Lifelong learners: Laura Blackwell
Meet Laura. She is a creative textile designer based in Leeds who studied textiles at A-level, went on to art college to do a foundation, then studied textile design (specialising in knit) at Huddersfield.
I’ve had a few weird jobs since then. I designed socks in my gap year, travelled to South Africa and designed potato print curtains, and then set up my own screen printing business while I was out there. I returned to England just as a recession hit and found myself working a number of bad admin jobs just to pay the bills. I’ve gradually clawed my way back into the creative world, initially by working 9-5 and then designing in the evening, to then going on to be self employed full time.
Laura likes texture, 3D effects in fabric, geometric shapes & patterns, hexagons, talking animals, snacks with high sugar content, being left alone for long periods of time and making clever things.
She hates quiche.
In this interview we talked about her passion for design, her work journey and all the things she has learnt by now. Enjoy!
What does a textile designer do?
A textile designer is someone who designs fabrics, specialising in either knit, weave or print. They’re like one of the middle cogs between initial idea and end product. The fabrics go on to be used in fashion, furnishing, the automotive industry, anything really. Every scrap of fabric you see around you was designed by someone, with a specific purpose in mind.
What attracted you to textiles as a medium?
I’ve always liked making things and textiles are generally more accessible than other mediums. I love manipulating fabric into 3D shapes. Textile design is traditionally about 2D designs that have been printed, jacquard knitted or woven into fabric but I’m more renegade! Whenever I see a 3D shape that I like the look of, like the underneath of an egg box, or a honeycomb, or unusual brickwork, my immediate thought is ‘yes, but how would you knit that? How could you get fabric to bend like that?’. To me, textiles is the most direct way of getting the idea in your head out into the world, to being something you can hold, without needing a lot of equipment.
How did you learn your craft?
I’ve always been able to hand sew (I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sew) and I learnt machine sewing at school. I learnt printing and machine knitting at university, then later my mother in law was shocked to learn that, whilst I had a degree in knitting, I couldn’t actually hand knit and so she taught me how to do that. It’s something I really enjoy now. I taught myself crochet, and pattern cutting, and various tailoring techniques, but I am by no means an expert. I’ve always read a lot and I’m the kind of person that, when I want to know about something, I dig and dig and dig until I know everything. I love to learn new things and the spectrum of textiles is so broad, I think I’ll be digging a while.
What skills do you think are most important for a textile designer?
You’ve got to be someone who notices the details in things and be able to gather inspiration from unlikely sources. You have to have an appreciation of colour, line, texture. You have to have an interest in (or fake an interest in) current trends, future trends and how you can apply those to your work. You also have to be a good listener if you’re going to be collaborating with other people.
I started to think that at the age of 24, my design career was over. I now realise I was being a bit of a melodramatic idiot. You can learn a lot from any job you work, even if it is something that doesn’t interest you at all.
What’s the process you go through when you start working on a new project?
It depends on the project. When I was employed solely as a textile designer, I would meet with the client, see the space where the fabrics would be used (I worked in interiors) then make rough sketches based on the client’s ideas. There’s a lot of back and forth in the early days. You’re not always working with people who have a creative background so you have to be good at understanding what they want based on a few magazine clippings and stick men drawings! Websites like Pinterest have really helped in that situation, as clients can search and collate images that line up with what they want and then share them with you.
Now that I work for myself as more of a designer/maker, I tend to be the one generating the ideas and I get to make the end product too, so the only back and forth is between myself and I (there’s still a lot of it, though).
Tell me about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories.
One that I particularly liked was a knitting pattern I designed for British fashion label, Izzy Lane. They are based in North Yorkshire and they rescue sheep, save them from slaughter and use their fleece to make beautiful garments, which in turn pay for the upkeep of the sheep. The brief came at a time when I had just had my daughter and was longing to do something creative again.
What about one that was particularly challenging?
I was tasked with designing a cable knit scarf, and writing a knitting pattern for it so that people across the country could knit from the pattern and make the scarf. Writing hand knit patterns is very different from writing machine knit patterns. With machine knitting you write a kind of formula. With hand knitting you’re writing to someone. So you’re saying cast on this many stitches, this many rows etc, but you’re also describing details such as how to make a pom pom. And sometimes, something simple like making a pom pom which you can do without even thinking about, becomes this complex set of instructions that fries your brain when you try to explain it in writing to someone you’ve never met.
What have you learnt about yourself and about people from your work experience so far?
I’ve recently started to teach knitting and sewing and I’m learning so much from that. The way different people approach things is fascinating to me. I’ve learned that I’m good at explaining things to people, and adapting the way I explain things to suit the individual. When you make stuff, there can be a lot you take for granted. It’s easy to assume everyone knows what you know, has the skills you have. When you teach an absolute beginner you get to see how far you’ve come.
How do you deal with self doubt?
I think it is very easy to compare yourself negatively to others, particularly in the age of social media. Even though you know this stuff is all heavily edited, at a glance it can look like your contemporaries are doing better than you and it is way too easy to then put that all back on yourself. I deal with self doubt by trying to be aware of why I’m feeling like I’m feeling, then looking at all I have achieved, all I have and all I still can do.
What drives you to keep on going?
I’m a maker! I have to make things. Every now and then, if I have a few too many days of admin related stuff and not getting a chance to physically make something, I get really down. So I constantly have a few projects (probably too many) on the go at the same time. As well as that, there is a lot of inspiration out there. I make nearly all of my own clothes now, but I still like to wander around Leeds city centre getting ideas. I write it all down and I have a long list of things I still want to make. I don’t think I will ever get to the end of it.
Are you currently learning something new?
I’m currently teaching myself machine embroidery. I love making shirts and I have a bit of a thing for cowboy shirts. I love the detail you get in the yoke and the history behind these designs, how they can be personal to the owner, like a tattoo or coat of arms. I’m good at making shirts but I’d love to get better at making these embroidered designs myself.
How important is curiosity in your work?
I’d say it is essential. I don’t think anyone just sits down and draws what’s in their head, there’s a lot of research in designing and making. Also, with textile design, you have to know a lot about the end product, how it goes together, how it will be used. I think a fascination with how things are made is a handy thing to have.
What was a good work advice you received and what’s one you’d give ?
There’s a saying in the North East, which is where I’m from: Shy bairns get nowt. For those of you that don’t speak Geordie (!) it means “shy children get nothing” and is basically encouraging you to speak up. I am not a loud, extrovert person by nature – in fact I’m the opposite. But, without exception, every opportunity I’ve had has come from me putting myself out there, introducing myself to people, writing, emailing etc. I still find it hard but really there is nothing to lose. So that would be the advice I would give.
Where can people see or buy your work?
I occasionally have sample sales that I promote from there, where I sell whatever doesn’t make the cut. I foresee some beautifully tailored cowboy shirts with slightly wonky embroidery in the pipeline.
The Lifelong Learners interview series are my conversations with people regarding their work experiences and the things they’ve learnt and continue to learn.