nature: holiday inspiration for the sketchbook

This holiday time has provided an opportunity to go to new places, see new things and return to the sketchbook just for fun. A week at Ilkley Moor enabled lots of time for walking and seeking out inspiration from the natural world, with distinct differences to the landscape I’m used to day to day. Up hill and down dale saw me amongst mosses and lichens, pebbles and boulders, grouse, larch trees, heathers and bogs … and even a fragment of pottery.

Rucksack pockets were filled with samples of treasure ready to investigate later. The process of drawing enables me to get to know an object, and by making several studies of each item I enjoy developing a stylised representation. I hope never to tire of the getting-to-know-you drawing process I have practised for thirty years.

By looking closely and seeing through drawing I can work out the essential elements of surface, form and texture to record, but also I love to play with the appearance of elevation and structure of three dimensional objects, such as the pebbles, to explore their new form as they appear on the page, as flat motifs.

The textures and colours of the items I gathered provide macro evidence of the vast landscape I walked through and connected with. As this was springtime there were pockets of fresh green bursting through winter foliage, demonstrating the natural cycle awakes again. The geology of Yorkshire provided variety in coloured greys and texture under hand and foot as we bouldered, scrambled and hiked, notable in contrast to the soft wet bogs and spongy moss beds amongst the heather.

Without going all John Ruskin about it, the natural world really is amazing, and full of inspiration for anyone inclined to notice. Anyway, back to the rather flatter fields of Norfolk …

Inspired by and inspiring the textile design discipline

Thirty years ago I began my art school experience studying a diploma in Surface Pattern, a little unsure of what was meant by the course title, but keen to find out more as it involved drawing, printmaking, pattern and textiles. I thrived at art school, building practical skills and theoretical knowledge, growing in confidence in my ability, encouraged to experiment and play with ideas and processes. When I think back to what I understood of careers in textile design at this time, I have little memory of career planning, or job role research. This was the era of the Yellow Pages; I couldn’t Google it! I made decisions about my degree course based on the fact my tutors suggested I was more of a printer than a knitter or weaver. 

The art school student and the first screen printed pattern

During my degree I undertook a floral print project in the first year and hated it so much I nearly threw it in for fine art printmaking, but then I gave myself a talking to, and realised I wanted to frame my practice in design, to apply my thinking to scenarios, and to problem solve. This has stood me in good stead, both as a designer and academic. I believe the context in which we work is as important as the role we undertake.

I think back to those days and see a very different textile industry to the one we are experiencing now. I graduated at the dawn of digital design, without the range of composite surface materials for interior applications, or bespoke digital production that enabled me to collaborate with Formica when launching my collections in the mid 20-teens. As a freelance designer in the late 1990s I was posting hand painted textile designs in large cardboard tubes across the country to my agent and sending my portfolio out as slides (transparencies) for exhibition applications, hoping they would be returned to save me money and hassle – they rarely were! Thank goodness for the digital cloud of today, allowing files to be accessed around the globe in an instant. Laser cutting and 3D printing have become the norm (even in schools) since then, and expertise in digital software is a basic requirement in graduate jobs. It is easy to take these developments for granted – but our line of work is transformed.

Over the years since that time, I’ve built a career embracing many different opportunities as a designer, artist and designer maker: launching my own brand collections, undertaking illustration or pattern commissions, exhibiting, designing public art (including three large gravel roofscapes and three public toilets!) as well as leading residencies in healthcare settings. I have enjoyed the variety of projects I have completed, building my understanding of several sectors of the industry. Ensuring I remain up to date with industry developments has been key to the relevance I maintain in my academic position. 

Birmingham Airport commission, fabricated by The Window Film Company

In the last twenty years we have seen the development of ‘smart’ textiles for medical applications, interactive electronic textiles for military and domestic use, bio-materials and colour developed from bacteria and new design opportunities in the digital realm within the simulated environment – the metaverse, an emerging international arena. At the same time, during a global pandemic we see a resurgence in low-tech craft with textile processes such as crochet and knit identified as beneficial activities for our wellbeing, and a fightback against the consumer culture. 

