Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.

 – Louise Bourgeois


To sew is to create an object. To sew is to transform. To sew is to give shape to an image, an idea and a narrative. To sew is to meditate, to connect. To repair.

Willemien de Villiers uses the making and metaphors inherent in her artistic practice to transform vintage domestic textiles into detailed artworks exploring women’s complex relationships with craft and domesticity, the feminine body and lived experience.

Composed of images of bodies, words and diagrams carefully stitched onto found fabrics, Willemien’s work is intimate, but it is a shared intimacy which – through the unlikely power of vulnerability – forms the basis of a connection between artist and audience. 

For Willemien, everything is connected.

‘Immersing myself in this tactile experience, my mind seeks patterns, colours, texture’.

With a background in design, Willemien is drawn to visuals which carry information. In her fine art practice, it is what typically remains hidden that must be conveyed and decoded, to create a sense of mutual understanding. Interested in natural phenomena, Willemien recognises that, on a microscopic level, biological blueprints are similar for plants, animals and humans – our cells dividing and decaying along homogeneous lines. 

‘I’m drawn to images from medieval times to about the 16th century, 

where science wasn’t so clear-cut and absolute; where the boundaries between plant and animal and mineral were still blurred.’

She has compiled a lexicon of such images: the cellular lace of skin and bark; blooming flowers and cross-sections; organs and polyhedrons. These ambiguous geometries are stitched across objects like tablecloths and napkins using a combination of mending-, cross- and blanket-stitches, a mix of figuration and abstraction, appearing again and again in different works. Like a librarian, a nurse, a painter, she selects from her cache the thing most suitable for the project at hand. The repetitive morphologies of a leaf/an eye, a seed/a womb, a stem/a vein allow Willemien to imbue her work with strands of meaning and history, both universal and highly personal.

‘All over Africa, cloth is used to express beauty, to tell stories and to record history.’

Cloth by its very nature is a signifier of connection, with its interwoven warp and weft. The ubiquity of textiles – which cover our skins and fill our homes – is also used by Willemien to elevate shared female stories. The domestic fabrics she revitalises are those integrated into rites of passage as well as day-to-day living. A tablecloth can be practical and decorative. It can be a symbol of celebration and home, of distance and loss. It shows signs of history in its discolouration, tears and mends, in its lace and patterns. Willemien considers these an essential part of her own final artwork, as witness to a life – the beauty as well as the hurt. She draws attention to the messiness of existence by adding her own stains. Dripping substances like red wine, turmeric and coffee, Willemien subverts the onerous task of removing blemishes – so often left to women. Moving between ritualistic and prosaic, Willemien’s substrate of choice is a carrier of densely expressive meaning, underscoring the conceptual framework of her practice. 

‘The idea of stains excites me, as a metaphor for the habitual sanitising of women’s messy, and often devalued, lives. And of course, women are still mainly responsible of dealing with the stains (literal and figurative) of day-to-day domestic life.’

Willemien’s medium of choice – cotton thread – is also a physical and figurative means of connecting. Running point to point, through and over and under, it ties together the visible and invisible, denying a one-dimensional understanding of the object and subject. 

Willemien most often uses thread whose colour is inspired by the body – pinks and reds, browns and off-whites. Like the stains on her fabrics, these refer to the lived experience of women and the traumas enacted on them. 

‘I suspect that I find this practice so soothing because every living thing on this planet owes its existence to an endlessly repeating cellular echo that generates and supports the equally endless cycle of life and death.’


While sewing does function as a metaphor for repair, there is evidence that physical interaction with textiles stimulates a therapeutic response. Through dedicating so much time to an artwork, it becomes a psychological object, beyond the imagery portrayed on its surface. In her slow, quiet, meditative engagement, Willemien’s seemingly simple act of pushing a needle through fabric shifts the action of both psychic and bodily violence to the action of restoration and healing. 

In her work, Willemien searches for a balance between universality, stability and growth. She shows that beauty can be created in the wake of trauma and rupture, and that ‘we can connect through our desire to challenge existing norms and to create a system that is more carefully considered and more thoughtful.’

Willemien de Villiers was born in Pretoria in 1957. She studied Fine Art at the University of Pretoria. Currently based in Muizenberg, Cape Town. 


Willemien also writes, paints and works with ceramics.