Helen Paine

PhD Design Products, 2011–15

I always knew, right from secondary school, that I wanted to study textiles. I completed my BA in Textiles in 2008, graduating from Central Saint Martins. I returned to education and completed my MA at the Royal College of Art in Textiles in 2011, specialising in knitted textiles for fashion. During the Master’s, I met people from the engineering institute TWI who became the funding company for my PhD. It was that first connection made on the MA that set me up for the PhD.

During the MA, I had started to develop surfacing techniques for knitted fabrics. It was a drop-stitch technique that I was coating with a combination of print pastes. By dropping the stitches whilst the print pastes were still wet I was able to make intriguing double layer fabrics. Due to the heavy application of print paste I wasn’t able to join these fabrics together using established methods, such as linking and sewing. The Head of Programme at the time, Clare Johnston introduced me to TWI, also known as The Welding Institute. Their expertise is in joining materials such as metals and plastics, and more recently fabrics. An RCA alumna had been employed by them and she came in to speak at the College, so that was another way that their work was introduced to me.

After the completion of my MA, conversations with TWI continued and there was the potential to collaborate further. They had a PhD opportunity that they’d already been awarded funding for, originally in partnership with Brunel University. As it happened, my supervisor transferred from Brunel to the RCA in 2014, and that’s how I came to complete the PhD here.

For the first two years of the PhD, I was based at the TWI offices in Cambridge. All the other researchers were from engineering or scientific backgrounds. Working to a brief that had been written by TWI, an increasingly technical approach had to be developed.

I needed to record and disseminate my research, to make it accessible and repeatable for others. Design, for me, had always been an intuitive, sometimes haphazard and opportunistic process. Now I needed to develop ways to record that process in a way that was comprehensible to other people. It became a much more systematic, and sometimes technical process. In that sense, there has been a lot of unpicking of the design process.

When I first started the MA, I never expected to find myself working in scientific and engineering fields. It really came about through an interest in unusual material combinations and pushing boundaries. I never knew where that was going to take me. I was always interested in materials and processes over the final product and I suppose that is what’s led me down this path. It has been such a surprising and interesting journey

Completing the PhD at the RCA was extremely fortunate for me, because practice-led methods of research had come to be fundamental to my way of working and weren’t always accepted in other contexts. Coming back to the RCA felt like a huge relief and had a significant impact on the way the thesis was written.

Unlike during the MA, when a consideration for the final application of my textiles didn’t really come the fore, I’ve been able to think about that much more through the PhD. I’ve been introduced to the sportswear industry, and Speedo worked with me as an industry collaborator on the PhD. They provided feedback on material samples and suggested potential ideas for functional applications relating to their product. It’s been so exciting for me to find a niche where my exploratory material samples can be used for both an aesthetic and functional advantage.

I’m now working on a consultancy project with Speedo, following on from the PhD. It’s great to be continuing on those lines of thinking, and sportswear feels like a really good place for me.

"Completing the PhD at the RCA was extremely fortunate for me, because practice-led methods of research had come to be fundamental to my way of working and weren’t always accepted in other contexts. "
Helen Paine
Helen Paine