Michael Alexander speaks to Fife textile designer Claire Christie whose experience of lockdown inspired the launch of her first clothing collection based on Dunfermline’s architectural heritage – and sharpened her desire for environmentally-friendly garments.
If there’s one positive to have come out of the pandemic then it’s the opportunity it’s given more people to work from home, saving money, energy and helping the environment.
For environmentally-conscious Fife textile designer Claire Christie, however, it’s also given her the opportunity to move into her new studio and launch her first clothing collection online based on Dunfermline’s architectural heritage.
Claire, 50, who studied textile design at The Glasgow School of Art in the early 1990s and is originally from Paisley, went on to have a career in set design and costume in the theatre in Bristol before moving back to Scotland and raising her two children.
She set up a homeware business under the banner of Clarabella Design Studio in 2007.
But it wasn’t until being confined to home during the pandemic that Claire decided to pursue her dream of having her own clothing line.
With more time on her hands, the entrepreneur decided to learn the art of pattern cutting and started to experiment with putting her prints onto dresses.
“My prints are all digitally printed on high quality materials and depict the many beautiful and diverse architecture of my hometown,” she says.
“I use natural fibres and GOTS certified fabrics and inks.
“I operate a zero waste studio, all my offcuts are either patch worked into beautiful ‘one offs’ which appear in store or are made into accessories.
“I often team up my new prints with vintage fabrics, mixing the old with the new. This is a joyful way for me to work and is a conscious exercise on balance and sustainability.”
Growing up in Paisley, Claire’s mum was “very creative”.
“There was always a sewing machine going on in the background,” says Claire, who remembers the boxes of buttons kept by her mum and the “waste not want not” mind-set of war babies where everything was recycled.
As well as making all the curtains and lampshades around the home, Claire’s mum also made all her children’s clothes.
Claire always felt destined for Glasgow School of Art. She had an older brother who worked in an antiquarian bookshop.
He once brought home a print of Glasgow School of Art, of the Macintosh building, which he put on his bedroom wall.
Claire always thought it looked “really cool” and wanted to study there. Having wanted to be a sculptor, she did an access course in textiles and realised that’s where her strengths lay.
Moving down south with her partner after graduation, her first creative job was working for an independent department store as a window dresser.
Laughing that it was “like Grace Brothers” – and that there was “even a colonel on the management team with a monocle” – she went on day release to the London School of Print to learn to be a prop maker.
When a passing theatre director spotted an elaborate window display she’d designed based on Ascot, he was so impressed that he offered her a job designing sets, costume and props at his theatre in Bristol.
Claire loved the creativity of that role.
She and her husband lived in Newbury, Berkshire, for 12 years where her daughter was born.
However, when her husband got the chance to relocate to Edinburgh with his job 14 years ago, they decided it was time to move back to Scotland.
Thirteen years ago, “after falling in love with the Glen”, they moved to Dunfermline where their son was born.
Design studio launch
It was around this time that Claire set up her design studio Clarabella Christie – the name paying homage to the nickname she had at art school. She has grown her business as her children have become more independent.
Before lockdown, Claire had a studio for five years at Fire Station Creative in Dunfermline, where she also taught sewing.
She used to make her homeware items only out of vintage fabrics from the 1960s and 70s.
However, she ended up not being able to find the material she wanted and so became determined to create her own.
To do this she went back to school in 2018 – Fife College in Dunfermline – to study digital design. This gave her the skills to enable her to create a range of prints.
Her starting point was her love of the heady colours and patterns of the 1960s and from this she has created a selection of prints and garments.
Her design studio is in the oldest building in Dunfermline, the 15th century Abbot House or ‘Pink Hoose’ as it is known.
“Dunfermline used to be known for weaving and was particularly renowned for the production of linen,” she says.
“My studio in the town’s Maygate is in the oldest building in Dunfermline and looks out over the Heritage Quarter.
“I wanted to create prints that captured something of the town’s textile spirit and architectural history while injecting vibrant colour and life into the fabric.”
Hometown has three pieces – a tunic, dress and skirt available in a variety of different designs and colours.
She took inspiration from an Edinburgh exhibition she attended last summer.
“I was like ‘oh my God I’m going to make one of them’. It was a Eureka moment. ‘I’m going to print some fabric and try and design a little A-line frock’.
“It was that exhibition really that inspired me to get going, and as soon as I had got my head into it I just got creative with it and made it happen. It’s all about the print.”
Claire says her customer base is “pretty varied” – although the price point is “probably more professionals who have jobs”.
However, what she’s finding is more and more young people are discerning about how they are spending their money.
They would rather go with a small Scottish fashion brand that makes their clothes ethically and locally than go for the high street brands.
It’s within this ethos of being switched on to the environment and fashion that Claire is also passionate about keeping production in Fife. She is using a small family manufacturing business called Livingston & Sons in Lochgelly.
Keeping it local
“Sustainable fashion has always been important to me,” she says.
“Before I started printing my own fabrics, when I started my business I used recycled fabrics.
“I’ve always had real green credentials in my business. Quite honestly the reason for that initially was the fact I was a collector of ‘60s and ‘70s print.
“I would just like go into charity shops and buy up all these crazy geometric curtains and all that and turn them into homewares and re-purpose them.
“All the fabrics that I print on for my clothing are printed with organic dyes. They are basically what is termed as GOT certified –that means it’s a world standard and it’s all about looking after the environment.
“Having my clothes made here in Fife is very important. It’s a low carbon footprint. Even down to the packaging. Everything I use is recycled.
“Lockdown has allowed me to look at those things, and those things are really important to me anyway.”
Alternative to fast fashion
Given the scale of the fast fashion industry, Claire admits it’s a difficult cycle to break for the masses.
But with the environment never more important than it is now, she believes people need to “think differently” about how they wear their clothes.
“What fast fashion allows people to do is go out and buy a new outfit every pay day and wear it,” she says.
“Then when it falls out of favour, if you are a half decent person, you put it into a charity shop. But quite often a lot of it just ends up in the bin and ends up in landfill.
“I think we just have to think differently about how we wear our clothes.
“What I say to my customers is ‘I’m not a fashion brand’.
“I’m making a product that’s based on the environment that I live in, it’s inspired by the architecture of the town that I live in, and it’s made here in the UK.
“It’s an expensive product you might think, but actually the thought process and the care that’s gone into that means that you don’t just buy it for a wedding or for a special occasion. You wear it all the time.
“We all have clothes we hang in our wardrobe that we just don’t wear. I want people to wear my clothes all the time, and that’s why I’ve got such great care with how they are constructed.
“The natural fabrics that I’m using that have a low impact on the environment, and also you can layer them up. It’s time to think differently.”
Clarabella Design is holding an open studio event at Abbot House on October 16/17. Claire will also be announcing new sewing workshops in September. For more information go to clarabellachristie.co.uk