The breadth of opportunity available across the discipline of textile design today is exciting, and fast evolving. Revisiting craft practices for contemporary markets is not new. The Arts and Crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris, advocating for handicrafts and naturally dyed yarn and cloth, was an attempt to battle against technological innovation and the resulting cheap and poor-quality products flooding the market. The current growth of interest in craft practices again connects us to the heritage of making and the close relationship with material and process that nurtures us. Sustainable solutions compete with mass produced problems. Customers are easily overwhelmed by choice and price-points, single use versus something for life – future heirlooms, or landfill. Digital design provides solutions by reducing fabric waste in the fashion industry using 3D digital rendering to identify and fix issues, where previously each garment in each size or colourway would be produced and discarded as products were developed. Craft and technology are not mutually exclusive.

The creative industries we have today were unimaginable to me as a student, and now, I think about the relationship today’s students have with the industry and how far into the future they can imagine. As head of the discipline at my institution I am required to consider the future of textile design, to design an educational experience to not only equip the students and graduates for roles that we know about, but also provide them with the curiosity and creativity to shape the roles we can’t quite define. Ambitious ideas need to be partnered with strong realisation skills, traditional craft and making skills paired with digital competence. Let’s see where the next thirty years takes us!

Construct collection by Kate Farley, in collaboration with Formica

pattern processing

I’m often juggling lots of tasks in my head, but when my mind is busy I can find focus and space to think within and around the process of drawing. The time occupied by my hand drawing gives my head some freedom to work things through. Distraction, mindfulness, process-led, thinking time…

Drawing also creates time to explore rhythms that are playing out more formally in other sketchbooks for other projects. I find it interesting that certain motifs appear in the margins of my notebooks time and time again, made while my mind is occupied. Often those shapes are geometric, but sometimes the circle dominates, at other times, squares. Regularly they link to designs I’m working on and resolving somewhere else, subconsciously seeking solutions.

I enjoy the simplicity of paper and pencil in a world where so much of my time is spent in front of a screen. The physical process of drawing; the feel of the friction between graphite and paper, the sounds created by the rhythmic gestures, are vital to the experience. Satisfaction comes from a page of evolving rhythm and more pattern potential. We know there is seduction in the multiple; the repetition of tins on a supermarket shelf, for example.

pattern practice therapy

A year ago I was recovering from stomach surgery and had some time away from my academic role while I mended. Not one to be idle, when I was well enough to wield a lino cutting tool and had the energy to sit up I set myself some simple design challenges to focus my brain and help myself get better. This became my physiotherapy and creative distraction from what was a really hard period of time.

With pattern design as my go-to healer, I decided to explore formal pattern structures, including the ogee, diaper and check, featuring geometric elements. I created lino cut tiles with a small element of repeat pattern, usually but not always in two colours. The lino blocks were small, enabling me to feel as if I was making progress while able to retain focus in short bursts. The printing was another process that tested my physical strength and stamina!

I thought I’d share this one, the ogee structure – one of my favourite pattern structures – I love the play of the negative and positive S-curved forms. I think it is under-represented in contemporary design…

printing the first colour
adding the second colour, blue

I often test prints in different colour combinations, as I have done here, below.

alternative colourway

It is a natural desire for a pattern designer to want to test the repeat so you can see a digital outcome below too. I decided to test the two colours as two tones of green for some reason. It has a vague hint of avocado bathrooms of the 1970s now!

digital repeat of the lino printed tile

Unknown to me at that time, I had a further hospital stay and recovery a few months on, and so the collection of patterns grew once more, as my healing and self-prescribed occupational therapy – a career I had once considered!

I’ve had little time to revisit this collection since my recovery but I hope one day soon I will. I’m not sure where this design and its siblings will venture next … any suggestions?

pattern and textiles spotting

A weekend walk in the search of headspace following a busy week in academia led me to the Suffolk coast and a beautiful 13km walk, down and back, along the beach. Always with an eye on the hunt for pattern, colour and cloth I found all three, relating to the topics of my teaching. Of course I also had a handful of stones and other ‘precious’ detritus.

