An interview with textiles designer Zoe Howarth

I spotted Zoe Howarth at the London Design Festival, and as she's a fellow Cornish lass, I was keen to showcase her beautiful work, which somehow becomes even more beautiful when you realise how much work goes into creating it... Zoe Howarth Naturally Dyed Woven Fabrics

Describe a really good day and a really bad day in the life of the Zoe Howarth.

A really good day is usually when I get a flash of inspiration and suddenly out of nowhere I am on a roll with a new idea or project. On days like these my head races through all these ideas and it can sometimes take my hands a few weeks of making samples to catch up with this thought process!

A really bad day is usually when I am in the process of threading up my loom or have just finished and find that somewhere along the way I've made a mistake. It can set me back a day just to correct something like this which can be quite frustrating, but once the cloth is woven it's always worth the extra effort to correct it.

What inspires your ideas?

My work is inspired by the Cornish coastline. I live in a beautiful little harbour village in Cornwall and it is while I'm out walking along my local stretches of cIiffs and beaches that I get my inspiration. I have always been fascinated by textures and the feel of things and the coast is brimming with endless variations of surfaces and textures to be explored. I also love seeing other people's work, particularly Japanese textiles as I love the simple use of nature that inspires their concepts.

Zoe Howarth Selection of Cushions

Describe the process you go though to turn your ideas into products.

I firstly take photos and collect images of things that inspire me, usually when out walking on the cliffs. I always take a camera with me because I never know what I might find.

If I am designing for a Jacquard woven piece, I then use these images to draw from and scan the drawings into the computer. It takes a while to clean up and manipulate the drawings if needed before the design is ready for weaving. I will sometimes also hand dye my yarns using natural dyes ready to be woven on the Jacquard.

If I am working on some handwoven pieces I use the photographs as a reference to select yarns of various qualities that could be suitable to recreate the look or texture. I also decide how I want the fabric surface to look and then draw out the weave structures and threadings to experiment with on my first warp.

Next step is to wind the warp, making sure that all the threads are in line and any colours for the warp are selected. This is wound onto the loom and threaded up as every yarn needs to be threaded individually... this part can take several days! Once threaded up I tie all the threads onto the loom, making sure that the tension is even across the entire warp and I'm then ready to start weaving.

I can now experiment with different weave structures and different yarn types to see which fabric designs work best. When I have woven the whole length of the warp I cut it off the loom and wash the fabrics. It is usually once I have washed the fabrics that they transform; the different yarn types blending together and the whole look and texture of the surface is changed. From these sample tests I can decide which ones I want to develop and the process of warp winding begins all over again.

Weaving is a lengthy process but the results can be really surprising - that's what I find so exciting about weaving.

Zoe Howarth Chenille Cushion

What advice would you give to an aspiring textiles designer?

I think there are three main things to remember when you are starting out: work hard, persevere and network.

It is hard in the beginning, but I found there are lots of opportunities - just keep looking for them, keep working at what you love doing and don't give up when things have seemed to hit a lull, you never know what is around the corner. Also getting out there and talking to people is so important, the more people who know you and your work, the more likely you will be approached when opportunities spring up.

Which three items could you not live without?

1) My Weaving loom. As ancient as the art of weaving is I love the beauty of being able to transform loose yarns into an exciting piece of cloth. I have definitely become addicted to weaving - if I take a break, it doesn't take long before I am itching to get back on the loom again!

2) My wallet. It is not designer one, but I bought it in a fairtrade shop years and years ago. The fabric is made out of tissue paper and glue which I think is so beautiful I just love it. It is looking a bit worse for wear these days but I love the craft that went into its making.

3) Mifi Internet dongle. I don't have a phone line at home so I invested in one of these Mifi gadgets as I use the Internet several times every day. It is brilliant and the best thing is that it is portable so even when I'm travelling on the train I still have the internet and can research wherever I go!

Zoe Howarth Interiors Fabrics

What are you most proud of?

I am really proud of lots of things since I graduated in 2010, including exhibiting at 'One Year On' New Designers 2011, and exhibiting at the Mall Galleries, Trafalgar Square. There is nothing quite like the feeling of having worked really hard to get your work hung in a show ready to viewed by the public. I really love sharing my work with people and hearing their feedback and reactions.

If I were to chose one piece of work that I have created that I am most proud of it would have to be my upholstered antique parlour chairs that were on show at 'One Year On'. I spent a week attending a traditional upholstery course here in Cornwall where I learnt the entire process of re-upholstery using springs and animal hair.

I designed and made the Jacquard woven fabrics to cover the chairs. The enitre process consisted of taking a pair of chairs, stripping them back to the bare frame, mending any damaged areas, re-upholstering it which took about a week per chair. I hand dyed the silk yarns for the fabrics using natural dyes - these had to be wound onto cones ready to be put through the computerised Jacquard loom. Taking inspiration from the carved backs of the chairs I made several drawings that I then created my Jacquard fabric designs from. These fabrics were woven and washed and applied to the chairs. I hand woven the 7m of trim that was finally attached as the finishing touches to the chair. This entire process took just over a month and really made me appriciate the skill and technique involved in this tradional craft.

Zoe Howarth Upholstered Chair

What’s next for you?

I am about to start a woven artwork collection ready for the Contemporary Textile Fair in Teddington (March 10/11 2012) I am really excited about this new chapter of work as I hope to combine my technical understanding of woven cloth with a variety of yarn fibres to create some unique, one-off experimental woven pieces. These will be on sale at the Contemorary Textile Fair.

And, finally, what’s your favourite colour?!

Deep purple that on a rare occasion can be seen in a beautiful sunset.