ADVENTURES OF A NEEDLEPUNCHER
I first became aware of needlepunching in 1985, while attending a spinning course at Huddersfield Polytechnic. The machine I saw there was used to bond unspun wool to make felt fabric. The end result resembled crude handmade felt, which to my mind looked dated and uninspired. The needlepunching machines were generally used in industry for producing wadding and insulation materials, and were not well adapted for fashion use.
As soon as I saw the technique, however, I became convinced that it had real potential for fashion- fabric manufacture. I set myself the challenge of developing needlepunching as a new bonding/embroidery technique. I wanted to create modern fabrics which could be commercial at the same time as innovative, and continued to develop my ideas alongside my other student work.
In 1986, while studying for a BA in Knitted Textiles at Middlesex Polytechnic (now University), I was commissioned to produce my first range of scarves for Liberty's of London. This initial collection combined abstract felt shapes, fleece and slub wool. The venture was a success, and Liberty's have continued to buy my collections ever since.
I continued to develop the technique and my design vision side by side, believing that one was no use without the other! Many people were supportive, but I should particularly mention Paul Smith, who commissioned me to produce fabric and scarf collections following my MA graduation show from the Royal College of Art in 1989. That type of encouragement fired me up to found a small company designing, producing and selling my accessories and fabrics.
The company is called Tait & Style, and has been based since its earliest days in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, where I grew up. Needlepunching has always been at the heart of the company's activities, although we have also tried to developed innovative designs using hand and machine knitting, as well as various embroidery and wet-felting techniques. Orkney is not generally thought of as one of the world's fashion centres, but it does have a tremendous pool of traditional skills that I have drawn on and used as an inspiration. In recent years, as exploring the possibilities of Fair Isle and other knitting have become more and more important to us, I have also worked closely with knitters in the Shetland Islands, to the north of here.
I've worked with many creative and dedicated people over the years, all of whom have assisted greatly in keeping Tait & Style at the forefront of its market - and in extending the boundaries of what can be done with needlepunching. In the early days, two people from my days at the Royal College were particularly important and influential: my fellow student and friend Freddie Robins, and my teacher and friend Jacqui McLennan. Fredie and Jacqui shared designing duties with me for many years, the idea being that our three distinct looks would complement each other in the overall Tait & style range.
Although Freddie and Jacqui have not been heavily involved in Tait & Style for several years, we do still stay closely in touch, and they remain great inspirations to me. I also still keep close links with the Royal College, as I find the ideas of the students there a constant inspiration. I try to provide opportunites for them to develop their ideas as Paul Smith did for me more than ten years ago; we've had many young designers working with us over the years: Philippa Prinsloo, Lynsey Walters and Alison Willoughby, for instance, have all spent time at Tait & Style and gone on to carve out threir own reputations. Philippa went to Krygistan (on China's western border) to investigate local crafts including felting techniques, and together we've launched a small new range called Felt Routes.
Closer to home, Moray native Donna Wilson, who graduated from Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen before going on to the Royal College of Art, has worked with us over the past couple of years coming up with some great designs, including a range of fantastic 'critters' - weird knitted dolls, which have proved popular. Another Gray's graduate, Isla Norrington, from Perth, has been based in Orkney for nearly a year now, and is doing great work too.
Throughout the 1990s, Tait & Style gradually developed a reputation for the production of innovative and unique fabrics, and for being willing to collaborate with other designers to realise their own vision.
We have now worked with many important and exciting designers, including Conran, Marithé and François Girbaud, Commes des Garçons, John Galliano, Dior, Shirin Guild, Givenchy, Kenzo and John Rocha. Sometimes we develop cloth meterage for their own collections, other times we work on scarves and soft furnishings. It is always a collaboration, and usually it involves stretching needlepunching in some new way.
In terms of design, my influences come from all over the world, and include fine as well as 'primitive' art, and textiles of all sorts. Orkney itself with its extraordinary light, stirring landscapes and romantic heritage has also been an inspiration.
In terms of technique, however, although I have seen a handful of novel and interesting fabrics produced by needlepunchers (mostly in Japan) it is the challenge and excitement of the technique itself that keeps drawing me back to further experiments and further leaps of the imagination (which don't all take me to somewhere I want to be!)
I have learned a lot over the past fifteen years since I came across the needlepunching machine for the first time, but am convinced that the best, most innovative ideas are still waiting just around the corner. New fabrics, new needles, new punches... Watch this space!
© Ingrid Tait