Having spent the week talking textiles, including pattern structures and repeating designs I was amused to connect the patterns on the beach made from the waves running back across the sand being echoed in the fishing nets on the boats higher up the beach.

I have also been discussing with the students the broad application of textiles in the everyday world around us beyond fashion and interior applications and our walk gave me good examples to illustrate my point. We use traditional textile techniques including knitting, crochet, printing or weaving, with the addition of a coating or finish to create materials for practical applications.

summer colour palettes

Colour inspires me. I love to work with colours; creating pairings and partnerships of colour to build reactions between them, evoking moods and setting a spirit through colour choices. I notice colour relationships every day, and enjoy considering why certain colours thrive alongside others. I love to wear colours too, and like to contrast materials as well as colour to create interesting relationships. I do worry if I find myself in brown trousers and a green top – I don’t want to look like a tree!

Over the last eighteen months I’ve spent time mixing colour using gouache paints, matching colours perfectly with items collected from walks. Little collections of seaweed, shells, catkins, feathers and leaves have sat patiently in the studio while I mix and match. I’m good at matching colours and would be perfectly happy spending hours a week doing just that.

I also enjoy creating colour palettes, sometimes for projects, or my teaching sessions, and sometimes just because what I see around me suggests a perfect palette to explore and create. Our garden has been a bit of a project over the last two years and this summer the new borders are filled with colour that bring such joy to me. My mood is lifted when I see colours working together well. Here are two results from a photograph taken in the garden earlier this month, just because the splashes of colour were pleasing enough to capture.

I like the dominant green that provides the backdrop for the brighter colour accents, and the shapes of the flowers are like splashes of colour dropped in to the soothing green. The pink, red and orange provide the warmth, while the blues are calming and restful. The depths of the border at the bottom of the flower stems are dark, no doubt cool away from the summer sun.

I decided to explore the role proportions of colour play in a palette in the second image. The width of each colour stripe is representative of the area it covers in the image. Back in 1994 this was one of the summer projects I was tasked with as I started my degree in textile design – and all these years on I still enjoy doing it! You can see how the colours perform when dominant, or work as accent colours in thin slithers. There are always main characters and supporting roles in a palette, but it takes all sorts to put on a performance!

When selecting the colours in the image for the palette I worked with the larger areas of colour first, then looked to see how the colours had natural partners to sit next to in the stripe. The accent colours grab the attention of my eyes. Both images reflect the same colour palette, but present themselves quite differently.

drawing on the landscape

I’m sure I’ve written about it before, but I’m often intrigued how an idea can rattle about in my head for years, exist as drawings or collages, but not quite feel right… then manifest in a way that makes those years of waiting make sense. I’ve recently created a sequence of three drawings that appear to have done just that.

Drawing is a key creative process for me. I don’t always find as much time as I’d like but I draw to capture the beauty of a flower, or the shape of a field, and often have no planned use for the image; the drawing exists for itself. Over the years I can see drawings are linked by a longer-term inquiry, and these single elements collectively define the aesthetic of my practice.

I’ve been working on some new landscape-inspired drawings, bringing together some colour mixing and the monochrome marks, rhythms and textures relating to the Norfolk landscape. I began with a journey through the drawers of my plan chest to pull together a dictionary of visual language to guide me, and following a cycle ride in the landscape I took pencil in hand, and began to draw. Painting features very little in my practice, really only for colour-mixing but this time it felt right to capture the colour in gouache and apply directly with brushes on to the paper, layered up with the graphite of the drawing.

These drawings are part of the ongoing journey, but I do think it’s important to stop and notice when something feels right, like a good fitting piece of jigsaw in the puzzle.

