I'm republishing today an interview with knitwear designer Brooke Roberts that I recently did for Zoot Magazine.
In the last few years, technical developments, design innovations and unusual alliances between different fibres and blends introduced contemporary knitwear designers to an entire new world of possibilities and inspirations, prompting them to push the fashion boundaries. Brooke Roberts is among such designers.
An Applied Science graduate who also worked as a radiographer, in 2002 Roberts moved onto fashion, studying at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins.
When it came to creating her collections Roberts' fascination with human anatomy proved extremely important and she decided to explore uncharted waters by combining scientifical inspirations and crafts in her creations, manipulating medical images in the textile design software Eneas, programming the pattern in a knitting machine and obtaining different effects according to the yarns selected and the machine gauge used.
CT scans and the sheer/opaque dichotomy of X-rays inspired Roberts the jacquard and tubular knitting techniques with ‘suture’ stitches employed in her Spring/Summer 2011 collection entitled “Cuts” in which she reproduced via graphic and embossed motifs the densities and textures of tissue, bone and air on X-rays.
Further experiments with X-ray calibration films led Roberts to the A/W 2011-12 geometric designs in scales of grey made using camel, cashmere, extra fine wool bouclé, silk and 3M Scotchlite retro-reflective yarn.
For her current collection “Wo÷Man Machine” (S/S 12), Roberts mixed ‘50s sci-fi films such as Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 Forbidden Planet with images from the Allen Institute for Brain Science designing graphic embossed motifs on soft pastels and recreating through delicate colours and yarns the effects of the staining technique developed by histologist Franz Nissl.
You studied science but then moved onto fashion: which was the main reason behind this decision?
Brooke Roberts: I am a creative thinker, but work quite logically. I did some short-courses in pattern cutting, then realised I wanted to study fashion full-time. Design requires technical ability and creative thought. Knitting is particularly technical, which is why is suits me so well.
In a way being a scientist and being a fashion designer are very different yet very similar professions, as both rely on human creativity - would you agree on this point?
Brooke Roberts: Yes, I do, both require an experimental approach. Science works within very specific boundaries to a well-defined set of rules. The beauty of science is that it helps us understand the world around us. It seeks to provide answers. Art and design tend to ask questions, rather than providing answers. Art and science are beautiful sides of the same coin. I don't use quotes often, but this one by Albert Einstein is particularly relevant: “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree”.
Did you find it difficult to transform into patterns for the knitting machine the X-ray calibration films?
Brooke Roberts: It was challenging. That was the whole reason I did it. I never set out to make something with skills I already have. I make myself find new skills every season. That's what I love most about my job.
Which was the most difficult garment you made?
Brooke Roberts: Every season I use a new technique, or new yarn, or both. Each season seems the most difficult, and the first sample of every style can take a week to program and swatch, then another week to knit, cut and construct. I usually knit all the trims and components, so there can be up to 15 processes in a garment, and more than 20 stages of construction. The funny thing is, at the end of every season, I forget how hard it was!
Your current S/S 12 collection “Wo÷Man Machine” is inspired by ‘50s sci-fi films and images taken from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, do you have any specific film references?
Brooke Roberts: I watched several movies, but the one I enjoyed most was Forbidden Planet. The Allen Institute images were a stronger influence, alongside robotics and the concept of creating garments that combine machine and hand-made techniques.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
Brooke Roberts: I start with a mood, concept and image - it might be an image I have seen at the hospital that sparks off an idea, or a swatch I have seen in a textiles book. It could even be a garment someone is wearing on the tube. I then look at techniques and new technology before looking at the seasonal yarn cards, from which I decide colours and textures. This part takes a great deal of time, as yarn is totally dependent on technique and it is impossible to know at that stage how I will combine the yarns in programs and whether the fabrics will actually work. I usually go with my instincts and what excites me, rather than what I know will work. I then create the patterns and toiles before going to the factory to commence programming, testing and development of the fabrics. Then I make the sample collection, for presentation at London and Paris Fashion week.
What kind of yarns do you prefer?
Brooke Roberts: I prefer yarns that behave unpredictably and create unusual effects. In the past I have combined camel hair with retro-reflective yarn and bioceramic with cotton and elastic. My base yarns are always the highest quality, but it's impossible for me to only use natural yarns. I would get bored in an instant!
Your pieces are made in Italy, there are quite a few historical mills over there, have you worked with any of them?
Brooke Roberts: I have worked with factories in Como, and I am now expanding to other factories in the UK and Europe.
You did a year at The Hospital Club as creative in residence, how was it and did you develop anything new research-wise/fashion-wise during it?
Brooke Roberts: I have just completed my Residency at The Hospital Club. I presented my S/S12 show “Wo÷Man Machine” during London Fashion Week in the form of a dance presentation, choreographed by Riccardo Buscarini, with sound design by Elspeth Brooke. All three of us won the Creatives in Residence award. Here is the trailer:
Who has been the greatest influence on your career choices?
Brooke Roberts: My boyfriend Emi, a scientist and inventor, my business mentor David Watts, and the little voice in my head.
Is there a technique you'd like to experiment with in future?
Brooke Roberts: I do love embroidery and hand-painted textiles. I am particularly interested in embroidered medical textiles and knitted surgical devices at the moment.
If you could launch a collaboration with a scientist who would you choose?
Brooke Roberts: That’s a really tricky one. I think I'm more likely to collaborate with a research scientist who is working on materials and intelligent fabrics.
What are you working on at the moment?
Brooke Roberts: I'm working on another collaboration with Riccardo Buscarini for the Place Prize 2012. It is an extension of our previous collaboration, “Wo÷Man Machine”. Our roles have flipped, with Riccardo directing and me creating the costumes.
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