Hilary Grant is a textile designer who made her home in the sheltered bay of Houton in Orkney four years ago after studying and living in Dundee, London and Inverness. She started Hilary Grant Knitwear in 2011 and now works with her partner – and business and design partner – Rob Harvey. Here, Hilary tells Sarah Laurenson about running an international business from the island, taking in trade trips to Japan, the cultural ideas behind her designs, and the challenges and opportunities that come with having a rural base.
How does Orkney's landscape, culture and heritage shape your work?
I live in a place that's really far removed from Scotland's main creative hubs but I think that has given me the freedom and perspective to carve our my own design identity without worrying about fitting into a collective style.
Orkney is a beautiful place. On a daily basis I see so many animals and birds. There are few trees so what you see is just land, sea and sky. You can see weather systems as they head towards the island, and watch patterns in the sea from above cliff tops. It often feels very exposed, but I like that.
My favourite beach is Honeysgeo. It's a tiny little white sand beach, with small cliffs, a couple of boats moored. When you walk around the small headland there are beautiful rock pools and precarious rock formations jutting out at 45 degree angles.
I think being “inspired by your surroundings” is often seen as an untrendy idea in design – an over-used cliché and perhaps a bit parochial. But I can't deny there is a bit of truth in it for me.
I look at traditional knitwear from Scotland, and from surrounding countries like the Faroe Islands, Norway and Iceland. I'm interested in how they evolved as their own languages. I resist using traditional motifs – they belong to the cultures, and I think are a bit like folk songs. When you use motifs to create a “design” it's just like a musical arrangement. You can take credit for the arrangement, but the tune isn't yours.
Our patterns are formed with an awareness of traditional motifs and ways of pattern making but our approach is perhaps more influenced by the mirroring aspect and a sense of rhythm. I think our Brackish pattern probably is most evident of that idea.
A lot of our patterns are formed by taking very simple shapes and repeating them, without having a clear idea of where it's going. It’s never a case of sitting down and designing something and thinking “I want it to look like this”.
What is like, working in Orkney, and how do you overcome the distance from producers and customers?
I have lots of space to work, and space around me outdoors. I'll often go outside in my pyjamas early in the morning with a cup of tea to watch the ferry and birds. I sometimes miss the convenience of city life, and discovering new places to eat and drink, but you end up making your own fun up here.
Doing business can be hard work here sometimes because of travel – and the extra expense and time that involves. Taking part in events, shows or just showing face at industry events is vital. I work really hard at marketing and social media to gain press coverage and run pop up shops with fellow designer/makers in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
We work with a manufacturer in the Borders. When I started my business I produced everything myself, working more as a designer/maker. I soon realised that this wasn't sustainable if I wanted to grow my businesses. Also producing multiples on a knitting machine isn't a very creative process and left little time for working on new designs. I've been working with a manufacturer since 2012 so it's allowed me to really develop my design handwriting and explore different ways of creating pattern with Rob.
I've been lucky to go to Tokyo twice in the last two years with trade missions organised by UKTI and UKFT. I supply a couple of department stores over there – Isetan Shinjuku being the most famous one. When I visited it was Wool Week in Japan. My knitwear was part of the display with tiny model sheep placed all around the store. It was quite a surreal experience. Japanese department stores have the most exquisite and beautiful clothing I have ever seen. The colours, fabrics and patterns are so different to Western fashion – you can see there is so much work that goes into making something so simple.
I often look at street style in cities. I people-watch when I go to London and pick up on trends that aren't necessarily mainstream. I often spot the odd Pom Hat or Circle Scarf in Orkney, and I've had people seeing they've spotted my knitwear at the Sundance festival in America or out and about in London - which is always really exciting, the thrill never goes away.
Your use of colour and pattern is really distinctive. Can you tell us about your design process?
Colour is inspired by images I collect on my phone and in my head. There are colours you see up here that are so distinctive. I'm drawn to the synthetic colours of farming machinery and all the paraphernalia of the fishing industry. People say they can see the colours in my knitwear around Orkney. It’s nice when people make that connection themselves.
The way we design knitwear is different. Typically a designer would create drawn/illustrated artwork, which is then interpreted into stitches by a knitwear technician and computer program that pixelates the image.
To me, that approach is completely removed from the medium. It's like the knitted structure is just a vehicle for graphics rather than the basis of the design. Over the last couple of years we've been exploring the idea of using varying pattern densities to create tone. It's a bit like halftone in printing processes. I haven't seen anyone using this kind of approach with knitwear, so it's something I am hoping to develop even further.
I design all of my patterns from the stitch up. They often start out as the vaguest of sketches but they develop entirely on photoshop. In a knitted blanket you only have so many rows and courses of stitches to play with. I think it's a bit like designing graphics for computer games where you have a really limited number of pixels to work with.
Using this approach, I know exactly how the pattern and the product will look when it's knitted so I have a lot of control. It doesn't exactly sound romantic in the way people might want to think of a knitwear designer working, sketching away on graph paper and playing around with yarns. But for me it's really exciting process that can yield far more satisfying results and possibilities.
Finally, any favourite islands?
I've visited Arran and Canna and some of Orkney's outer isles, which feel truly remote and wild. I visited Iceland recently, where I took part in an exhibition with a group of designers and makers from the Highlands and Islands as part of the Design March festival in Reykjavik. I have a funny feel that Iceland might be my favourite island – I'm planning our next visit already!
All images courtsey Hilary Grant Knitwear.