Academic acknowledgement: thoughts

I’ve already shared the news via my other social media channels, but I’m delighted to announce here too I have been confirmed Associate Professor in Design at Norwich University of the Arts. This makes me extremely proud and at the same time reflective about the career I’ve had so far.

At eighteen years old I had very little idea what I wanted to do as a job or career, and considered widely contrasting options of occupational therapy, sports psychology, the army, teaching … something creative …. having grown out of the idea of being a bagpipe player, aged 4, and archeologist, aged 8. There are skills involved in roles across some of these that are required in my current post in academia but equally some a disastrous fit, at least to the me I am now.

Going through art school and university, even the post grad. masters course, I was petrified of the ‘real world’ of work, despite having Saturday and holiday jobs from a young age. I can clearly remember the months I earned nothing as a freelance designer, the humiliation of the job centre line and housing benefit application process, the years of no holidays unless they were working holidays to get free board, and watching peers become adults in an adult world, as I tried to work out what I wanted to do while keeping expenses low and resourcefulness high. The turning point was my first role as Print and Photomedia technician at Central Saint Martins, London, where I met people like me, dividing their weeks with practice and educational roles – this could be my real world too!

Today I can look back over a twenty-plus year academic career and so much makes sense; the joy of hindsight. Since school I have taught at play schemes, Sure Start projects, NHS trust projects, community projects, adult education workshops, school outreach, FE & HE courses. Every project taught me something that informs the educator I am today, and clarified my preferred environment for teaching and learning. For over twenty five years I’ve led a creative practice that has evolved substantially from the one I led in my studio / bedroom in south London, making books at a tiny desk, using the bathroom as a darkroom in the middle of the night, and the print room at CSM when the students had left. Artwork on the London underground network, designs on a huge hospital roof, in an airport, selling products to Japan and America … Projects happen but it’s easy to forget they were all unimaginable to the eighteen year old self. At art school I learned the value of drawing, of playing with the design process, of dedication to make something the best it could be and commitment to colour mixing. Those tutors shaped my rigorous approach to my practice today. Incidentally, my minimalist aesthetic was defined lazy by one visiting tutor I had the displeasure to be taught by – he missed the point I remember thinking, I knew he had got me wrong.

As an academic I’ve learned to continue to learn, continually … One instance: I was thrown in to the deep end to deliver design history lectures to undergraduates many years ago, with no GCSE in basic history, and only faint memories of my own design history education for support – that was a particularly low point. Hundreds of hours investment, much reading and learning, and a fair amount adrenaline got me through those early years. Some students have told me since then, that those lectures were among their highlights, and I feel pleased – retrospectively I can’t help feel grateful to my then boss for not giving me the get-out option. This skill and knowledge is now something I hugely enjoy and benefit from. I love to share my passion for design history – who would have thought? Not the eighteen year old me!

In running my design practice in parallel with my academic career I am busy. It would be easier if I was content to focus on one rather than juggling my headspace and waking hours. I’m not alone in wondering why I maintain both, but it is simple – they need each other, and I need each of them. My teaching is filled with current industry experience, my design practice feeds the lectures, workshops and tutorials I deliver. The design experience feeds my research and my practice validates my teaching. My own creative struggles and insecurities support my understanding and empathy for the students I teach and nurture to be brave soles, out in the real world, like I had to be and continue to be. I love to learn, and if I can share what I learn and understand, I can help others to enjoy the design industry too.

I’ve stood at trade shows, on my stand for 12-hour days, promoting my new collections while checking my uni emails on my phone, to make sure things are running okay in my absence. I’ve spoken to industry partners interested in my work, while at the same time my head is working out how I can link the students to the opportunities they may hold too. I’ve formed relationships with wonderful industry friends who now form a network of support for the graduates I’ve taught. The important thing to learn is that we are all in this, learning together, helping others and together making the world a better place to be. The response to me achieving this recognition has been overwhelming. Colleagues past and present, students and graduates, manufacturers and past collaborators, and so many more people have got in touch – reminding me of many precious moments along the way.

