If you dream of working within the fashion industry but you also have a passion for art, feel experimental when it comes to materials, and obsess about new technologies hoping to merge more disciplines together, forget about becoming a demi-God designer whose creativity gets squeezed and squashed by a big fashion group, and opt for an exciting career in textiles.
You think you may have doubts about embarking in such a venture? Go and check out the free exhibition "Real Dirty Blue" at Central Saint Martins' Lethaby Gallery (Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London; until tomorrow 1st April). This is actually the sort of exhibition that any creative mind should check out and not just students looking for a direction in their careers. The event brings together a group of exciting designers who taught or studied on the BA Textile Design Course at CSM throughout the decades.
Textile design has been taught at the college since 1897: as the years passed this practice was linked to avant-garde design artists such as May Morris (1897), Joyce Clissold (1930s), Eduardo Paolozzi (1950s) and Professor Carole Collet (2000s).
The work on display comes therefore directly from the history and the archives of the college and was created between 1927 and 2016; all the pieces featured were made with very intriguing materials and employing a wide range of techniques (printing, knitting, weaving, laser cutting and so on...).
The title of the exhibition comes from a 1930s dye book that belonged to Joyce Clissold. A member of the Footprints design studio, Clissold created intricate materials and worked with block printing. Her notebook (also included in the exhibition) is a creative joy since it features several dye recipes and its pages are all covered in splatters and stains, symbols of her trial and error process.
A piece of fabric with four blue rectangles shows the results obtained by Matthew Clark (from the Society of Dyers and Colourists) who tried to recreate the perfect recipe for the "real dirty blue" shade converting from ounces to grams the various quantities of dyes and trying to translate the old names of dyes (Helio, Safflower and Auramine...) into modern language.
Divided in 5 different compact thematic areas, "Real Dirty Blue" opens to visitors a series of paths: the key to approach all of them is definitely an experimental one and, while a few visitors may be familiar with some of the techniques featured, others will be surprised by innovative tricks or by the results dictated by fortuitous cases. The first section - "2D to 3D" - introduces for example to multi-dimensional textiles inspired by themes such as repetition or symmetry.
Howard Asher's untitled felt tip drawings on graph paper (1977-1988) are mesmerising because their extreme precision - translated then onto pillowcases and sheeting samples for West Point Pepperell or Dorma - instantly conjure up in the minds of the visitors computer-aided designs.
While the designer was skeptical about computers, his geometric abstractions on ordinary graph paper could be directly linked with design software from the early '80s.
Carole Collet's lemon yellow and turquoise pop up tea pot lace designs in biodegradabe fibres (paper, nylon and starch; 2009) combine instead 19th century lace with biodegradable Japanese paper yarn.
The technique Collet - a textile innovator, maverick futurist and ecologist as well - developed in these pieces allows her to three-dimensionally carve out of the lace curtains and tablecloth she produced her lace patterns.
There is instead something deeply architectural in Skye Gwillim's studies. A colour and material designer who has also worked in the car and footwear industries, Gwillim is specialised in creating grid structures, at times linked with wider themes, such as the effect certain patterns can have on mental health (or of mechanical movements such a knitting and weaving on emotions).
The pieces on display combine artisanal skills with a strong industrial aesthetic: they are made from 3D textile paper and create peculiar patterns that vary colour according to the way they are held.
Knitwear is celebrated in this section via Derek Lawlor's black knitted dress from his graduate collection. The latter featured designs made with intricate structures of connecting wax cords. Once woven onto a dress, these structures, similar to liquorice rolls, give it movement and add a sense of fluidity to an otherwise solid surface.
While Lawlor plays with flexibility, George Morgan designs architectural grids with MDF, plywood and hemlock veneer. The pieces, inspired by Russian Constructivists such as Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova, look rigid, but Morgan actually makes sure the wood is rendered more malleable by soaking it. The three-dimensional pieces included in the event look at times more like screens or panels for houses rather than mere textiles.
Harriet Rose Paynter's graduate collection "Constructed Reality" includes wallpapers, picture frame panels (both screenprinted) or switch and plug socket reliefs (in vacuum formed plastics) that have the power of giving a fun twist to a wall or a corner of a house.
