shopping: Pillow talk

The designer Barbara Jones depends on sunlight to create her spectacula r flower designs directly on to fabric.
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The Independent Culture
THE WEATHERMEN promised a heat-wave this weekend but if, as you read this, it starts to pour, spare a thought not just for those whose barbecues are about to be ruined, but also for the textile designer Barbara Jones.

For most of us, this summer's regular bursts of torrential rain have been nothing more than depressingly predictable, but for Jones, whose extraordinarily beautiful fabrics can be created only with the help of the sun, work stops every time the heavens so much as spit. A bad month weatherwise, and she can find herself seriously behind schedule.

"I am on permanent weather alert," says Barbara Jones. "One of my first orders came through last Christmas - Selfridges wanted around 30 of my cushions - and I was stuck in the garden in January. It was freezing cold and overcast, and my designs were taking hours rather than minutes to develop."

Jones is unusual among textile designers in that she does not work on paper; her tools are not paintbrushes, watercolours or pencils. Instead she creates her unique designs directly on the fabric - without preliminary sketches - using a little-used, largely forgotten technique called cyanotype. The results are ethereal imprints on a dazzling blue ground, which reveal the texture and beauty of the subject matter in exquisite detail. They are then made into plain-backed cushions with mother-of-pearl buttons (pounds 49-pounds 80 each), and scarves (pounds 68-pounds 90). This winter will see the launch of some new colourways - red, plum and aubergine - and also the fruits of her collaboration with the fashion design duo Elisabeth Mirella, whose clothes are available at The Cross in London.

Cyanotype, invented in 1842, is a photographic process that allows the user to make an imprint of an object by placing it on a surface, usually paper, that has been treated with light-sensitive chemicals. In daylight the chemicals react and turn the exposed area blue, while the space beneath the object remains white. The intensity of the contrast and the speed with which the image is obtained depend both on the strength of the sunlight, and the exposure time. The process is halted and the image fixed by rinsing the surface with water. Because flowers are so delicate, the light often passes through, triggering a mild reaction with the paper; thus the imprint of a clematis comes complete with stamen and variegated stripes along the petals.

"I first came across the method three years ago in an article about Victorian ladies making cyanotype images as an amusing way to pass an afternoon," recalls Jones. One woman in particular, Anna Atkins, used this method to produce an entire book of botanical imprints. "I was immediately struck by cyanotype's design potential. I loved the idea of putting plants on a surface, and the design coming directly from them, but I couldn't see how the process could be adapted for use on fabric."

Although trained as a textile designer, Jones had moved into journalism. "At that point I was deputy editor on International Textiles, a fashion forecasting magazine. So I just filed away the idea for cyanotype." Similarly, her freelance design work was on hold. "The design process for a freelance is quite soulless," she says by way of explanation. "Your agent calls you to discuss the kind of `look' particular companies are interested in, and then you just run up a mass of samples that are sent out speculatively. I never knew where my work would end up. Last month, when I was in New York, I spotted something I'd designed ages ago."

But after seven years spent predicting trends and promoting design, Jones finally convinced herself that she should be doing what she was only writing about. "People would come in with their portfolios hoping to get some coverage and often I would think, `I want to be doing this', and occasionally, `I could be doing this, and better!'"

It was then that Anna Atkins and her cyanotypes came back to Jones. Not much had been written about the process, so it took research, trial and error before she had successfully produced a cyanotype image on paper. Next she had to work out how to apply the method to fine silks and linens, and much time was spent juggling different quantities of chemicals and experimenting with drying methods. As far as she is aware she is currently the only person working in cyanotype on cloth. Her cellar is now kitted- out with a complex arrangement of suspended drying-frames, and she has even invented a stretcher to secure the feathers, leaves and seedheads to her silks during the development process. "It all sounds a bit like the mad professor, but I'm not scientific in my methods - I don't really time anything," she says.

As well as teaching herself the principles of early photography, Jones has had to get to grips with gardening and, in particular, how to get hold of flowers in midwinter. "I've started to plant my garden based around what I know I will need." She says. "But the real problem comes with the samples. If I show buyers the samples made in the summer, the flowers are not available when the orders come through in the winter." She has just planted lots of winter jasmine and variegated ivy, but the big question is how she'll beat the clematis shortage that she's sure to be facing later this year.

Barbara Jones can be contacted on 0171-681 6010. Her work can be seen at the Cockpit Arts Summer Festival open studio event at Cockpit Yard, Northington Street, WC1, 26-27 June, 12pm-8pm, and 28 June, 12pm-6pm, admission pounds 2.50, and at Selfridges (0171-629 1234) and The Cross (0171- 727 6760).

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