At Pattern Textiles
Nicola McShane & Ruth Ward-Jackson of Pattern Textiles, showing off their design samples.
In a former clothing factory in Bethnal Green, where once machinists sweated sewing endless identical garments for low wages, a group of astute young women have set up their own business designing patterns for textiles and – in just six years – achieved considerable success in a fiercely competitive industry, selling their designs to the big players in the High St and internationally.
After writing so many stories of the long history of textiles in the East End, it was my pleasure to visit Pattern Textiles and realise that I was meeting those who carry the future of this endeavour. Stepping in from the gloomy weather of a disappointing late spring day, and climbing up the second floor, I entered the large studio teeming with life and colour. Here, patterns were being drawn on paper. Here, patterns were being rendered digitally on screens. Here, with superlative efficiency and speed, patterns were emerging from a vast industrial-sized digital printer. And here, patterns were being printed with a traditional silk screen too. A harmonious atmosphere prevailed, as if everyone knew what to do, and they were getting on with it. As if everyone in the team understood their place in the larger pattern.
Yet the greatest wonder came when Nicola McShane, who began Pattern Textiles in partnership with Ruth Jackson-Ward and Stephanie Neal, threw open a huge suitcase crammed with hundreds of pieces of silk chiffon and, like a conjurer’s assistant, began to pull them out with a flourish, one-by-one, for me to see. Each piece was a unique textile design sewn into the shape of the front of a dress, and she held them up to demonstrate how an experienced buyer could envisage each one as a potential garment. When a design is sold to a maufacturer, the customer keeps the sample and it is taken out of the case. Here in this single well-travelled suitcase was the entire stock in trade of Pattern Textiles – florals and geometrics and leopard skin and stripes, and everything else you care to imagine, designs for women of different ages and to suit different needs, at work, at home, and dressing up for occasions. The versatility of the range is crucial to sales, but the common factor here was a vibrant use of colour, and a positive graphic sense of pattern and texture, imbuing all the designs with a sensuous appeal.
“The three of us used to work in another studio – that’s how we met – and we decided we could set up a studio of our own.” explained Ruth. “It was tough. We built up a collection of our own before we went out to sell it.” continued Nicola, “Ruth specialised in embroidery and embellishment, whereas I had worked as a textile designer for four different companies and Stephanie was very skilled at screen-printing. But in fact, we mixed it up and we all did everything. We gathered together people we thought were good and we recruited from friends. That was six years ago. We started in Hackney Wick because the rent was low, and our first studio was a tiny room where we did screenprinting, dying, sewing, embroidery and calling for appointments to sell our designs. And we got a friend to come in really early on as a saleswoman, because we realised that it wasn’t enough just to design.”
These days, Nicola and her partners fly to New York and Los Angeles once a month, they go to Australia every three months, and take regular day trips around Europe to sell their work, as well as visiting the British retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Top Shop that are major clients for their designs. “The buyers know what they want,” Ruth assured me with wry smile, as she illustrated the routine that permits the customer to choose, holding up an armful of samples and letting them drop one-by-one in the manner of Bob Dylan and his cue cards in “Don’t Look Back.”
As quickly as patterns get sold, the case must be filled up again with new ones, and this is the endless task that preoccupies everyone at Pattern Textiles. “The crux of what we do is to keep the collection fresh. So we have to be constantly looking at new ideas.” admitted Ruth.“We look at what’s on the catwalk to understand the trends, and it’s very enjoyable working with all the designers here and seeing what they produce,” said Nicola, extending Ruth’s thought, “but we also go down Brick Lane to the vintage shops for inspiration too.”
Around a dozen women work at Pattern Textiles and – as I spoke with Ruth and Nicola – elsewhere in the room, sales staff were discussing feedback from buyers, while all around us the business of producing more patterns continued. One woman in a bold print dress, working at designing animal skin prints, confessed to me that she never wore patterns until she came to work here, while her neighbour showed me a range of new Ikat designs she had just created, convincing as if they had always existed. In the midst of all this industry and shrewd thinking to conjure the designs that will draw an emotional response, capturing women’s imaginations and selling clothes, I succumbed to the intangible magic of patterns myself. Mostly abstract, this is an subtle art whose practitioners are barely acknowledged, as if patterns came out of nowhere. Yet patterns are omnipresent and memorable, shaping our experience and perceptions of each other, creating the texture of life and lifting our spirits through their universal language of delight.
Silkscreening a sample of a pattern onto a t-shirt.
Charlie Nelson, one of the pattern designers at Pattern Textiles, with some Ikat designs she created.
The team at Pattern Textiles show off examples of their handiwork.
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