Most people would agree that you can usually trace the interests you have as an adult right back to childhood. For some people, this is also true of their professional choice. It may not always seem obvious but, if you think back, chances are there were some signs, whether you were a bookworm or into music or art, or passionate about sport or the environment.
For textile designer Joy Bates, the roots of her interest in textiles can be traced back to her early days when her mother taught her to hand knit. In 2010 Joy launched her own business, Seven Gauge Studios, specializing in home accessories including knitted cushions and throws, along with a range of scarves. She now sells to a wide range of shops in the UK and abroad. Here, Joy talks about her design inspiration, the career path that led her to launch the business, and her passion for manufacturing in the UK.
What attracted you to textile design?
I’ve always been interested in textiles and interiors. Growing up, I was surrounded by textiles at home. My mum used to make all my clothes and knit all my sweaters, and I was always interested in making things. Going back even further, lace was in our family as my grandfather used to install lace machines, and he’d travel abroad to France and even to Russia with his work. So that love of textiles was always there, bubbling away.
Colour is clearly integral to your work – where did your interest in using bold colour come from?
Again, I’ve always had a love of colour. I was born in Slough and my mum and I would take trips to London three or four times a year to buy me new clothes, and I was very definite about the colours I liked and used to enjoy putting my clothes together. I was always drawing and colouring and playing around with crayons when I was little, and then as a teenager I started collecting old knitting patterns and vintage fabrics, so the colour influence comes from that as well.
Did you go on to study textile design?
No, not at all. When I left school at sixteen I went on to college to do A-levels in art and art history, but I didn’t go further with it after that. I’m completely self-taught. Now I take on interns and it’s fascinating to see how they work by comparison. I work mainly from tear sheets from magazines – I have files I’ve built up over the years that I use for inspiration – and I use Pinterest a lot now. It’s an amazing tool. I use my Pinterest boards and tear sheets as a point of reference, rather than working with sketchbooks.
You started out designing knitted fabrics for international design houses – how did that come about?
A friend of mine who is also a knitwear designer moved to Seattle years ago and went to work for a knitwear manufacturer. An agent came into the company one day with knitted swatches, with a view to the company buying swatches as inspirational pieces. My friend realized she could set up something similar so she asked whether I’d be interested in designing some pieces of fabric to get the business going. I didn’t expect anything to come from it, but the pieces sold really well and eventually we set up a partnership where I acted as the UK agent for the company. I did all the selling here in the UK and worked on my own designs, and we sold to the big design houses like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, through to stores like Gap and Banana Republic. That experience was invaluable for me as it gave me a good grounding in sales, and it also taught me to be a more commercial designer.
What made you decide to launch your own label?
I worked in this partnership for about fourteen years and got burnt out with it really, as I constantly had to come up with fresh ideas. Then about three years ago the time just felt right. I’d been designing for all these other people and realized it would be nice to launch my own label, so I decided to go for it.
What made you decide on textiles aimed at the interiors market?
I knew I wanted to go into interiors more than anything else. I’ve always had this interest, more than with fashion products, although I added scarves to the range as I thought it would be a fun thing to do, and my patterns lend themselves well to scarves.
How do you go about planning a new design or range?
I might be trawling through Pinterest or looking through my tear sheets or my collection of vintage fabrics and knitting patterns. I might go to an exhibition or see something that sparks off a colour concept. I have the Pantone app on my phone so I can record colours when I’m out and about and quickly put a little palette together. It might even be a film – the last film I found really influential colourwise was Moonrise Kingdom as the colours are just beautiful and reminded me of the old Polaroid photos I had as a kid. You take things in subconsciously and somewhere along the line it surfaces.
Where do you work from?
About three years ago we decided to convert the loft of our home in Nottingham so I could have a studio. We live in a bungalow and had this huge loft space that was doing nothing. It’s now a beautiful studio with a bank of nine windows on one wall so light floods in. The space is divided by the staircase, so I use one side for knitting and making up pieces – I have two knitting machines – and the other side is office space where I keep all my paraphernalia including all my books on textiles and old knitting books.
Does your work influence the way you style your home – and vice versa?
My home is full of vintage bits and bobs and vintage furniture, and we collect a lot of art and coloured glass. We like to mix in modern pieces too, but are heavily influenced by mid-century design. Having all this colour around me certainly influences my work, and the photo shoots are always done at home using our own furniture.
You manufacture in the UK – what was that important, and what challenges does it bring?
I used to work for a couple of knitwear companies in Nottingham, including Courtaulds, and both companies have now gone. I just feel so passionate about trying to keep some manufacturing here in the UK. It’s about trying to resurrect it really as most people have moved production abroad. It is challenging because of price; it’s so expensive to get sampling done here, but in return you have more quality control. I use a small local factory in the Midlands, just half an hour from home, and the quality is great. You do pay more but I believe it’s worth it.
What does your typical working day look like?
My days can be quite mixed. The day always starts with me checking my emails and answering any questions that people have. The run up to Christmas is my busiest time of year so I’ll be doing a lot of knitting, but I try not to knit all day so I might knit for half the day and then start to make those pieces up – cushion covers require linking, for example, and then have to go in the wash. A couple of days a week I have interns working with me so I’ll give them guidance and it means I’m not working on my own all the time. It’s great having the help and being able to pass on my knowledge to other people.
How do you switch off from work?
It’s quite difficult when you work from home as it’s always upstairs. At this time of year I work long days and also at weekends, but, when I can, I like to escape to the coast for a weekend, just to completely unwind somewhere peaceful. Otherwise I’ll spend time going to exhibitions and keeping up with what’s happening out there.
How has your business evolved since you launched in 2010, and what’s next?
When I started out I was producing scarves and cushions, and after a couple of seasons I brought in blankets, which I think strengthens the collection and makes it more interiors based. In five years time I’d like to be doing less of the knitting myself; it would be nice to turn more of it over to the factory, allowing me to concentrate on designing and selling, and I’d like to develop other products and expand into other areas. At the moment the collection is knitted in wool and it’s very much a winter thing, so I’d like to develop a spring/summer range, maybe taking it into printed fabric.
Do you have a favourite piece or design from the current collection?
My favourite piece at the moment is the Geo pattern. I’ve used it as my logo and I think that sums up the range and what I like. It’s a very geometric and simple but bold design. It could be quite timeless.
If you hadn’t chosen a career in textiles, what would you be doing instead?
I’d probably have gone into interior design as it’s been an interest for so many years, or maybe graphic design. It would still have been very much about design, pattern and colour.
What advice would you offer to someone looking to follow a similar career path as yours?
One of the main things is: don’t sell yourself too short. When I first started out I made the mistake of not pricing products accurately or having the confidence to think that people would pay a higher price, so make sure that you don’t charge too little for your product. Also, when the bigger stores come knocking, make sure you stand your ground on price. You have to make a living. As much as they can say, ‘The kudos is good’, you can’t eat on kudos. So stand your ground as much as possible and don’t have your head in the clouds.
To view the collection, shop online, or check stockists, visit Seven Gauge Studios.