to New York 1.5 years ago, so it reminds me of freedom and fun.
- Vintage costume jewellery, so opulent and eye-catching, yet so affordable.
I’ll stop there, but I could go on…