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#random pattern and process: how Robert Stewart's practice inspired the design of new textiles

Above: shirts in second hand shop, Glasgow.

Textile design has always been part of my broader design practice. I trained in Printed textiles at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) before moving into trend prediction, graphic design and then about circle, into social enterprise and innovation. 

I spent quite a bit of time, and a fair chunk of my student loan, on second hand textiles picked up from Paddy’s market, a now closed (and sadly missed) flea market in Glasgow. I also made regular visits the the city's many charity shops; a habit which eventually led to the creation of a Green Map about Glagsow's reuse sector called Dear Green Place. (More info here>)

Shopping second hand has provided me with a cheap source of clothing and some great chats with people volunteering in the many charity shops across the city. In addition, this type of retail therapy has been an education in textile design.

Through shopping second hand I gained an appreciation for the changing qualities and feel of fabrics over time. Advancements in textile technology can be traced along the rails of charity shops; from the highly coloured nylon prints of the late 60s, that I absolutely love but cannot bare to wear because of their synthetic feel, to the cotton blend, patterned shirts of the late 70s and bold fleece jumpers of the 80s and 90s. The hours and hours spent digging into bargin bins has rewarded me with a fine collection of printed textiles that inspire my design work today.

Design in a rural context

Above: Liz Arthur's book Robert Stewart: Design 1946-95

When I moved to Dunoon around 10 years ago my partner gave me a book about the designer Robert Stewart. I vaguely knew Robert Stewart’s name, as the undergraduate course I had done at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) was taught by two of his students: Liz Munro and Ann E. Ferguson. What I hadn’t appreciated before reading the book was Stewart’s association with Cowal, the Scottish west coast peninsula Dunoon is located on. 

The book Robert Stewart : Design 1946-95 by the textile historian Liz Arthur, tells the story of Stewart’s long career as both an influential design educator and a prolific designer / maker. Stewart produced an enormous range of textiles, graphics, enamels and ceramics throughout the post-war era. He worked with Liberty's on a range of silk scarves, Dovecot studios, Pringle developing a variety of knitted and printed garments


Above: A Robert Stewart Liberty print scarf.

His many collaborations were done to support student opportunities, exposing his pupils to the technical challenges of mass production and realities of the Scottish Textile industry. Robert Stewart headed up the Printed Textile design course and then the Design department for many years at GSA, a period where the reputation of the Design School grew globally. GSA still print his textile designs digitally and over the decades since his death in 1995, his work and teaching have been reexamined through research.

However, what intrigued me most about Stewart’s practice, having relocated to Cowal to be a designer, was that he lived and had a studio away from Glasgow. Each working day he travelled by car, boat and train to get into the city, leaving his very supportive wife Sheila, a medical Doctor and their six children, in a purpose built house at the top of the stunning Loch Striven.

This is not an easy commute, the road out to the loch from Dunoon is a challenging, scenic drive involving single track roads and plenty of bends.

Stewart's creative output around his teaching commitments and family was phenomenal. He was not just interested in one medium but many. Fantastic drawing and pattern making run across his work.

He produced large ceramic commissions from his studio, sometimes taking his students and design professionals out to his home to experience and draw the stunning landscape of Cowal. He was globally connected whilst living in a remote part of Scotland, before the internet was even a thing. He was a designer who thrived in a rural context.

Designers, particularly female designers, are rarely associated with the narrative surrounding rural creative practice. The networks and opportunities connected with this sector of the creative industries exists in urban places, but these are not well connected with the rural places; a spatial in-equality that is rarely discussed or acknowledged.

Robert Stewart’s impact on the Scottish design and design education is huge, but less well known is the impact he had on his local community. Stewart made tiled murals for a local cinema, now the Studio Cinema and gifted one to the remote Kilmoden Primary school his children attended. He also gave small pieces of his work to local people - my neighbour has an enamel piece made by the designer that came to her via a family connection. 

In 2013 I facilitated printing workshops at Dunoon Burgh Hall with Robert Stewart’s very, very talented granddaughter, Gillian Stewart. The workshops were part of a retrospective exhibition about the designer curated by Anne E Ferguson (my former textile tutor) and Cowal Open Studios. Dunoon Burgh Hall, a local arts centre houses another tiled mural of Stewart's. This mural was rescued from a school that was about to be demolished. It was taken into the GSA archive and then gifted / loaned to the Burgh Hall when the building was restored and then re-opened in 2017.

Above: a Robert Stewart Print called Kilmun, a village in Cowal. This is digitally printed at GSA.

Inspired by process and practice

Since then I have been trying to figure out how to approach and fund further research into Robert Stewart's design legacy. To the population of the Cowal, particulalry young people, Stewart's passion for design and creative education is really valuable.

Ideas have been talked about between myself and members of Stewart’s family, but the resources to do develop a project have not been available todate.

Last year I started to re-look and rethink about Stewart’s process and his practice. His very quick and intuitive approach to ceramics in particular inspired me to experiment with a textile print technique last used during my undergraduate degree at GSA.

Out of these experiments came #random jumpers, a small collection of jumpers printed using heat press techniques.

I dream that one day a lucky person is finds a #random jumper in a charity shop. I hope they are both delighted and intrigued enough to find out more about the garment's designer and discover Robert Stewart's work in the process.

This would be success in my book.

#random jumpers are produced in small batches. Each one is almost the same. You can buy them from the Tacit Tacit Shop.


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