Alison Willoughby


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Alison Willoughby is best known for making one-off, elaborately patterned skirts. They are as much works of art as pieces of clothing, but she is reluctant to be described as either a fashion designer or a fine artist, preferring to call herself a textile designer. ‘It’s annoying being put in a strict category,’ she says. ‘But I trained as a textile designer and my material is fabric and for me, fabric is where the excitement lies.’

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What is it that attracts you about skirts and the skirt shape?

I wrote my dissertation on the kilt as I love its shape - it’s just one long piece of fabric manipulated in the middle with pleats – and I suppose that started my interest in skirts off. I see them as a perfect canvas for my work. The skirt is a much more interesting shape to work on than, say, a square, framed textile panel which seems to me boring and stagnant and they are better than other types of clothing as there are no seams or tailoring to get in the way of the pattern.

Are your skirts meant to be worn?

Originally I designed them for walls as I like bold, graphic and geometric patterns and I felt that the body got in the way, but some people do wear them – it depends on the person. There are obvious drawbacks about people wearing the skirts – you can’t put plastic balls on the back if someone needs to sit down, for example! Ideally I would like to display them suspended from a carousel as I see them as both 2D flat pieces and 3D sculptural objects. I am not very interested in the way the skirt moves on the body or drapes the body as I see it just as a surface for pattern – I don’t even cut on the bias and the skirts are made without darts.

What are your favourite textile techniques?

I use a whole range of techniques including moulding and illuminating, screen printing with paper stencils, foiling, mark-making, embroidery, ruffling, tailor tacking, cording and cut work with scissors to create sliced, carved, shaved, chiselled and sculptured pieces. But I particularly love using ripped pieces of fabric. You can make so many things out of them as they’re so malleable. You can make loops, tags, ruffles all of which I apply on to, or in to, my skirts. It’s more fabric manipulation than straight embroidery or appliqué – it’s a very loose technique. I don’t do much straight printing although my first degree was in print and knit so I have a good knowledge of the process. I chose not to use highly technical printing methods but prefer to use it as a mark-making tool. All my techniques are ways of drawing on the fabric – I love life drawing and don’t do enough of it.

Do you prefer working with one particular material?

I love cotton. I love the way it rips, cuts and the way you get different weights. It’s also great for printing. I like taffeta and gros grain for the same reasons, but they are obviously much more expensive. I also love using all sorts of three-dimensional objects to add structure and interest to the skirts: for example, I have just been clearing out my grandparents’ loft and found all sorts of things belonging to my Grandpa who was a member of The Magic Circle. I put them on a skirt and the results are so three dimensional, it’s fantastic.

On your website, you say that you get your inspiration from the inner city. Can you explain in what way?

I’ll give you an example: I was once on a bus and I saw a billboard with about 30 layers of fly poster peeling off the wall and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen so I immediately got off the bus and started taking photographs. I really like the different textures and surfaces you get in the city, particularly those made by weathered peeling paint, crumbling walls and fly posters.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

It will always be about surface and fabric as that’s what I find exciting, but I am now beginning to do more work in the fashion sector. At the moment I am working on both a limited edition collection of skirts and some one-off couture pieces. It’s great doing both as they force me to work in two very different ways - the limited edition has to be completely designed in advance which is a big challenge for me, while you can just go for it with the one-offs and work in a much more intuitive way. I am also planning to do more textiles for interiors like cushions, bedspreads and curtains. And of course, I’ve got my book (49 1/2 Skirts, published by A & C Black) coming out in March.