When she’s not being a mother to her 2 children or working as a freelance designer, Susie Hetherington (rather miraculously) finds time to develop her observational drawings of nature into patterns for fabrics. My initial thought when I saw her work was that the spirit of William Morris is certainly alive and kicking in contemporary pattern design. Both traditional yet contemporary, Susie’s work is sophisticated with a rugged hand-made charm. I wanted to ask her more about her printmaking.
Lisa: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to start hand printing fabrics?
Susie: When I was on maternity leave with my second daughter, I often found that the only way to get a 2 year old and a newborn to nap at the same time was to drive somewhere and park up, for a little peace and quiet! So I regularly found myself stationary in a car, and started drawing in a pocket sketchbook. It was a bit of a creative outlet for me, allowing me to be creative and make the most of being away from home and all the endless jobs to do there. I would draw from photos I had taken on my phone on the very many walks I would do with babies in tow. I live in a beautiful part of Gloucestershire, in a village on common land owned by the National Trust… so nature is all around me and I find it very inspiring. I didn’t know what to do with all these sketches, but have a real passion for patterns, so started combining sketches and turning them into repeats. Seeing the block printed work of Cameron Short, around the same time, made me try lino-carving, which I had dabbled with a bit before many years ago. But it was when I started printing my blocks onto fabric that I got really hooked.
Lisa: Are your designs based on direct observation?
Susie: Yes, well I suppose via photographs I have taken when out on walks. Sometimes, a sketch from nature then gets deviated from or embellished quite a bit when I start turning it into a pattern, but certainly it is always my start point.
Lisa: How easy is it to make a repeat pattern? Are there any tricks of the trade?
Susie: I am sure there are many more tricks of the trade than I know, but I use a weird mixture of working it out by hand (sometimes cutting my designs into four sections and reassembling in a different order; you can find tutorials on this online), and sometimes scanning my drawings in and playing round with repeats in Photoshop. As I am a graphic designer, I use digital tools all the time so it is still very much part of my process, though in general my textiles mark a move away from relying on the computer. I have really enjoyed getting back to basics and using a pen and paper, and then of course lino cutting tools and ink. I had worked straight to screen for so many years, it was cathartic to take a break from it.
Lisa: Can you describe a typical working week and tell us how you manage to fit your creativity around your role as a parent?
Susie: Hand printing textiles is not yet what pays the bills, unfortunately. I work from home as a freelance designer, for a mixture of clients, on branding and illustration mainly… all quite far removed from my textiles. Two days a week, this is what I am supposed to be doing, and the rest of the time I am with my now 2 and 4 year old, living the very hectic life of a stay at home parent. So my textiles work is fitted in whenever I see an opportunity; evenings, weekends, and whenever I have a gap between design jobs. I would absolutely love it to become my main focus (aside from the kids!) so I hope my working ‘week’ might change in the future.
As for fitting in creativity round parenting, I don’t think the two oppose each other… in a way I think I am more creative since having children than when I was supposedly being creative full time. I am outside a lot more now, compared to when I was commuting to sit in a studio or going to meetings. I am sure that has been the major influence on my recent work. I think parenthood can also focus you on making the most of any time you have to yourself too, and it teaches you to be more spontaneous: I noticed the same in my best friend Lou Tonkin, who is a textile artist working in felt. When her children were tiny she launched into a hugely creative period and has never stopped. For me, staying creative is like preserving a bit of your pre-motherhood identity whilst also trying to carve out a bit of a flexible future, building a working life around a family. I’m very lucky my partner, who owns a digital design company, works very hard to enable me to work a shorter week and be with the kids.
Lisa: How much do you consider what the fabric will be used for in the design stages? i.e. do you consciously think about what kind of a pattern would work for a cushion/seat cover etc?
Susie: Quite honestly I don’t do that at all (but probably should!). That would be too like responding to a brief, which is too like what I do for my day job. When creating my patterns I am really only responding to what catches my eye and then what elements work together and satisfy me. If I was commissioned to do something in particular then perhaps this would change, but at the moment I enjoy letting it just develop without trying to predict the outcome and its usage.
At the moment my work generally turns into cushions, but in fact that is just because they involve a small amount of fabric which is easy to hand print in limited space. Many of my designs would actually work better as upholstery or curtain fabric where you can see more of the repeat… and I am working on how to make this achievable on the small scale I work at now. I might possibly go digital for larger fabric runs in the future, though everything would originally be hand printed and then scanned.
Lisa: Are there any artists who you feel are a particular inspiration to your work?
Susie: Absolutely – Marthe Armitage and Cameron Short are the main ones. I have met Cameron and seen his blocks up close, and he has greatly encouraged me when I have showed him my work, which was a big boost to my confidence.
I have always been very inspired by both Art Deco and Art Nouveau design too. I really like the patterns of C.F Voysey, and I also remember studying the cushions my parents had on their sofa in William Morris’ Golden Lily, when I was really young.
Pinterest etc also brings me a daily array of beautiful work, and through this I have discovered so many designers and printmakers that I admire greatly.
Lisa: You use Caligo Inks to print your fabrics. What do you like about them?
Susie: The main reason to try Caligo Inks was environmental: I could wash the ink off my rollers etc. without using lots of chemicals. I just print at home on the kitchen table/floor, and they have fitted perfectly into my process with some lovely results…. and they wash off the many surfaces I manage to cover in the process! Drying times on certain inks has taken a bit of trial and error to understand, but I love the colours and lots of people have commented on the richness of the results.
Lisa: What are the best and worst aspects of your creative process?
Susie: The best aspect is when I see the block inked up for the first time and know all the painstaking carving was worth it. I really enjoy carving actually, it is one of the best bits. Also, when I love the stage when I check a repeat works on my computer (by scanning in drawings and repeating them) and I see the pattern in full, zoomed out…if I like it. If I don’t it is back to the drawing board.
The worst aspects of my creative process is simply time… lack of it. And I am not very good at trying to turn a passion into a business. Though I have run a successful business in the past I had two business partners that dealt with most of the nitty gritty whilst I concentrated on leading the creative side. What a luxury that was. I find some aspects of the business element can stifle my creativity if I let it, yet it is something I obviously have to master to have a future as a textile artist.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Susie: I have just carved a large block of a pattern I have been working on for a long while based on Peonies, but haven’t yet printed it…. this is because another pattern that is loosely Christmas themed (it involves a repeat of Mistletoe, Ivy and a Robin) brought with it a rather seasonal deadline! I have just finished that one so will put ink to roller on both very soon.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Susie: My website: www.susiehetherington.co.uk
My brand new Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/susiehetheringtontextiles
My twitter feed: @sushetherington