By Sanna Karjalainen and Lauren Rees

20 November 2017 - 14:00

Woman with blue scarf and hair standing in a forest
'My style was influenced by our common ground, like our love of the colour blue, and differences, like our cutting style.' Photo ©

Ben Waardenburg used under licence and adapted from the original

UK fashion and design students Sanna Karjalainen and Lauren Rees are working alongside students in China. They told us about the evolution of their style and the practical skills and tools every designer needs.

What are the differences between fashion in China and the UK?

Lauren Rees: The most prominent British styles are staple items like leather jackets and printed statement t-shirts. Ripped skinny jeans are also a current fashion trend in the UK, along with bomber jackets.

In China, you will find a very vintage style of clothing, with skater skirts and dresses. Oxford shoes, brogues and loafers are also a popular Chinese style choice, with baseball caps and reading glasses without lenses.

Sanna Karjalainen: Chinese style emphasises different silhouettes with modern twists, but keeps colours natural and prints minimalistic. Small details and textile manipulation, like pleating and decorative stitching, make Chinese clothes interesting.

British street styles draw inspiration from the past. A lot of people go to charity shops – where you can buy used clothing – when looking for interesting, unique pieces. This is an amazing way to stand out from the crowd, and also great for the environment. Young Britons are experimental with their style, finding beauty in things sometimes considered ugly.

What was the first garment you made, and how would you re-make it today?

Sanna Karjalainen: It was a pinafore dress I constructed from old jeans, by cutting them into weirdly shaped pieces and then zigzagging them together. I was around 13 and just getting into the do-it-yourself scene. I never wore it because I forgot to include an opening big enough to fit myself through, but I was still extremely proud of it. It was all about experimenting, which I sometimes forget to do nowadays.

Lauren Rees: I made my first garment when I was 16. It was a dress for a wedding reception inspired by microorganisms – I love science. If I were to remake this today I would invest in better fabrics, because at the time I didn't fully understand the importance of fabric selection like I do now. I would also use my pattern-cutting skills to alter the dress to fit better and be more flattering.

What influenced your designs in the past?

Sanna Karjalainen: I grew up in a 2,500-person town in Finland with no clothing shops. Fashion has nevertheless moulded me and my view of the world. Sustainability – of the clothes I wear and make – inspired me to study fashion. I am especially interested in making garments from post-consumer waste, and using second-hand materials in my projects.

I like to keep the overall look of my designs minimalistic, so that wearers can combine them with different garments and looks. This allows wearers to use the clothes as much as possible. Once I graduate, I hope to start my own clothing label using these methods. I also want to use excess materials, like fabric that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Lauren Rees: A lot of my work is influenced by English language literature and poetry, like T.S.Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. I like to use these along with classical music scores. These inspire depth in my work and influence the movement of my textile designs and fabrics.

A lot of the colour palettes I use are also drawn from the moods and emotions of literature and music. I like to use them in a way that is both light-hearted and melancholy. One of my big passions – alongside fashion – is biological studies. You can also find this influence in my work from time to time.

How was your style influenced teaming up with designers from the University of Wuhan?

Lauren Rees: Working with my design partner Verra was a completely new experience for me. My style was influenced by our common ground, like our love of the colour blue, and differences, like our cutting style. Verra's pattern cutting technique was precise and calculated, whereas mine involves draping and fitting fabrics directly onto the body and working on a pattern from there.

Talking to Verra about her lifestyle in China and how her culture differed from mine in the UK opened my mind to the designs we created together. Verra influenced my illustrations by showing me how to use a Chinese painting technique, which we practised using dye sublimation. We drew flowers, trees and Chinese houses onto paper using heat transfer dyes. Then we pressed the papers onto synthetic fabric using a large iron.

Sanna Karjalainen: I’ve started to pay more attention to small details in my designs. Rather than making over-the-top prints or feeling like my creations are too simple, I have begun to include small but interesting details, sometimes in unexpected ways. Changing the shape of a cuff or the colour of a zip can make quite a difference to the overall look.

My personal style has also become more individual since our Chinese partners visited our university during the summer. Almost subconsciously, I have started to match the colours on my outfits. The garments I have recently bought really go with the clothes I already own, and I have become more experimental.

When you make a garment that combines different styles and traditions, how do you decide which parts of the design and material will go together?

Lauren Rees: Verra and I spent a long time talking about the contrast of our lives, drawing together, looking through books, and draping fabrics onto a mannequin together. In doing this, we found a natural way to combine both our cultures' styles and traditions in a way that represented us individually and as a partnership.

We decided on what features we knew we wanted on the garment. For us, that was incorporating the classic British tailored suit and Chinese printed flowers. We decided on how the rest of the garment would look based on these two key features.

Sanna Karjalainen: I tend to combine different fabrics with similar qualities. When I use new fabrics, I like combining natural fibres with other naturals, like cotton with silk or bamboo. I’m not too keen on using synthetics like polyester. I use a lot of recycled materials in my designs, so finding prints and colour that go well together and in sufficient amounts is sometimes challenging but enjoyable.

What should an aspiring fashion designer learn first? 

Lauren Rees: Before I started my Fashion and Textile Design degree, I had little experience of sewing or using an industrial sewing machine. The first thing I learned at university was the core skills of sewing in fashion design. That meant perfecting every sewing technique – seams, zips, hems and finishes. Learning just these basic skills has helped me in my designs and creations. You'd be surprised by how much you can do with just a few stitches.

An aspiring designer should also learn to have confidence in themselves and what they are doing, even if they don't know exactly how. There is always someone who can show them and help them learn.

Sanna Karjalainen: Research and consume as much information as you can.

I started by dissecting my old clothes and charity shop finds, investigating how they were stitched together and what kind of materials they were made of. The internet is an endless source of information and you can find a YouTube tutorial for pretty much everything nowadays.

When we feel stuck, our tutors remind us that all the information is out there. Try not to limit yourself to the skills you may already have, but rather take risks. You can achieve incredible results.

What are the essential tools of your trade?

Lauren Rees: The tools I use daily are dressmaking scissors, needles, threads, pins and fabric. The most essential tool of my trade is my pattern master – I am completely lost without it. Whether I'm cutting a style that is very basic or more complex, I need my pattern master to measure every line and curve.

Another essential tool I use is my notebook. I have to record the pattern cutting and textile printing techniques I learn and every alteration I make to develop my work. It's also handy for writing instructions on how to use design programmes like Photoshop, Illustrator and Kaledo, otherwise I would forget everything.

Sanna Karjalainen: To stand out from the crowd and include social value in your designs is an important tool of the trade. The fashion industry is such a big field, and to be successful you need to be noticed. If you stand strongly behind your creations and are proud of them, that will show through and attract others. Ethics are also important – consumers are becoming more aware of where their clothes come from and how they are made.

The UK-China Arts Education Exchange 2017 runs from 11 to 25 November at Wuhan Textile University in China, with students from the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

Find more arts opportunities.

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