Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Salt: A taste of England

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Salt

When weaver June Swindell finished her education in 1995 she observed that there “were few textile design jobs in the UK because jobs were going overseas.” Concerned by this trend, Swindell determined that both the design and production of her future work would stay UK manufacturing based. Her education proved a solid foundation of technical and creative know-how to support this aspiration, first with a BA in Fine Art from Liverpool, (she attributes the freedom the course encouraged to the approach she continues to take today) followed by an MA at Nottingham (providing solid technical education in woven structures). A further brief eight months employment as a textile importer immediately after her studies confirmed what she did not want to do: “It was a good lesson, to watch where the UK textiles market was going, which I decided was not good.” Determined to follow another route, Swindell and her business partner Karina Thomas were awarded one of the first Sainsbury’s Scholarships to fund a studio space in London’s OXO Tower: Salt was born.

A decade on Salt, now under the sole direction of Swindell, continues to thrive with its distinctive collection of hand woven textiles designed for interior windows. The business is based on a collection of popular designs, complimented by a thriving commission-based business. Swindell now feels that clients, whether commissioning a one-off piece or selecting from the fabrics within the established collection, are buying into a brand it has taken a decade to establish. “The Salt look is like commissioning textile art,” she observes. Surface texture and an interest in the contrast between “areas to look through and areas to look at” epitomise the company’s subtle aesthetic. The palette is clean, with minimal colour and texture that is delicate rather than demanding. Considering that hand weaving is the backbone of the business, it is an aesthetic that convincingly shrugs off any negative associations with the tradition. Edges are immaculate, tension and materials both functional and experimental, with many of the structures Swindell designs existing precisely because they are woven by hand rather than machine.

“I was keen to produce a product, not a textile,” Swindell explains of her initial interest in producing blinds. Existing hardware developed from curtains and blinds is used by the company, allowing Swindell to focus her energies on the range of translucent fabrics that work as both room dividers or blinds. They are textiles that can take some of the structural risks carpet and upholstery cannot: yarn makes sweeping loops on the surface in one of Salt’s most popular designs, aptly named “Floats”; metal wire and cotton combine to capture the light with great effect in “Metallic”; and the sheer fabric “Meniscus” provides an impossibly sheer layer of texture to diffuse light. The change each of these fabrics undergo when seen in natural and artificial light can be tremendous, but it is this sense of constant shift that is central to the work.

“I don’t try to hide width restrictions imposed by the loom,” Swindell explains of the panelled effect that allows for curtains to be pulled in and out of view as required. The woven structure also provides its own benefits, in particular the ability to create double weave cloth that can act as a pocket in which the hardware of the blinds can be slipped while remaining integral to the textile. Even when working with leather, it is the natural inclination of the material that is put first. Whole hide rather than perfect hide is used, meaning that the imperfections and marks on the skin are allowed to give character to the work. Innovation in production is also required; in this case a splicing machine used to make shoelaces is set to 10cm wide in order to cut the leather into the strips necessary to make the blinds. “Keeping it simple,” explains Swindell, “is key. It is never rocket science.”

While design can aspire to simplicity, running a business rarely affords its owners such luxury. Eighteen months into launching the fledgling Salt, Swindell broke her shoulder. The accident provided a wake-up call and forced her to reconsider production early on. Today four full-time and several part-time weavers make up the backbone of weavers that work for Salt. Time at the loom is an increasing rarity and Swindell admits that she does miss the sampling that was once a part of the daily running of the business. Much of her time now is devoted to meeting new clients and the development of the multilayered wrappings that are now the first port of call for a new client. These colour tests give both a sense of the intended palette of the weaving as well as acting as a test for how light and shadow will eventually affect the finished work. For the near future, production will continue by hand, through the team of weavers she employs. Although looking into small batch production runs at UK mills, many mills find it hard to believe that such a one-off product can justify the cost of production on such a small scale. The right partnership may allow the few woven structures in the collection that could be produced by machine to be woven in local mills.

Viscose and cotton make up much of the collection – viscose in particular because it is light fast and does not rot – a serious concern with fabrics that are meant to shield light. The collection also includes finishing techniques such as lamination. During lamination warp and weft tend to be randomly pressed apart – something the laminators feared would be seen as a flaw when testing the technique, but in fact assured that each piece is unique. Certain commissions also provide their own challenges and require materials to be entirely readapted, such as woven horsehair used for a spa project, where the damp air meant that conventional materials would not be suitable.

The future, it seems, now lies in scale. “As a designer I want to take it to the next level,” Swindell remarks. Large, sculptural pieces are high on her list of dreamed-for commissions, possibly for expansive interior spaces such as lobbies. She sees her market increasingly overseas, especially cities such as New York and San Francisco. Europe, she points out, “needs blinds less because so many buildings already have an existing system of shutters or external awnings.” But she remains convinced that blinds both to screen light and provide privacy will only increase in demand in the years to come. “Our summers are getting hotter,” she observes, “and urban living is more and more crowded, with everyone overlooking another space.” Textiles that both screen light and provide privacy seem set to be in high demand. In spite of this, there are certain things that are not set to change: “Some things can only be produced by hand,” Swindell reflects. “That is why I am still here ten years on.”

Modern Carpets & Textiles (spring 2007: 30-33)