The more I talk to people about our prints the more I've come to realise that they really have no idea about the process behind them. We thought it was high time that we shed some light on the work that goes into make a TEF print.
Every collection and print starts with a concept, normally based around the idea of communicating something through flowers. For example in our newest collection we have several prints that are collages of the herbs used to brew absinthe, therefore communicating that you are a drunkard! I like this way of working because it gives us a set of parameters in which to work in, as you can imagine there aren't that many botanical illustrations of absinthe herbs out there so we didn't have much choice. It was a real challenge to design the prints!
Once we have our concept we source old botanical illustrations in the public domain, like these:
At this point I'm not looking at the colours or style of the drawings, just for interesting shapes to build a composition out of. We then cut the plants out in Photoshop using a tool called the pentool, this is a slightly old fashioned and time-consuming technique but it produces better results than newer and faster automated processes. This is what they look like when they're cutout:
Placed together like this the cutouts look a mess, the colours don't work together and they are completely different sizes. This is where making collages in Photoshop gets interesting as we can change the colours and size of the cutouts. We can also duplicate cutouts, use them multiple times and cut out different parts of the same image to use in various ways, you can't do this with traditional collage!
Photoshop is a very powerful but sometimes awkward tool, getting the colours right on our cutouts is a lengthy process involving multiple layers of adjustments. We often apply certain adjustments to different parts of a cutout so that we can, for example, change the colour of the flower in one way and change the colour of the leaves in another.
Here's what the cutouts look like after I've changed the colours to make a coherent scheme:
And here's them used in a design for a tote bag:
A tote bag is quite a simple thing and doesn't require many panels of print, but other items of clothing do. Whenever we design a piece of clothing we design each panel of fabric individually, we need 21 panels to make one of our shirts! This is a lot more work than just making a piece of clothing out of a repeat pattern but it allows us to make much more interesting prints and we spend a lot of time working on small details on the inside of cuffs and collars, we don't really photograph these details for the website so you only discover them when you get the piece.
Here's another example of a chaotic combo being turned into a cohesive print:
And here's an example of a much simpler collage, the original image is quite an awkward shape and we had to compose the print cleverly to create the effect we wanted:
The range of techniques we use and compositional style we work with were developed from scratch by me when I was a teenager. In the early days of the internet, before Facebook and Instagram, there were a lot of small online forums where teenagers would virtually 'hang out'. There were several which were dedicated to making digital art with Photoshop, it was through these forums that I learned to use the program and eventually developed my own techniques and ways of working. I then passed on these techniques to Susan (my mother), she works in a similar way to me and knows how to use Photoshop remarkably well for an old biddy (just joking mum)! Any print we design has normally been passed back and forth between the two of us several times in an extensive design process.
Having a design that looks nice on a computer screen is just the start though. A computer screen is a totally different surface to a fabric, and most fabrics do not print accurately. When we first started digitally printing onto fabric I thought it would print very accurately, like paper, but it actually doesn't at all! Fabric is a lot thicker than paper so they need to pump a lot of dye into it to get good, deep colours. This can produce unpredictable results that are quite different to how a design looks on your screen.
When we are designing a new collection we have to do months of sampling by printing small sections of new designs onto fabrics. We have to learn how each separate fabric prints because they all print differently, our silk crepe de chine comes out with deep, dark colours, it's an amazing fabric to work with! Cottons and wools are tricky because certain lighter colours can come out pink. Even when we know a fabric we still sample new prints on it, sometimes twice. This is an expensive and time-consuming process but it means we can see our prints in the flesh (or fabric rather) and make adjustments accordingly. Ultimately it's all about working with the fabric rather than against it and working out what looks good on different fabrics. We are really thorough about getting the composition and colours of our prints right and if we have to delay our production and spend more money sampling to get the right results then we will, we just don't take any satisfaction out of what we are making not being as close to perfect as we can get it.
Here are some examples of the prints we made from the absinthe cutouts you saw earlier:
We just wanted to let you know about our new travel bag: the Cloche bag. I also want to tell you a little bit about the story behind the Cloche bag, and the story behind us.
Christmas 2013 Susan sat down and sewed a duffel bag and a Cloche bag out of printed fabric we had designed, so Travail en Famille is born. It's taken us over two years to go from that original (admittedly very rough) first sample to the beautiful bags we are finally ready to sell today. This is because the Cloche bag is a complicated beast, requiring many different parts to be put together very skilfully. For example, between the outer printed canvas and the inner denim lining there lies a hidden inter-lining of 18oz cotton canvas, this helps the bag keep its shape, super-strengthens the seams and keeps everything inside nice and dry, it also makes it a lot harder to make the bag. Then there's the curved shape of the bag, which gives it its distinctive look, but makes it very hard to set in a zip that will open and close smoothly. We also spent a great deal of time sourcing the best quality brass ware and British leather. You get the picture, it was hard to make this bag work, but the end result is a bag that not only looks great but will last a lifetime. The size makes it perfect for day to day use or as carry on luggage, if you pack lightly you can just about squeeze a weekend away in there too.
