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  • Original 1950s West Riding design by Sheila Bownas

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Crafts Council Directory maker Sarah Waterhouse talks to Katie Treggiden 

The pattern designer talks about stepping into the shoes of Sheila Bownas, the importance of making by hand, and the future of craft. 

You’ve recently reinterpreted an original painting by Sheila Bownas as part of the West Riding Collection. 
Yes. In 2008, Chelsea Cefai purchased the archive of Sheila Bownas, a textile and wallpaper designer who worked in the 50s and 60s. Chelsea is faithfully bringing the patterns back to life one by one. I worked from an original painting to create a repeat pattern for handprinting onto interior fabrics. We’re not sure if this particular pattern was ever put into production, so this could be the first time it has been seen on fabric, which is really exciting. 

How did you go about creating your designs?
I scanned the painting at high resolution and broke it down into layers, so that I could separate the background pattern from the overlay. One of the biggest challenges was to make the design suitable for a repeat. Sheila had designed the pattern as a simple grid repeat which made the large stand-out motifs too heavy and linear for our purposes, so I converted it to a drop repeat to break up the pattern and make it more pleasing to the eye. This meant that I had to add quite a large section. My most important job in doing this was to match Sheila’s style as much as possible. 

 Sarah Waterhouse

How did you ‘channel’ Sheila Bownas to enable you do that?
The design is called West Riding because it is reminiscent of the architecture of Linton and the surrounding villages in the Yorkshire Dales, where Sheila grew up. I tried to put myself in her shoes and develop the design based on the surroundings that inspired her. It wasn’t too difficult, because I am inspired by many of the same themes in my own work. Working with an archive of patterns by a designer you admire is a real honour, I’ve fallen in love with so many of Sheila’s designs.

How did the colour palette come about? 
The colours were huge part of the project actually. I worked very closely with Chelsea, who was looking for colours that were fresh and new, but at the same time, in harmony with the 1950s pattern so I started with a bold mustard yellow hue and added subdued complimentary shades of grey and pink.

Sarah Waterhouse

How did it feel to see the rest of the collection, which includes work from Elisabeth Barry, Parlour and Zoe Darlington, translated from the same pattern?
The moment was great! You could immediately see how everything was coming together. I was already familiar with Zoe and Parlour’s work but not Elisabeth’s – I instantly fell for her ceramics, the way she has used the pattern is wonderful. 

Why is printing by hand important to you?
I love technology, but I also love slow practices that allow for slight variations. There is something amazing about hand-printing fabric, it's a wonderful process and a skill that takes years to master. Being involved in both the design and the production of fabric is important to me and I would never want to be removed from the physical process of printing. Digital printing still accounts for the minority of printed textiles worldwide, but it is growing at an incredible rate and will eventually take over, especially as fewer and fewer universities have the large printing tables to teach by hand. For now, screen-printing still gives a much better quality, colour and clarity and no two prints are ever the same. It is like the difference between a hand-thrown mug with a mass-produced one – there’s just no comparison. 

Sarah Waterhouse

What do you think the future holds for craft? 
I hope the future is bright. Some people worry that the current appreciation of craftsmanship is just a fad, but there has been a steady increase over a number of years, so it seems like something that is built on strong foundations and won’t go away any time soon. Craft ties into environmental concerns too – with each generation we understand more about how to look after our planet. Quality work, made responsibly, will always be appreciated.

To see more of Sarah's work visit her Crafts Council Directory profile

For more on the Sheila Bownas archive www.sheilabownas.com