Thursday, 29 March 2012

Colour that Cheers

An explosion of colour will go off tomorrow morning not far from Covent Garden tube station in London – and I’m going to miss it! Alas!  As a fan of the Mistress of Colour, Swedish fashion designer Gudrun Sjoöden, I’ve waited years for her to open a shop in London. It’s finally happening tomorrow but I can’t be there.  Anyone who does go along to Monmouth Street will be treated to a feast of fashion and home textiles in colours and patterns entirely inspired by nature.  I won’t be content now until I’ve had an opportunity to go there myself and be bathed in her colour palette!

What can possibly console me?  Well the postman, actually.  He brought a squashy package this morning, filled with these most amazing coloured locks, sent as a thank-you from friend Clare at Boo’s Attic.  Now that’s a colourful sight to cheer anyone.  Clare is an indie dyer whose yarn-painting has more than a little of the Van Goughs about it.  Striking colours: yes, but none look out of place beside each other and the effect of the whole is a careful consummation of the parts.  Very much in harmony with Gudrun Sjoöden’s fashions in fact.   Neither of these ladies are afraid of colour and use it to enhance their output.   If you’re visiting Fibre-East this summer, look out for Clare on the Boo’s Attic stand.  The artists amongst you won’t be disappointed.

Another piece of good cheer turned up in the post too: an Iranian new year card from friend, guide and comforter Shahin.  It’s bathed in the colours of spring and the symbols of new life in the Zoroastrian faith which is deeply, if today surreptitiously, buried in the Iranian psyche.  Some of Iran’s spring colour palette was shared in the past few days via the unlikely medium of The Guardian.  It must be a real lift to the spirits in such a dry place to see new life emerging in spring. 

The good news is I’m able to return the good wishes by sending her some of the blue wild species hyacinths in the Nowruz card picture:  amazingly I won some in a plant raffle a few years back, donated as a prize by the holder of the National Collection of Hyacinths. He opens his Collection to the public one a year and it’s this Saturday, just  north of Cambridge. With thousands of hyacinths in a myriad of colours all in bloom at once, and with the most amazing scent, that too is something to cheer the spirit. 

With Britain having record high March temperatures and cloudless skies, it may be that my Iranian wild hyacinths will feel ever happier here in the stealthily creeping deserts of East Anglia.  If our water resources here become as critical as in the drier parts of the middle east, we may well become rapidly familiar with the lines of an ancient Iranian poet:   “If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft, And from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left, Sell one, and with the dole buy hyacinths, to feed the soul.”  May you too find colours, and scents, to feed your soul this coming week.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Meeting point: textiles, fibres - and building materials!

The middle of a building materials show is hardly the place you’d expect to meet a textile designer.  But my stoic progress around Ecobuild yesterday for the ‘day job’ was sharply arrested by a display of tremendous woven energy by Joby Lawlor, on the University of Huddersfield stand.  

The University was demonstrating its students’ prowess in sustainable materials design, and as a weaver myself Joby’s work immediately caught my eye.  Not only had she found a use for otherwise unwanted materials, but she’s used them to create fabric with the potential to be formed into shapes, and that changed its look with the colour of light flowing through its translucency.  It’s highly innovative work and more suited to an art installation than an exhibition display.  It cheered my day up no end!

Perhaps Joby will be one of the next generation of ‘Enterprising Women’ – a link shared with me by friend Lindi on Ravelry this week.  Sounds like the type of organisation that all of us businesswomen in the craft sector should belong to, especially as many of us work on our own.  Another highly enterprising woman’s work also stunned me by being present at Ecobuild:  that of Extreme Knitting inventor and one of my textile heroines, Rachel John.  Her  Extreme Knitting textiles were part of a huge display marking the Campaign For Wool stand - which was primarily promoting sheep wool insulation! 

Having been involved through the ‘day job’ in developing careers information for a business sector, talking to Joby made me wonder how young people are being attracted into crafts.  The National Occupational Standards for Craft, launched in 2010, seem to be a very high cut above other sectors in terms of the ingenuity and general intelligence levels expected of entrants.  The ‘Craft Blueprint’ produced by the sector skills council for the creative industries gave me a bit of a shock, though.  It said the sector’s employment demographic was predominantly male!  And here’s me thinking that crafters out there are predominantly female.  You live and learn. 

The good news for all craft workers from the ‘Blueprint’ research is that we contribute about £3 billion’s worth of value to the economy, and there’s potential for: “a further 63% growth within the UK contemporary craft market,” excluding export potential.  So here’s to Joby Lawlor and her fellow graduates in 2012:  may your creativity be matched by your ability to weave yourself a flexible and stable business future in your chosen field.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Climate, Creations and Commerce

I suppose fashion is part of ‘manufacturing’  in the sense of creating economic benefits from creativity, but I must admit that mass-produced widgets and fashion design make uneasy bedfellows in my mind.  Creativity and ingenuity go into both in the initial stages, and in most cases mass production of an item is the result.  Thus perhaps I shouldn’t find it strange that the government-sponsored Make It In Great Britain campaign, which is out to encourage manufacturing-friendly attitudes  amongst the populous, has enlisted the likes of Doreen Adusei of Fashionworks ceramics and interiors designer (and highly successful businesswoman) Emma Bridgewater to its cause.  

Maybe it’s because I come at crafts from a very individual perspective: that of the ‘lone maker’.  Or perhaps it’s because the ‘products’ I’m involved in and value from others can only be produced by one pair of hands at a time.  Take the exciting and colourful work of expert potter Lesley McShea, who kindly showed our family some of the modes of expression achievable through her working medium recently.  We had a wonderful time exploring what’s within us when clay is in our hands, and getting an insight into the motions a craftsperson in a different discipline goes through before adding her own individuality to her work.   I love her combinations of animal prints and ancient artefact styling, with a colour palette that’s stunning to see close-up. 