In some cases the curators of the event also decided to include sketchbooks: Stephanie Rolph's is particularly mesmerising as if features intricate paper structures.
The designer used them as the starting points for her "im(permanence)" (2013) collection including experimental furniture made with woven materials and polypropylene.
Rebecca Skelton also experimented with unusual materials – lino, bungee cord, fabric, timber, threads and cables – for her samples and furniture characterised by interlocking pieces of wood that can be employed to build, reassemble and therefore alter a piece of furniture, allowing consumers to "weave" the wooden sections by hand, and become in this way part of the design and assembling project.
If you like new techniques you should instead check Anne Smith's laser cut polyester panels and in particular her light layers with houndstooth, geometric or spot shaped motifs. Smith is also the Dean of Academic Programmes at Central Saint Martins and holds a patent for many innovative techniques involving laser cutting and etching.
The most interesting thing about these panels is the fact that, by layering them, Smith creates intriguing effects using not just the textiles, but lights and shadows as well. This means that, as the viewer moves, the pieces cleverly reveal new depths, figures, reflections and formations.
Simth's work perfectly introduces to the next section of the event, dedicated to "Digital Pioneers": textile designers have indeed progressed from the Jacquard loom to incredibly innovative techniques at times borrowed from other fields and disciplines or updated and improved thanks to the use of new softwares.
Laura Baker's volume Laser Cutting for Fashion & Textiles (Laurence King, 2016) takes visitors behind the scene of the technique while hinting at the possibility of upcycling materials by laser cutting them.
Her samples include an iPad case, a laser cut leather belt and a laser cut broderie anglaise pattern on a circle skirt, but there are more desirable pieces on display as well.
Baker's geometric bangles, a jacket in a honeycomb pattern laser etched into boiled wool and a stunning delicate shawl in silk crepe with a laser cut diamond shaped wood veneer application introduce visitors to an elegant and wearable high-tech future.
All of these pieces and prototypes disclose new developments in the laser cut technique, while Philippa Brock's takes the "on loom finishing" processes to another level.
An artist, weaver, researcher and editor of the website The Weave Shed, Brock designs three-dimensional self-folding structural textiles (check out her "X-Form" and "Self Fold" series or her "1580" piece in silk organzine warp and paper weft).
An early ambassador for digital technology in textile design at Central Saint Martins, using Photoshop and other early softwares, Malcolm Cocks developed in the 1990s vividly coloured images and modern patterns that moved from traditional motifs and fabrics such as stripes and tartan that were then produced using atomised spray and heat transfer.
The structure developments (gold and silver annealed copper wire dobby woven on 24 shaft electronic loom) and the final textile (woven gold soft annealed copper wire on TIS/Texel electronic jacquard) from Rosemary House's "MIDAS" series look instead as if they were woven for a mythological king in a fantasy reign, but they were actually made in the 1990s.
House combined traditional techniques with the then emerging software that allowed her to come up with digital-generated images.
Around the same time, Sue Jenkyn Jones introduced students to the use of software in fashion design, researching new digital technologies and coming up with pioneering computer-aided knit techniques, as shown by her knitted textiles reproducing circuits in bright and varied colours.
Yet software is not all and collaborations with further experts can lead to wonderful projects as proved by Nadia-Anne Ricketts' "My Tribe" project.
A former dancer with a passion for music, she developed with music and software producers a programme (she even started a company - BeatWoven - for her experimental tapestries) to transform music into digital patterns.
Inspired by specific music pieces, the colours of her silk, wool, polyester and copper yarn tapestries are designed to trigger emotional memories in the viewer.
While Ricketts translated music into textiles, Priti Veja tried to incorporate electronics in her fabric constructions. Veja wrote a dissertation on integrated electronic designs and created a series of experimental pieces that go from resistor and battery modules to switch modules and RGB colour mixers. The pieces are made using a manually operated multi-shaft loom together with high-tech materials such as conductive yarns and LEDs.
If you prefer craft to technology, opt for the "Happy Accidents" section that includes designers who have worked following an equally experimental but more playful and at times ironic or fun approach.
Clissold's dye books are included in a display in this section together with her woodblocks, fabric samples, a jacket and a blanket. These pieces are covered in prints inspired by nature, the countryside and rural landscapes.
