Do you follow Natalie Warner ? If not, why not? Natalie’s blog is one of my favourite places for design-related writing, in her interesting and intelligent posts covering everything from drop repeats to the gendered connotations of the zip. As well as being a great writer, Natalie’s a super-smart and hugely talented designer with a fascinating, wide-ranging professional journey that has taken her all the way from Medieval literature to tailoring and fashion design. After a decade designing for magazines and teaching, Natalie’s now finally able to focus on her independent design portfolio, which she’s gradually growing through her shop. I’m thrilled to introduce her to you today as part of our contemporary Bluestocking interview series.
Hi Natalie! Let’s start at the beginning. I’m really interested in the effect of growing up around making, and know that your mother and grandmother were great sewers and craftswomen. Can you tell our readers a little about the kinds of things they made, and the influence that handmade clothing had upon you growing up?
My mum and grandma always made clothes; never any other items, and always out of necessity. Whenever the sewing machine was out, or the knitting needles were going, I always knew that something was going to be made and worn – usually for me to wear! So from an early age – earlier than memory – I had a strong association with clothes making and expressions of love; whether self-love or demonstrations of love from members of your family. It was also very feminized: I don’t remember my grandad or uncle making or getting anything home-made, but both had a deep appreciation for the specialist skills and item. My dad’s family is the same. Making clothes was just something that we did – it was family heritage and cultural identity. Plus, my favourite clothes were ALWAYS the ones that my mum and grandma had made for me!
Like me, you took a rather roundabout route into textiles and design via academic literary studies. I know that you specialised in Medieval Literature – can you tell us something about your areas of research and later work at the University of London?
I’d say that the main takeaways from studying pre-modern literature and people were a fascination with makers and what makes people and societies tick. In some ways, the social problems faced then – racism, women’s safety and independence, and the invisibility of certain social groups – are still with us. The invisible groups that captured my imagination were the Jews in The Prioress’ Tale by Chaucer; conduct literature like ‘How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter’; and the lack of information about the illustrators and stone masons who created amazing art and architecture. There was little, if any, information about how the latter would have learnt their trade or craft and how knowledge was passed on. On one hand that steered me more towards art history (my Masters was a joint honours programme between English Literature and History); on the other, I realised I was deeply interested in the people and culture behind a composition or creative work.
To build on this I started working in other disciplines: law at Birkbeck, sociology at Goldsmiths, and urban planning and human geography at UCL – just to see what went on in the humanities and social sciences. The immersion – particularly in sociology, where my line manager asked me half-jokingly, but constantly – “Why aren’t you a sociologist?” – was a big eye opener. The lecturers on my BA always stressed the importance of historical context, which suited me well, but I didn’t expect it to outstrip my original love of studying literature and creative writing. Right now I don’t have the means or inclination to become a student again, but working with and supporting lecturers and professors gave me great insight, introduced me to some of the key subject literature, gave me access to conferences and seminars, and informed my current interests. Today I’m a writer and a designer, and learning a bit more about economics, but you cannot create anything without a deep interest in people, history and culture. Design is truly interdisciplinary, and I don’t think I’d be as good at it without having taken such a scenic route.
I totally agree, Natalie! And though academic research and practical knitwear design might, from the outside, seem to involve very different skillsets, I genuinely find in what I do that my background in historical literary study has many benefits – from sourcing and sifting different kinds of information efficiently, to writing pattern instructions clearly and concisely. I wondered what links you perceived and experienced between your earlier academic work and your current role?
Oh I completely agree with you! I think I underestimated my capacity to process huge amounts of information and carry out in-depth research. I’ve always been a fast reader (to the point where I got impatient with my mum when she read to me as a child!), but the skills of research and communicating complex topics in an engaging way didn’t really strike me until I went back to my blog in summer 2020. I’d had writer’s block – or at least nothing to say for myself – for several years; I didn’t read much either. I was busy teaching, but that was it: there was no serious connection to my academic work because I was teaching practical skills, and nothing more.
When I published ‘Some Thoughts on Knitting and Accessibility’ in July 2020, the response was a shock, never mind the ease and speed with which I wrote it. All I felt was the compulsion to write, and the floodgates opened. When I began to see how many people read the post and how it resonated with them, I thought, “Is this what it’s all been for? – have I finally found my niche?” Until then, I hadn’t connected my academic profile and current practice at all. They had been two different versions of myself: one dead, one alive. Now I know and feel differently – VERY differently.
