An interview with Sian O’Doherty
Sian, your passion for textile design – incorporating colour-work, texture and drape - is evident in your work. What do you think first sparked your interest in designing textiles?
My nan, who was a huge part of my life, was constantly knitting. I remember the sound of her needles clicking away all the time when I was with her. Her appearance didn’t really change for the last 30 years of her life and nor did her outlook on life. She was an incredibly positive person and very thoughtful. I think her knitting time was also her thinking time. She even continued knitting as she fell asleep!
When I was younger, she would encourage me to make my own entertainment, whether papier mache or baking or making robots out of cardboard and foil. I think I get my creative side from her, so it was natural that I would follow her towards textiles. My nan was also very proud of her cousin, Kathleen Kinder and would tell me of her knitting achievements, which was very inspiring for me personally.
Can you tell us the story of how you started machine knitting and what is it about machine knitting that most draws you as a creative medium? Did you learn to hand knit first?
My nan originally introduced me to hand knitting. I would visit her flat, as a teenager in the summer before work to have lessons, normally accompanied with lots of her war time memories.
I was first introduced to machine knitting on my BA Contemporary Textiles course. I was immediately enthralled by the capabilities of the machines and the potential for my ideas. My nan was impressed with my work in college and proudly told Kathleen that I was continuing the family tradition. Kathleen, who was hanging up her knitting needles, offered me her knitting machine; it was a Knitmaster 700. Mike and I raced up to North Yorkshire in our clapped-out old banger to collect it. The car only broke down twice en-route!
The Pembrokeshire landscape and the cultural heritage of Wales are obviously major influences on your work. Have you always lived in Pembrokeshire?
I am Pembrokeshire born and bred, specifically Tenby. I’ve done a little bit of travelling in my life and I can honestly say that, I would never wish to live anywhere else. It is incredibly beautiful in Pembrokeshire and relatively unspoilt. For an artist it is inspirational as the vistas change on a daily basis. The history of my region and the culture of Wales not only fill me with pride but also drive me forward. We have always been a nation of hard workers, striving for improvement and that is how I would like to be seen.
How did alpacas come into your life? Do you have a favourite?
We’ve had alpacas for 8-9 years. My husband went to South America when he was a teenager and returned telling his father that they should buy some alpacas. His father was a proud Pembrokeshire sheep farmer and probably thought he would forget about this idea in time. Well, he didn’t! We started researching the animals and their welfare needs soon after we became an item. We stewarded at alpaca shows, met several alpaca breeders and took the plunge. My husband’s knowledge of sheep husbandry came in handy though it has been a steep learning curve. But it has been a wonderful journey and we have had so much fun in their company. I know that our animals have given the local people and holiday makers a great deal of pleasure too, as we live by a road, which is a popular walking route. The alpacas have become celebrities and always oblige to a comical photograph.
Favourites, gosh that’s a hard question. The stock answer is, ‘There are no favourites!’ Truthfully, I have a soft spot for Timmy, because he has an incredible personality.
What impact has having alpacas had on your designs?
My alpaca range is quite separate from my other designs. I want my alpaca range to be completely natural, utilising the amazing colours that alpacas possess, so a different mindset needed, because the colour range is much smaller than in my other designs. The yarn is also very different and requires different techniques. I think I am working doubly hard in my designing process, but I love designing, so it’s not a bad thing!
Teaching is an important part of your life; how did you start teaching and why is it so important to you?
I have always enjoyed teaching - my mother and father were certain that I would end up as a teacher. When I took up the post of co-course leader of the BA Textiles degree at Coleg Sir Gar it reminded me how much I enjoy seeing others have that lightbulb moment when suddenly a technique clicks into place and they are so excited to push it further. It is truly rewarding and exciting to see. I am no longer at Coleg Sir Gar following the arrival of our daughter, Ava, but I didn’t want to stop this aspect of my life which is why I started the knitting machine workshops at my studio. This is truly an important part of my business that I love and I am excited to develop further.
What is particularly inspiring you in your current design work?
Colour and texture are always important aspects of my design process and the ever changing Pembrokeshire landscape provides me with an abundance of inspiration from the magnificent sea cliffs, strata formations, erosion, sand dunes, and the bursts of colour from the costal flowers. Every viewpoint - from the minute detail to the overall landscape - offers an abundance of ideas and patterns to explore on the machine. The hardest part is having the time to explore them all!!
A running thread throughout my designs, having specialised in weaving at college, is giving my knitted fabrics a woven appearance with bold warp threads and marled wefts. I find the prospect of pushing the knitting machine to create unexpected fabrics intriguing and thought provoking and this pushes me to be more experimental and ambitious with the tools and knowledge that I have.
You have been selling your accessories and homewares for a while and are now starting to offer your garment designs, too. Are there any particular challenges that go along with garment design? What inspired you to start designing garments for your customers this year?
Designing garments has always been a part of my plan and with the exciting development of having our own alpaca yarn I felt it was the perfect time to really show off this luxurious fibre. It has a beautiful lustre and handle and hangs beautifully - all qualities that lend themselves to garments. That being said, designing garments is not an easy task. Before you even begin you have to familiarise yourself with the yarn - see how it washes, how it handles, and then calculate a tension swatch which will form the basis of all your calculations. The tension swatch is critical as it can make the difference between a cropped top or a dress!! I haven’t even yet talked about designing the garment shape which is also a huge undertaking and takes many attempts until I can sign it off as being complete. But these obstacles and challenges make it even more worthwhile and exciting when you see an idea come together after so much sampling and trialling to get it to the end product customers see.
There are a lot of new developments ahead for the Sian O’Doherty brand! What are you especially excited about in the coming twelve months?
It has been a brilliant time for me personally with the birth of my daughter and her development over the last fifteen months. It is also a really exciting time for the business. I have so many ideas, I just wish the days were longer. We have just finished building our new classroom, which will enable more workshops to be taught from Ash Farm. Workshops in ceramics, hand-spinning, machine stitch, willow weaving are just a few that will being making good use of the space.
Our alpaca herd is growing as well, so I’m really excited about how the alpaca range will develop, with several new arrivals -including babies! - due this year. I am excited to see how customers use the new range of alpaca yarn for hand knitters as well as machine knitters. I’m also developing new lambswool/cashmere designs, as well as more alpaca products for in 2019.
Sian O’Doherty, Textile Designer
Sian O’ Doherty is an award winning textile artist and designer located in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Taking inspiration from the natural beauty of her home landscape, combined with the rich traditional patterns and techniques of Welsh textiles, she creates unique woven and knitted fabrics for fashion and interior accessories.
Sian designs and hand makes each product personally ensuring unsurpassed attention to the smallest of details. Using hand powered knitting machines and an industrial knitting machine Sian uses the highest quality geelong lambswool, cashmere and is currently developing a new range using the fleece form their own alpacas. Each knitted piece is carefully washed and dried giving a beautifully soft and tactile fabric. All materials are sourced in the UK and customers can be assured that sustainability and traceability has and will always be paramount in Sian’s choices.
To date her designs have been featured in the likes of Country Living, Country Home and Interiors, House and Garden, The Telegraph, Cover, Text, the Independent and Embroidery magazine. Sian has also been a recipient of prestigious awards namely the Textile Society’s Lucienne Day Award, New Design Britain Fabric Award and the International Hand and Lock Embroidery Award. Most recently Sian was awarded the the Craft Country Homes & Interiors My Country Business Award.
Sian is also BA Textiles Co Course Leader and Knit Tutor at Carmarthen School of Art, Coleg Sir Gar.