Mary Harper was also very much inspired by nature and floral patterns in particular. Her notebooks and sketchbooks could indeed act as a naturalist's guide to the beauty of flowers.
Harper would then transform a simple drawing of a flower into an intricate and vibrantly coloured pattern as proved by the "Pallida" and "Kaleidoscope" fabrics by Edinburgh Weavers included in the exhibition and derived from her pencil or watercolour drawings on paper.
Anne Marr and Rebecca Hoyes' hybrid experiments combining silica ropes with paper clay and ceramic clay or ropes, glass fibre, porcelain, paper clay and ceramic glaze are particularly eye-catching as they could be considered as studies for sculptures or artworks.
The final results of these combinations between soft and hard, matte and glossy materials fused together at extreme temperatures are unpredictable, but quite often the results are unexpectedly beautiful and inspire new solutions for interior design pieces.
Further experiments with heat were carried out by Lorna Smith who employs in her textiles thermo-plastic yarns melded together. The textiles were actually inspired by an intricate narrative triggered by her visits at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in South East London where the artist explored themes such as science, art, and healing through Bethlem's gallery and collections and via interviews with the patients.
A wall installation reproducing a colourful houndstooth pattern in perspex, wood veneer, cork and denim introduces visitors to Philippa Brock and Jo Pierce studio. Their Houndstooth Project suggests visitors to register on a dedicate site, download a pattern and practice how to make it as a single image or as a repeated image.
People can then come up with their own projects, in their own material and technique of choice - from knitting to 3D printing, from fabric to metal or ceramic - and upload their work on the site, contributing to create a wider project on this pattern.
Rather than just textiles, Marta Velasco Velasco developed a project revolving around a fictional diary and photobook entitled "The Trip Journal" in which she explores inspirations from a journey to Namibia that the artist actually never took.
This imaginary journey taking the reader through the country, its landscape and people, prompted Velasco to remake, re-adapt and upcycle materials following the African custom of reusing things.
The last section of the event focuses on "Material Artisans" and asks visitors to ponder on new forms of craft for the future, while rethinking the hand-made/mass-produced dichotomy.
Eileen Ellis' woven designs for seating fabrics for companies involved in global travel in earthy or deep blue tones are characterised by weaving patterns and complex textures.
They are a testament to the work of an artisan who applied her knowledge and skills as a craftsperson (Ellis also worked for the couture market) to the transport corporations.
Ann Bristow's mill-woven Pavo bright pink acrylic sample originally made for curtaining in 1967 shows her genuine interest in industrial design and could be juxtaposed to more modern pieces such as Susan Campbell's designs, prototypes and sketches for her "Status Update" collection.
The latter featured pieces that look as though they were printed, but were actually made using laser cut neoprene elements pieced back together as if they were combined in a perfect puzzle.
Nature proved an inspiration for a few artists in this section, including Jessica Hymas and Elaine Yan Ling Ng.
The former called her collection "Biomimicry" and included in it pieces inspired by wonderfully coloured plumages of rare birds, but that call to mind in the stitches and surface elaborations the shapes of mysterious plants and microbes.
Yan Ling Ng is inspired by science, nature and craft and in a video shown in the exhibition she explores intricate structures found in the animal and plant worlds replicating them in textiles, wood and plastic.
Linda Florence's Kaleidoscope Blue is instead an example of a site-specific installation commissioned by a clothing retailer and characterised by Florence's trademark kaleidoscopes and crystals hand-made by the artist via a time-consuming process.
Multi-dimensions are instead explored by Jaimee McKenna's in her garment covered in leather circles reproducing a sort of modern version of a chainmail.
Claire O'Brien's experimental sportswear fabrics designed for the elderly include breathable materials that seem to have a strong tactile quality about them.
Last but not least, Jo Pierce's textiles reproducing collages of digitally photographed random objects and materials prompt visitors to look at the narrative that goes on inside a fabric and invite them to become part of the story.
In a way this event makes you realise that, while a part of the fashion industry lies in a rotten state, another is in a very healthy creative shape and, by challenging conventions and norms, it is building a future in which innovation will take place thanks to the right and proper balance between craft, heritage and technology. Guess if we follow these threads we will weave a much better future for fashion and the creative industries surrounding it.
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos