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

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