Collaborative pattern creation
Chatting in a room full of cushions
It seems an age ago that I travelled on the train up to London to record this podcast. In fact it was just over two years ago. The world has changed so much but the approach of the Zen of Business of taking time and taking care seems more relevant now than ever. Shamash Alidina and Yvonne Fuchs were great to chat to about my circuitous journey from biologist to designer and small-scale entrepreneur. Yvonne has a lifetime of experience in the world of textiles and a deep creative practise of her own and has been a great mentor to me. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Wallpaper, fabric artist sketches brighter future for endangered species
Evolution (noun): A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.
As a longtime conservation biologist, Susy Paisley could probably give a more scientific definition of evolution.
Or she could just tell you the story of her career.
I met Paisley briefly at High Point Market, where her beautifully detailed wallpaper and fabric prints were on display in the Zoe Bios Creative showroom.
I was intrigued by a talk she gave, in partnership with the Sustainable Furnishings Council, about “Biodiversity in Design,” and her illustrations that focus on neglected and endangered species.
After learning more about her story, I knew she was perfect for this column and this issue (which highlights wallpaper and fabric in our Pattern Play section). She is the embodiment of Good Work(s) — not only giving back to a worthy cause but dedicating her life to protecting the environment.
Paisley spent 25 years as a conservation biologist. She has extensively studied spectacled bears in the Bolivian cloud forest and other highlights of her studies included harpy eagles in the Lacandon rainforest in Mexico, duck-billed platypuses in Australia, orchids in Romania and pangolins in Kenya.
With no formal art training, Paisley began illustrating her field notes with intricate depictions of flora and fauna.
As a scientist, Paisley was attuned to nature’s patterns but she noticed the nature imagery used in interiors and fashion was often bland, abstract or inaccurate. She wondered why the amazing wild species she studied as a biologist were missing.
“I saw an opportunity to go further with wild species and conservation storytelling. I just wanted to geek things up a little bit!” she told me.
She realized she might reach more people and educate them about wonderful wild creatures, many of which were being wiped out, through the design route rather than academia.
In 2010, she received an “Ideas Factory” grant from the University of Kent, where she worked. She spent several years figuring out the best way to tell stories about endangered species and conservation. In 2016, she launched Newton Paisley — named for her late mother, Anne Newton Paisley, a High Point native who came from a family with textile industry connections.
“I love the idea of the fabric of life, like the fabric of nature, and the threads that connect us to each other and to the natural world,” Paisley said.
Thank you Jennifer for this lovely piece, and for making mr rummage through old boxes for the above photo. Turns out the late 90s weren’t as well documented photographically as things are now! The rest of the story can be found here.
I just returned from a fantastic visit to High Point, North Carolina to their Fall Market, famous as being the largest home furnishings market in the world. Something in the range of 75,000 people come to this small town where around 2000 exhibitors do their best to sell their wares. It was particularly special for me to make it to High Point because this is the home town of Anne Newton Paisley, my late mother, after whom the business was named. I gave a talk on ‘Biodiversity, Pattern and Design’ which can be seen below, hosted by Zoe Bios Creative and the Sustainable Furnishings Council.
My last name is Paisley. I know - kind of hilarious for a textile designer. Apparently this sort of seeming coincidence is referred to as Nominitive Determinism, and there are countless examples. One of my favourite examples is Dr Dick Chopp, the Texan urologist who is known for performing vasectomies. Anyway, I’ve always felt quite connected to the swirly world of the paisley pattern, from psychedelic Pucci of the 1970s to its ancient structured Persian ancestors and everything in between.
By the way, there is a great exhibition on at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City called Design by Nature which has a fascinating section on the paisley motif - the introduction to which can be seen here. Anyway, five years ago when I was making my first foray into the design world, I met someone who learned I was a textile-mad biologist and said I should “be called Susy Paramecium not Susy Paisley” (a paramecium, in case you haven’t met one, is a tear-drop shaped microorganism). The idea for a paisley design based on real microorganisms popped into my head and I have been gently thinking about it ever since..
