evolving colour in the making

A walk in the Spring sunshine gave impetus to a very simple and mindful exercise back in the studio; to make the colour of the landscape. A sprig of willow contains so many different colours. Those colour qualities will alter as the clouds skud across the sky casting shadows, and as the sun ripens the buds.

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With paints at the ready I knew it wasn’t about making the one colour, but the narrative of generating colour as my process of journeying from one to the next. I wanted to paint each of the swatches of colour I mixed as I evolved the paint story, observing and recording the subtleties of the change in hues. Selecting a limited number of tubes of gouache to begin made it more interesting. To start I selected the dominant colour I was aiming for, and had a little piece of nature with me as reference. I developed the swatches of colour, selecting one, and then another hue to achieve, step by step, slowly and patiently filling the page.

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Gouache is a beautiful paint and this exercise reminded me of a wonderful morning teaching colour mixing to BA1 Textile Design students earlier this year. Getting the right amount of water, ensuring the colours are cleanly mixed, and then making that one painted line flat and even – it all takes practice.

KFarley_ytubes_colour_1500_KFI was lucky enough to have excellent colour teaching during my time at art school and consider myself strong at seeing and achieving the right colour mix. At uni I remembering saying to the print technician “it’s nearly right, I’m happy with it”, and she’d say, “Kate, it’s not what you set out to make, keep going until you get there!” I thank her for teaching me that persistence and these days my students know I’m particular (a preferred word to fussy!) when it comes to colour. Getting the colour right is so important and you may as well enjoy the journey to get it right. Textile products sit alongside fashion and interior items made from other materials, and the colours need to match / coordinate, so quitting before you get the right colour may be a sales / employment disaster too!

Interestingly, some of my current students were discussing my approach to colour recently and one shared that I’m not keen on black outlines around shapes in print designs. Another one commented that they hadn’t heard that, but would keep it in mind. I jumped in to defend the comment I’d originally made – a black outline is too obvious, unquestioning, the default, rather like Times New Roman black typeface when you open Microsoft Word. Too easy. I ask students and designers to think about whether the black line is the best for the design. If you think of all the other colours you can use, I think you may find another and better alternative!

At the end of this colour mixing time I am left with souvenirs of the process, memories of the walk and beautiful colour. This is real colour away from the back lit screen I too often see colour from. I shall do this again.

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international pattern collaboration

It all began in an email with the subject line, ‘Hello from Tokyo’ I received in November 2017, letting me know how much my tea towels for David Mellor were admired in a Japanese design company. The email went on to ask if we could discuss a potential collaboration for a capsule fashion collection featuring a print designed by me. Firstly I was excited to think my patterns had made their way to Japan, but secondly, that sounded a great idea, tell me more! A few email exchanges later, and we agreed to meet the next time the company director of Stamps Inc. was in London so I could show him my portfolio to discuss the idea for the new pattern they would like to commission for their fashion collection.

The meeting with Shu and his colleague Yoko in a central London hotel was exciting; I showed my work and it was met with positive discussion. I was also reintroduced to the tea towels that had made it to Japan all the way from my studio, via a David Mellor Design shop! We sat at a large table and I showed them my portfolio, spreading the many sheets out covering the whole surface. Having shown all the other work and following some discussion in Japanese between colleagues, the director chose the very first page he had seen – the cover page! The choice was not what I was expecting but we shared and developed ideas for me to sample: colours, time-lines and garments. We then took some photographs to record the start of the project together, for when we would be able to share our story – and even asked the hotel doorman to take a pictures of the three of us with a London bus behind us.

The selected design was a graphite pattern of pencil scribbles of varying tones and rhythms, later to become the title of the collection: Scribble. There are lots of variables such as scale, rhythm, tone and  overall order in the pattern we had to make decisions before I set about creating the final artwork. I emailed across some small sketches to explain the repeat process for production to check we were understanding each other as we had to ensure we understood the terminology that each of us used in our different languages.