I haven't even mentioned the prints yet which are drawn from our two current collections: Terres Inconnues and Notre Jardin. Our print style is founded in story-telling, with each map, flower and colour holding a particular meaning. The Terres Inconnues prints are each inspired by a famous traveller, and feature a map of where they went as well as flowers which hold symbolic meanings that represent their character. The Notre Jardin prints aim to capture the beauty of famous gardens and the philosophy of therapy through gardening. You can read the stories behind each print on their individual product pages.
As we start releasing new pieces for autumn/winter we wanted to revisit some of the books and films that influenced our garden philosophy and inspired our current collection – ‘Notre Jardin’.
The full title of the collection, ‘Il faut cultiver Notre Jardin’, comes from Voltaire’s novella Candide. First published in 1759 it still holds life lessons for today. The story follows the journey of Candide and his retinue as they travel the world witnessing executions and slavery, being thrown into prisons, finding El Dorado, coming into great riches and falling into poverty.
Voltaire’s satirical take on the contemporary world was a direct response and dismissal of the popular philosophy of the time that we are living in ‘the best of all possible worlds’. After taking his characters on a rollercoaster ride across the world, in which they find their fate is completely out of their own control, Voltaire settles the cast in Turkey where Candide pronounces: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’
Voltaire was telling us not to be concerned with the greater machinations of the world, but to grow our own garden, both literally and metaphorically. This is very much our philosophy at Travail en Famille, the only fashion brand where you will find a 23-year-old man making silk scarves with his mother.
From a very different era, ‘Another Year’, directed by Mike Leigh, is a bleak yet beautiful film exploring middle aged happiness and unhappiness. At the centre of the film Tom and Gerri live a contented married life. Together we see them working on their allotment through the 4 seasons, ploughing, planting and harvesting, as their friends dip in and out of unhappiness. The alcoholic Mary tries to put a brave face on things whilst flirting with younger men, the equally alcoholic Ken fruitlessly pursues Mary and Ronnie falls into silence after the death of his wife. All these lost souls find themselves drawn to Tom and Gerri’s idyllic home and garden.
‘Another Year’ puts forward a compelling case for the garden as a bastion against unhappiness. The colourful and striking shots of Tom and Gerri’s garden and allotment are a clear statement from Mike Leigh.
Maurice Pialat’s film about van Gogh provided the spark which caused me to text my mother at 2 o’ clock in the morning saying we should make a collection about gardens. She was in bed at the time but she liked the idea when she woke up.
Rather than try to define van Gogh in an epic life-spanning biopic Pialat focussed on his final weeks in Auvers-sur-Oise. The result is a restrained and captivating perspective on one of the world’s greatest painters.
Much of the film centres around Dr Gachet’s house and garden and the surrounding countryside - the subject of several van Gogh masterpieces.
During his time in London Van Gogh spontaneously set to work renovating his landlady’s garden. And towards the end of his life he wrote to his sister from Provence encouraging her to work hard and find fulfillment in life, quoting Voltaire:
“Anyway I must close this letter if I want it to go off today, and I don’t even have time to re-read it. So, if I’ve said too many silly things you will kindly excuse me. Look after yourself, don’t get too bored, and by ‘cultivating your garden’, as you do, and the rest that you do, be well assured that you’re getting through a lot of work. I kiss you affectionately in thought.”
Inevitably the film ends on a sad note, financially and critically unsuccessful and a burden on his family Van Gogh commits suicide. Although his life met with a terrible end Van Gogh’s commitment to growing his own garden (metaphorically and literally) resulted in an extraordinary legacy. Our Dr Gachet prints celebrate Van Gogh’s love of gardens through a collage of French garden flowers whilst acknowledging the difficulties he faced through a solitary white arum lily featured in the print. He painted these lilies when he felt melancholic and sad.
The final part of this blog is about ‘L’Homme qui Plantait les Arbres’ by Jean Giono, a charming short story about a man who planted trees. Originally bought as a present for my father, who has frequent and rather manic tree planting moments, it eventually became an important source of ideas for the collection (funny how these things happen).
In the story a disillusioned shepherd withdraws from civilization and roams the countryside collecting and planting tree seeds. Over many years this lone gardener’s activities result in the growth of a huge forest and the biological regeneration of the area. When a company cut down some of his trees for a building project he is too far away planting new trees to even know. This story actually has real life parallels. In India Jadav Payeng single-handedly created a 1,360 acre forest on previously barren land.
A moving tribute to the therapeutic value of gardening and the important work we can do whilst ‘growing our garden’ away from society’s sometimes unhelpful demands ‘L’Homme qui Plantait les Arbres’ is still a very relevant work.
I hope this blog has shed some light on our creative process and where we draw inspiration. I think it also helps to explain our French name despite being a very British brand. Living in Belgium for many years exposed us to European culture, both books and one of the films featured in this blog are after all French.
I hope that it also explains some of the deeper philosophy behind the collection. ‘Notre Jardin’ can be taken at face value as a celebration of the beauty of gardens and the therapy of gardening, but there is also a deeper undertone. But that all depends on how you like to interact with your clothes.