I’m grateful to have this recognition from the university. The contribution I’ve made to both the design industry and academia is acknowledged as valuable to others, and united in potential – and that’s a good starting point for the next twenty years!

prints on plates

One of the aspects of drawing for pattern design that fascinates me is the stylising process; how we see something and process it as an interpretation of the thing we initially saw. I’ve written about this several times on this blog over the last few years. When I start to draw something new I make quick studies to get to know the subject matter, and work out what the key information might be, and how I retain the qualities that make the subject remain visible in some small way – depending on how much I want to hold on to the recognisable elements.

While washing up the other day I saw two of our plates side by side in a way that got me thinking: I saw connections I’d not spotted before despite the visual languages of the plates appearing to be very different.

Both plates are decades old, both have seen better days. One is a simple graphic motif, one is a rather nostalgic painted flower posy.

Both plates appear to have floral-inspired printed surface designs. Both designs could be described as featuring yellow flower heads (although one includes other flowers too while the other contains multiple prints of the same motif elements).

One design is pared right back to stylise the flower by only recording a stem and flower head. The style is almost diagrammatic in the simplicity of the motif consisting of black stem and V-shaped lines crossing the stem to suggest leaves. The flower head is a straightforward circle with a dotted outline. Not all stem motifs have heads, there is a randomness in the composition across the plate.

The other plate design features painterly and drawn details, a generous sprig of flowers utilising more colours to express the tones and textures of the flower and leaf details and certainly more expressive in its rendering. The flowers are placed on one side of the plate, as if allowing space for the cake to be placed alongside. The yellow flower head is certainly the attention grabber.

Now I’ve spent a bit more time thinking about these designs I actually believe they make a great pairing, two designs that complement each other in what they offer. I’m not so keen on matching crockery and enjoy using our mix and match plates collected over the years from car boot sales, charity shops, family hand-me-downs and gifts – they all offer reference points and bring something to the collection, and this week I’ve been grateful to appreciate this duo in a new light.

I spy hospital patterns

As a keen lover of patterns I’m always on the look out for interesting examples to add to my consciousness. I do like a good geometric as well as micro (small scale) repeating patterns so despite being immensely annoyed to find myself back in hospital on a ward for a week I did spot the odd pattern of interest…

I’m interested in small details that make patterns work, and I spend time in my teaching analysing successes and failures of patterns in relation to motifs, pattern structures and repeats to teach the students how to improve their own designs. These NHS designs, printed on fabric for hospital nighties (left), pyjamas (middle) and the surgical gown (right) do demonstrate merit.

Small details on the pyjamas / nighties, such as the spot actually being a hexagon, the less obvious choice, and the squares making up the bigger square block including smaller squares in the darker colour, means they contrast with the larger mid green colour bring visual interest. If the darker squares were the same size they may well appear too dominant. Interestingly, the pyjamas had the green colourway as vertical stripes, and yet the same design in red was placed as horizonal stripes on the nightie. I wonder why this was. Let’s not talk of the fit of these garments! The surgical gown is more simple, but I appreciate the fact that the cross is made up of broken lines, with a small dot in the middle – so much more interesting that if it had been two lines crossing.

These are tiny details that most people will overlook, I know I was probably not the most typical of inpatients, but if you spend any length of time on a ward, nil by mouth for several days your mind wonders. I found there to be a significant challenge in retaining something of myself as a person beyond the sick patient, with all the focus and attention on your health, or lack of. The pattern spotting was a way of still being me.

As I said at the top, I like micro patterns and have shared my collection of envelope insides on the blog before. I like the smaller scale patterns that provide visual rhythms and noise, that get on with doing their job, in a simple utilitarian manner. These patterns on hospital garments also got me thinking about moquette, the hard-wearing fabrics on transport upholstery, and how those patterns signs are there to conceal dirt and wear, whereas these hospital ones with the white background were doing the opposite.

I hope you don’t find yourselves in hospital to have the chance to analyse patterns on your gown, but if you do, I hope you like the ones you’ve got!