Making the Transition: Five RISD Graduates

Making the Transition
Five textiles graduates discuss how their careers have progressed and the transition from school to work.

A decade ago I arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to begin an undergraduate degree in textile design. As a freshman, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do after graduation: I wanted to apply my textile-design skills to economic development work overseas. One short summer put that idea to rest; between my junior and senior years, I worked at a weaving cooperative in Kathmandu, Nepal. While I may have had the tenacity to survive in an unfamiliar place, I did not have enough patience to accept that development work often yields results only after years (rather than summers) of commitment.

In the years since graduation, I began to wonder if others were as surprised as I am to find where the study of textiles has led. Some of my contemporaries now own their own businesses, others launched magazines, went back to school, starting teaching. Many of us now work with textiles more closely than we ever thought we might, but not necessarily in the ways we imagined. I started asking others if they had had a clear picture of what employment options would be available for them after graduation, and what the transition from education to career had been like.

I spoke to five individuals who graduated the year I did (1999): Amanda Grogan, owner of the boutique Sleep in Williamsburg, New York; Rachel Doriss, acting associate aesign director at Pollack, a company that specializes in woven textiles for interiors in New York; Jonathan Michaud, MA candidate in constructed textiles at the Royal College of Art in London; Liz Collins, knitwear designer, artist, and assistant professor of textiles at RISD; and Sabrina Gschwandtner, a New York City-based freelance curator, artist, and editor of KnitKnit magazine. (Grogan, Doriss and Michaud all received BFAs in textiles from RISD; Collins received and both her BFA and MFA in textiles from RISD; Gschwandtner, who shared an apartment with several RISD textiles majors, received a BA in art semiotics from Brown University.) What became apparent in conversation with these individuals is that the breadth of employment options available is much greater, rather than smaller, than what we imagined as students.

Textile Meets Retail

“The whole time I was at RISD I never really felt I would work in the industry,” explains Amanda Grogan, who opened Sleep, a boutique specializing in “everything for the bedroom,” early last year. “I thought I would take the skills I was learning and put them towards another field. But I never thought it would be retail!” Grogan moved to New York City after graduation and took a job at the clothing store Anthropologie because she saw it as “a good chance to be creative and hands on”—something that can be a bit of a rarity in an entry-level position in any field. Six years later, the charm had worn thin, and, along with business partner Hannah Curtin, Grogan decided “to just go for it” and open a store that combined her knowledge of textiles and retail by focusing on lingerie and bedding. “The one thing I learned at RISD that has helped me in whatever I have done,” she explains, “is a way of seeing and looking at things. It sounds like a cliché, but understanding what you are seeing and how to critique what you see is so important.”

Industry Bound

Like Grogan and many others who train in textile design, Rachel Doriss moved to New York after she graduated. Her decision was inspired by our required junior-year field trip to the city, where we were shown some of the places where RISD graduates were employed. Doriss’s degree project at RISD focused on printed textiles for apparel, but work after graduation, at a company producing printed scarves and accessories, taught her that atmosphere of the fashion industry, in particular its determination to making last season’s designs obsolete, was not a good match. Her current job at Pollack, which specializes in woven textiles, came as a pleasant surprise. “At RISD, I took Weaving I, and I liked it but did not love it,” she explains. “I was much more interested in silk-screening. When Maria [Tulokas, textile department head] saw that I did not sign up for Weaving II, she told me that I was really going to limit my options so much when it came to jobs in the field.” The advice proved prudent: Doriss’s responsibilities at Pollack focus on seeing woven-fabric designs from conception to completion.

From Industry to Craft

Jonathan Michaud also made the move to New York and then on to London, where he is now in the second year of his MA studies in constructed textiles. Explains Michaud, whose first interest was architecture, “I’m not at all where I pictured I would be. But then again, I didn’t know where I’d be, I just thought I might not be still doing textiles.” His five years—and six jobs—working in the industry after graduation led him to his current interest in ecologically sound alternatives in textile design, such as selvedge-free looms which minimize waste. “I have industry experience,” he explains, “but I think that is what I am reacting against now by designing things that are handwoven and craft based.” Through Scenery, the company he founded before beginning his MA, Michaud plans to develop high-end ecologically and socially sound textiles for the home. “In my design approach I’m questioning everything,” he explains. “This is certainly something that was introduced to me at RISD on a design level, but I’m taking it even further now by questioning the best production methods. This could mean anything from working with hand-weavers in India to working with Western mills responding to ecological issues. For me, no matter how beautiful a fabric may be it is still ‘bad design’ if ultimately it has a negative impact on our world.”