The skills and individual creative spirit of people like Lesley McShea will no doubt be celebrated in Craft & Design Month in May, sponsored by Craft & Design magazine.  UK Handmade also makes a big contribution to getting many small businesses into shape to find and face their potential markets.  So much so, in fact, that Creative Director Karen Jinks has brought UK Handmade and its ‘Buy Handmade’ campaign under the umbrella of another initiative to encourage economic activity and entrepreneurship: the Get Britain Trading movement, launched by the Forum for Private Business. 

Many of us out there in small craft businesses are women, and for those of you who haven’t heard it yet I’d thoroughly recommend chasing down the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour special programme earlier this week on women in business/ It’s  thoroughly worth listening to if you can - even just for the mental pat on the back it provides for those of us working quietly away there! 

We should be more vocal when we get the opportunity, so hyped-up with all this positivity I couldn’t resist it when the Climate Week team put out a call for ‘sustainable outfits’ via their website.  Not sure what they will make of my mega-yarn overjacket entry on their Facebook page, but suffice to say, being possibly a little too sustainably ‘deep green’ it might not win the prize of fashion retailer-brand vouchers.  Here’s hoping whatever you create in the coming week will be an absolute prize to all those around you, as that’s what matters most.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Money for Nothin' - and your Fleece for Free?

Sheep aren’t probably what Dire Straits had in mind when penning their famous song, but their theme of wrong values came to me the other day when rootling through a bag of fleece I picked up 'for a song’ last summer.  It seemed pitiful at the time that the shearer only wanted £2 each for the fleeces.  Yes they were full of veg matter and hadn’t been skirted, but having washed a handful of each I seem to have a wonderful - and large - down sheep fleece and an equally beautiful creamy semi-long-locked fleece.  How can £2 each possibly even cover the cost of shearing?  Let alone make a contribution to the animal’s feed or welfare? 

Despite The Campaign for Wool’s activities having increased the farm gate price for fleece, it still seems society is still treating it like a low-grade commodity, instead of a valuable material that helps combat climate change and keeps us warm without over-heating (important to those of us who have our own internal solar flares every once in a while!). 

Growing a good fleece is very different from rearing sheep for other purposes, as any medieval monk would have told you.  The respect for pasture-land and its maintenance in, for example, parts of the Liber Eliensis, reminds us that you only get out what you put in.  A well cared-for wool sheep will give you good quality wool.  I’ve done two interviews for my articles with Knit! magazine, to be published in coming months, where my interviewees have highlighted the role of the animal’s health and well-being in the generation of really good fleece that’s worth spinning and making garments from.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones made a comment in 2010 about art “trying to live down its craft heritage”.  Is the clothing industry trying to do the same by under-valuing the baseline materials?  They’re certainly keen to demonstrate they’re in touch with wool, as Chloé’s autumn/winter collection shows with its arty big knits.

The fashion knitwear designers who’ve kindly lent their precious pictures to this blog most certainly appreciate what we spinners know: that it takes a lot of effort to  wash, card, perhaps dye, spin and then knit or weave something to wear.  Their ethical stance will stand their businesses in good stead, reputationally and morally.  Let’s hope many others will follow their honest lead, even if it means we end up paying a bit more than £2 for a fleece.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Graphic Designs on Sheep

Is visual culture – our approach to colour, form, texture and shape – ready-formed and embedded in our psyche or is it the imprint of history?  Nations and regions may have tendencies towards certain colour palettes, no doubt deeply ingrained through millennia of extracting colour from surrounding plants, rocks and soils.  Appreciation of textures too must have started from using local materials. But what of patterns?  Are we born with an ability to create and combine them, or is it ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’ which creates them? 

The artistry in the unique and innovative lambswool knitwear created by Electronic Sheep’s Brenda Aherne and Helen Delany is a perfect demonstration of combining colour, shape and form.  These two talented knitwear designers, showing their Pink Noir autumn/winter 2012 collection recently at London Fashion Week, have professional backgrounds in a linked discipline:  graphic design. 

Both began their training at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, and now, thirteen years on from its founding, their Electronic Sheep label has an international reputation for ‘knitted picture accessories’ and an equally global list of stockists, stretching from New York to Honk Kong, to Britain and to Russia.  Their AW2012 collection features block colours inspired by 1960s graphic design, and their flexible, functional, fashionable approach to clothing will doubtless see them with more best-sellers on their hands.

Brenda’s and Helen’s work illustrates the “..heightened visual consciousness that needs to be satisfied”, as Jay Hess put it in his interview with Dazed Digital, covering his book co-authored by Simone Pasztorek: Graphic Design for Fashion There’s no doubt a close relationship between graphic and fashion design, as students on many courses such as the BA in Graphic Design for Fashion run by Southampton Solent University will attest.  But the relationship between the graphic designer and the patterns which colour their life and their work is surely a more intimate one. 

Training in a city like Dublin, with its Celtic and Viking history, and with the depth of pattern and colour which that history implies, may perhaps be an unconscious influence on Electronic Sheep’s two creative entrepreneurs.  Having myself studied for a while illuminated manuscripts from the Christian tradition, with their vibrant colours and patterns, I feel that there’s a teaspoonful of  The Book of Kells in Electronic Sheep’s output.  Perhaps it’s just me, but there’s an exuberance of shape, form  and pattern and just as much joy of colour in their new collection as you’ll find in the very best of ancient illuminated manuscripts. 

Whatever their influences, the stunning knitwear produced by Electronic Sheep has an originality all of its own, and will go down well with free-thinking women across the globe.  May we all be similarly blessed with the freedom to create and to express ourselves through our wool-works.