Introducing Ellen Merchant
For our latest collection, we have collaborated on a fabric with London-based pattern designer and artist Ellen Merchant. Drawn to colour and pattern from an early age, Ellen spent her childhood ‘doodling in notebooks and scouring charity shops for pretty textiles’. But it wasn’t until she landed a place on Camberwell School of Art’s BA Illustration course in 2014 that she realised that print design could be a career.
After graduating, she spent a stint working as a print designer for a womenswear brand – ‘it was a crash course in designing quickly and I’d sometimes be doing 5 designs a day’ – but quickly realised that her interests lay in slower, traditional hand processes and enrolled on a MA at the Royal College of Art in Printed Textiles in 2020. When the pandemic hit, she decided to go out alone, and started posting some of her designs on Instagram, all of which are hand-drawn and relief-printed by hand in her studio. ‘I’m not really interested in digital processes because I love the hand-made aesthetic,’ says Ellen, who is currently working on her own collection of wallpapers and fabrics. Here, she talks to us about how drawing is integral to her work and how the process of block printing brings her patterns alive
What inspires your work?
I love going around the Victoria & Albert Museum with my little sketchbook and looking at antique textiles from around the world. I remember when I first discovered the work of William Morris and Charles Voysey, and I’m still incredibly inspired by their work. I’m drawn to botanical forms, and there is something so appealing about the organic shapes in their designs. I love patterns that have a sense of fluid movement. Morris had this belief that something 2-dimensional shouldn’t look 3-dimensional, which I try to put into practice in my own work. I like my designs to have a flatness – I don’t want them to be representational.
Can you explain your design process?
Drawing is crucial to my method. My approach has been hugely influenced by a book that I found in a charity shop called Pattern Design by Lewis F. Day, which was published in 1903. It’s really old-fashioned, but teaches you the proper technical methods for how to structure shapes and construct repeats. It was a revelation to me when I got the book as you are no longer taught these skills, but start every design by following the methods in this book. First I draw the structure, makung sure the pattern works and that it’s possible to scale it up. For me, a good pattern is all about the rhythm of the repeat.
What do you love about block printing and why did you choose this method for much of your own work?
It’s very much in the block printing process that my works come alive. I carve the wood blocks myself, and will often draw additional elements straight onto them rather than doing more drawings on paper. I don’t like designs to look too neat and quite like the imperfections.
One of the many things I love about the block printing process is that it forces you to simplify your designs. I try to stick to 2 blocks – one block per colour – as it makes it more manageable when I’m printing at home. If I didn’t have those parameters, I wouldn’t know where to stop! I also love how block printing gives you a physical thing to remember the process by – even when the design has been printed and goes off to its new home, the block is a permanent reminder of just how much work went into that particular pattern.
Your designs combine colours beautifully, what is your own relationship to colour?
I’ll see a great colour combination when I’m out for a walk, photograph it and then end up using it for a print. Sometimes, I decide on the colour combination for a design before I’ve actually designed the print.
How did you approach the commission for Daydress?
It was such a dream when Gabby then got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in working on a pattern together because I’d made a list of brands I wanted to work with when I set up on my own and she was one of them. At the time we started talking, the Fashion & Textile Museum was holding the ‘Chintz: Cotton in Bloom’ exhibition and Gabby mentioned that there was an exquisite mourning dress from the Fries Museum on show. I visited and the piece inspired my print. When I was working as a print designer for a womenswear brand, I’d often be given tiny photographs to base prints on, so it was wonderful to be able to visit this piece in person. I went with my sketch-book and drew all the intricate elements – it’s a traditional chintz with a jungly twist.
The original inspiration, an 18th century block printing mourning dress in the collection of the Fries museum in Holland
Can you explain a little about the process of developing the print for Daydress?
Both Gabby and I had a really clear vision of what we wanted it to be, so it was a great creative process. My original design was in blue, which we’ve used for one colourway, but then there is also a pink one too. It’s a three block design and I’m just so impressed by how the block carvers and printers in India have managed to capture all of the intricate details. It’s been such a dream to collaborate with Daydress, as we share the same values – it’s all about small batches, block printing and beautiful objects.
How is it seeing your print on clothing?
I’m really excited to see people wearing a dress in the pattern I have designed. I think if I actually see anyone in the dress, I’ll be stopping them and asking for a picture! What I love about print design is how the pattern can take on multiple guises and be used in so many different contexts.