The knitting world is certainly enriched by your having found your niche! You moved from working in academic research, to the much more creative world of fashion and design. I wondered at what point, as you were exploring your new field, that knitting really grabbed you—and why?
The knitting, though I didn’t completely understand this at the time, was a big gesture of comfort and self-love harking back to my childhood. It was an escape from the stress and politics of academia, and overtook sewing because it was portable, quiet, and more sociable. I had a commute, and reading brings on my motion sickness, so it was either knit, crochet, or look around aimlessly. And my exploration of crafts deepened in proportion to my need to escape my working environment; that was when I really started ‘butchering’ patterns, as I call it, and I got stuck into sewing and knitting patterns. By the time I was 26, I had reached a critical point, professionally and personally, and although it was frightening, I had to take a chance on design because I felt that it was the only thing I was good at, and the only thing that I felt truly happy doing.
So I took a chance, used my savings, and applied for a course at the London College of Fashion. Although I could already sew, I happened to be enrolled on an evening class at Morley College at the time, just to see if I was any good at clothes making when away from my home environment and in the eyes of strangers. That helped my confidence, and my tutor at the time was kind enough to write the reference for my course application. If I hadn’t taken that evening class, I might not have secured a place on the course.
I was more interested in developing as a knitwear designer when I was at the London College of Fashion, and it certainly set me apart from everyone else on my conversion course because I was the only knitter enrolled! Plus, at the time I was more obsessed with knitting than I was with sewing and pattern cutting, mainly because of the potential of combining surface pattern design with silhouette and construction. Knitting can do or be anything! I still love that about it today.
You are an experienced teacher, introducing students to a wide range of highly-skilled techniques in textiles and tailoring, from garment construction to pattern cutting. I’ve always found it especially instructive in my own practice to observe the many different ways that people learn. How does your experience as a teacher influence your work designing and developing patterns for hand-knitting?
It helps immensely! The professional support and training – how to present information, neurodiversity, how the brain processes new data, how to engage people when you can’t see or speak to them – has been invaluable for my communication skills. And as you say, observation skills are vital; they are another facet of communication because – usually – the observee is giving you valuable information about themselves. When students are absorbed in a task, full flow, the cogs are whirring and you can see what captures their attention, how they interpret your directions; and most importantly, how they assimilate the information in front of them. With knitting especially – and this ties in with my musicality – I noticed that rhythm was the single most important thing for learners. Sewing is slightly different because it’s more of a mapping and visual presentation, but knitting and crochet rhythm is very like fingering for musical instruments, or the structure of melody and chord progressions: just as your ear anticipates the next phrase, so do your eyes and hands as you see and feel a pattern forming. Rhythm and repetition are so important for muscle memory.
One of the things I love about your designs is their really strong use of structured lines—definitely in terms of the shape of the garment, but perhaps most especially in their surface pattern repeats. Looking at your work, I have the sense that you are one of those people that sees and feels pattern everywhere. How would you describe your relationship to pattern?
Thank you 😊 You’re absolutely right – I do see pattern everywhere! For me, pattern is a very sensory experience: it’s musical, you can hear and see it, you can feel it when you knit or crochet and get to know a pattern repeat, and it is all about relationships. I always pay attention to numbers when it comes to surface pattern; they will always tell you if you’re on to a good thing, because they tell you about the ratios, how to develop the repeat. The same goes for silhouette, although I find that less fascinating than surface pattern. For example: Does fabric flow gently in gathers, or does it make folds with pleats? Both add volume to a silhouette, but in different ways. But going back to surface pattern, it’s all rhythm: cables twisting on every 6th row, leafy lace that repeats every 8 stitches…I love seeing and feeling the pictures forming with each stitch, note or chord. Surface pattern is music for the eyes.
What makes “good” design for you?
Ooh, lots of ways to answer this question! I think a good design is one that the maker can be completely absorbed in, one that flows because of the rhythms created. It has to be like a good meal in that the sequence of making and eating it has to be as satisfying as the feeling afterwards. Anything I design has to be as joyful to make as it is to wear; that’s what I strive for, and one of the reasons why I always knit my own samples. If I fail here, why would anyone make any of my designs? A beautiful finished project is one thing, but the journey – the making process – has to match up, or I haven’t done my job.
When I’m working on a sweater, I often begin with an (imaginary) finished look in mind (but I suspect that I’m unusual in that!). Could you talk us through the development process of developing one of your designs? Do you sketch? Do you swatch (a lot?)
