Anna-Lisa Smith runs her textile design studio from the mill town of Marsden in West Yorkshire, surrounded by the mills and canals which have formed the heart of England’s wool weaving industry for hundreds of years.
All the cloth she uses for her cushions and blankets is woven, washed and finished within fifty miles of her West Yorkshire studio. “I didn’t enter the design world through the conventional routes,” Anna-Lisa explains. “I did an HND in Textiles when I was twenty, but then ended up living and working in Europe for most of my twenties before returning to the UK and turning my HND into a degree at the University of Derby, specialising in weave. I knew after I finished my degree that I wanted to set up my own business but it took a few years to get everything in place, in particular to find a weaving mill with a Jacquard loom and a willingness to work with a new designer!”
She didn’t set out with a desire to create a ‘brand’, but knew that she wanted to bring her designs to life. “I’ve always been inspired by smaller companies who know exactly what they are, stick with one thing and do it beautifully,” she tells me. “I’ve never had any dreams of being a huge company, or putting my designs on everything; I just wanted to keep it small and clear and create beautiful things from lovely materials.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone throwing merino wool away, it’s so inherently precious!
Doing one thing beautifully and sticking to it is certainly how I would describe her work. Anna-Lisa launched her business in 2014 and has since sold her collections to an array of large retailers, including Heals, Liberty of London and Tate Modern, as well as smaller independent design shops. A pared back, minimal approach to design combined with a love of colour and an appreciation for quality materials and workmanship are at the heart of Anna-Lisa’s work. All her pieces are designed for longevity, to be treasured and to bring joy every day. A lot of her initial pattern inspiration comes from architecture. The striking Brick cushion collection for example, is inspired by the architecture of West Yorkshire mills, while the Carousel collection was inspired by movement and patterns of traditional fairground rides. Dash was inspired by the Glazing Bars of Bank Bottom Mill, an old abandoned weaving mill opposite her studio.
“Weaving is basically a combination of lines and blocks so there is a real parallel between the two mediums,” she tells me. “I usually start with photographs of something which has caught my eye – for example, one of my new collections is based on a beautiful tiled floor at the V&A in London – which is then developed on graph paper. Almost all my designs start off a lot more complicated than they end up and it can take a long time until I pare back the design to a kind of ‘essence’. It’s quite hard to describe but there is just a magic moment when it’s just right, the balance and proportion. And then I start working on the colours…. it can take months and months!”
Woven using the finest quality Lambswool, Anna-Lisa is particularly connected to her materials. “I believe wool is one of the most precious materials on earth,” she tells me, “especially merino wool; it has so many magical qualities. I design my work to last, so that it can be enjoyed for years and years and wool is integral to that. Not only does it last a very long time if looked after properly, it’s also hard to imagine anyone throwing merino wool away, it’s so inherently precious.”
The concept of ‘made to last’ has always come intuitively to Anna-Lisa. “I’ve never been somebody who buys a lot of things; if I find something I love, I just keep it forever. My living room is full of things I’ve had for twenty years, so if I buy something I’ve got to really love it and I automatically design with that in mind. I don’t think I’ve talked about my work being ethical or sustainable that much, it’s just been inherent in what I do because that’s always made sense to me. In the end we all need to start buying less and considering what we do buy, a little like our grandparents generation. I think there’s something quite beautiful in taking care of things, perhaps mending them and keeping them throughout our lives, it gives the objects around us more meaning.”
From a practical point of view nothing has changed too much during the pandemic, although her mills and finishers closed down temporarily. All are back up and running again now. “For a while I emotionally shut down from the business and took some time out which I haven’t done in seven years, and it was actually really helpful to do that,” she tells me. “Now I’m back and focused with a fresher perspective on a new set of challenges.”
“It’s going to be an interesting time for the industry. Most of the shows have been cancelled this year so were all going to have to work harder at presenting our work online. It’s a challenge; how can a small independent studio like mine be seen against the big companies with huge marketing budgets? I think it’s especially tough with textiles, as so much of the beauty of my work is in the feel of the cloth.” Even so she is persevering. From 25-31 July she will be featuring as part of the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair Online (#GNCCFOnline) alongside 160 designer-makers who had previously been handpicked for the physical 2020 show, offering visitors the chance to buy unique pieces via the GNCCF website. Throughout the week new work, demonstrations, conversations and stories will be posted across the fair’s social media channels.
“On the positive side, there seems to have been a real sense of community development over this time, both between creative businesses and also between customers and businesses,” she says. “I sense that people are looking for something different than the soulless shopping from huge brands and are moving towards supporting smaller companies or individuals who they can make a real connection with.”
Lead image and pink bedding © David Ward, styled by Kite Styling; hanging blanket and bench photography © Laura Hutchinson, all used with permission.