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I shared several images of new drawings to provide the variations / considerations over email before committing to the final design. The final fabrics were to be screen printed so I planned to draw out the whole design in full repeat by hand (approximately 60 x 90cm), scan it in and transfer it to Japan for screen print production. I started the large final drawing twice as I wasn’t happy with the first one. Initially the marks I drew appeared tense, but I also had to work out how to create the different qualities with the pencils across a vast piece of paper, and how not to smudge the areas I had drawn. I drew the design at 80% scale to make scanning it in possible, meaning I had to take in to account the slight increase in the size of the marks in the final result. I also had to ensure the top of the design matched the bottom, as the edges were to act as a cut-through for the screen printing process of repeating the pattern, fitting like a jigsaw, top to bottom. The design was edge to edge, left to right, fitting the width of the fabric so there was no horizontal pattern-repeat.

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The final artwork took almost ten hours to draw, and I did that mainly over two long evenings. I had it scanned in at a very high resolution, adapted the size of artwork to 100% and sent the digital file to Japan – with my fingers crossed that the printer could work their magic, including colour separating the graphite tones for the two screens each colourway would require!

There was a wholesale launch in Tokyo so I sent some of my original drawing samples over to feature as framed artwork in the exhibition and I was sent photographs of the lengths of fabric on show. Very exciting! Orders were placed and there was a good response. A further email request came from Japan, to meet again in London to see the fabric. Another exciting moment – also scary – what if I didn’t like the results!? In the stylish interior of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel lounge there was no need to worry. Great care had been taken to translate my drawing to screen printed cotton lawn fabric, in two colours – referencing the two colours of my David Mellor patterns Chelsea, in grey, and Pride in blue. The fabric felt beautiful and the printing fabulous. It was a special meeting.

I was able to see the marketing material including my name alongside Japanese text I couldn’t decipher, describing our meeting and the collaboration. I have had to be patient while the wholesale launch orders were being produced before we can promote the project I’ve had to keep under wraps for well over a year … until now!

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Shu and Yoko, learning about the company and their pride in who they work with including the products they develop. It has been a highly successful collaboration from my perspective in that we have discussed all the aspects of the process and trusted each other to do the best for it, each learning about the other and having good communication throughout. We have shared news of the differing seasons and national events over the course of the project, and they’ve watched via instagram as I’ve moved homes and jobs. I’ve loved having this connection with people in another corner of our world, created as a result of some tea towels I designed over five years ago!

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Creative downtime in Devon

The summer is over and I reflect on one special week away last month that gave me lots of time to think and be creative.

My family and I were invited to participate in a creative field school at Ashridge in Devon, and despite not knowing much about what was in store, we took the very long and scenic route to Devon, down some scary narrow and steep lanes, the car full to the brim, and arrived many hours later, at the most beautiful hidden-away gem of a farm where we settled in for what became a week to remember (Devon via Stonehenge is a long way from Norfolk).

Over the first few hours we met the other intrepid creatives joining us for the time. We were all tasked with delivering one workshop during the week that everyone else, no matter what age, could attend. There were to be some communal meals, talks and evening events including a cabaret – less said about our contribution the better! There was even a printed book we all received ahead of the holiday with a schedule and other useful information in it but once in Ashridge the blackboard outside the studio became our go-to schedule, with times slipping as we relaxed in to the pace of the place. The one clear day from workshops saw us all explore in different directions, and rather unscheduled but special all the same was how we all chose to reconnect with the group when we returned home, back to the studio that evening to share our findings and keep creating.

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We learned different skills: from making natural rope using brambles and nettles, we made constructions to share with the group, we made zoopraxinoscopes (animations), boodie-ware picassiettes (mosaic plates), monoprints, ceramic pictographs with rubber stamps, printed aquariums, masks and sashes …

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My workshop was called Patterns of Ashridge and I started off by discussing how to draw and stylise natural forms to create patterns, inspired by illustrator Gwen White’s book, A World of Pattern, (left-hand image below) first published in 1957. Everyone committed to the exercise of drawing trees to illustrate a point about stylising through drawing, and then set about gathering things to study for their individual pattern ideas. There were some really successful outcomes completed as folded books, and lots of interesting conversations about what else could be done next.