It has been a surprise to find myself falling in love with the tiniest creatures in Earth, having always studied big beasties like bears. I've been learning about organisms so small that millions can fit in a drop of water, and billions in a gram of soil. Microbes inhabit the widest range of habitats from sub-freezing temperatures, to water hotter than boiling, from lava, to the atmosphere miles above Earth, to glaciated mountain peaks and to the deepest ocean trenches. They include the strongest animals on Earth, the biggest producers of oxygen and greatest storers of carbon.
I wanted the design to evoke droplets of water as well as using the conventions of the paisley design. I also intended it to be reminiscent of stitching and lace, as the fabric of nature is fragile and intricately interwoven and embellished. I could exercise a bit of freedom in the colouration, and can further expand on this in the future, as many of these species are really quite transparent.
The species in my design are all aquatic - living in both fresh and sea water. They include many species of free-floating plankton, both zooplankton (more like animals) and phytoplankton (which are more like plants). Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food web. The health of all marine creatures, from fish fry to whales, is dependant the health of phytoplankton. They are also of serious conservation concern: warming oceans have caused levels of phytoplankton to decline 40% since 1950.
In my design, the swirls of what look like rice or tiny leaves are Euglena gracilis. It was the question of how to classify these particular "unclassifiable" beings with features of both plant and animals, that prompted early taxonomists like Ernst Haeckel to add a third living kingdom to Plantae and Animalia: the Kingdom Protista. Actually it was Ernst Haeckel’s stunning illustrations of copepods, diatoms, and nudibranchs that brought the beauty of these creatures to public awareness. (One of the colourways of this design is named after him.)
In with the Euglena are circular organisms: Prochlorococcus, a type of phytoplankton that releases countless tons of oxygen into the atmosphere. In fact they are the most abundant photosynthetic organisms on the planet. Some scientists estimate that Prochlorococcus provides the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take. The design also includes the extraordinary forms of several species of diatoms, looking like cogs, spirals (Chaetoceros debilis) and fans (Licomopha flagellata) and other ornamented spheres (various cocolithosphores). The two pink forms are marine algae (Ptilota and Pterothamnion plumula). The long chains are marine algae: fragments of Spirogyra and a colonial diatom called Helicotheca.
The largest organisms in my design, yet still only a couple of centimetres in length, are aeolid nudibranchs. Facelina auriculata, was discovered by Müller in 1776, the year of American independence. These little beauties are very variable in colour with poetic common names like 'clown', 'splendid', 'dancer', and 'dragon'. Because their colouring is so variable, and in honour of 1776 and the American Independence, I whipped out my artistic license, and made my nudibranchs largely Red, White and Blue.
Around the centrals circles are unicellular paramecia (the paisley-shaped creatures), and amoebas. Also a water bear - a tardigrade. The rest of the creatures around that central circle are copepods - a group which, combined, forms the largest biomass on the Earth. And they are freakishly strong. Relative to their size, typically about 1mm long, copepods are also the world’s fastest animal, being able to jump at a rate of about a half a meter per second. Their incredible strength, relative to their size, makes them more than ten times stronger than any other known species on the planet and even stronger than any human-made motor produced to date.
They don’t only qualify as superheroes for their strength and speed. It is estimated that copepods absorb 1-2 billion tons of carbon per year. This makes them the largest carbon sink in the world, handily transporting massive amounts of carbon to the deep sea.
The whole living world relies on these beings, only 1% of which have been identified never mind appreciated. So this is my paisley tribute to these intriguing mini-miracles - so symmetrical and precise in form and yet totally bizarre - that are literally everywhere and yet invisible to the naked eye. Enjoy! Let me know what you think...
When I started Newton Paisley in September 2016 I was really excited about ‘Made in Britain’. Doing all of the printing and the weaving for my products here in the UK felt like just the right thing to do. I was concerned about sustainability, loved buying local and I had visited fabric shops all over Europe where nearly all of the fabric they had was made in China. I knew that the proud traditions of textile manufacture had been nearly wiped out by the systematic poaching of technology and experts and the ability to undercut in price – I wanted to do what I could to push against that.
