Print & Wool: an interview with Jane Walker of Bailey Hills

Jane Walker is a textile designer who is currently pushing the boundaries of what's possible when it comes to digital printing onto wool cloth.

The daughter of an architect, Jane worked for many years as an interior designer before retraining in printed textiles. After graduating from Loughborough University with a first class honours degree in 2010 she established Bailey Hills, producing bespoke and limited edition printed interior furnishings and fabrics using British made woollen and worsten cloth. It's a company whose creation and development has its roots not only in Jane's previous career as an interior designer, but also in her family background - her great-great grandfather founded a spinning and weaving company producing woollen and worsted cloth at Bingley in West Yorkshire in 1863. Bailey Hills takes its name from what is said to be the name of the earliest settlement at Bingley and an area of the town where her family lived.

It is this unique combination of background, skills and heritage that Jane draws upon in her work, exploring the skilled craft of hand-screen printing, together with technological advances in digital printing. So how did she come to make the shift from working as an interior designer and what led her to begin designing and printing textiles?

"Textiles had always been part of our family's life. My grandmother's family were, for three generations, drapers - cloth merchants, shirt makers and haberdashers and my grandfather's family, again for three generations, were woollen and worsted cloth manufacturers."

 "I worked as a commercial interior designer for architects and interior design practices from 1979 until 2007 with a break in the early 1990s to have a family. I worked on a wide variety of projects over the years - bars, restaurants and night clubs, high quality offices, retail stores and schools. I loved the variety of my work and being part of a design team. Sometimes I would be working on CAD plans to fit people into a new three storey office building, sometimes detailing a bar for a night club, sometimes preparing a lighting layout or designing fitted furniture - and also of course - producing an interior scheme of products, materials and finishes to include loose furniture, textile furnishings and decorations. I liked the detail of it all, working with the contractors on site, helping to sort out problems along the way until the project was finished and the client happy.

Fast forward to the summer of 2007 when I reached a milestone birthday and my youngest child left school. It seemed suddenly like the end of an era and it made me re-assess my career and my whole working life. I'd always been very interested in textiles and had this crazy idea in the back of my mind, that someday I might get involved in the textile world. I decided it was now or never and within two months I'd managed to get accepted onto the Textiles degree course at Loughborough University and left my career in interior design for a new challenge, a new adventure! I'd been producing architectural drawings on CAD for years, but rediscovered my passion for hand drawing on the course. I then chose Printed Textiles so that I could learn the skill of hand-screen printing and get experience of producing designs for digital printing."

"I found out that we manufacture an amazing range of woollen and worsted cloth in Britain today, and that some of it might be suitable for me to print on for interior use."

When she was younger Jane had found it difficult to choose between interior design and textiles as a career. "Textiles had always been part of our family's life. My grandmother's family were, for three generations, drapers - cloth merchants, shirt makers and haberdashers and my grandfather's family, again for three generations, were woollen and worsted cloth manufacturers. Their daughter, my mother however, became an architect so I came to understand what might be involved in interior design and chose this as a career."

After leaving Loughborough with a degree in Printed Textiles in 2010, she started doing some more research into her family's former wool manufacturing business and began thinking about wool cloth manufacturing in Britain today and the upholstery cloth she had used as an interior designer.

"I wondered whether I could print solely on wool cloth to make interior products; I hadn't seen any prints on heavier weight wool cloth at that time in the market place. Before long I found out that we manufacture an amazing range of woollen and worsted cloth in Britain today, and that some of it might be suitable for me to print on for interior use."

She decided to set up a small business producing printed wool products for interiors, taking inspiration from her family's wool textile background and using both her previous experience as an interior designer and her new skills as a printer. "The whole idea just seemed to fit me and from then on I knew what I wanted to do. I chose the name Bailey Hills as this referred to the area where my wool cloth manufacturing ancestors came from in Yorkshire, but then added the bi-line PRINT+WOOL to show what I actually did i.e. 'print plus wool'."

'Larch and woodpecker' hand print on wool.

Jane uses both hand screen printing and digital printing techniques to get the best out of the print designs and products she wants to create.

"Hand-screen printing is a very time consuming art, the product quite literally crafted by hand. The design starts off as a hand drawn design of between one and three colours usually and is transferred to a mesh screen or screens. The design is then transferred to the cloth by forcing ink through the mesh by a rubber squeegee.

The work is often quite physically demanding as some of the screens are very large and I work mostly on my own, but I love the whole thing!" she says.

Using the latest digital printing processes means that she can create designs that are tonal, have an endless number of colours in them and can potentially be produced in longer lengths, although as digital printing of any sort of heavier weight wool is still in its infancy, quantities are still small. The designs are hand drawn originally, and then computer manipulated before being sent away to be digitally printed onto the two types of wool cloth she currently uses.

Above left: Workshop. Above right: 'Woodpecker' hand print on broadcloth.

So what are the unique challenges of printing onto heavier weight wool cloth?

"Some is too hairy or fluffy, too springy or too coarsely woven to print on, but after two years of research and development, involving experimentation with a combination of colour, cloth, print design, process and equipment producing hundreds of samples, I have found various ways to print onto a wide variety of cloth using the hand-screen method" says Jane.

"Digital printing onto heavier weight wool cloth is fairly limited at the moment but technology is advancing all the time, so I hope to use more of this new technology in the future for my products."

For 2013 she is very much looking forward to seeing how things develop and has had a wide range of enquiries about her work using the print and wool process for all sorts of applications.

"I have a plan but will obviously take into account customer requirements relating to my print processes, print designs and products."

She has also completed her first commission piece using the hand-screen process. This is something she loves doing as it can involve unique and experimental work. Additionally, she has launched a range of products on her website and has already started thinking about some new print designs which she plans to launch later in the year.

'Ice cube' hand print on green stripe worsted.

Jane is also hoping to show her work in a couple of exhibitions this year. She has been asked to participate in "Wool House" at Somerset House, London in the Spring - an event described by the organisers, the Campaign for Wool as "the first ever wool concept house" showcasing the versatility of wool in the home. She also hopes to exhibit at the London Design Festival in September.

"It's early days for me but in time I hope to enlarge my workshop facilities to carry out more of the bespoke work I love doing. In addition, I've had enquiries to produce printed cloth in much larger quantities, so  whilst I never set out initially to mass produce my work, it may be that at some point I also consider finding a "print partner" who will work with me to produce some of my designs onto wool cloth on a more commercial level."

Her main aim she says is "to promote British manufacturing of wool cloth and offer innovative & colourful printed wool products for both domestic and contract interiors using this cloth. This may help to encourage more consumers to take advantage of the natural qualities of wool and use more in their homes during all seasons, not just in winter."