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What felt so special was the shared time; the learning through the workshops and the time available for informal social gatherings. Coffee time at 11am, or afternoon tea was spent clutching the sewing project or nettle cordage as we embraced the new craft skills and helped each other remember what our workshop leader had told us. Having only met a few of the other people before this week, we all took the time to share the experience. We found common grounds; the shared networks including academics in common.

We all appreciated the lack of internet connection and took pleasure in the secluded and peaceful environment of Ashridge. We swam in the sea, explored in the river, picked blackberries and generally appreciated the natural world around us, including newts and owls – it all felt many worlds away from the everyday routines we find ourselves launching back in to as the Autumn comes.

We send a huge thanks to Des and family for such a wonderful and generous experience!

I shall be talking about Gwen White and her books at the Women in Print symposium at the House of Illustration on the 16th September.

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The church kneeler above was from Modbury Church, Devon – there’ll be another post about those in due course!

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weaver extraordinaire: Anni Albers

If you are interested in textiles and haven’t heard about the Anni Albers show now on at Tate Modern in London, then a.) where have you been? and b.) get there fast if you can!

This has been a much anticipated show for me. Having been enjoying many other people’s pictures via Instagram since the exhibition opened I was most excited to get to the show and I’m so glad I did – I went round it several times and breathed in the history I had learned as an art student myself; typewriter patterns from Bauhaus lessons, the infamous diploma piece with sounds absorbing properties in the yarn, and those classic Bauhaus photographs, but there was so much more. Colour, cloth, pattern, rhythms, photographs, works on paper, products … The woven structures and yarns drew everyone in for a closer look – so much so that the alarms kept being set off and the guilty took a sheepish step back! There was a fascinating display of the research of historical textiles from Albers’ own collection that made perfect sense in how she interpreted and worked with the process of weaving.

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Experimental, commercial commissions, religious pieces and jewellery are some of the aspects of this considerable show. As with most well-received shows, the audience conversations themselves were fascinating; lots of discussions about experiences of weaving, hours at the loom as well as working out what she must have done.

It has been the architects, the painters and the product designers, usually men, who have become far more well known from the Bauhaus, including Anni’s husband Josef Albers. The avant-garde German art school’s first director Walter Gropius stated there were equal opportunities for all when it was established in 1919 and yet women were generally encouraged towards the textiles workshop, a place and craft deemed more suitable. Anni never let this distract from her focus despite wanting to be a painter. Her creative output of a lifetime, as edited in this exhibition, goes a long way to demonstrate her will to explore both the context of design and the development of art. She will have no doubt inspired many who have been introduced to her as a result of the show and her legacy will continue to influence far beyond the context of textiles as a craft for women. I came away with many notes and a head filled textile excitement – happy weaving everyone!

Exhibition ends: 27th January 2019

book lovers unite in support!

You may have already heard about the fire that has destroyed a storage unit in Croydon that includes an irreplaceable collection of family photographs and research, as well as a precious collection of prints and books belonging to Joe Pearson of Design for Today. This includes stock of all the books that he has had published including our ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’ published last May, as well as many other beautiful books.

There has been a gofundme page set up by Alice Pattullo and Joe’s family to raise money to get the collection re-established and the books reprinted. This will be a huge task but there has been an amazing wave of online support in the first 24 hours, and long may it continue.

Joe is fully committed to publishing beautiful books by illustrators, creating special publications that are often intriguing structures and subjects, with more than a hint of mid-century admiration! He is involved with all aspects of the book development and spends hours working to achieve. He researches, discusses design decisions, organises printing etc, and puts in the time folding and constructing books, packing them up, exhibiting at fairs and promoting the designers he collaborates with. He is an absolute joy to work with and I’m so gutted that this has happened. My sadness goes far beyond knowing that my own books are destroyed – as any collector knows, it’s the experience of building a collection, making choices, keeping an eye out and committing to the task. Joe has built a substantial following on social media as he shares his love of printed matter with the wider world and now needs our help to get things up and running again.

Check out his website if you’ve not done so before, and if you are a lover of printed matter and can spare some change do support the fundraising effort to get Design for Today back up in business and collecting again.

