London-based designer Becky Earley is not as famous as she ought to be. A pioneering practitioner who charts the boundaries of new fabrics and forges fresh directions for old fibres, Earley’s contribution to British textiles is really something.
Right now, Earley is lauded for her commitment to sustainable textiles. Everyone knows she was one of the first designers to print onto light-absorbing fleece made from recycled plastic bottles, and that she broke fresh ground by developing eco-friendly printing processes and even came up with a new paradigm of garment recycling. But before that, while still a student at Central St Martin’s, Earley decided to buck the norm of designing floral prints, feminine repeats and bold colour-ways. Then she skived off to the photography department one day and developed a ‘heat photogram’ method while she was down there. She used real items such as pins, steel mesh, aluminium foil and barbed wire, and gritty scavenged finds she picked up on the street. When she came back, she used the process to create permanent prints on cloth. The prints that resulted were striking in their lucidity. Since then, photographs have loomed large in her work.
It’s no surprise, then, that Earley’s friends like to tease her and pretend that she is probably one of the most widely-published photographers in Britain. Her heat photogram images are printed onto textiles rather than photographic paper, but they have been reproduced by the thousands. Earley’s photographs have adorned countless magazine covers, and rocketed to paparazzi fame when worn by celebrities such as Björk and Kylie, and television personalities like Zoe Ball. Earley shrugs it all off, saying its was probably because of her dad. ‘He bought me a camera when I was ten, and all I wanted to do for years was take pictures,’ she said. ‘Maybe it was a surprise that I chose textiles instead of photography, but when I started printing my pictures on fabric, everyone knew where it came from.’
There is much more to Earley’s work than pictures; her imagery provides imaginary keys that unlock a gateway into several real worlds. Although her prints are sometimes described as realism, to her they are anything but. ‘Don’t they bring an element of surrealism to textile design? I’ve taken photographs of models’ hands and feet and printed them onto garments – really edgy stuff that artists like Björk loved. Some of my favourite photos were the ones of tatty garments that I had found somewhere, which I airbrushed, coloured and photoshopped to make them beautiful. Transforming a rag into a glamourous textile isn’t realism – it’s the opposite.’
The ‘b.earley’ label was launched in 1994, assisted by funding from the British Crafts Council and the Prince’s Trust. From a tiny studio in London’s Brick Lane, b.earley launched substantial production runs. ‘I guess by 1998-1999 we must have averaged 800 hand-printed scarves per week,’ Earley said. ‘Which were distributed to 26 stockists worldwide.’ Earley was hands-on in the production process, which quickly showed her how toxic textile production could be. ‘Everything was filthy all the time,’ she said.
‘It was uncomfortable for the people working there, and damaging to the environment. At one point in 1999 I looked around and thought “What can I clean up here?” and so I started developing my ‘exhaust printing’ process.’ Like exhaust dyeing, exhaust printing reuses the original dye solution for every garment in the production run. It recycles the chemicals, minimising water pollution and chemical waste. ‘None of my clients wanted to buy a whole production run at first because the image fades in the process and gives each garment a unique colour-way,’ Earley said. ‘To me, that was a major selling point, because the production run created a group of unique items to sell rather than just a series of multiples.’
Earley has decided to address the growing problem of post-consumer waste, coming up with a method of recycling the millions of garments that are worn for one season and cast off when trends move forward. ‘From working in the industry, I knew that Marks & Spencer have researched micro-fibre polyester and produce blouses that are long-lasting,’ Earley explained. ‘But I also knew that they dated quickly and end up in the rubbish. So I order them from textile recycling plants outside London, where I buy them by the bale. They’re almost always in perfect condition, occasionally they’re be a balsamic vinegar stain or something, which doesn’t make any difference because I over-print them anyway. Many of them are also re-cut by sonic slitting that reconfigures the seams or incorporates a few new design details.’
Earley currently holds the coveted research position of Reader Fellow at Chelsea College of Art & Design in London, but continues to develop her own label. ‘I teach and co-ordinate research projects in the college and outside it,’ Earley said. ‘When I’m there I’m analysing how other design disciplines are finding ways to become more environmentally-friendly and seeing what textile designers can learn from them.’ Earley’s research will be published in a book which proposes seven strategies for eco-friendly textile design, due be released in 2009. ‘When I’m not at the college you’ll probably find me in the wooden eco lodge at the bottom of my garden, sitting in behind my computer. It’s a great place to think. I think a lot about the future of textile design and I want to develop new strategies to minimise the amount of waste.’
Earley’s unique oeuvre positions her between several worlds: the creative forum of her studio practice, the analytical industry ‘watchdog’, and the theoretical realm of academia. But which one does she really belong to? ‘I’ve got my fingers in several pies right now,’ Earley said. ‘I love having a small studio and my own label and I also love what I do at the college. I think what I love most is feeling that I belong to a whole new breed of textile designers, who are thinking, theorising and researching just as much as they are dreaming, imagining and creating. Professionals that can use their knowledge of textiles and systems and design whole new environments. To me that’s exciting, because that’s what’s the future needs.’
This is a post by David Report contributor Bradley Quinn.