Having a love of textiles is very much my default setting, and particularly, I’ve realised, when it comes to woven textiles, so I was intrigued when woven textile designer Heather Shields got in touch to introduce her latest collection of contemporary cushions and blankets called PLAY. I instantly connected to Heather’s striking geometric designs and punchy colour palette, and, aesthetics aside, I also admire her commitment to supporting her fellow British manufacturers and suppliers.
Heather launched her own business in June 2014, and was selected to take part in the Craft Council’s Hothouse programme for emerging makers in December that year. Based on the west coast of Scotland, Heather designs her cloth using a traditional dobby loom, handweaving samples with carefully selected yarns using a bold colour palette.
For her latest collection, Heather decided to collaborate with the internationally renowned Scottish mill Bute Fabrics, enabling her to make larger pieces of cloth without compromising on the quality. Located on the Isle of Bute, Bute Fabrics is recognized for its craftsmanship and high quality upholstery fabrics, and the company has collaborated with many well known designers including Timorous Beasties, Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison.
As Heather lives near the mill, this collaboration also enabled her to meet the Bute team face-to-face to discuss designs. Once woven, the fabric is forwarded to Schofield’s finishers in Galashiels to be washed and steamed, before being sent back to Heather’s studio, ready to be made into her throws and cushions.
I asked Heather about the inspiration behind PLAY, and the process of designing and building a textile collection.
Where did your love of textiles come from?
I’m not sure exactly, but growing up our house was always full of interesting textiles and my mum was a keen dressmaker. When I was little one of my favourite games was dressing up and I remember being fascinated by my parents’ old clothes. My dad loves going to auctions and used to take me with him – this introduced me not only to unusual textiles from different cultures and eras but to paintings, antiques, furniture and odd objects.
What made you decide to study textile design?
I enjoyed drawing, painting and making things from a young age with my parents’ encouragement so I think they always knew I would choose to do something creative. Before I applied to art school, my college lecturer really wanted me to apply for the fine art course. However, the tactile nature of textiles and how we use and interact with textiles in everyday life really interests me. I’m sure everyone has a memory attached to their favourite jumper or their grannie’s curtains or tablecloth. Textiles can be much more than adornment for the home or body; they can be used to convey identity or to tell a story about a particular period or time.
Where do you find your inspiration when working on a new collection?
I like to visit new places and attend exhibitions whenever I can – I hate being stuck at my desk for too long! If I feel uninspired, I go for a walk, plan an adventure or teach myself something new. I’m naturally drawn to architectural details, beauty in the unexpected and unusual juxtapositions. Often I find inspiration in the everyday and a theme or idea will develop from there. One day I saw a girl on the bus wearing an unusual combination of colours – olive green, dark inky purple and a bright mustard yellow – so when I got home I made a collage of her colourful outfit!
Where do you find your colour inspiration?
Unusual combinations or ratios of colour from everyday life seem to always catch my eye. I paint up papers to make collages or grounds with and have a box of coloured paper pieces in my studio – which is very often the starting point for a design. However, using colour in weave is different and sometimes combinations that look good on paper don’t always work when matched to yarns and woven together. So the design process often changes on the loom as I experiment with different colours, structures and textures – which is what I enjoy most!
Tell us a bit about the design process.
Usually it begins with recording combinations of colour through photography then translating them into collages using painted and found papers. I also use mark making, paper manipulation and printing techniques to record texture. During this process I start matching yarns to the colours and textures and look for an appropriate structure to start experimenting with on the loom.
What are the challenges of working with woven textiles?
I suppose the challenges are the amount of time spent preparing the loom before weaving can begin. Once the colours have been chosen for the warp and the loom has been set up for weaving, if you change your mind you need to do it all over again! It’s a time consuming, expensive and laborious process. However, I think this is reflected in the final product – of time well spent, of quality, of craftsmanship. Personally, I relish the challenge and enjoy all the processes involved – the more effort you put in the more satisfying the reward.
Why focus on textiles for interiors?
My early experiences in the auction house gave me an appreciation for furniture and homeware – each piece gave a small insight into its previous owner. Our environments, especially our homes, are very personal, and I’m interested in what people choose for their homes and why. Textiles provide a simple way to add character to a space and I enjoy creating textiles that people can use and treasure for years to come. I thought the designs for the PLAY collection would lend themselves best to interiors – particularly the colour, scale and materials.
However, in addition to my homeware collection, I’m currently designing a new collection of scarves to explore textiles for accessories too.
What were the ideas behind your new collection PLAY?
It began with a previous collection based on architectural details from St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow – a somewhat overwhelming combination of shapes, colours and pattern. Although extravagant, it reminded me of gingerbread houses or a day at the fair – there’s something very child like about it. That got me thinking about children’s toys and how children create structures. From there I took inspiration from traditional puzzles and wooden building blocks to create the patterns for the PLAY collection.
Do you have a favourite piece?
The new ‘Puzzle’ blanket in the ‘Sea’ colour way is definitely my favourite at the moment. It’s huge, cosy and reversible – which is handy as I couldn’t decide which side I preferred!
Which designers do you admire and take inspiration from?
The Bauhaus weavers Gunta Stolz and Anni Albers have always been a huge source of inspiration for me throughout my studies and to the present day. They created huge modernist tapestries using innovative techniques and materials. The graphic, geometric and colourful aesthetic of their work has been a huge influence on my own work.
What are working on next?
At the moment I’m working on a new collection of scarves and some designs for an upholstery project for upcoming shows including the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester and the Selected exhibition at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh. The PLAY collection is also being showcased at the Etsy ‘Four Corners of Craft’ exhibition at Tent London during London Design Festival.
With thanks to Heather Shields.
All photography by Susan Castillo.