What is Textile Design?

As a Textile Designer, I have been in many situations where people don’t really understand what fabric design is. When I say that I’m a textile designer, questions like ‘what is that, exactly?’, or ‘does that mean you are a fashion designer?’, are pretty common. Many people don’t realise how versatile and broad the subject really is. So, I’m going to give a brief insight into this creatively vast field of design.

Everywhere we look there is cloth.
Look down and you will see that your body is covered in textiles. Perhaps you are also sitting in an arm chair, or leaning on a table cloth. Wherever you look there are fibres of different types, colours and textures. So, how can we know so little about it? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that this brief intro will only skim the surface.

Fabric, in fact, has shaped and defined the world we live in. We sleep in it, wear it, eat on it, sit on it, repair ourselves with it, even go to space in it. ‘Textiles’ is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as ‘cloth made by hand or machine’. This definition is simple and endless. Three areas where textiles are prevalent is in fashion, interiors and fine art. Fashion needs fabrics to clothe us; interiors have patterned walls, chair coverings and pillows; and many installations in fine art today are textile based.

From the linen wrappings of Tutankhamun’s mummy to the worms that make our luxurious silks, our constant use and reinvention of cloth offers a unique story in human history. The first principle natural fibres were cotton, silk, linen and wool. These have been crafted by humans forever for warmth and protection, status, for decoration and identity.

Only when I started to study textiles, did I realise the differences in the make up of our everyday fabrics. When you take a closer look at their threads, so much is revealed. Cloth is made mainly from the techniques of weaving, knitting or felting. The difference between them depends on the amount of threads used, or the way they are connected together. When a fabric is woven, there are multiple yarns crossing over and under each other. This technique is made with a loom, a traditional machine that can be large, wooden and loud. Of course today, the making process can be made easier with digital looms. In comparison, a knitted fabric is made from yarn being wrapped around itself. Have you ever wondered why your jumper starts to unravel before your eyes from one small hole? Felt, on the other hand, is is made from wool that is still in its fluffy, fleece like form. With a felting needle, the wool is punched multiple times until the material begins to stick together. Knitted wool can also become felted with a high heat. Perhaps that holey jumper was also washed on a high heat, only to be returned pretty stiff.

From the basic structure of these materials, colours, patterns and embellishments can be added. These include processes like printing, dyeing or stitching. The former basic fabric enters a new world of design and colour, which makes you forget the fibres could have once been a plant, or come from an animal.

In print design, for example, there are practical and digital sides. Within these are many
techniques including woodblock printing, screen printing, potato prints, dyeing, batik, digital printing, sublimation printing, laser cutting… the list goes on. Having specialised in print design, I found that more painterly and raw effects are created by hand with wood blocks, batik or screens. For centuries people have pressed repeat patterns onto fabric from wood blocks dipped in ink. This technique is famous in India, where small irregularities in colour or shape are part of the cloth. Batik is an Indonesian technique where wax is used as a resist when the cloth is dyed. The marks are made from the undyed areas. Screen printing, widely used in the UK, is a technique where a squeegee tool pulls ink through a metal gauze frame on which you place your pattern. With digital prints, the effects are endless. A process I enjoy is turning hand drawings into digital
prints through photoshop and illustrator.

The first time I walked into the dye lab at Chelsea College of Arts, it felt like a science lab. There are recipes to make dyes, along with chemicals and big dye vats filled with hot water. Specific quantities of pigment and chemicals are tested to achieve your desired colour. Of course, natural pigments too. This process of design and experimenting can be meticulous. Colours always look different from paper, to screen to fabric. Many tests are done for the perfect combinations. When it comes to pattern, you need to think about repeats – what will it look like on the finished piece, and will it work? After that, you need to make sure your fabric collection is cohesive, and not a mix of different shapes and colours. Imagine the amount of thought that has gone into every piece of fabric you are wearing right now.

Not only do textile designers make cloth for decorative purposes, but there are constant ground breaking fabrics being developed. Extreme sports fabrics, or even the automobile industry involves fabric designers. Moreover, today there is a growing concern towards using natural and sustainable fabrics, especially among young designers. Not only that, but new textiles are being made for animal leather alternatives – such as mushroom or pineapple leather. Textiles is an ever evolving subject, that works in tandem with time.

The book ‘The Golden Thread – How fabric changed history’, by Kassia St Clair, was a complete eye opener for me, and a great read if you are at all interested in cloth. One section that I found mesmerising was the inherent connection between our daily spoken word and the language of textiles. In only a few pages, Kassia St Clair describes some words we use every day, that have roots in textiles. For example, the words ‘line’, ‘lining’, ‘lingerie’ and ‘linoleum’, are all rooted in the word ‘linen’. Moreover, ‘text’ and ‘textile’ share the same ancestor – ‘textere’, which means to weave. It is so interesting to unpick these lineages. The written word and textiles are completely interwoven. Paper was even once made with rags.

From a traditionally female domestic activity, textiles have grown enormously to be intertwined with our growing culture and technology. A textile designer can be involved in every, or any single part of the fabric making process.

Take a moment to feel, observe and appreciate the design of a piece of fabric, and you will see that textiles are more important than you ever imagined.