But as I learned more about linen, the more I realised that “local”, at least to me in Kent, England, actually crossed national borders…
Newton Paisley is based in Whitstable in Kent. In 2 hours we can be in London, or we can be in northern France or Belgium. Early in my explorations of setting up this business, I began learning about linen, a textile I had always loved. I discovered that though it only makes up 1% of the global textile market, 85% of the world’s fine linen comes from Europe. I realised across the Channel from me was the real linen heartland, a unique band of coastal land, stretching from southern Normandy through Belgium around to Amsterdam, with the perfect cool damp climate and ideal soils to grow the finest flax in the world.
I sketched out a map to show you the basic local geography of my business these days. I also make wallpaper (printed in the UK), but on the printed linen side, production reaches across the Channel. The flax, the plant from which linen is made, is grown in the green band, that “linen heartland”, where it is then harvested, retted, scutched, and combed. Learn more from the excellent website of the The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC). Then the fibres are spun into thread in Europe (often in Italy) and then woven into the cloth I print on, in several independent mills in France, Belgium, Scotland and Northern England. My printing and finishing is all done in the UK.
As you can see, several essential stages of this process are closer to me across the Channel than in the UK.
(By the way, it is true that flax can be grown in the UK though it is a very minor crop here. Lovely Francesca Baur is doing a lovely project called Kent Cloth in which she is encouraging people to grow and dye and work with linen here.)
Four years ago, when starting Newton Paisley was just a tender bud of an idea, I took a train to Lille and went to visit Lemaitre Demeestere, founded in 1835. It is one of the oldest extant textile companies in France and the only one to work exclusively with flax fibres that are entirely processed in Europe. Olivier Ducatillion is the owner and was an extremely charming host to me with his excellent English before I spoke any French. This lovely very short (90 second) film I found was made in their factory. Turn up the sound.
I had never seen industrial production before and wasn’t at all prepared for how beautiful and moving it was. Every person and every machine working finely in tune with each other. There was even a cat, equally committed to his essential mousing patrols. Olivier is passionate about the natural environment and showed me his own personal experiments in the natural dying of his linens. It was in summer and the train back travelled through farmland growing flax with its beautiful blue flowers… sigh…
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that day really changed my life. I decided I had to work with this noble, natural, ancient product and print my designs on it all about the wild species I love. The tender bud of an idea for Newton Paisley sprouted leaves and flowers that day in northern France.
A Newton Paisley pattern called Carolina Posies printed on medium weight linen
Susy Paisley in a field of flax in northern France
A Newton Paisley pattern called Carolina Parakeets printed on heavy weight linen
One day soon I will write more about the environmental benefits of this fibre and its incredible European cultural heritage. But today is March 29, 2019, the day the UK was scheduled to be leaving the European Union. Today I mainly wanted to say how much being European means to me personally and to this business.
Newton Paisley benefits greatly from the working relationships we have with our local French and Belgian suppliers and European clients. This whole industry depends completely on European collaboration. At this moment of advancing nationalism, protectionism and isolationism, I just wanted to set down in words how important close ties with Europe are to me and my small independent business. For me, caring as I do about issues like nature conservation, world peace, and human rights (and also being a linen nerd), European unity means the world.
By the way, if you want to geek out on linen, this is another lovely film. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a joy. It is 15 mins long but really worth watching.
Thank you very much to Liza Foreman and BBC Designed for this lovely write-up. Also to David Oxberry for the portraits of me in my studio.
When we launched our fabrics at Decorex last year, and consistently ever since, people have asked if we would be producing the designs as wallpaper. Textiles, especially linens, are my first love, and it took me a while to come around to the idea, but I am now officially a complete convert. The layered effect in a room, how it enlarges and deepens the space, the clarity of the printing and the colour…it’s addictive!
So it is with joy that we are able to launch all of our fabric designs as wallpaper. After sampling with many manufacturers, we are delighted with the product that we have achieved: a fine gicleé digitally-printed “real” wallpaper. We are printing in the UK on a natural non-woven cellulose-based substrate made from recycled materials – recycled polyester (PET) fibre and recycled wood pulp. The production process is solvent free with minimal waste and energy inputs. The papers are fire certified for Europe and North America, and can be sponge wiped. I am also besotted with the mellow, vibrant colours. We are looking forward to sharing it widely, so do request any samples that interest you.
We are in the process of updating all of the designs on the website to reflect their availability as wallpaper. In the meantime, please be in touch for any details.