Pat Whitehead – Textile Designer
Pat spent her childhood in Mere and had always wanted to be a fashion designer. Her family had links to the textile industry. At the age of 13, she attended junior classes on a Saturday at the Salisbury School of Art & Craft and then studied fashion design there after leaving school. Here, she discovered a passion for textile design which she studied for two years.
Needing to find work, she was lucky enough to discover that Salters were looking for a trainee textile designer. She was interviewed by Ken Ponting and offered the job. She learned in the mill and also at evening classes where she was the only girl studying textile design – it was normally men’s work.
Pat spent her first year on the factory floor learning how everything was gone in each department. Only then could she progress to the design office. New designs were shown to buyers and each mill had its own customers.
After the sale of Salters to Winterbottom, Strachan and Playne, pattern making had its own area and later merged with Clarks, with offices in Stone Mill. The company traded with leading manufacturers and designers and made cloth for Mary Quant.
The post war period and the 1950’s saw the invention of new textile fibres, modern technology, mass garment manufacture and a developing consumer market which together formed a foundation that would inspire designers in the decades that followed.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were an exciting time to be a textile designer.
I wanted to esacpe to design the way they did in Scotland, using textured yarn, like in the designs of Bernard Klein
Designing with texture and colour
When Pat studied at Salisbury Art School she wanted to either design couture or printing of fabrics. However, as Pat explains, with the design background she was taught at art school, she felt that she had the knowledge to move into any area. It was with this confidence that she applied to the advert she saw from Samuel Salter Ltd. as a cloth designer. Not having any weaving experience…
Once Pat started working at Salters, however, she was not treated any different than her male designers. She did not get to design the first year but started out going through each department to learn ’the ropes’ of the trade but also to get an overall understand of what it took to make a piece of cloth from beginning to end.
What was new was to at all have a female designer with an art background was not usual within the West of England mills at that time. The then director of Salter, Ken Ponting, was brave to employ the first female designer straight out of art school and not from Galashiels, as the norm was. He saw the point in employing a woman to cater for the ladies cloth market that Salters already was familiar with. Perhaps he had also realised that the British fashion market was about to explode and having a woman in place with a more contemporary approach to designing could be an advantage.
Designing in the 60s
I envied Bernat Klein: he had all this yarn, all these colours. I love colours, colour is important’
Pat was in London almost every week to meet with agents and clients. She would look at windows and shops to get inspiration. It could not have been a more exciting time to visit London with the Carnaby Street:
We were young and that was exciting times. There was this explosion of youth with all these ideas
Art School had prepared Pat to push the boundaries, to think out of the box. Another source of inspiration was Bernat Klein. His bold approach to cloth had made Coco Channel use his cloth for her famous suit. Having been taught by Bauhaus artists in Israel, Bernat was just as much a painter, letting his abstract art work inspire his cloth. Working from Scotland from the 1950’s, he had set in production spinning of yarn which could only be done by hand. This he mixed in the cloth to achieve a painterly effect and a very texture cloth. This was quite unusual compared to the traditional West of England cloth. Pat has said that even though the West of England cloth was milled, in effect making it a very smooth cloth, she was keen to create more surface texture like she had seen Klein do. However, the limit was that yarn not be the same and end product had to be suitable to clients who expected that WofE feel.