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Textile designers such as Rebecca Earley – who is profiled on the following page – are now merging science with art and taking the medium to new levels, reports Emma O Kelly.

Long gone is the image of British textile designers as patient craftspersons, weaving and stitching their way through the twentieth century. Now it is almost more appropriate to call them our new scientists, beavering away to create new synthetic fibres and production processes; whereas 20 years ago the industry was more akin to graphic design, today it is less to do with pattern-making and more about surface.

Man-made fibres are the trademark of the Nineties, with Lycra king Du Pont ruling the roost. Creating a fabric that meets today’s needs is one of the keys to success. Constant innovation in production processes is crucial, as textile designer Janet Stoyel has discovered. She transfers decorative surfaces on to man-made fibres with the use of lasers and ultrasound technology. High-frequency sound waves and high-intensity light beams produce the heat needed to change the molecular structure of textiles and produce patterned textile substrates. Stoyel has been commissioned by clients such as Donna Karan and Paul Smith; Gucci has asked her to experiment on leather.

But what are the implications of new technology? As industry pioneers the race to create utterly practical everyday fibres, James Park, head of the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal College of Art, feels students are in danger of being left behind. “In industry, the machinery is so sophisticated that it can do things we can’t here,” he says. Yet innovation can take the strangest of forms, as fashion designer Hussein Chalayan proved when he buried fabric with rusty nails in his north London garden and waited until it had oxidised and decomposed before turning it into garments. And Lindsay Taylor, head of Printed and Knitted Textiles at Glasgow College of Art, sees technology as a rather double-edged sword. As production methods improve, greater possibilities are opened up, but the parameters in which to create disappear. “Now that there are no restrictions on colour and techniques, there is a temptation to get more complicated. And it is often the simplest designs which work best,” she says. Yet she and Park both agree that the future lies in using science and chemistry to experiment with new fibres.

The desire for a huge range of new fabrics has come about, in part, as barriers between fabrics have been broken down. As interior design starts to mimic the life cycle of fashion, furnishing fabrics are interchangeable with dress fabrics. Knitted curtains, once deemed impractical, have found their way into our homes along with textiles derived of agricultural and architectural products. When it comes to the cloth that surrounds us, there are no rules.

Hardly surprising that, like fashion, textiles has its fads. The interest in recycled textiles, all the rage in the early Nineties, has waned, while the issue of ecotextiles is now top of the agenda. The battle is on to find ways of combating pollution and minimising the use of dyes, chemicals and drying processes found in traditional textile processes. With these objectives in mind, Stoyel’s process allows for decoration without the use of dyes and chemicals.

While individuals try to conceive environment-friendly fabrics, so too does industry. Huge amounts of money are going into plant-breeding and genetics, particularly in the US, to produce indigo cotton, thereby ridding the need for dyes. The argument that natural fibres are more eco-friendly than man-made ones no longer rings true, says Taylor. “A natural fibre like cotton uses so many bleaches that it is more damaging than nylon, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry.”

Just as the fibres and yarns used in the textiles industry are constantly evolving, so is the image of the trade itself. Since textiles is an umbrella for what is a huge field, ranging from knitting to catwalk fashion, it is impossible to conjure up a stereotypical image of a textile designer. However, in the UK, the boundaries between disciplines are much stricter than they are abroad, believes Polly Binns, textile representative at the Crafts Council. “Whereas Michael Brennand-Wood calls himself an embroiderer in the UK, he represents the UK as an artist in other countries,” she says. Likewise Caroline Broadhead, who uses wire, net and nylon to create conceptual forms of dresses and dolls more akin to sculpture than textiles. Her work won this year’s 1997 Jerwood Prize for Textiles at the Crafts Council and 15 000 in prize money, and overseas she too is termed an artist, as was the case in a recent show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Despite the semantics of what textiles really means – and the stories of overcrowding on textile courses and unemployment at graduation – in the UK the industry is experiencing a boom. Last year, Taylor carried out a survey into what her students were doing four years after graduation and found that 90 per cent were employed in a textile-related field. Binns claims that the flurry of textiles exhibitions over the past two years has been more high profile than ever. Meanwhile, this month a new gallery called Fibres, Fabrics and Fashion opened at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. As the textile trade redefines itself and embraces new technologies, perhaps the UK will adopt a 21st century “cottonopolis” to challenge its nineteenth century equivalent.

The Jerwood Prize Textiles Conference takes place on 4 October at The Crafts Council. Call 0171-806 2528 for details.

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