Known for her quirky knitted creatures, Donna Wilson has designed a range of bedlinen for the Secret Linen Company. Absolutely quizzes the designer

Words Eve Herbert

Tell us about your prints for the Secret Linen Company

Blah blah was one of my first designs and has been a firm favourite ever since. It came to me one day when I was thinking of something to write. The sense of humour works in every language. The graphic pattern Scandi is inspired by Swedish folk art and my travels around Europe and Iceland. We’ve chosen a restful colour palette which feels contemporary and fresh. Menagerie is designed with children (or our inner child) in mind. I wanted to create something really playful and adventurous. It has elephants, birds, monkeys and wolves hiding in the trees, so beware!

When did you realise you had a passion for design?

I think it was at quite a young age, I was always drawing and making things and was always most happy with a pencil in my hand. I didn’t know what I wanted to be as a child, but I knew it was going to be something to do with art and design.

Where do your inspirations come from?

All over the place: the landscape, music, dreams, magazines, ceramics, Scandinavian design, people. Sometimes I just see a tiny snippet of something which triggers an idea, which is then developed into a product. I recently went to a small, remote island off the coast of Newfoundland and came back feeling really inspired by its landscape of boats and houses; but normally I find inspiration everywhere: it can be a tiny piece of cloth, a picture in a book or a found object from my travels. Nature is also a big inspiration for me, particularly the plants and animals in the British countryside.

How do you start your design process?

I usually do sketches in a notebook – they look like little cartoons, tiny bodies with huge exaggerated heads. I get their look and idea on paper first, then start knitting; usually they turn out very much like the drawings but occasionally I’ll make some out of the scraps or off-cuts. Sometimes these rejects are just as successful as the planned ones.

How did you get to where you are now?

I studied Textile Design at Grays College of Art in Aberdeen and graduated in 1999. I then got a job in a knitwear company as an assistant designer for a year. After that I went back to college to do my MA at the Royal College of Art, where I specialised in Mixed Media Textiles. I had fantastic tutors there. At the RCA I started making products and sold them in shops like Couverture and Supra Girls London. They started off as the long, leggy dolls and evolved into the slightly more disturbing knitted creatures with two heads or extra long legs, each with their very own character; the more peculiar the better for me.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been so many highlights, [especially] working with a great team of people who help me to have the best job! Meeting designers like Rob Ryan and Orla Kiely, and making the creatures and props for a music video for Gideon Conn. Also, winning the Elle Decoration British Designer of the Year award in 2010.

Which famous artists/designers do you admire or inspire you the most?

I like Alexander Girard, Stig Lindberg, my grandma (but she wasn’t famous)! Another designer I admire is Hella Jongerius – I love the sofa she did for Vitra a long time ago with the odd buttons. I’d never seen anything like this and I love the way she uses textiles and colour a lot in her work. Her designs are clever and thoughtful and have that human element.

What five words would best describe you?

Colourful, smiley (most of the time), messy, bendy, Scottish.

What are five things you couldn’t live without?

A sketchbook, a stapler, music, colourful paints, the sea.

What does your job involve?

For my own business, I do a bit of everything, selecting colours, mood boards, designing, making samples, production, marketing, admin and everything to do with the day-to-day running of the business. I’m still learning as I go along.

How did you go about establishing your online shop?

I had a website pretty much straight after leaving the RCA, I felt it was important for shops and customers to see what I did. The first site was very hand-drawn and had a little animation of the creatures. I wasn’t trying to pretend I was a big company, I liked the fact that I was just starting out, was independent and could do small numbers and small quantities. The web shop took about six years to establish itself as a successful part of the business. It’s really fantastic now, but I like the fact that my business has grown very gradually and organically.

Do you have any favourite yarns you like to work with?

I always work with natural yarns, mainly lambswool, I love the colours you can get as well as its felting properties.

Is the crafted nature of your products as important for you as the design process?

Yes, definitely. When I’m making them I have to use the same process for each type but because they’re made by hand, their form varies from one to another and when we get to the stage of stitching their features on, I create a new personality every time – embroidery is like drawing with a needle and thread. The proportions and placement gives each one a different look and that’s why I enjoy making them. People have asked me why I don’t get them mass-produced – it would certainly be less time consuming – but for me I think they would lose their charm, identity and oddness.

What do you love most about your work?

Designing, and I have only recently given myself a bit of time to do this. I used to design in my own spare time, and on the back of an envelope on the bus! But I have been spending the last few weeks making mood boards, sketching and trying things out on the machine, and I remember why I love it. Being creative is a fantastic feeling, and I’d recommend anyone to give it a go. I also really enjoy making things that make people smile!

Do you collect anything?

I have to try very hard not to collect too many things. If I had enough space I would collect everything as I love being surrounded by inspiring objects. I do have a shelf at home that’s got a collection of painted wooden dolls in all shapes and sizes. Some are from a trip to India, others are dolls that I’ve made, and some are lovely antique dolls with round ball heads from Japan. I love how there is a strange variation among them but that they all have nice faces.

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