Honestly, I can go either way – so you’re not alone! I have noticed a vague pattern about my design development; I have a powerful visual image of designs that are silhouette-led, but not necessarily when surface pattern is doing the talking. With the Aneeta cardigan, I had a fixed idea of what I wanted to achieve and the design process was about getting there. I knew exactly what I wanted from a wrap cardigan, the fitting problems I wanted to solve, the overall look – and the rest was structural engineering and fabrication. I knew the success of Aneeta would hang on the fibre composition and how I built shaping into the cardigan, so I focused on that and drew on my pattern cutting background to get the dart manipulation to work. Aneeta had been in the back of my mind for a long time, and I had to be patient about bringing it to life. (KD adds: see Natalie’s post for more about the creative work behind Aneeta!)
On the other hand, I’m also very tactile. My other approach is to just play with the yarn, and that’s when I come up with surface pattern ideas. When the pattern is the star, the garment silhouette takes a back seat and acts more as a canvas. I definitely have favourite fibre types, and often just touching or manipulating the yarn sets me off. If I like knitting with the yarn, the ideas will flow. This development process generates a LOT of swatches, because I like the yarn to tell me what it’s good at and will be good for – and sometimes that’s not what I had in mind! One yarn on my needles at the moment is completely, it turns out – unsuitable for what I had planned, but I love knitting with it and responding to how the fabric takes shape and presents texture. The qualities of the yarn dictate, but there’s definitely more of a dialogue with this approach. I have a big box full of swatches chronicling past conversations with yarn!
Do you have a favourite sweater? Can you tell us about it?
I haven’t yet found a favourite sweater to wear, sadly. I have some that are perfect for occasions or times of year; there are definitely a few reliable ones, wardrobe builders, but I wouldn’t call them favourites. That said, I am (re)discovering my favourite dress styles, so maybe the sweater isn’t too far behind!
In an interesting recent post (part of a great series on your blog) you describe how practices of making, wearing and repair can form part of a slow economy, that is very different to fast fashion. I know sustainability is a very big debate in textiles right now, but if there were just one thing you might suggest to make our industry (and our making practices) more sustainable, what would that be?
A move away from obsolescence. For us, this means rejecting the idea of producing new things all the time and instead coming up with ideas that have more mileage or scope for development. People in creative roles are squeezed so hard because they’re encouraged to design the next big thing, and that puts pressure on designers, dyers, spinners – anyone responsible for keeping knitters interested and enthusiastic. It also encourages exploitation further down the supply chain – sourcing raw materials and trading fairly does not go hand in hand with obsolescence.
It is a massive cultural shift, but I think that it’s better to have – from a design point of view – a few rock solid bases that are strong enough to be developed infinitely. Take a fit and flare dress, for example: that’s a silhouette that suits a lot of people, but from that base pattern you can create a button-down style, change the neckline, the skirt length, sleeve style, use a different fabric, add ruffles – so many things. There’s no real need to buy or develop lots of different dress patterns if you have one that can do it all. I would happily pay more for a pattern with that kind of mileage than shop around for several that are variations on a theme. It gives designers and makers the gift of time, which obsolescence takes away.
The pressure to create new things all the time is also part of the reason why we’ve heard accounts of designers being treated poorly by yarn companies; also, why it can be difficult to make designing a significant part of your income. Getting away from obsolescence creates space for us to imagine new economic cultures and accounting practices. I think part of the fear is how much money people think they’ll lose by not coming up with quite so many new products, but that fear also short-circuits imagination. People can still make a living, but differently – and more equitably.
Absolutely, Natalie. Your words really chime with a lot of my current thinking about small businesses and the way business “success” is routinely represented. Surely sustainability and longevity are more important core values than continual never-ending growth? I definitely think that ideas of tenacity, endurance, and vitality might offer different, more productive ways of thinking about collective, viable futures. And speaking of the future, are you able to tell us about any exciting plans or projects? What’s coming next for you?
It’s a bit too early to share anything yet, but some things are in the works! For anyone interested in my work, the best thing to do is stay in touch via my blog, newsletter, or Instagram. However, I can say that one of my main goals is to get my older designs for Knitting Magazine into the wild. I didn’t have the time or energy for it when I was teaching, and I plan to have that work completed by the end of 2023, which is ten years since I released my first pattern. These patterns all need revising, some need regrading, and a sample or two need to be remade; plus, there’ll be a few new designs peppered amongst the older ones that people have been waiting patiently for. The next batch of releases will be out in early autumn 2021, and it’ll be great for Bonnie and Aneeta to have company in my online shop! Opening the shop was a big goal for me this year, so the prospect of seeing it fill up is very satisfying.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Natalie!