gardening spirit

As this is the start of National Gardening Week it seems appropriate that I reflect on how important gardening is to me. Growing up in a gardening family, with a self-sufficient attitude to growing vegetables I suppose it was inevitable that one day I’d have a garden of my own to tend. For years I’d visit mum and be walked around the garden having updates on the state of things, nodding but never knowing the names of things, but seeing the pleasure the process of gardening gives to her. Now I understand.

Here in Birmingham we have an allotment to grow the vegetables and fruit in, and we grow flowers in our garden. We have spent over a decade digging and harvesting plot 8; learning to respect weeds for their various ways of making their presence known – I still want to try weaving couch grass. The feeling of success when we pick the first strawberries of the year, or fill the rucksack with runner beans that can be filling the freezer for wintertime is certainly worth the hours of graft. Last weekend I picked over a kilo of purple sprouting, and we commented that the harvest would probably cost well over £10 in the shops, as organic produce – but with no plastic wrapping or air miles included. Of course our food tastes so much better too! Gardening spells out the seasons as we check for frosts, or pick the first fruits, and enjoy the harvest and flowers of each changing month. The beds of wallflowers make me so happy this time each year, signalling the excitement of the growing year getting underway.

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It was at the allotment plot that I first developed my pattern collection ‘Plot to Plate‘, launched in 2012. I had been drawing the allotment beds on the site, as well as National Trust kitchen gardens for a while, and a language of graphic pattern made from lino cuts evolved, firstly as limited edition prints, and secondly as motifs to explore repeat pattern with (for example: Plot to Plate VVV textile design – final image with the Auricula). The title design is slightly different in the fact that it was hand drawn, and is an over-sized dog tooth check featuring tools of growing, cooking and eating, such as garden rakes, spades, whisks, wooden spoons and cutlery as a visual narrative up the tea towel, celebrating the journey from plot to plate – available in Brassica green or Brassica purple. plottoplate_ttowels_katefarley150

This collection has evolved to incorporate more formal pattern compositions such as Parterre (below) and Hanbury, inspired by National Trust’s Hanbury Hall and Gardens in Worcestershire, featured on hand screen printed cushions and wallpaper, where I make links between pattern design for textiles and formal garden design.

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These days my design practice has moved away from the inspiration of the formal gardens but I continue to dig. Our potatoes are in the ground for this year and the greenhouse is working some magic. Gardening provides me with not only creative inspiration but also head-space – a highly valuable asset in today’s world. As a designer and an academic, juggling a young family too, things can be frantic and I’m often running for trains. Faced with two hours of hard clay to dig I’m actually very happy. I can focus on the job in hand while chatting to the friendly robins, making myself physically tired, seeing the result of the work, and at the same time having time to think and mull over some of the other stuff of life. There’s also the sense of community with other allotmenteers; we share the same weather and battles but also share the excess harvests. Every time we get to the point of questioning ourselves about the allotment and if we have time, I remember all that it does for me, how my hard work there actually keeps me well; gives me a sense of well-being I can’t imagine getting from anything else. I shall keep digging, and knowing, for so many reasons, why I do!  Happy National Gardening Week!

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pebble pattern collection

I know I’m not alone in having collections of stones, gathered from walks and adventures over the years. Heads down across the beach, we search for beauty in the lines, colours and patterns of pebbles. We look for skimmers, ones with holes, and stripy ones…

I was looking at some of the stones that are in my studio and realised I had the components of a traditional textile design collection. The key pattern structures often include an all-over design, a spot repeat, a stripe and a plain (from left to right in the image below). I had fun sorting the stones to find the most straightforward ‘collection’.

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seeing red

My world is pretty colourful; on a daily basis I’m in contact with colourful textures, materials and surfaces from fashion, interior and architectural contexts. Not only do I work with hard and soft surfaces in my design practice, I also teach undergraduates to work with colour in relation to textile design. It’s important to see beyond the broad definition of colour by name and to think about the context of colour; the surface qualities in that colour, the effect the material has on colour, such as gloss, matt and opaque for example.

Last week I managed to update some colour charts in my studio resources and it made me think about how we tend to have particular favourites when it comes to colour. I certainly have a comfort zone in sections of the colour charts and other areas I’d have to be persuaded to go near. Commissions often include discussions with clients about the intended colours of products, and I enjoy the challenges of pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone – within reason! I have a different palette I’m happy to wear compared with what I’d live with, and I certainly dress in colour relating to the mood. I remember many years ago dressing in very colourful clothes only to receive a rejection for something that mattered. I felt gutted I’d dressed for the wrong outcome!

