Inspiring insights


My work takes me to some interesting and inspiring places on occasion and yesterday was one of the best.  The WI is collaborating with a group of fashion students from Kingston University and yesterday was the second get together.  Having met amongst the textile heritage of the WI at Denman College, now it was time to get an insight into the world of a university fashion department.




It had been an early start for most and after a few caffeine hits, we were ready for our look around.  First stops were made in the resistant materials workshops, where the beauty of the heavy machinery made me want to stop and take photographs at almost every step.




There was something about the colours and of course, a stark contrast from the soft textile areas I normally inhabit.




What visually inspired person couldn’t have been excited by the sight of the rows of toolboxes, set on bright yellow shelves and numbered with those almost random stencilled identifiers?




But whilst I was lingering, taking photos of toolboxes and things the group was moving on and someone passed me what looked like an orthotic for a shoe.




My eye passed over the student cutting painstaking windows in an architectural model towards a table, where other moulds were stored alongside what looked like body parts.  But the technician uttered a couple of magic words which captured my attention and I was immediately eager to know more.

3 D printing.

In this small corner of the room were three machines – one large, two small – and samples of what each can produce.  We passed them round, learning how each was created from a design and some cartridges of what looks like strimmer cable in different colours.  We were impressed …and yet, because every imperfection had been reproduced as well, a little disappointed.  I need to find out more!




On then, through corridors lined with mood boards and design projects, past the moss wall which had originally been created for a fashion show but which stayed.  It was so tactile, so soft and very much alive – a lovely feature in a concrete building!




Nest stop, the sample room – not only fabrics, but cupboards of costumes and historic references from which the students can work and develop ideas.




We passed the empty sewing room, where rows of industrial sewing machines stood quietly, awaiting the first year students who were working on samples including french seams, flat fell seams, darts and facings.   Hang on a minute, though, didn’t we learn that kind of thing at school?  Indeed we did, but these days, fashion students don’t necessarily arrive with the same kind of skills as we learned from our mothers.  In fact, that’s one of the reasons for the collaboration – the WI members who are working with the students bring with them a lifetime of experience and skills like these to share.




Kingston University has a reputation for knitwear design, however, and our next stop was the knitting room.  Solid, traditional machines were there, ready to be set up for the next project sampling.




Traditional machines, tried and tested with all those moving parts working beautifully in the hands of someone who understands them.  A couple of students were working on their projects, quietly cursing as a thread broke or patiently setting up the next sample.  All took time and creating a pattern manually on one of these machines is a very slow and painstaking process.




Which took us to the next room, technician Fiona’s pride and joy – the Shime machines.  These fast, modern machines are computer driven and can create the fine knitwear designs created by the students more easily – once the software has been programmed, of course.  It’s machines like these which will realise the student’s concepts and with which they will work once they graduate so it’s important that they are familiar with the potential – and their limitations, of course.




We were thrilled to see a familiar book in use by Fiona’s computer, as she translated one of the student’s designs ready to create a jacquard sample.




Before lunch, there was time for a quick look in the Stanley Picker Gallery where Laura Oldfield Ford was exhibiting her work.  A fascinating combination of observations, journalling and drawing, we’d have liked longer to browse around.




But sadly, there was time only to glimpse and to learn enough to want to know more about her and her work.  It was getting on for lunchtime and we still hadn’t caught up with what the students had been working on since our first meeting.




After a bite to eat, it was back into the studio then, to see the starting points of the twelve designs.  The students and the members were buzzing with excitement – age and background was forgotten as a shared love of fashion, textiles and colour inspired conversation and creativity.  Naomi and Shelagh chatted about different styles of headgear, taking Shelagh’s wealth of traditional Aran knitting skills into account whilst working on Naomi’s playful designs.  Other groups worked on exciting ways of incorporating traditional skills and of working with handspun yarn, Dorset buttons or hand embroidered embellishments.  I overheard discussions about knitting boots, of felting pattern pieces and crochet trousers…hmmm Winking smile




A table full of samples to inspire the students was keeping me rather happy, too!  Whilst I’m not taking part in the actual project, I’m a point of contact and support for the members – not that any of them looked in the slightest need of any support whatsoever right then.




So when Fiona asked if Jane and I would like to take a closer look at the Shime machine, you can imagine our response.

(I had to take a photo of the yarn store as we passed, by the way!)




Fiona inserted the USB stick on which she had put a file she had created for a glove.




She closed the lid, pressed the green button and the machine whirred into action.  Actually, it didn’t do so much as whirr, more cranked and wheezed!




We stood watching as the carriage buzzed to and fro, firstly knitting the fingers, one at a time.  It knitted them as tubes, starting at the tip, which it closed off before working towards the palm.  Four fingers done and it created the palm before going back to the thumb and then finally, the body of the glove and the welt around the wrist.




About fifteen minutes later, out plopped a glove (like a cash machine!)  Once steamed into shape, it was only in need of a few small hand made finishes to some loose ends and the welt and it would be ready to wear.








Before we left, Fiona showed us the samples she’d created from the design of the tea cosy.  WI friends will be familiar with the Parrot tea cosy in our archive which Queen Mary admired at a National Craft Exhibition in the 1920s.  A true textile treasure, Fiona had taken the design and created a knitted motif which was subsequently inserted into the front of a dress.  The dress was shown at the Knitting and Stitching show at Ally Pally and will be at the K & S in Harrogate too, next month – if you happen to see it and have a chance to take a photograph, I’d love one, please!

In the meantime, the students and members have gone their separate ways again, to progress to the next stage of the project whilst keeping in touch via email and our vle.  We’ll meet up again in London, in December, when hopefully, there will be some exciting progress to report!


Autumn days