A textile designer designs and usually produces textiles and fabrics.
Textile design crosses an unusual line between technical industry and the creative professions.
Designers conceive and create the fabrics used in fashion and interiors, which are then incorporated into products – everything from dresses to cushion-covers. Textile designers are creative but also technically skilled, and they are often knowledgeable about the whole process of product design, production, sale and use.
Textile designers can work individually or as a part of a design team. As a creative job, the hours can be unorthodox, and many textile designers run their own freelance business. However, in some companies the job has been effectively absorbed into the corporate framework.
Textile designers select and use the tools of their trade, making their designs according to their own artistry.
As in any creative job, salaries vary greatly, with many junior textile designers producing their work for free or for fun. At the high end of the market, successful textile ‘brands’ such as Cath Kidston or Orla Kiely have built multimillion-pound brands around their distinctive textile designs.
The only absolute responsibility of a textile designer is to conceive and design a textile or print. However, many textile designers are involved in the whole process of the design and manufacture of the product. Freelance designers may also have to market, negotiate and dispatch their own designs, in effect running their own small business, with the many attendant concerns and responsibilities that this involves.
No qualifications are required to be a textile designer, although degrees or qualifications to Master’s level in fashion or textiles areas are commonly held by successful textile designers, particularly those working in the fashion industry.
- Technical skills – these are too various to list, but can involve use of artist’s tools or industrial machinery, as well as the ability to draw, print and paint
- Creative skills – an ability to find and identify inspiration, and a desire to pursue a creative career
- Ability to work alone or with groups of designers when creating a product of which the textile is just one aspect
Some textile design can involve the use of machinery or tools that require skill and careful handling, such as certain sharp-edged pattern cutters or screen-printing materials. However, a designer will almost always be familiar with their chosen tools and materials before working with them in a professional context.
Textiles designers can work long or unusual hours and this can be an isolating and lonely experience.
Designers working in more industrial contexts will usually have some experience in the relevant field of industry.
For other textile designers, useful experience falls under two headings:
- Educational: Art foundation course, BA degree or Master’s in fashion, art, textiles or design.
- Experiential: A strong portfolio of work, creativity, inspiration, and ideas. Good knowledge and technical understanding of the processes, fashions and history of textiles.
As is common with creative jobs, many textile designers work freelance, sourcing jobs through the many diverse companies and individuals who seek a particular or unusual textile. Ironically, many companies with a trademark textile style rarely need new designers, as they have already successfully established a ‘look’.
Although qualifications and prior positions held are rarely requisite elements of textile design positions, all textiles designers must have the technical and creative abilities necessary to have worked up a significant portfolio if they want to get hired.
Progression really depends on individual desire: while some textile designers want nothing more than to design and make their own textiles in their own business, others are hoping to secure a permanent salaried position on creative or technical teams at a big company.
Yet others will incorporate textile design into other jobs that can range widely, from art teaching to product promotion.
Also known as…
- Fabric Designer
- Textile Manufacturer
- Fashion Designer
- Product Designer
What’s it really like?
Vivien Harland, 25, is founder and designer of Emoni Bags (emonibags.com)
I’ve always made things, ever since I was a child. Art was my favourite subject at school and it seemed natural to do an art foundation course after leaving. I enrolled in a course called Environmental Art at Glasgow College of Art, but took some time out during my second year.
I went home to live in York for a while, and during my time there I worked in a small clothing boutique called Selkie. One evening I designed and made myself a bag out of some old fabric we had at home, and when I wore it into work my boss asked where I’d bought it. I said that I’d made it myself, and she asked if she could have one – and if I wanted to sell some in the shop. So I did, and they sold out!
When I went back to Glasgow I took a couple of bags to a shop in town – it was quite a haphazard business proposal, but I sold one or two through them. A Japanese girl bought one, and one day I ran into her in the bakery, and she asked me where I’d got mine from, because she wanted to sell them on her website. Today, my bags – Emoni bags – are sold on our website, emoni.com, and in boutiques and websites across Japan.
After starting the company in Glasgow with my business partner (and best friend) Michael, I’ve recently moved back to Yorkshire where I hope to be able to get some studio space. From here, we design and source textiles, and make the bags, and Michael helps run the company from a business point of view.
I’m inspired by the things I love – Bauhaus designs, Liberty prints, singers with great fashion sense like Grace Jones and Prince –to make the designs, which aim to be distinctive and ethically produced, as well as stronger and longer-lasting than the mass-produced bags sold on the high street.
I love the fact that I get to work with beautiful fabrics and textures. The hardest part of the job is that I never clock off – I’m constantly on the lookout for new inspiration and new textiles, which is a good thing, but the business can’t look after itself, and I’m dependent on constant production for my income.
I miss the creative freedom of just making things for myself, and I think it’s crucial that Emoni keeps this element of creative freedom. I want my customers to feel that they’re choosing a textile and design just as much as I am, because that is what I really enjoy. It’s so much more fun and beautiful, as well as ecologically more sound, than the bland, overpriced mass-marketed bags produced on the high street.
I do feel that in some ways we would have found it much easier if we were well-connected or living in one of the big international cities like London or Tokyo. There are not many helpful resources that can offer specialised advice for outfits like ours, although the Prince’s Trust, who were able to give us some funding for new sewing machines, have been really great in encouraging us.
It’s just unfortunate that we haven’t been able to find more specialised advisers, as the company’s progressed very rapidly from amateur to business. I expect this is a problem that many freelance textiles designers face.
Unfortunately I can’t give a reliable figure for you about my salary as it varies so greatly. We’ve recently got in an order for a new Japanese customer who wants 50 bags or so, so obviously that’s going to represent a spike in our income in the near future. But then we do go through more difficult periods, and obviously if we take a holiday – even just for a day or two – the company doesn’t sell anything in our absence!
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I often envy designers who work exclusively on the creative side for bigger companies as their salaries give them greater stability and they don’t have to worry about sales, marketing and profit – they get to work on their inspiration all the time. It’s difficult to estimate the outlay – the rent on my flat, my time, the fabrics I source, our website – even postage – all these things are paid for out of my pocket, so my profit margins are difficult to calculate.
At the moment, a typical day at work involves sending e-mails to stockists and individual buyers from our website, sourcing or designing or making materials, sketching prints and sewing bags. I also have to arrange shipping, which can be time-consuming and must be done punctually.
All the materials for our bags are original or personally designed textiles, with vintage buttons and grosgrain ribbon. The bags are hand-made by me because I need to be sure that they are strong as well as perfectly executed. I say to customers that the bags are big enough and strong enough comfortably to hold four bottles of wine, which gives them an idea of the size and longevity I strive for.
My tasks can be done in any order, at any time of day, any day of the week. Actually making the materials and bags takes up most of my time – I really hope that soon we’ll be able to generate enough orders for me to be able to take on somebody else whom I can train up to make the prints and bags to my specifications.
I’m determined to keep focussed on the integrity of my designs: bags must be perfectly made; materials good quality and ethically sourced; and I want all aspects of the company to remain environmentally friendly as it was when I was just designing my own bags out of scraps of unwanted fabric. In the future, I really hope we’ll be able to get things off the ground so that I can focus more whole-heartedly on the creative side of this design business, which was my first love. I really think that it’s because of this passion that my bags have been so popular this time – it’s such a great feeling when women stop me on the street to ask me where I got my bag from, or when we get positive feedback from customers.
I’d love it if we were able to expand the ethos and inspiration of the company to design more things – though I’m not sure whether that would be furniture, accessories or – you know – spacecraft. I get a lot of ideas from NASA, actually.