Here are some REDs… I love the border colours between red and orange.

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learning with archives

Recently I have been sharing joys from the fabulous archive of textile samples belonging to Birmingham City University’s library, some dating back from 1901. Myself and a colleague have been showing these treasures to our students, helping them to see their own learning as part of a history of design practices. In an age of the digital file it’s been fabulous to see how much interest these portfolios have generated with our students. It’s a tough call as we worry for the protection of these fragile items, and yet value being able to see and interact with them.

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Being able to turn the pages, and reveal the hundreds of printed swatches is really an exciting journey and the students really engaged with the quality and preciousness of the items. The fact that all the samples are beautifully hand mounted and labelled adds to the beauty and experience. The range of design compositions is considerable, and the detail stunning. Tiny little flecks of print; an anchor, a petal of a flower, or coral texture printed on fine cloth demonstrate quality of the day. We noted the generosity of many designs, and discussed commercial appeal and production methods available before screen printing and digital printing possibilities. Of course this is pertinent at this time of financial cuts in the support to local and national libraries and associated archives, and with arts and culture being sold to the nation as a rather nice hobby we just can’t afford at the moment.

Seeing things with our own eyes helps to engage with the subject, making things real, and adding value to the experience. I spent an extremely insightful day at London College of Communication’s Learning Through Objects event #UALOBL last month discussing this subject with fellow academics, researchers and archivists. Yes it’s easier to deliver another ppt to a large group of students, but sessions with objects and physical activity are the ones that are likely to make far more impression, and make the difference to learning we are aiming for.

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season’s colour

A beautiful pocket of Norfolk provided this colour palette for us at the weekend. Surrounded by greying reeds and rotting down leaves the bright sunshine lit up the sulphur-yellow lichens, orange shooting willow whips and mauve feathery seed heads of the reeds. The more we looked the more colour we saw. I took several photos and as I focused the lens on details the overall variety of colour and tones were lost, hence the palette I’ve made here.

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If you ever get the chance to visit, I strongly recommend this place. Wheatfen is a nature reserve in Norfolk, managed by the Ted Ellis Trust, founded to continue his valuable work in raising awareness of this fragile environment and to make accessible this landscape for others to learn about and to enjoy. It doesn’t feature dramatic mountain passes or high waterfalls, but for me it is perfect. If you are lucky, as we have been over the years, you might spot an otter, a heron or a Swallowtail butterfly, and lots of reeds! It’s a pocket of tranquility that I could lose myself in for hours.

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building aesthetics

For the last few years, I’ve been lecturing on the subject of design history to first year students of Textile Design at Birmingham City University as part of a module aimed at introducing historical design considerations. Styles specific to an era, the influence of globalisation, the role of Fine Art, architecture, film and graphic design in shaping textile design, and where we are now, in context to where we have come from are presented alongside social commentary, introductions to colourful characters, controversy and a spot of light entertainment! It’s a huge ask to expect students to remember all the information I share, but my main focus is showing them how much it matters that what has gone before are the results of the times in which things were designed, whether it be superfluous decoration or trailblazing technology. From contemporary trends in fashion, to why we don’t choose certain colours for our bedrooms, I think it vital that our students have a working knowledge of design history as a foundation of understanding, as designers themselves. This knowledge feeds back in to their studio projects in the working knowledge of aesthetics, linking the look of something with the connotations that others might bring to a piece. Is it beautiful? Now there’s a rather complex question!

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Last week I shared my ‘interest’ in forks, and more can be read on that matter here. As I move towards the present day, bit by bit each week – Arts & Crafts, Morris et al, Art Nouveau etc this Friday, I introduce words to help grow their critical vocabulary, and help them to see and read this history that remains around us. Walking through Birmingham demonstrates how different styles of ornamentation jostle for attention. Arts and Crafts flourishes appear fussy in contrast to the rather robust Deco motifs. Twenty first century obsession with flimsy superficial solutions such as the facade of New Street station’s mirror panels, and other examples not far away, are put to shame by the care and craftsmanship of carved stone, worked iron, and intricate tile work of over a century ago – still intact. Now as the wrong library remains standing (in my opinion) I dread the day I hear that the concertina signal box loses the fight to stand. I digress…

