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Young Designers’ Work Will Be Seen in Dundee V&A

by Alastair Hamilton -

Back in August 2017, a design project associated with the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee was launched in that city. Called the Scottish Design Relay, it brings together designers and young people in several communities across the country, who work together to create new designs or prototypes based on an object in the V&A’s collection. Their designs will be on show in the new museum when it opens in September 2018.

The V&A in London is a mecca for all who have an interest in applied art and the history of design; the V&A in Dundee will focus specifically on Scotland’s design heritage, which will be illustrated by a wide range of objects. As the director of V&A Dundee put it when the Design Relay began, “the Scottish Design Relay highlights just how special and varied this collection will be and, even more excitingly, has the potential to inspire a new generation of designers.”

The Shetland object selected as inspiration for the islands’ leg of the relay was a Fair Isle jumper from the V&A’s collection. The Fair Isle pattern is, of course, known all over the world and has never really been out of fashion. It’s still very much part of Shetland’s textile tradition today and children are taught the skills. Leading international fashion houses have picked up the theme from time to time. This particular jumper belonged to General Sir Walter Kirke, a Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Forces, who wore it when playing golf in the 1920s.

The jumper was at the centre of the fourth leg of the Design Relay and a team of young people from across Shetland were challenged with creating a new prototype design, taking inspiration from it. They worked with Amy Gear, a local artist; Niela Nell Kalra, a local designer specialising in contemporary knitwear; and V&A Dundee's Leanne Fischler. Three weekend workshops were organised with the support of Shetland Arts.

The Fair Isle pattern is, of course, known all over the world and has never really been out of fashion.

The team decided that they wanted to come up with something that both reflected the knitwear heritage and encouraged individual expression. The answer was the development of a new line in knitted scarves which would be bold in design and offer customers a range of colour options to suit their tastes. The scarves would be produced on computerised knitting machines of the kind already used by some designers working in Shetland.

Niela Nell Kalra praised the participants, who had “embraced the challenge with relish”.

“They thoroughly engaged with the process, and carefully and thoughtfully analysed the importance of their own individual identities within the support and safety of our island community. The team used imagination and artistic flair to translate their thoughts and ideas into something very special. I was most impressed by their intellect, enthusiasm and talent - and their ability to work collectively as a group whilst maintaining individual autonomy. I am inordinately proud of each and every one of them.”

As well as taking part in the workshops, the team visited the Shetland Museum and Archives, which has an excellent collection of traditional knitwear that’s recognised by Museums and Galleries Scotland as “nationally significant”. It’s a great place to learn about the islands’ textile culture, which also embraces weaving and lace-making.

The group also employed the impressive, advanced technology available at Shetland College to try out their designs; it’s been used for some years by established craftspeople in Shetland and one of them, Joan Fraser, has described how it works on her own website.

The result of the young designers’ efforts was not only a viable product but also – as Jane Matthews of Shetland Arts put it – “bold, fresh and contemporary."

A visit to the V&A Dundee is certainly going to be on my own to-do list once it opens on Saturday 15 September and I’m really looking forward to seeing the designs that the young Shetland team have come up with.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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