“It all started with the picture of a man who I have named ‘Mr. Unskijposad”
Suzanna James is no stranger to the British countryside. The fashion and textile design graduate who grew up in the hills of Carmarthenshire has developed an undying love for the Welsh scenery. It is a recurrent theme in her collection, from proposal to completion.
In her final collection, Suzanna James knits the environment into her textiles. The ethically minded designer insists upon sustainability. She contributes towards an ecological future for fashion by choosing for her collection primarily Fairtrade sourced fabrics.
Suzanna James’s research crosses continents with stitch designs sourced from North East Russia to the neighbouring shores of Guernsey. Her designs may follow a similarly transcontinental path through the modernisation of vanishing traditions.
Suzanna, can you describe your work to us?
For my collection ‘The Great Outdoorman’, I combined my love for the natural world with my fascination of historical knitting. I was intrigued by the geographical homes of iconic knit stitches, including Guernsey and Fair Isle. A favourite of mine is a rare stitch design called unskijposad, which originates from North East Russia.
I became fascinated by the landscapes of the different places where these stitches originated. I was also drawn to landscape artists’ visions, such as Michael Broad’s scenic painting ‘Blue Sea Island’. This research inspired the natural tone colour palette and organic aesthetic.
What did you intend to achieve when designing your project?
I’m interested in lost historical knit traditions. With my project, I wanted to modernise them by giving these complex, old-fashioned technique a new take. It’s my way of continuing a precious tradition.
I also wanted to celebrate the great outdoors. My research, choice of materials and final garments showcase a study of stitch styles in relation to their geographical origins.
Do you have specific sources of inspiration?
I love research and I found many sources of inspiration throughout the years of my degree. It all started with the picture of a man who I have named ‘Mr. Unskijposad’. He is featured in Swedish fisherman knit book called ‘Fiskartröjor’, written by Uuve Snidare. This book has a map showing all the places Snidare sourced knit stitches. It was my bible whilst creating my collection!
Some of the silhouettes of my garments were inspired by Guernsey jumpers, Fair Isle designs and garments such as aprons and dungarees. Fishermen’s jumpers became a common theme in my research. The knit work is one of the most accurate displays of the development in men’s knitwear. A photographer friend of mine took pictures of fishermen on a local fishing trip. These photos were perfect for my project and helped with colours and garment shapes.
Are there any favourite websites you use for inspiration too?
I’m just as Pinterest happy as the next fashion student, but it has to go further than that. I initially found my favourite knit pattern from Snidare’s book ‘Fiskartröjor’ on Pinterest, but I then had to find the original source! Linda Newington, the founder of the Knitting Reference Library at WSA, tracked down this rare book in a Scandinavian university’s library. It’s impossible to find all the information on the Internet; my research would have lacked depth and focus.
WSA has recently launched an online magazine ‘Make Future’, showcasing their students’ work, including some of my designs. It’s a great way to present graduate collections.
What do you think stands behind your love for the great outdoor?
I moved around a lot whilst growing up and then settled ‘back home’ at my family’s roots in rural Wales.
The Brecon Beacons mountain range is always visible and you have to walk across a field to get anywhere! It’s a 15-minute walk to the nearest village, with archaic public transport links.
I was swept away by London when I first moved there – I couldn’t understand where everyone was going all the time! I missed the countryside constantly. Mountain ranges aren’t visible from Winchester, so I knitted them instead.
Do you feel this project is complete, that it is a finished piece of work? Or do you sometimes want to revisit it?
My projects are never finished. Friends always joke that if left to my own devices I would never stop working on something. I still think about my final collection, knitting new fabrics, and re-visiting illustrations even though, officially, the course has finished. If I had my time again, I would spend more time developing fabrics. There is so much more I would like to do.
What motivated you during the design of your collection?
For knitters, it is compulsory to spend time on the process of turning inspiration into fabrics through sampling. My inspiration kept the project alive; sampling can get tedious if you aren’t getting the results you want. I have to be passionate about my research to create a fabric I’m happy with. The materials I chose are also ethically and sustainably produced.
What did you find most challenging when designing your final project?
The biggest challenge was to stick to the strict ethical guidelines I gave myself. My love for the outdoors feeds my inherent need to protect and respect it on all levels. In turn this translates into a visual celebration and integrity in choice of material.
As ‘Miss America’ as it sounds, I strongly disagree with harmful practices that can be involved with fabric production. It was essential for me to use natural and sustainable materials, as well as Fairtrade yarns. I made some hard compromises, but I am pleased to have finished with a large majority of ethical materials.
Where did you source your yarn and materials from?
I’ve probably kept Winchester’s C&H Fabrics financially stable for the past two years! I always return to the classic London stores; their yarns get my heart beating! Islington is great – the yarn shop Loop is a favourite of mine!
I visited the Antique Textiles Fair (ATF) in Manchester; it was packed with stalls of vintage and handmade items, yarns and fabrics. I discovered a company called Dyeworks where I sourced some of my woven fabrics.
How have people reacted to your work?
I can be extremely critical of my work. It was rarely exposed before completion so I received little feedback outside of the studio. I had no idea what people would think. Having finished my course and publically presented my project, it’s amazing to hear positive feedback about the work I’ve been quietly agonising over for 4 years!
Have you been involved with any programmes or competitions?
I won the Undergraduate Student Award from The Textile Society after submitting a digital portfolio and the proposal for my final collection. I won a bursary of £1000 and I was invited to the Antiques Textile Fair to exhibit my work.
How are you forwarding your career in fashion?
I’ve had an interview for the Texprint programme, which would give me the opportunity to exhibit my work in Paris at Première Vision and in Shanghai. I’m also applying for internships and working hard on my website. I have some freelance orders for items from my collection too. It’s a busy and exciting time.
Tell us about your experience at Winchester School of Art
It was a whirlwind! I didn’t have previous specific fashion knowledge as I came from a conceptual creative foundation course, so the late nights started from day one. I didn’t have time to assess the situation. It was sink or swim.
In the final year, my aesthetic suddenly became clear. We had developed the skills to make a lot more, a lot quicker! It was a breath of fresh air to have more control over my work.
Are there any specific trends out there that you are paying special attention to?
I pay close attention to ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry. Whether this is becoming a trend is yet to be seen. The pace of the industry can’t continue at its current rate. This is recognised by high-flying fashion industry personalities like Scott Schuman. The industry has to slow down and take a good look around. You can see a rise in ethical interests, with a sparse interspersion within the industry such as H&M’s conscious collection. It’s time ethics and sustainability became a mainstream factor in fashion.
What advice would you give to someone who is about to start studying textile design?
You have to go your own way. Everybody works differently so there is no right way. Some fail working the way others succeed. Discover what works for you, and stick to it. Don’t feel pressure from others about deciding what looks best, how to work best, what aesthetic is right for you, what lifestyle to lead…. When you have 49 talented students around you, you have to be yourself!
Visit Suzanna James portfolio here.