Last week I had the pleasure of spending some time in the design studio at Liberty’s with the Liberty Lifestyle Fabrics designer, Sholto Drumlanrig. Anyone who knows me (even a little bit) knows I am a huge fan of Liberty print fabrics and have been for as long as I can remember – they remind me of my childhood, of my cousins, of homemade dresses and beanbag frogs. So, when Kim at True Up mentioned Liberty was debuting a new collection of quilting cottons at Spring market this year, it was no surprise that I woke up to a whole heap of tweets practically shouting ‘Katy – have you seen this?!!!’ It was also no surprise that all I was really bothered about doing when I got to Kansas city was checking out the Liberty booth (which, admittedly, was a bit tricky to find – it seemed to hide quite well).

constellation block

Whilst at Market I (we) met Sholto, the designer, as well as Virginie the sales manager and Sholto mentioned coming into the studio for a look round. When we got home, got the retreat out of the way and settled back into real life once again, I hopped on a train and went for a visit.

image courtesy of Liberty Lifestyle fabrics

Most fabric collections we buy as quilters are designed by a named designer who is licensed to a manufacturer. For example, Kate Spain’s next collection is called Cuzco and is produced by Moda Fabrics, Kate has licensed her designs to Moda in order for them to produce them as quilting cottons. We become fans of the designer, we tend to like everything they do (I buy everything Anna Maria Horner designs – everything). There are exceptions (companies such as Alexander Henry, for example, use in-house designers rather than licensed designers), but as a general rule the process goes as follows (this is really simplified) the designer has an idea for some fabric designs, s/he draws them up, s/he sends them to Moda (or Andover, or Kaufman, or wherever), if they like the general feel of the collection and see it as commercially viable, they then discuss which ones they don’t like so much, and which ones they do, they narrow it down to a collection that has a good range of focal prints, co-ordinates and blenders – up to about 40 different prints, and that collection is produced. The designer gets a payment according to how much fabric is sold (like a royalty). The owner of the designs is still the designer, and they can then use the designs in other areas (such as home wares, or stationary or whatever). Designers become a kind of celebrity in their own right within our community – the first time I met Denyse Schmidt I am certain I just leered at her like a lunatic for a while – and the circle continues.

image courtesy of Liberty Lifestyle fabrics

Liberty is different.

For the past 100 and some years, Liberty has produced fabrics. It’s name is synonymous with small chintzy floral tana lawns that have an almost silk-like texture due to the densely woven high thread count Egyptian cotton they are printed on. Tana lawn is luxurious, and perfect for dressmaking, but it has the price tag to go with it. In the UK they are sold at £21/metre. For those of you overseas, that price is far higher. They are also tricky to sew with if you’re not familiar with them. They slip, can feel ‘sticky’ if your machine needle isn’t sharp enough, and when quilted can cause tension issues and slipped stitches. But, with a new and sharp needle, a high quality cotton thread (such as Aurifil 50wt), and a lot of spray starch, tana lawn is a joy to sew with. If you can stomach the initial cost and actually cut it up in the first place.

Somebody at Liberty had the genius idea of producing a range of (what we call over here in the UK) ‘craft fabrics’. That’s code for quilting cottons. Craft just means it’s not dressmaking fabric and can be used for home sewing in a variety of ways. A team was put together, the archives were trawled (over 40,000 images of fabric – can you even begin to imagine the Liberty archives? All of the history, all of the trends from the very first fabric back in the late 1800s through to today), a theme of ‘Bloomsbury Gardens’ decided upon and Sholto was the man that put together a series of 11 designs in 5 colourways that were either completely new but looked ‘Liberty’ or were influenced by the archival prints and that were complimentary enough to form a collection.

Take a moment to consider that task in itself. It’s a huge collection – although only 11 prints individually, each one comes in 5 colours, for a total of 55 prints. Much larger than any regular quilting fabric collection. The base cloth is a regular quilting cotton – it is soft and quite matt – it doesn’t have the sheen of tana lawn. They are also very nice to sew with – I’ve been making a version of my Spring Carnival design using english paper piecing and I’m thoroughly enjoying the way they sew. I also made a constellation block (see top of post) using Essex linen as the solid, and, again, found the fabrics cut well, were very easy to piece and didn’t distort. I haven’t checked for shrinkage or bleeding, but I imagine the shrinkage will be similar to other quilting cottons, and the usual caution should be taken with the deepest colours, such as the reds and navy blues (pre-wash with a colour catcher)

The designs themselves are drawn in pen and ink, rather than painted or computer generated in illustrator. An archive image or a particular element of an archive image, is re-drawn (by hand, on paper), new elements are added, new colours, new repeats, or scales – all of this is done by hand, painstakingly. What you can see below is a painted image (by Sholto), which was then re-drawn and elements pulled out and shrunk down (the flowers), filled in with alternative designs, and then finally produced in colour on the computer. The final fabric is called Virginia and is a new fabric, but it looks remarkably typically Liberty.

liberty lifestyle design process

Here it is in all colourways….

image courtesy of Liberty Lifestyle fabrics

Another example (this is for a tana lawn, not one of the lifestyle cottons)

Sketches of plant life…..

sketches at liberty design studio

Are added to and evolve into something far greater…

from sketches to finished design

It was incredibly fascinating to be able to talk to Sholto about his process, and especially interesting to see how the process differs in a design studio such as Liberty to what we consider, as quilters, to be the norm – designers working from their (usually home based) studios, mostly solitary drawing and sketching and designing, and often blogging about the process. Most of our designers have faces and names we all recognise, we may even know their children’s names or what pets they have. They become familiar to us, and we worship them a little as a result and feel we ‘know’ them. Our community is quite unique in that way, and the design studio with hidden faces is far more common. It is the same with fashion fabric design, and home decor, and can be far less solitary when you are working with other people, just like the Liberty studio where there are several people doing different things with different responsibilities. Long after Sholto leaves Liberty and moves on to another studio for a different company, those designs will still be there, in the ever growing archive without his name attached to them, and a new Sholto will replace him. I quite like that idea – it’s what has kept Liberty going for the past 135 years or so, and what keeps the fabrics looking as typically ‘Liberty’.

Bloomsbury Gardens by Liberty Lifestyle Fabrics is shipping this August/September
The Village Haberdashery, Pink Castle Fabrics, and Sew Mama Sew have all placed orders so if you would like to know which prints they’ve got coming and when, simply send them a quick email.

Also – if you are free at 4pm EST (9pm for UK folks) then pop over and listen to the Pat Sloan show on All People Quilt. There’s an interview with me (Katy) that we recorded during Quilt Market in Kansas City. Pat’s show is always worth a listen, she’s a great ambassador for the quilting community and works tirelessly to support everyone.