Polly Leonard was shaking up the textiles world long before she launched Selvedge, the magazine which has put textiles back on the fashion agenda and unearthed their rich social and cultural history. Selvedge celebrates its fifth birthday this month, but Leonard previously worked on the in-house publication for the Embroiderers' Guild. The Guild brought her in to capitalise on her extensive experience in embroidery, weaving, fine art textiles and teaching and working in museums, and they gave her a brief to update its look. But Leonard made the mistake of illustrating a knitting article with some "racy" images, which provoked a flurry of Home Counties ladies to write in expressing their consternation, and she promptly got the sack.
This, however, turned out to be a blessing for less conservative textile fans. Because Leonard then pursued a hunch that there was a market for a magazine which was well written, used beautiful images and covered a wider subject area than the textiles publications already on offer (of which there were hundreds, but they were all manuals of the "How to Knit Yourself a Handbag" mould). "I wanted to look at textiles in a slightly different way," she explains. "I wanted to convey the sense of quality that I believe textiles themselves have. I wanted to support the individual makers and look behind the scenes of the fashion industry, to look at what goes into the fabrics that cover your house and home," she says, which gives a fair précis of the publication.
You need to get hold of the magazine itself, with its thick, grainy paper, colourful photography throughout, thoughtful use of illustration and stunning cover images to really understand Leonard's vision, and why it has become such a success – each issue sells 25,000 copies which, for a self-funded bimonthly publication aimed at a niche market, is impressive. But the whole thing with textiles is the feel and the look of them, how they fall – whether on a person or down a wall – and how they match up with other fabrics and reflect the light or blend into the shadows.
When Selvedge launched five years ago, Grayson Perry had recently won the Turner Prize with his textured, illustrated pottery and was winning acclaim for his use of embroidery. "Embroidery was just kind of everywhere in fine art," remembers Leonard. She wanted to bring all the industries that textiles touched together under one title, and encourage the fashion people to talk to the interiors people and show them how they could look at their materials in different ways. "There are different requirements for a textile that will be used for fashion and one that will be used for interiors and there are different cycles too," says Leonard. "Interiors move more slowly than fashion. I think you can get locked into a particular way of looking at things."
The reaction of fashion designers to Selvedge is proof of this: Hussein Chalayan was approached for an article in the first issue and turned down the interview request, no doubt imagining that Selvedge would resemble other textiles publications. As soon as he had seen the first issue, though, he put himself forward for the second issue. "Before we had a physical copy of the magazine we were banging our heads against a brick wall. But as soon as there were one or two issues, convincing people to take part became much easier," says Leonard. One of the designers she thinks is doing the most interesting work with textiles at the moment is Eley Kishimoto; she is also a fan of Prada's "hi-tech techno fabric thing".
After the designers were on board, she still had to work hard to find writers, despite the ample subject matter, because there was no professional network of writers who specialised in textiles. She knew a lot of knowledgeable enthusiasts from her 20 years in the industry, but had to coax good copy and edit heavily.
Today, she still relies on a certain amount of goodwill. The cover of the July/August 2008 issue is a riot of romantic fuchsia featuring Stella Tennant modelling a silk dress, taken from a Tim Walker shoot for Italian Vogue. "We tend to beg, borrow and steal and try to find images that haven't been published in the UK," says Leonard. "People are very generous." Inside is a feature on Tim Walker's recent book, Tim Walker's Pictures, a collection of his dreamy, fantastical images, many shot for Vogue.
There are also articles on Rajasthani block printing, a look inside the elegant Jaipur home of a textile designer, and the history of Asian fabrics and their journey to the West along the Silk Route. Another from earlier this year considers the evolution of the Australian wool industry, and the current issue reports on a collection of ceremonial clothing belonging to Russian Emperors, which is being exhibited at the V&A. It's these well-researched historical features that really give Selvedge some weight.
The usual well-known names in textile design crop up frequently – Neisha Crosland, Lucienne Day, et al – but Leonard is also a champion of niche, under-the-radar designers and producers. If she finds something that isn't easily available in the UK, she will feature it in the magazine and then sell it as part of Selvedge Objects, her chic online boutique that stocks bright Jonathan Adler embroidered cushions and structured felt hats by the German designer Angelika Klose. "This supports the magazine and the makers as well as promoting textiles in a wider sense," she says.
The non-textile experts among you might well be wondering about the word Selvedge: it's the term used to describe the left and right hand edges of a piece of fabric as it comes out of the loom. Woven into each piece of material produced in the textile industry, it is a fitting aspiration for the magazine itself.
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