Thread a little happiness

Cathryn Avison's exquisite embroidery is a far cry from the needlework your granny does, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Embroidery has an unfortunate image. It's known as the sad province of maiden aunts churning out endless petit-point cushion covers. It conjures up an image of gruesome, ethnic, Bulgarian-peasant dirndls rather than high fashion. But Cathryn Avison's dresses and scarves are far removed from the fussy and the fuddy-duddy. She works in rich velvets and fine silks, chiffon, organza and georgette, creating delicately layered shifts and flowing stoles, all enhanced with understated but elegant embroidery and cut-work.

Her designs have a very English feel about them - her light-as-air, bias- cut summer dresses cry out to be worn for tea on a sunny lawn, and her autumn/winter wear is sophisticated but not vulgar or flamboyant. Her work sells in some of London's most exclusive stores - Liberty, Browns, A La Mode. One expects to meet an equally exclusive, posh and aquiline Sloane. In fact, Cathryn Avison is down-to-earth and friendly, dressed in jeans and trainers.

"I like the feminine look without it being fussy and girly," she says firmly, in a soft Newcastle accent. "I want a modern woman to be able to wear my dresses and not feel daft because she's wearing some floaty, airy-fairy thing. I design for myself, what I would like to wear, and I've tried really hard to make sure all my clothes are wearable."

Her tiny studio is in the pretty town of Midhurst in West Sussex; there is barely room for the sample rail, three sewing machines, an ironing board and her two assistants. On the wall are her paintings - studies of lilies, inspiration for her designs. "I'm always inspired by nature - leaves and flowers. The beginning of the design process for me is being in the garden, drawing flowers, simplifying the shapes, working out how they will make a creative edging for a dress, how they will fit into cut-work. I have used daisies, clematis, sunflowers, lavender, roses, lilies and all their different leaves."

All her dresses are hand-made; the process takes several days. "First the dress is made up; then it's embroidered," she explains. "Then it's dyed - I do all the dyeing. Then we do the cut-work." Because the dyeing is done after the embroidery, the patterns are the same colour as the fabric; the effect is a subtle one, of contrasting texture and shape. Her preferred colours are muted - creams, navy blues, yellows, dusky pinks, jade greens, bronzes. "I started off using natural dyes, but as the orders got larger, I found I couldn't promise the exact colour from the samples. But I still use a natural dye for the cream colours - different strengths of tea."

Her own tastes tend to the simple and well cut. "I like Jil Sander, Calvin Klein, Toby Clarke - unfussy clothes with good tailoring. My stuff keeps that element of simplicity - I use very simple shapes that lend themselves to embroidery. I hate clothes that have everything but the kitchen sink on them. Simplicity is something I try to achieve, whether I'm creating my own clothes or buying for myself."

Cathryn, 28, studied for a degree in embroidery at the University of Ulster, in Belfast. "I sat at a sewing machine making different patterns and progressed from there. I had no idea I'd go on to do fashion, it could have been fine art, theatre or interiors. But for my degree show, I decided to put the cloth onto a body." She was faced, however, with a slight problem - she had no idea where to begin. "I had no knowledge of pattern cutting or clothes, I ended up cutting up old clothes to see how they worked. I ended up with four pieces, but they were very theatrical, not things that could really be worn."

By then she had decided that she wanted to work in fashion. "I did a fashion MA at the Royal College of Art - I was a bit of a guinea pig, my professor took quite a chance on me because I just didn't have the knowledge. I even had a teacher sit me down and teach me how to draw stick men, when all the other students were doing these slick fashion drawings. The first year was tough but the second year really clicked."

When she qualified, three years ago, she went into Browns and asked to be given a window. "I was quite brazen - I didn't realise how cheeky it was. The other two students who got a window were John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan." Now, she employs four people and is big in the US and Hong Kong. Her dresses are bought by the likes of Patsy Kensit and Liv Tyler. But she is not about to shift herself into a snooty fashion ghetto with a Chelsea postcode. "I didn't want to live in London. I love the countryside, and all my inspiration is here," she says. "I go into London when I have to. I don't have a PR or anyone to do my marketing. I go to London Fashion Week for four days twice a year, but I don't network. I've slipped into an industry that appears to be incredibly glamorous, but that doesn't make me incredibly glamorous!"

Her work is exquisite but the prices are eye-watering - around pounds 650 for a short dress, pounds 750 for a long one, pounds 400 for a scarf. And that, she says cheerfully, is the way it has to be. "People have said they could send out to factories in the Middle East to get my designs mass-produced, but I wouldn't do that. It's the embroidery that makes them expensive, because it takes so long to do. A cheaper range would lose all the specialness."

Cathryn Avison's Autumn/Winter `97 collection will be available at A La Mode, Browns, Liberty and Mimi in London, and Whistles in Dublin. Enquiries: 01730 817374.