Nicola Cliffe is a one-time chemistry teacher with a life-long love of textiles. Today, she is an entrepreneur and fabric designer who specialises in creating bespoke, beautiful fabrics for her company Madder, Cutch & Co.
How did you first get into textile design?
Textiles have always been really important to me. As a small child, I can remember making dolls houses out of cardboard boxes, hand sewing little curtains and bed covers. I think I can recall all of the curtains we had in our small bungalow whilst growing up, and remember trying to find the repeat patterns in some of the craziest 70’s fabric my mother chose. Looking back now, it seems so funny how I never liked any of it. I love all things retro now!
Embarking on a textile journey in 2014, has broadened my knowledge in a way I could not have imagined from the life I had inside a school classroom. This midlife career change opened up the creative world I love and has given me a whole new experience, running my own business and managing the entire process from the design stage to the print production.
Were you creative as a child?
I am very passionate about drawing and since I was quite young have had a good ability to reproduce what I see on paper. I studied art at A’ level, where I specialized in printmaking. But that was where it ended until 4 years ago. Finally, at the age of 46, it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted to design my own textiles. Lorna Bircham, the MA in Sustainable Textiles course leader at Chelsea College of Art and Design unbelievably accepted me into her 2015 group. I had a fantastic year and made a whole new set of friends. I specialised my screen printing technique and set about finding a way to print with natural plant dyes and get them to stay on the fabric after washing.
Can you describe a typical day for you?
I don’t have a typical day! I spent 20 years of my life teaching and a typical day blended into a typical week. I can’t explain how great it is to be controlling the clock now. That said I do have a bit of a routine, because we now have a dog. I tend to take him for a long walk in the morning, mainly in our beautiful meadows. I only print on 1 or 2 days a week and I plan this around my print assistant Helen, who comes down from Sheffield to help. Cups of tea are important in my day and a visit to the gym when I can. As I do everything myself, there is always something to do, including preparation for a print run, making the dye pastes using the plant extracts. Some of these require quite a bit of thought and planning, (the madder I use gets a better red colour the longer I leave it in the pot before printing). I prepare the samples for Tissus d’Helene, when I am working on a new design, I make my own test screens. I do most of my own sewing using any waste and offcuts, including making up cushions, lampshades, Zip bags, quilts and table linen.
Which part of the design process do you like the most?
The element I like most is the designing process. The design starts from a simple form, but progressing it to a flowing repeat pattern that can be printed by hand, is not always easy; the trick is to keep it true to its humble beginnings.
How would you describe Madder Cutch & Co’s aesthetic?
It is very difficult to describe my aesthetic, as it is just what I like rather than something I think it should be. I never try to follow a trend or work around something that is fashionable. I am not one to copy or revive old designs either and my colour palette is restricted to what nature gives me. However, some have said we have a Scandinavian feel. The Arts and Craft Movement has always inspired me and I like the simplicity of what it stood for.
Tell us about the Madder Cutch & Co approach.
My approach to running Madder Cutch & Co. is also about keeping things simple, natural and handcrafted. At Madder Cutch & Co. we have a unique approach to our textile production. We have developed our own reliable printing process using sustainably sourced plant dyes and pigments. The plant colours we use are from the good old staples like Madder, indigo and dyers mulberry, and I continue to be impressed with their versatility and beauty.
All of our fabric is hand-screen printed on linen, from our garden studio in Stamford. Our products are all made on the doorstep by local makers, including myself. We love working directly with our customers, including making bespoke colours, as close as nature will allow, and making up curtains, blinds, cushions, lampshades and many other wonderful items.
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