You can read about our book collaboration here.

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Plot 8

This summer has been a funny one for harvest on the allotment. The long period of heat and lack of rain resulted in tiny potatoes and very  late runner beans but somehow despite this, vast marrows! This year of gardening has been rather chaotic, with sparse visits fitted in around our working patterns and family life, but once I’ve made the time and put in the effort to get there I have always really appreciated the head space the plot gives me in a somewhat full-on / stressful academic / design career. An hour of digging is so good for my mind and body, far better than any gym visit. Connecting with nature helps me register the seasons, and home-grown fruit and vegetables are the best!

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This year started off like any other: hoping for bumper crops, trying to stay on top of the weeds, while trying to clear old ground for new patches of earth to cultivate. Then an opportunity arrived and we made a big decision that has been in the back of our minds to make for a while, couldn’t work out how to do it, but is now coming true. We are leaving Birmingham and moving to the country – Norfolk to be precise (yes I was born there, no I’m not going home) – where I am taking up a new academic role, and it’s all-change! Anyone with a sense of British geography knows we will be nearer the sea, we will see more sky, and the horizon will be flatter! We are not moving up or down, we are moving across!

This process has been taking shape over the summer months and during this time I’ve had to come to terms with leaving plot 8, in an allotment site in south Birmingham that I’ve worked so hard on, dug intimately and harvested crops from since 2006. My children have slept in their prams in all weathers as I’ve carried on digging, they’ve chewed on runner beans when teething and learned to grow their own plants too – as well as digging large pits to fill with grass seeds, much to my horror! I’ve dug alongside friendly birds, untangled a hedgehog from the bindweed and been startled by a fox; it’s rarely lonely at the site. I’ll never tire of the first scent of sweet peas each year. Here are a few images from over the years:

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I’ve written many posts here about the plot and the process of growing food, colours, harvests, the community spirit and the way it has inspired my first commercial collection of patterns: Plot to Plate, launched in 2012. I’ve made many editions of prints as a result of mapping the crops growing here. The joys of growing my own food were celebrated in the design featuring tools used on the Plot to Plate title design across tea towels. Without this space – this haven of nature in the big city, I would have struggled far more from living here. As I worked at the allotments I would often think of all the shoppers in the Bullring on a Saturday afternoon, wondering why they made their choice to do so, rather than garden like me.

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This post is written to register the anticipation and excitement of change despite the vast upheaval, both physically and emotionally: saying goodbye to friends and colleagues who have shaped the last 13 years of my life, as well as this plot, that has paid its part in taking care of me. We’ve gathered the tools, taken our last harvest, handed back the keys and now hope that someone else will feel the joy of plot 8 in years to come!

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women designers, lost and found

Sometimes themes seem to rattle around in my head, connecting with other dialogues I have had. Last week I attended a really interesting Study Day at the House of Illustration as part of the Women in Print series organised by Desdemona McCannon on the theme of Enid Marx and contemporaries. The subject of women’s careers, and specifically their profile compared with their male counterpoints was discussed – not a new idea, but as a recurring theme I thought it worth revisiting here. In the same week Stylist magazine featured an article about the price of artwork made by women compared to men. It was such a coincidence I’ll expand some thoughts here.

It’s not a secret that women often have a harder time gaining recognition in many lines of work in comparison to their male peers. I wrote in a previous blog post about Eric Ravilious and friends at Compton Verney that it certainly wasn’t lack of skill that kept the women such as Helen Binyon from comparable public attention, and therefore further opportunities through their careers. There are highly talented women in history who we are only just giving air-time to, but the fact is their careers may not have excelled in the way their male counterparts did, or if they did they may well have been paid less for the work because they were women.

Enid Marx chose not to take issue with gender-bias in her career, and got on with a multi-disciplined design portfolio, with impressive outputs including books, textiles and patterns which were beautifully communicated through the exhibition at the House of Illustration (sorry it’s just ended!) – but you can visit Compton Verney instead. We got to see the exhibition as well as listen to knowledgeable speakers such as Enid Marx expert Lottie Crawford giving a really insightful illustrated paper about the legacy that Enid Marx and her peers have created for us today, as well as Jane Audas taking us through a fascinating journey of clients and sales put in to a broader context of who’s who.

