Tuesday, 19 May 2015

* Machines create new opportunities for craftsmanship

Alice Archer is a fashion designer, who has previously worked at Dries Van Noten

Some believe that traditional crafts, such as embroidery, are declining. The artisan is seen to be superseded by mechanical, globalised production. But craftsmanship is not on the verge of extinction. Far from it. On the catwalk, you can see abundant examples of artisanal skill. Dries Van Noten works every season with craftsmen in India to produce highly embroidered and exquisite hand beaded textiles. Chanel’s couture abounds with the hand embroidery skill of the French atelier Lesage.

Historic textiles show us how labour intensive and adept craft once was. I love the ecclesiastical embroideries in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Mary Queen of Scots’ needlework too. I find the craftsmanship of these ancient textiles incredible and it is very moving to see imperfections in the handwork. I want to evoke this atmosphere of historic and textured embroideries in my designs using modern age technology, allowing the workmanship to be fully industrialised. It is my ambition to push the potential of traditional embroidery techniques and make embroidery relevant and desirable today by combining new technologies with that spirit of traditional handcraft.

When I was a student at both Goldsmiths University and the Royal College of Art in London, I learnt to embroider by hand as well as on almost obsolete hand-operated machines called Irish and Cornely embroidery machines. I also learnt how to programme and operate a digital embroidery machine. This is the machine that I now use to produce the embroidery samples for my collection. All my work is developed on a computer. I translate hand embroidery stitches, techniques and textures to the digital embroidery software.

I programme every single stitch.

Bonnie, a skirt from my last collection for Browns, has 702,114 stitches and uses 5,453 metres of thread. It is interesting because once the computer programme is written, the design is infinitely reproducible, even though it looks like a unique piece. Once the embroidery programmes are written, they are then sent via email to Italy to be embroidered on industrialised embroidery machines. On a visit to the factory, I saw the process: an extremely noisy room full of embroidery machines all producing the same design, exactly in sync.

I am an embroiderer, but I use modern techniques. The use of computers and mechanical processes are not antithetical to my craftsmanship, but essential to it. Whilst machines can be seen to have replaced skilled workers, they are also creating new opportunities to combine craftsmanship and technology.

It is a challenge to produce such specialised work and finding the right people is difficult. Simon Burstein of Browns and his network of industry contacts have been invaluable. He has made possible the industrial reproduction of my embroidered samples The companies that we use have all invested in specific technology that allows such workmanship to be industrialised.

Due to such investments, it has been possible to combine the traditional processes of an old English mill and my digital designs in the production of a jacquard fabric. Jacquard looms specialise in brocade and have the potential to weave very detailed imagery. The imagery that I have created for the jacquards is derived from my digital designs. This is an example of how contemporary approaches can feed back into traditional ones. I have come to see the future of craft, not in the perpetuation of traditional industries, but in the refinement of any given technique, mechanical or otherwise, such that it produces something desirable.

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