Applicants for the annual Cotton Inc. Design Competition were given one general guideline: Use cotton to create a unique design. Inspired by the angularity of reptile scales, Innovation Award winner Megan McConnell created a cotton-based ceramic wall hanging that is equal parts functional, visual, and tactile. She met with with senior fashion editor Nathan Saludez to share her process and to encourage us to ‘touch the art.’
Nathan Saludez: How did you come into the cotton-clay concept?
Megan McConnell: I more or less fell into it, because I was dead set on working with porcelain, but the resources weren’t really available to me. You have to fire it at a very high temperature and the kilns at SCAD don’t even fire porcelain. It was one of those things where I started to think of what alternative materials I could work with that would be affordable (as I am a student) that would still exude the same kind of aesthetic. I came across paper clay, and I liked the look. But it was very smooth. For my clay I used cotton rag instead of paper. They are t-shirts that I put into a beater and made pulp out of.
I really enjoyed the aspect of air drying, similar to clay, with different stages of dryness. I used the wet clay to create the rough form to set aside, come back and refine the edges. I could also soften it, re-wet it, and add more material. So it’s also repairable.
NS: Did you invent your own formula for the cotton clay?
MM: Yes, and every component affected the quality of the clay, the color of the clay. It even came down to the type [of] flour that I used. Each ingredient really impacted whether it would be a cream color or a white color.
Also the oil. I used baby oil because it was easy to come by. But I started with linseed oil which created more of a yellow color.
NS: I saw a couple different finishes in your process book. Were those then a result of the oils you used?
MM: No, they were finishes I applied for my first set of samples when I was really trying to push the ‘How can I create an accessible ceramic that is light weight?’ I started to step back and ask myself why I was applying all of these finishes trying to simulate something (porcelain) that already exists in the industry. ‘How can I make something raw?’
I really liked the resulting texture, the unique variation of visible pulp from the cotton clay.
NS: You mentioned that you source the cotton from recycled t-shirts that you pulped. What role does environmentalism or sustainability have on your work?
MM: For this particular project, sustainability was not the main focus of the project. But If I have the opportunity to do something that is more environmentally conscious I’m going to do it. You could probably even used colored t-shirts. I only used white 100 percent cotton t-shirts because I had them on hand from a previous project. But I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if I used denim or other scrap fabrics.
NS: There is a lot of waste in the garment industry where scraps of fabric are just discarded. Would you consider sourcing waste-fabric in the future?
MM: I would prefer to use fabrics like that. In my current process, I took a shirt and then cut it into tiny, tiny, TINY pieces before pulping it. So if you had a company that saved scraps, and already did that work for you, that could totally be utilized.
NS: Throughout wallpaper, fabrics, and clothing you see various animal prints and skins but never tortoise. How did you come to this particular motif?
MM: I started looking at crocodile tails and liked the peaks of the scales, but they would have been too drastic on a wall. I was experimenting with it, and a friend who has a lot of taxidermy told me they looked like a scute (geometric scales common in reptiles). I kept researching, found the African Spurred Tortoise, and went from there.
NS: The resulting sample tile on display was starkly geometric. How did you create the templates for the tiles?
MM: I’m intrigued by problem solving, all these tiles had to fit perfectly, It was trial and error. I would cut out a template, then fold and trim it until it fit. There are four units that fit like a puzzle piece. Each puzzle piece had eight tiles. If oriented the right way, they interlock.
NS: I would love to see it on a whole wall!
MM: Well there are definite ways to put it into production to create each tile more efficiently. I would like to explore making a mold instead of having to cut out individual templates.
NS: You had mentioned on your website that this project has a purpose greater than simply aesthetics.
MM: While I was doing research, I was intrigued by finding solutions for excessively noisy urban and commercial environments. Because of all the facets, it would reduce sound waves. This project just scratches the surface of its potential.
NS: What other aspects of cotton clay would you like to explore in the future?
MM: I kept the natural color of the unfinished clay for my final product. But while I was working on it, I threw some dry clay in a bag of nails and they happened to pick the rust. Accidentally rust-dyed it. I would like to explore different dying methods.
Also, I’m currently studying accessories and have really been enjoying making hard case bags. I would like to explore making structured bags or laptop cases.
For more information, visit Megan McConnell’s website by clicking here.