14 October 2014

Coming across Elaine’s work was like discovering ‘water in the desert’ of academic writing on textile design and how textile designers do design, and think about design. Before I could define and explore a sustainable textile designer venturing into new contexts like the supply chain or local communities for my PhD project, I realised I needed to define what a textile design practice was. I had looked at design theory on ‘designerly ways of knowing’ but the research was based on product/service designers or architects, and was also mainly from a male perspective.  

Discovering Elaine’s research has been a revelation, as she is able to articulate the unusual and complex ways that textile designers’ practice, and has helped me to understand the deeply personal and ‘feminine’ qualities of a process that is based around fabric, colour, texture and pattern. She has also helped me to understand that writing, either instead of, or as well as, designing textiles, is a form of activism. 

CV: Tell me about the starting point for your PhD project

EI: Originally, I set about investigating innovative flocked surfaces, and was collaborating with material scientists at Imperial College. I noticed that I was being heavily influenced by the scientists and I began to question what I was bringing to the table. What actually should they value in what I am bringing to them? What is in textile design thinking and textile design knowledge that is beneficial to scientists, manufacturers and industrialists? That moment was a watershed, from that moment I took a step back and my research then became about this question.

Then I began to look into theories of design thinking and design processes in the design literature, but the language didn’t sit right with me. The language was of problem solving, and how design is about finding solutions. Although problem solving is a part of designing textiles, it wasn’t quite right. Textiles have this curious position, as they are a designed product – like a swatch or a sample –  that is waiting for an application [CV: textile designers are often freelance and they create samples which are A3 size pieces of fabric, and these samples are sold to manufacturers/brands via an agent].

It is not easy to try and define this uniqueness of the textile design process. In my project I used a theory from the artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger, called ‘matrixial’. This concept really gives me a way in to explain the way I think textile designers’ work and also the agency of textiles within a product.  When you are designing, you are equally part of the process, you are equally changed by the process of designing. The person that you are is important to the outcome of the product as well as the design process. When I look at the way other design disciplines are visually represented in the academic literature, it is so over-simplified as if the process is almost a formula, or has these continuous iterative loops.  It was impossible for me to try and create a linear or looped diagram of the process for textile design.  Applying Ettinger’s matrixial theory to design research context allowed me to give form to the relationality, complexity and ‘co-poiesis’ of textile designing.

I’m hoping that what I’ve produced can act as a bridge between how textile designers know they work and what is written in the wider design research discourse, so we can start to influence it.

CV: So you are trying to capture and articulate the textile designer’s epistemology or knowledge. Can you tell me about what methods you have used to do this?

I made a conscious decision to step away from my practice, and to do a wholly written thesis. I didn’t want to investigate textile designers making because that is what they do so well, but I wanted to get textile designers talking and verbalizing their experience of design. My methodology was largely informed by narrative enquiry. I spoke to a range of different textile designers – from students to world-renowned designers – and let them talk and tell a story about themselves and their practice. I analysed the ‘stories’ in detail by pulling out the key phrases and commonalities in topic and grouped them. I continued to read and re-read the transcripts until I had several clear areas for further research.  These became the four main sections of my thesis.  I wanted to try and demonstrate that there is some form of collective knowledge and collective way of thinking.


Image: A drawing of a textile designer by one of the designers interviewed by Elaine

I spoke to weavers, printers, knitters and didn’t want to differentiate between the different mediums. I want to find the thing that connects us. Although the designers I spoke to couldn’t articulate this. I am also trying to define textile design as important in the design and emotion discourse, [CV: an area of design that explores the role of emotional experience in design] but textile design is completely unrepresented –  most of the activity comes from interaction design and product design. However, I would argue we are the queens of design and emotion.

CV: Textile designers are the qualitative queens! You talk about textile designers as being ‘taciturn’ in the design research discourse. Why do you think we are so silent?

EI: I used the term ‘taciturn’ in a paper in 2010 in reference to Peter Dormer.  I think it’s partly the gender issue, as most textile designers are women, which is deeply set and historical. I also think as a design process it is hard to define, as I just described and its hidden behind other fields of design. My research claims that its complex because it’s relational and needs to be understood on several levels – it’s about emotions, as well as being an industrial process. It’s also not easy fodder for published research. [CV: There are also hardly any practicing textile designers or makers who write about their work, and practice-based PhD’s are very rare. And it is the written word that has currency in the academic discourse].

I asked the designers if they felt there were any characteristics that all textile designer’s share.  A lot of them work closely with fashion designers, and they said – “We are just quiet, we just want to do our work because we love it”. They said the making and designing of the textiles is all they want to do.

CV: Yes, the process of designing and making textiles is so pleasurable

EI: Yes, and to create that affect in the final textile, the design process must involve the pleasure of the designer who creates it, that connection with an investment of personal pleasure and investment of personal sensibilities – literally sensibilities.

CV: I have this fantasy project of photographing and interviewing textile designers who are retiring, the ones who were pre-digital, who trained in the 1960’s and 70’s. This idea came to me because I was at a car boot sale, and bought all these wonderful objects from a textile designer, who was retiring and clearing out her old studio.

EI: It’s funny you’re talking about house clearances and car boots, because one of my chapters is on Paraphernalia, about the habit of textile designers for collecting objects and ephemera. The original definition of the word referred to women’s items which are not part of the marriage dowry – personal items such as trinkets, objects, jewellery. For a textile designer, their paraphernalia is an essential tool. All the designers I spoke to talked about collecting stuff – it feeds the process, and is ongoing. You don’t just pick this stuff up for the project you are doing at that time, it’s an ongoing collection that builds. The design process isn’t just one loop or cycle, we are always feeding our own pleasure, so that we can apply it as and when we need to. We all know we do all this stuff but I wanted to write it all up so it can be recognized as valuable. It is not just about women looking at car boot sales, but actually an essential and valuable approach to design! I’m not saying that other designers from other disciplines don’t work in a similar way, but it just felt like this approach to design was not being represented well in design research theory.

CV: Was there evidence of your textile career in your childhood?

EI: Not really, I wasn’t making clothes as a child or anything like that. I don’t really see myself as a maker actually. My earliest memories are of playing with sand. My textile practice was creating experimental surfaces, flocking with silks, and shiftable magnetic surfaces – messing around I guess, which may have origins in my playing with sand! I asked the designers I interviewed the same question, and they were all talking about their textile-led childhoods, but mine wasn’t. But I loved fashion so that is why I went down the textile/fashion pathway at university.

CV: Thank you so much Elaine, your insights into textile design thinking and process is much needed and will bring real value to the discipline.

Elaine Igoe is currently a Senior Lecturer in Fashion/Textile Design at the University of Portsmouth, UK