Entrepreneur and Educator

Like Michaud, Liz Collins decided to return to education, and RISD, for an MFA which she completed in 1999. “I wanted to learn how to use the knitting machine, as it seems to be the perfect way for me to develop a concurrent process of creating fabrics and clothing,” explains Collins. In the eight years between her two degrees, Collins launched her eponymous line of knitwear and “spent five years building the brand.” In addition to her own label, Collins works as a designer for hire and creates performance installations that “comment on apparel and textile manufacturing, examining production as well as making.” Now an assistant professor of textiles at RISD, she teaches a variety of courses on knit design and textile design specifically for apparel and brings to the classroom firsthand experience of the challenges—as well as joys—of working independently within the fashion industry. In fall 2005, Collins was responsible for organizing a collaboration between eighteen RISD students and the American fashion designer Donna Karan along with the Italian Trade Commission. Invited to rethink one of DKNY’s best sellers—the “cozy,” a hybrid sweater design—the project gave students a taste of the commercial design world before graduation as well as public exposure through a display of their prototypes at DKNY’s flagship boutique on Madison Avenue.

Artist and Publisher

Sabrina Gschwandtner had no idea what she was going to do when she finished her art semiotics degree at Brown but is thankful for the breadth her education provided. “Art semiotics is critical visual theory,” she explains. “It does not prepare you for anything practical. Instead it is a combination of thinking about theory and writing, but also making things, in my case film.” As a student, Gschwandtner shared an apartment with several textile majors from RISD and began to incorporate fiber into her own art practice with film and video, a hybrid she continues to explore. To pay some of the bills after graduation, “I made things—hats, mittens, wild but wearable—and I got to a point where I was making money, but never enough for it to be full time,” she says. She ended up getting a part-time job at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, as well as designing and fabricating costumes.

Gschwandtner launched the magazine KnitKnit in October 2002 with the promise that she “was only going to put in stuff that took textiles and art in a different direction.” The recipe has proved successful. “When I think that forty stores now sell KnitKnit,” she says, “that seems huge to me—for something that is not market driven or industry oriented.” Today she is working on a full-length book, KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from a New Generation of Knitters.

From School to Career

Gschwandtner sees the first years after graduation as particularly tough for students graduating from art programs. “I think it is really hard for creative people after they leave college to find interesting jobs in which they are actually learning something and are given the responsibility of being creative for another institution,” she says. “My advice is to not be too hard on yourself,” she concludes, “especially if things don’t happen right away. Jobs that are creative and fulfilling take a lot of work to find.”

Doriss happily admits to being “completely satisfied” with her job, but it is a consuming profession. “The one thing I find depressing is the lack of free time I have,” she explains. “I remember projects I use to do that were creative for the sake of being creative. I feel the reason I don’t make many things outside of work now is simply a time thing. It’s hard to make something just for the pleasure of making it now.”

Michaud notes that the difference between the freedoms of student work and life after graduation is a huge step in a designer’s education: “It’s great to live in a bubble,” he admits, “and create textiles that glow in the dark or whatever it is they do, but there has to be a market. If you are going to spend your life doing this, you have to understand the context you are working in.” However, Michaud is hesitant to suggest that everything needs to be packed into education. “I think it could be limiting when you are a student to take on too much, because then you have other decisions on top of aesthetic or design decisions—it is a lot to take on board at an early stage in a designer’s education.”

The step between education and career is certainly a huge one, but should education, in an effort to ensure immediate employment after graduation, strive to mimic industry to such a degree that the transition between the two is seamless? Or do programs that strive to create polished professionals cut too severely into the precious time for freedom and experimentation that are so central to education? Collins feels that her responsibilities as a teacher cover a breadth of issues. “Problem-solving techniques and design skills” are of equal importance to “the conceptual development of work and encouraging students to find their own distinct and individual points of view as designers and artists,” she explains. “I encourage them to take risks as students, but an early taste of what they might face working in the textile industry is also a huge part of their education and my responsibility as an educator.”

While the adjustment from student to professional is a huge leap for many, in creative fields, the leap can as often be about creative restrictions as it can options. But I think many would agree with Grogan, who sees her time studying textiles at RISD as invaluable to her life now. “I was one of those people that did not know what fields were open to me when I got out of school,” she explains. “The truth is that everything is. You don’t have to work at a mill; design skills can apply to anything.” Heartening words for those donning their caps and gowns this spring.

After graduating from RISD’s textile department, Jessica Hemmings returned to the United Kingdom, where she completed an MA and PhD in the role of textiles in African literature. She now teaches textile theory and practice at the Winchester School of Art in England, writes for numerous publications about contemporary textiles, and is a contributing editor at Selvedge and Modern Carpets and Textiles.

FiberArts magazine (April/May 2006: 42-47)