Sarahmay Wilkinson, Using Textiles for Woman of the Ashes

Sarahmay Wilkinson, Using Textiles for Woman of the Ashes

Sarahmay Wilkinson is currently the associate art director at W.W. Norton working alongside Steve Attardo and Ingsu Liu. Sarahmay got her start in covers at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015 working with Rodrigo Corral. Prior to FSG she worked in the beauty industry for ten years; developing branding systems, designing packaging and concepting ad campaigns. Here she describes her process for designing Woman of the Ashes.

Working with Laird Gallagher, editor at FSG, on Woman of the Ashes was an absolute pleasure. Mia Cuoto’s writing has the depth, detail, and precision of a journalist, with an added layer of magic and wonder -- it is most captivating.

Woman of the Ashes takes place in Southern Mozambique in 1894. The story explores two sides of an empire, as well as two sides of a divided family. At the center of the story is a young woman named Imani. Fifteen years of age, Imani is a member of the VaChopi tribe. She is hired as the translator for the Portuguese Sergeant German de Melo, it is their relationship that becomes the primary backdrop for the unfolding of Woman of the Ashes.

I was pleased to receive this title as I have long been enchanted with the idea of Southern Africa. My Great Aunty Betty, with whom I am pen pals, has lived there for over 60 years. Through our long standing correspondence I have received glimmers of the culture, colors, history, and struggles of the region. Reading Cuoto blew these insights wide open.

When I sat down to begin I had a couple of different things I wanted to explore; the materials of the place (sand, dirt, arid air), the magical and ethereal qualities in Cuoto’s writing, and the textiles of the region (which were linked to regional history and status).

Typically my process goes something like this: read, broad visual & historical research, step back, specific visual research (for example: textiles of region), design, step back, then design more. Then I share. Always with FSG Associate Art Director Alex Merto and Creative Director Rodrigo Corral first, then the editor, and then the author and publisher.

I played with illustration, historical art works, a good number of different textiles, as well as quite a bit of dirt, sand, and ASH!


In the case of Woman of the Ashes, we arrived at a solution pretty quickly - which, as some readers may know, is actually quite unusual in this line of work.

I presented Alex and Rodrigo with about 5 options. Those were narrowed down and refined into 2 directions.


The first cover was a rough sketch using chalk pastels on kraft paper. The chalk seemed like a good choice to capture the dryness of the atmosphere, and I tried to keep the tone a little subdued or melancholy.

For the textile version, it was very simple. I researched textiles of that particular region and chose a few that I felt were strong. I ultimately used the exact textile, only saturating the color some. FSG bought rights directly from the textile mill. As for the font, I went with Garage Gothic. I wanted something that worked with the textile in terms of geometry and weight. I wanted to keep it bold.

I think less is more when it comes to copy on covers, so the 'a novel', 'a memoir', subtitles, praise, etc. become these little sticky things that I want to integrate/find a nice home for. In this case, I felt like tucking 'a novel' in over to the side worked, there was no need for it to sing as loudly as the other elements.

We presented the author and agent with two options. I was pleased with both, though I had my fingers crossed for the more graphic textile option as I felt it might draw a new audience to Cuoto’s work. Cuoto’s previous jackets are very handsome, but on the more conservative side. I was excited by the opportunity to offer something a little bolder, to match the strength of his words.


Final cover


Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.