Weaving Without Tears

The Transition From Student to Industry

By Fran White, November 1999

It is now 18 months since graduation from the Surrey Institute of Art & Design with a degree in Woven Textiles.   A couple of months before we began college I sold my previous business - a prop-hire company which supplied textiles for use in Editorial and Advertising photography.  When I started studying I was keen to learn about cloth construction and eventually wanted to manufacture my own designs.  Rather to my surprise and delight this is exactly what has happened.  It is amusing to chart the path that has evolved and led to my commissioning linen cloth to be industrially woven in Northern Ireland.  The resulting double sided/multi-purpose fabric is suitable for both interiors and clothing.

Whilst studying it was often difficult to imagine the relevance of our various projects to the outside world.  Now - however - I can now see how advantageous it was to - go to Premier Vision in Paris - research design showrooms/trade fairs/craft shops - go on exhibition outings - visit a Worsted Weaving Mill in Lancashire - photograph our work - write artists profiles and especially an imagined obituary for 20 years ahead (for some of us that took us well past 60!).  All of this definitely prepared one for life, post graduation.  Our first spring - March 1996 - as ‘smartly attired’ students we attended Premiere Vision.  This huge textile trade fair is held in Paris each spring and autumn.  Fabrics are displayed specifically for clothes designers to choose for their following seasons collection.  In March ‘96 they would have been  selecting cloth for their Spring/summer ‘97 collection - likewise in October they would be doing the same for their following years winter collection.  Having first made this trip as a ‘green’ student, revisiting as a designer/ manufacturer of cloth three years later didn’t seem quite so awesome.

The germ of the idea of commissioning cloth to be woven in Ireland was sown by Ann Sutton.  A fellow graduate and I had visited her workshop autumn ‘98 and she pronounced future visions for both of us.  Mine ran along the lines of “you don’t want to be hand weaving but commission weaving in Ireland”.  My research up until that point had shown that a lot of commissioning went as far afield as India which often led to communication problems.  So I was relieved at the prospect of sourcing my fabric much closer to home.

In March 1998 at the Cutting Edge Exhibition I saw some garments which were very simply cut and allowed the fabric to ‘speak for itself’.  I sent the company an invitation to our Graduation Exhibition which was held that July.  As they didn’t  come to our show I was surprised when three months later I received a phone call from them inquiring if I’d gone into production.  Although holding the supermarket shopping while answering the phone I quickly assumed a business-like manner and answer “Oh yes I am going to have my cloth woven in Ireland”.  Their inquiry  and further encouragement from Ann made me actually sit down and start the long process which eventually led to my discovering a mill that would agree to sample weave my work.  It reminded me of when I was a photographic stylist when one’s job was to fulfil unusual requests - i.e. source fully ripe tomatoes still growing on leafy plants in the middle of winter - we accomplished this by locating a bemused grower near Wisley who sold us the plants and we attached ripe tomatoes by hand!  I studiously followed up all possible leads from my college dissertation on damask and from the Irish Linen Guild, however no one would consider weaving anything under 100 metres.

I was very relieved when one dull November day I ended up talking to Jim Mather at Blackers Mill  - he never once said no and took my request seriously.  Then the fun started.  At College we had woven tiny samples and three larger ‘productions’ each no more than 3 metres long and 1 metre wide.  Blackers cloth is 160 cms wide.  Listening to the advice of family and friends I decided to be totally honest, plead ignorance and ask for help in making the impossibly huge leap from college samples to industrial weaving.  Using the phone, fax and photocopies we transferred my original point paper design on to a draft and peg plan suitable for the dobby looms.   I commissioned  a 30 metre sample in 3 colourways with a calender - industrially ironed -  finish.  This arrived at home on 11th feb. ‘99 just in time for me to take transparencies for submission to the One Year One application.  

With hindsight it is clear that during this developmental stage of my business I have made many significant contacts and friendships and discovered happy coincidences.  At Decorex ‘98 I met an Indian Textile Designer who gave me the name of the then Conran Textile Buyer who turned out to be the niece of a family friend.  Another friend introduced me to Nicole Urbanski a couture clothes designer working from Hove.  I bought linen clothes from her summer ‘98 collection.  She showed interest in my future and subsequently gave me lots of sound advice and  encouragement when I was struggling to find a Mill.  When my first 30 metres arrived I phoned her for suggestions on selling and presenting this fabric - I can well remember asking her if she minded if I brought down the whole roll in the car - silence....”Fran why don’t you cut off 1/2 metre of each colour”.  Her next question when I reached her flat was “does it need dry-cleaning?”  I hadn’t even considered this - more information to add to the very steep learning curve I found myself on!  Nicole  ended up planning her spring/summer collection around my very first design - and has been an unending source of inspiration ever since.

Being selected for the One Year On Exhibition held by The Design Trust at New Designers gave me the impetus to build up my present Weave Rhythms Collection.  It  was also an opportunity to send out Press Releases to magazines and invitations to Clothes and Interior Designers.  This led to my displaying part of my Collection in the Watts Showroom at The Chelsea Harbour Design Centre.

Last year I made three trips to Blackers Mill, in April I introduced myself, in May I helped on the shop floor with cone-winding and familiarised myself with various industrial processes which included visiting Murlands, a cloth finishing plant.  Here they scour, soften and either calender or airo finish loom state cloth.  The calendering process is done on a huge mangle-like machine which gives the linen fabric a lustrous shine similar to beetling.  Airo finish is rather like tumble-drying but on in industrial scale - the resulting fabric is soft and drapes well.  On my October trip I discussed new designs and visited Thomas Sintons where I was introduced to the various processes involved in flax spinning.  I was amazed to discover that in its scutched state flax has an lovely natural shine of its own.

I have discovered that there is no particular formula involved in starting a new business.  You have to develop in your own way, taking small steps, not forcing situations and also not discounting any opportunity however irrelevant it seems.  Often you unwittingly make the right moves!  A rug designer I spoke to recently mentioned she had taken five years to get fully started.  I compared this with planting trees which take a similar time to become established.  My husband has provided invaluable business advice - particularly on how to contact possible purchasers who are already very well established and difficult to communicate with as they are so busy.  Professionals in the Textile Trade have generously offered advice and encouragement on my way forward and reminded me to ‘be tough’ and to continue developing my specialist and exclusive service of offering ‘short runs’ (30 - 50 metres) of linen and linen/silk fabric.  This has paid off as I have recently sold fabric to Libertys.
When I told Sue Pither - my fellow conspirator at College - that I was having my cloth industrially woven her comment was - “weaving without tears” - hence my title.  I have to say when my first 30 metres arrived I was moved to tears of delight and - although there has been a lot of fun and laughter in the development of my present business - this has been interspersed with tears of frustration!