I have heard people wonder why we need to make a point about this being a gender issue, but I would say that this has been said from a male perspective, and not from those being subjected now and in the future to selective opportunities due to gender. As a woman designer, and female academic training mostly women to have design careers where there is a history of undervaluing female contribution, I remain concerned.

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It is sometimes the case that research can be discovered more easily about men because they were promoted more and as a result have a higher profile, whether through greater self-confidence, the social / commercial networks or marketing material, from family or company archives, past exhibitions or publications. During the study day in London the point was made that there was also a sense that women got on with the designing, often alongside raising a family or carrying out other domestic tasks. Did they lack the opportunity to promote themselves, didn’t see the need, or couldn’t find the time? Working in isolation at home can certainly challenge one’s self-belief compared to working in an office with colleagues who can praise you and your work as and when required. This reminds me of the freelance work of Sheila Bownas, almost accidentally discovered and collected by Chelsea Cefai, and brought to a new appreciative public in the last few years. The family knew little of the extent of her prolific output of designs as a textile designer until Chelsea pieced the jigsaw together, and thank goodness we know of her now!

There is another consideration here. Does the discipline these women are working in make a difference to their profile? Enid Marx worked across illustration and textiles, but her illustrations are better known. Is this because as an illustrator your name is usually on the cover of the book, even if it is on the inside, or on the poster? For freelance textile designers it can be quite different. The name of the company is usually printed as legend details on the selvedge, but historically not always the name of the designer. If this is the case we may never trace the designer. This remains the case today in industry when big name brands buy in freelance patterns and the designer’s name is not carried through.

The article in Stylist compares Mark Rothko and his fine art paintings to Anni Albers’ textile practice; the subject of a show coming to Tate this Autumn. When the Bauhaus opened its doors in Germany in the Twentieth century the founder, Walter Gropius, stated anyone could study any discipline, and yet the women were rather heavily steered towards the weaving workshop, considered suitable for women. That was where Anni Albers learned her skill, fell in love with the teacher Josef Albers, took his name on marriage and continued to live in his shadow; he led a fine art practice of painting while she made textiles. I can’t wait to see the Anni Albers show – and for Anni to have the publicity men with lesser creative careers have had before.

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Craft, seen as a second-rate subject to Fine Art is part of the discussion throughout the article in Stylist, and it also makes the point that textiles is seen as a domestic activity, thanks to the increased leisure time during Victorian era. Grayson Perry has made significant strides in opening up the conversation about value of craft, but far more needs to be done to change opinions. As an academic one of my biggest concerns is the lack of respect textile design currently receives as a subject in the education curriculum and agenda. It’s becoming one of my catch phrases but I really mean it – we all wear pants! How can textiles be seen predominantly as a past-time, a hobby – when we all wear textiles, sleep under textiles and protect ourselves with textiles? How dare this government puts at risk the supply chain of future textile designers because it doesn’t see it as important enough to be a GCSE? Fashion is nothing without textiles, and this industry is one of the big ones on the global stage – don’t get me started on that!

Refocusing back on the study day, we also discussed the nature of research carried out by women, and that the particular approach / nature of research writing holds a female voice that may not be considered intellectual enough; often relating to social networks, domestic arrangements and family life. Several female audience members agreed that they doubted their own confidence when finding their research voice alongside the traditional academic tone / content they believed was expected by their male counterparts. Are women undermining themselves and lacking confidence in their own abilities?

I don’t have the answers but this is not a conversation that should stop. More dialogues involving men and women about historical and contemporary design practice, craft and textiles are needed. There is not one way, this is not binary, but we need to make sure the different voices, approaches, strategies and practices in the creative subjects and beyond are given a platform. The diverse ways of being whatever it is we are should be valued, and represented by a diverse community. Wouldn’t it be lovely if talent and opportunity were really the key ingredients for building profiles, gaining opportunities, and writing about it!

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