Meet the maker
Sarah Fennell on big brand collabs
There’s something about Sarah Fennell’s bright and youthful abstract pattern designs – they’ve drawn quite a crowd on Instagram, even catching the eye of the design department at John Lewis. That particular spot lead to a collaboration that saw Sarah’s designs catapulted from her screen-printing studio in the West Midlands to John Lewis windows across the country, when they were featured on Spring/Summer 2018 menswear.
Since then, Sarah’s been working on her latest fabric collection, Pleasure Gardens, which launched at the London Design Fair this September. Inspired by 18th century glasshouses filled with exotic plants, Sarah says the collection reflects her “joy in the botanical world”.
Sarah studied textile design for fashion and interiors at Bath Spa University, graduating in 2015, and went straight on to set up her own business producing textiles and paper goods. She joined the Crafts Council’s Hot House programme the same year and now works from a leafy, riverside studio at the Maws Craft Centre in Shropshire. We caught up with her there for a chat about creative business.
Describe your style in just a few words. Joy-infused colour palettes and naive, collaged shapes and motifs.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m expanding my range of giclee prints and have just started a new artwork based on the Lawn Aviary at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
How did you get into your craft? I’ve always been creative. Art was my favourite lesson at school, but it wasn’t until I did my foundation course that I learnt about textiles and print application. I went on to study textiles at university. In my third year I discovered my passion for collage
and how I could translate that technique into print. Even then, I knew I wanted to work for myself and that setting up an eponymous brand was the way to go.
And how did you get your business started? I bought a three metre print table second hand, found a studio space close to home and set up my print studio within a few months of graduating. It felt really important to keep the momentum of university going, so making plans for my business seemed incredibly natural.
What’s the most important business lesson you've learnt so far? That your business will naturally evolve. When I first started I had a really set idea about what I wanted my product and my business to be. Over time, I’ve changed and grown, and realised that what might have worked at the start might not work forever. It’s OK to say goodbye to things you were fixed on and open the door to new things.
Tell us more about your collab with John Lewis. I designed two prints for them that they used on about eight items of clothing in the Spring/Summer 2018 menswear collection, including T-shirts, shorts, swimwear, shirts and a sweatshirt. I’ve always posted my work on Instagram, and one day I got an email from John Lewis asking me to go to their London studio and take my portfolio. They liked one of my designs-in-progress and asked me to develop it and come up with a second one. Seeing my designs in the John Lewis window display was something I never could have imagined. I received so many photos from friends and family posing with the displays up and down the country! Instagram is a great platform for designers and makers. You never know who’s watching and where that might lead. I had a really positive experience of collaborating with a big brand, which was encouraging given all the fear about companies stealing ideas.
Can you share your design process with us? Every single piece of artwork or pattern starts life as a collage. Cutting
“Cutting paper is the easiest way for me to translate thought into shape.”
paper is the easiest way for me to translate thought into shape. I might do a quick sketch so I have something to work with, but most of the time I start instinctively cutting and pasting into my sketchbook. Depending on the product, I’ll then either scan it in and work with it digitally on Photoshop, or I’ll take it into the print studio and use the collage as inspiration for a screen-printed piece of work. Where do you find inspiration? It’s a cliché, but everywhere. I love the botanical world and old country houses – I’m at my most peaceful wandering around those places. I’m inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian aesthetics and find people’s homes inspiring – I’ll end up thinking of patterns that would suit the interiors or go with what’s in their closet.
“I love finishing a piece of work and knowing my heart and soul went into creating it.”
Describe your creative space. The studio is set in a converted tile factory in Jackfield, Shropshire – I adore old buildings. I’m fortunate enough to have a shop area, print workshop and small o!ce. The studio has high ceilings and that rustic-industrial feel without being too over-the-top. It’s fairly neutral, with the injection of colour coming from the textiles and objects I fill the space with. I enjoy using salvaged pieces of furniture both at home and at the studio – in the shop I’ve used an old oak door found onsite as a table top. Do you have a design hero? Finnish designer Maija Isola, who created designs for Marimekko in the 1960s which are still being produced today. I love her approach to line and stylising of motifs. What do you love best about what you do? So many things! Finishing a piece of work and knowing my heart and soul went into creating it. I love the feeling of pushing a design to its boundaries and thinking, “this is as good as it’s going to get, now is the time to stop”. Setting my own goals and having the power to say no. Are there any elements you don’t enjoy? My number one gripe with the self-employed life is the loneliness. I don’t think we talk about it enough, but I find working on my own can be cripplingly lonely. Sometimes I realise I haven’t said a word out loud all day until I get home to my husband in the evenings. " What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? Have a portfolio career – multiple income streams from a variety of work activities, which all strengthen and contribute to each other. This has led me to regularly teaching at Birmingham City University as a visiting tutor, giving lectures at universities around the country about my textiles and running workshops. And finally, do you have a dream project? I’d love to collaborate with Marimekko or Anthropologie. Those are my dream clients. My prints stocked in Liberty would also be very exciting!
Sarah’s new Pleasure Gardens collection of vibrant prints and textiles is available on her website at www.sarahfennell.co.uk. She also shares her collages on Instagram @freckledfennell.
01 01 Lampshades made using fabric from Sarah’s latest collection. 02 Two of Sarah’s giclee prints. Glasshouses in country house gardens are a big inspiration.
03 There’s plenty of colour and pattern in Sarah’s studio. 04 After collaging comes the digital editing, always with the radio on. 05 Sarah found her passion for collage at university. 02
01 Sarah sells lampshades and cushions made in her bright fabrics both in the shop space at her studio at the Maws Craft Centre and online. 02 One of Sarah’s signature colourful collages in progress on her desk. 02