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May 25th, 2022

I grew up with a dressmaker mother and a tailor Grandmother, but never realised the huge influence that has had on my work in construction, until I was writing last month’s blog about my aunt Fiona’s RIBA Dinner Suit, lovingly tailored for her by my grandmother Louise.

When I was at University in Edinburgh I struggled with construction for the first two years. I was a bright student, but I had never been taught anything remotely related at school, so I came to university with A levels in art, geography, classical history and English literature. My work experience included a year at Clothkits – a sew-your-own dress shop, but no building sites. I had not built anything except lego houses with my sister, although I had made my own clothes since childhood.

Construction was alien and intimidating. It did not help that we were taught by a pair of elderly male architects with intricate and ancient OHP sheets of beautiful but illegible hand drawings showing window jambs and threshold details, barely reinterpreted for landscape design.

The breakthrough came at the end of second year, when I realised that construction is simply SEWING but on a bigger scale. In fact, if you can sew a dress or a bag with pockets and zips, you are working with highly complex issues of materiality, volume, form and tensile strengths. Large scale construction has its own jargon designed to impress and exclude, whereas for me the language of sewing was familiar – and directly applicable.

In my final year at ECA/ESALA, I won an EDI Award for my construction project. I approached this project, the design of an outdoor theatre, with an enthusiastic use of sheet metals that could be folded, moulded and riveted - almost like clothing the urban space.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that I use sewing analogies all the time in my more strategic work too – the idea of a patchwork city, stitching fragmented places back together, threads, layers and webs all have their roots in sewing. This language is used all the time at erz and I suspect it is no coincidence that Rolf's mother was also a tailor and pattern cutter.

I highly recommend a book by our colleague and friend Clare Hunter called “Threads of Life: a History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” which is sort of about sewing, definitely about cultural history, and which shows how sewing has influenced myriad aspects of our creative lives. 

“Threads of Life: a History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle”

Clare Hunter

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 9781473687936


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