10 Minutes with Katherine Preston Part 1
I spent 10 minutes with textile designer Katherine Preston talking about her career, life in Yangon, Burmese textiles and new Textile Design Studio - Wayzgoose.
Can you tell us a little about your textiles career in England
I studied Surface Pattern Design at Leeds College of Art. The focus of my final year was on creating sustainable prints for fashion, designing ‘eco-prints’ using a process now commonly referred to as ‘Bundle Dying’.
After leaving Leeds College of Art, I took a job under Tom Helme (former Decorative Adviser to the National Trust and co-founder of Farrow & Ball). Together with Tom and Martin Ephson, we started Fermoie, a British textile company owned by Martin and Tom. I ran the studio and production for 6 years before moving to Myanmar (Burma). The concept of Fermoie was to create hand-drawn printed textiles (designed for soft furnishings), with the depth of a woven fabric. We rotary-screen printed the fabric to order – holding no stock.
What then took you to Myanmar
With a desire to travel and work in social enterprise, my husband and I moved to Myanmar (Burma), where I joined Turquoise Mountain (a British charity founded by HRH Prince Charles). I ran a textile conservation programme where the focus was to preserve and promote Myanmar’s textile rich heritage while working with weavers across multiple regions using both backstrap and frame-loom weaving. Turquoise Mountain helps to develop and commercialise local skills and techniques, connecting artisans to international markets and providing them with a sustainable future.
How was everyday life in Yangon.
Electric, completely unreal. My favourite thing about everyday life in Yangon was my walk to and from work, by the time I arrived at work in the morning, at least five remarkable things would have happened. This could be anything from a woman walking in the middle of the road with a basket of fruit perfectly balanced on her head to a power cut across the whole city. I certainly would not be looking down at my phone due to the risk of falling into a sewer – there are very limited pavements in Yangon!
What is the textiles industry like in Myanmar
I am only really qualified to talk about the handwoven textile industry - the textile industry as a whole in Myanmar is large and complex.
To give a little background, Myanmar is nestled between China, India and Thailand; it’s made up from more than 135 different ethnic groups, each with their own history, culture, language and textile heritage. Many of these groups, who mostly live away from the commercial hubs of Yangon and Mandalay, are still reliant on textiles as a significant source of income.
There are two main types of weaving in Myanmar; backstrap and frame-loom weaving. Backstrap weaving is where the weaver sits on the floor, weaving to the width of their body, using their legs to create tension in the loom. Frame-loom weaving is where the weaver sits at a large wooden frame, using a combination of foot pedals and hand shuttles to create the weave. Both are intricately complex and highly skilled, with each region having their own distinct style and techniques.
What is it about Myanmar textiles that you particularly love?
The fact that they are so unseen is particularly captivating. Especially when you start to learn more about the textiles and the diversity of the people making them. I will always have a soft spot for Chin textiles - the Chin are a particularly extraordinary group of people with a fascinating and very distinct culture.
How important is traditional craftsmanship to the future of textiles
For centuries traditional weaving techniques were passed from generation to generation. Many of Myanmar’s rural ethic groups are illiterate, in the past relying on woven textiles as a form of documentation.
Historically, Myanmar’s ethnic groups would wear textiles in the form of traditional dress on a day-to-day basis, and if not worn day-to-day, certainly worn for ceremonial use. However, today the need for handwoven textiles in rural communities has lessened due to imported ready-to-wear garments and as a result, there is less of a demand for handwoven textiles within these communities. In some areas therefore, the skills are being lost. Hopefully by connecting these rural artisans with international markets we can help preserve these traditional skills.
Do you think Myannmar will be able to retain these ancient artisan processes as technology advances globally and it fights to keep up with this.
With an historically limited audience, twinned with a growing trend for artisan made goods, I think there is more hope now than ever for the conservation of handwoven textiles in Myanmar. In fact, I feel that technology has been a great asset to Myanmar’s crafts industry, it means artisans living in rural villages, in some cases a two-day long journey from Yangon can use a smartphone to aid in orders, specification, logistics and quality control. The ultimate end goal would be to use technology to provide these isolated groups with a seamless route to an international market.
What social and environmental problems within the textile industry (if any) does Myanmar face?
Like many developing countries, Myanmar is faced with many social and environmental issues within the textile sector. Socially, the issues can be around fair pay and working conditions while environmental issues, such as wastewater treatment are obviously important. I personally am a big believer in making a start, of course there are many issues and challenges to face along the way, but without placing initial orders and being involved in the process, we cannot start to make progress.
And now you are back living in the UK what are you up to? / Tell us a little about Wayzgoose
I am now living back in the UK, running my own textile design studio - Wayzgoose. The studio offers a wide array of customisable creative textile services. Wayzgoose was founded with the aim of supporting heritage textiles, where possible we seek to keep the technique and artisan at the heart of the process. It’s early but exciting days!