Working To Make Fabric Possible: The Training of a Textile Designer

Fabric is everywhere. Most of us are wrapped in it the minute we come out into the world, and again when we depart. We wear fabric, sit on it, sleep in it, step on it. We wipe our mouths and bodies with it, and use it to clean our kitchens. We decorate our houses and persons with it, wrap it around our necks, and carry it with us shaped into accessories. It’s all around us, everywhere, all the time. And yet, instead of being grateful for fabric, we often barely notice it, and hardly ever think of it. We take it for granted the way we take breathing for granted, or our own mothers. And we never, ever think of the many people who labor unseen to make fabric possible.

I’ve been thinking about fabric a lot since I started sewing seriously almost two years ago. I’ve been admiring the richness of the fabrics I use, the great diversity in their textures, colors, designs and feel. The more I work with them, the more curious I become about their origins. Where did these fabrics came from?, I wonder. How were they made? What kind of knowledge, work, and creativity went into creating them? Who were the people who made them possible?

Luckily for me, my friend Monika Ryser was able to shed light on some of the latter questions. Monika comes from a long line of Swiss textile experts. Her grandfather and father were in the textile business, and so it was only natural that, as a young adult, she, too, joined the industry. Monika’s experience illustrates how textile experts were trained in Europe in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, and demonstrates what it took to become a person who made fabric.

Textile Assistant Apprenticeship

In the late 1980’s Monika made her first steps into the textile world with an apprenticeship as a Textile Assistant. For three years she worked for a Swiss factory that mostly produced woolen fabrics for the Swiss army, as well as fabrics for car and plane seats. There, she learned hands-on how to make fabrics. She learned how industrial looms worked, as well as how to use them. She also learned how to design different-textured fabrics by drawing patterns on grid paper. Here, for example, is one of her designs, with a piece of fabric she wove from it:

Here are two more examples:

She also learned how to test the quality of already-woven fabrics .

Once her apprenticeship was over, Monika went to Germany, where she interned for half a year at the Hoechst Company, working mainly with artists who designed prints for mostly synthetic fabrics.

Fabric Designer Studies

After her internship in Germany, Monika returned to Switzerland to continue her studies. At this point, she had four options. She could have chosen to become:

  1. A Textile Designer: a person who either designed the technical components of fabric, or its looks.
  2. A Textile Mechanic: a person who could design, build and maintain the machines that made the textiles.
  3. A Textile Dyer: a person who specialized in fabric dyes, dying techniques, chemical treatments, and fabric printing.
  4.  A Textile Salesperson: someone who specialized in selling yarn and fabrics to customers who made things out of them.

Each of those options would have required a different course and detailed training and specialization.

Monika chose the first option. She enrolled in the Swiss Textile School (Schweizerische Textilfachschule Wattwil), where she spent another year and a half learning to be a Fabric Designer, specializing in the technical composition of fabrics. Monika jokes that whenever she tells people that she was a textile designer, they immediately assume she designed fashion. In fact, she was responsible for the basic composition of the fabric itself!

Her studies covered topics that included information on the raw materials from which fabrics were made: where cottons were grown, how cottons from different areas were different, which sheep to use for wool, where they were raised, and so on. Monika also learned how to choose threads, which threads to use for which fabrics, how to weave different kinds of threads, or how dense the weaving should be. She learned what fabrics to use for which purpose, and how to determine how well they held up with use or in the laundry.

Altogether, Monika spent about five years learning her trade. It took that long since creating fabric is a complex procedure that requires expertise in many different fields!

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