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I’m fascinated in how something can contain the belonging of a time, a style, a movement, just in the detail of a line, or a point in a curve – I’m specifically referring to pattern and decoration here but this observation can also be made with architectural detail. The shape of a leaf, the ‘stylisation’ of a flower, has the ability to communicate its belonging or differences in a glance. As a designer it’s important to know these references, especially in relation to a client’s brief – you wouldn’t want to offer Baroque when Neo-Classical is required! This knowledge of visual language crosses design disciplines and it’s fascinating to identify the same aesthetic approach on printed cloth that is also worked in silver with a terrine.

I enjoy the challenge of creating design motifs that tell the story, the unwritten references in the pattern, making a statement to belong. My recent commission for the Barbican shop illustrates this point; that architectural styles, in this case Brutalism, and the approach in which I take to the design process is fundamental in demonstrating through the aesthetic, the design language of the project.

It’s difficult for me to imagine not being able to hear the jazz age when spying an Art Deco border, or to think of Athens with the hint of the Greek key pattern. Despite not exactly loving history at school I now see the importance of it in adulthood. It’s a sad week as it’s announced we lose Art History A-Level as a subject in school, making it harder still for those with an interest in art and design to learn their passion. In Birmingham we have examples of Pugin’s design work in St. Chads cathedral and the hand of the Pre-Raphaelites in St. Phillips.  I hope my lectures feed the students’ imagination to want to know more, to feel proud when they differentiate the Deco from the Nouveau, and to go on to be informed designers, telling the right stories with the curve of a line and the style of a flower.

All photos taken in Birmingham by ©Kate Farley 2016

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seeing things

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the idea of looking and seeing, and particularly how we evidence what we have seen. I have boxes of photographic prints of things I’ve seen: cracks in pavements, postboxes around the country, vapour trails in the sky, flowers I’ve grown and plants I wish I’d grown – and much more. When the world turned digital I stopped filling real boxes and filled virtual boxes, and some I look back at, but rarely do I touch the surface of the sights I have collected.

The engagement in social media, and the sharing of pictures begs me to think again about why we take pictures, and why we share them. As I spend most of my time in some sort of real or virtual context of people in the creative industries my Twitter and Instagram feeds are heavily laden with considerately photographed shadows of railings, colour combinations of socks on patterned tiles, recently obtained vintage finds, and dare I say it, beautiful breakfasts! Not only are we collecting imagery, we are proving that we are seeing and experiencing interesting / beautiful / different things and places, judged by us and hopefully ‘liked’ by others. Yes it’s marketing; a branding tool to evidence our aesthetic judgements.

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Some questions then, are we seeing more? Do we notice more, and appreciate more?

It does seem as if there have always been people who see faces in clouds, and beauty in peeling paint, but I wonder if social media is driving us to become a load of aesthetes. In my world it may seem that way.

As a pattern maker I’m always on the lookout for eye-candy, and usually of the ‘just happened to be there’ kind of pattern, rather than a designed pattern – having said that, I’m equally likely to be stopped in my tracks by a well-designed wallpaper. There have been many books over the years, and more recently blogs that feature the beauty in the overlooked, or the ugly, or the mundane. The desire to collate / curate these sights are no more in evidence than in the world of Patternity a design-savyy duo with a manifesto about pattern! Their stunning website and book and interesting collaborations are clearly tapping in to this moment of ‘seeing’. Check them out if you are so far unaware.

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Pattern really is everywhere, formally and informally and that’s the pleasure. I remember the day I was taught the mysteries of repeat pattern making, and that evening in a pub in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, I took great pride in identifying the repeat ’tiles’ in the carpet, wallpaper and curtains of the glorious / hideous 1990s pub decor.

I had the pleasure to spend time with the fabulous Sarah Campbell last month, and much of our conversation, as we were at New Designers, was about pattern making; why we do it, how we do it, and getting people to pay for us to do it. During the conversation Sarah spotted a lady beside us in a polka dot blouse, and we noted that pattern-makers never really switch off from pattern spotting (pun intended!), pattern making, and pattern appreciating. When we departed we both commented that we look forward to reading each others next blog post – well here you are, this one is for you Sarah – it was a pleasure to see pattern with you!