Hayley Mills-Styles is a thread artist based in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Thread artist Hayley Mills-Styles has been working with fabric since early childhood, a skill that was encouraged by her late grandmother. Now an adult, Mills-Styles uses fabric and thread to tell stories, most of which are her own. “Fabric is a wonderful material to work with; it holds our memories.” Combining traditional techniques with digital embroidery and sculptural elements she creates textural drawings and objects for exhibitions and commissions. We sat down with her to find out more. 

What is your design background?

I've been making things for as long as I can remember but my passion for textiles really developed during high school. I then went on to study Textile Crafts at Huddersfield University before completing a Masters in Textiles at Manchester School of Art.

how would you describe your work?

My work uses fabric and thread to tell stories that are mostly about my own life. Fabric is a wonderful material to work with; it holds our memories. From childhood blankets to a treasured band t-shirt, we all have a textile memory which is why I love working with it.

My practice sits between fine art and craft. I love to use traditional techniques alongside digital embroidery to create 2D and 3D pieces.

What does your creative process look like?

I always start with photography and use it to record things like research trips. I keep a research folder on my laptop for the images and the articles that I come across online. I also have a board in my studio for postcards, images, and articles that I find inspiring. 

I don't like to use a sketchbook. I carry a notebook with me that I use to jot down ideas and quotes but I've never really enjoyed drawing.

My collection of fabric and thread helps me to get ideas for techniques and then I start making samples, using hand embroidery and my Pfaff Creative 3.0 embroidery machine. I love to work through my ideas by making, it helps me to decide what a finished piece might look like and gives me ideas for the next one.  

The finishing touches are my favourite thing to do; cutting and re-stitching embroideries in new ways and adding embellishments like beads and found objects.

What are you currently interested in and how is it feeding into your work?

I'm a bit of a magpie when it comes to my interests.  I like to try lots of different ideas so that I can keep fresh when working. After working with Hoot Creative Arts on a project called Going Sane? I'm looking at mental health and well-being and exploring my own experiences to create a commissioned piece. Well-being led me to the Yorkshire coastline, my favourite place to relax and contemplate my practice. I'm creating a series of mixed media pieces using found objects from beach combing and embroidery.

I'm also dipping back into a project about my childhood which began during my MA. Since my grandmother passed away in December, I've been collecting photographs and pieces of textile that evoke memories of childhood.

which commission/exhibition have you worked on that you are particularly proud of?

Back in 2012, I worked on a project called The Warm and the Cold with artists arthur + martha.  We worked alongside homeless people at The Big Issue and The Booth Centre in Manchester to create a group quilt. I got so much from the project and helping people to stitch their memories of warmth and cold onto denim patches was really moving. We exhibited the final quilt at The Holden Gallery in Manchester alongside some miniature blankets that I had been commissioned to make. The response from our workshop participants was so positive. It was an amazing project to be a part of. 

I was asked to write an article about the project which is in Issue 54 of Be Creative with Workbox magazine. I have also given a series of talks about my involvement with the project to patchwork and quilting groups throughout the north.

How do your surroundings anD community affect your work?

Leeds is such a great city to live and work in. I love the fact that we have so many green spaces, which gives you a chance to get out of the studio and blow the cobwebs away.

I can get inspiration from suppliers and shops like Dinsdales in Headingly and B&M Fabrics in the city centre. Even though I've been making art for many years now, I still need advice on materials and techniques so experienced retailers are invaluable.

We also have such great resources like ULITA and the Local & Family History Library where I can research different processes and find beautiful maps and stories for projects like 365 Leeds Stories

Which textile artists do you love?

I really admire Ruth Singer and her use of vintage textiles. I went to visit her exhibition, Narrative Threads, last year and I was blown away by the beautiful details and personal stories in her pieces. 

I also love Rozanne Hawksley and her mixed media pieces that combine traditional textiles techniques and fabrics with unusual materials like hooks and bone fragments.  Her attention to detail is impeccable. 

And last but not least, Caren Garfen, for the attention to detail in her incredible hand stitched pieces. The works she created for Cloth & Memory were stunning and told a powerful story about the history of women's work.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning your craft?

Never give up, you'll make mistakes but keep going. If you practice stitches, you can learn how they work and then experiment with new ideas. A lot of my students like to describe my workshops as playtime because they're having fun and trying out new things without worrying about the end result. I think this is a wonderful outlook to have when learning new skills. 

Embroidered Tray Cloth.jpg

What does success look like to you?

My grandma always told me to make sure that I was happy. I've tried to keep this in mind so success in life, to me, means happiness.  My idea of success in business changes, I don't have a business plan as such but I set goals for myself.  In 2014, when I graduated from my MA, I wanted to exhibit my work in galleries and get regular teaching jobs.  Over the last 12 months I've succeeded which is great, but now I have new challenges to look forward to.

Which women do you admire and why?

Eileen Meadmore was the first chairwomen of the West Yorkshire Federation of Women's Institutes.  Back in 2009, when I helped set up Buns & Roses WI, I was able to meet Eileen.  Her passion and enthusiasm for the WI, crafting and life was infectious. She inspired me to believe in myself and enjoy the challenges that life throws at you.

I discovered the work of Jann Haworth through a BBC documentary, Pop Go The Women, about the forgotten female pop artists of the 1960s. She was a pioneer of soft sculpture choosing a needle and thread over the accepted materials like bronze. Jann paved the way for artists like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas to use textiles and I love this quote about discussing her work with Eduardo Paolozzi.

"When I showed Paolozzi, he said you should cast it in bronze, and I had the presence of mind to say to him, I cast it in cloth."

I also have to include my paternal grandmother Nora Mills who raised me from the age of two and taught me how to sew and knit. Her sewing box provided me with inspiration as a child and I still have some of her threads and knitting needles. I wouldn't have been so inspired by textiles without her. She also told me that I could do anything and be anything that I wanted to be, so from an early age I was ready to take on the world!


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