Design can make things last for longer: Young V&A Collective

Museum of Childhood
May 25, 2022

In January, Senior Creative Producer Helena Rice wrote about Young V&A’s first project with the Young Collective at Spotlight. One lesson learned from this was that it was hard for our 11 – 14 year old target age group to engage with a weekly after-school programme, thanks to a combination of dark nights, pandemic and the pressures of schoolwork. This time we compressed the project into four days over spring half term.

We worked with mixed media artist Scott Ramsay Kyle, whose portfolio includes work with Marc Jacobs and Attitude magazine. As well as a visit to the V&A, his plan for the week included making and mending, recycling fashion and collaborating with nature.

Fifteen young people aged 11 – 22 joined the trip to the V&A and, for most of them, this was their first visit to the museum. The youngest were still in primary school, and the oldest were part of the cohort of young people with additional needs who use Spotlight’s services. I was keen for the project to reflect the inclusivity we are building into our wider learning programmes.

Drawing in the Fashion Gallery (image by Mishko Papic for the V&A)

The visit made a tangible link to the museum’s collection, which is vital while Young V&A is still under construction. Assistant curators Katy Canales and Trish Roberts showed the group the museum store, where objects are being conserved in preparation for display in the new galleries. They were able to see collection items from the ‘design can make things last for longer’ context case: 1950s patchwork party dresses, 1960s disposable paper dresses, and children’s clothes made from Spitalfields silk offcuts. This behind-the-scenes experience added a ‘VIP’ element to the day, especially as the museum was closed to the public on Tuesdays.

Assistant curator Katy Canales showing examples of historic children’s clothing (image by Mishko Papic for V&A)

We explored the Fashion gallery to sketch details and clothing that caught our eye, and to try some mark making activities led by Scott. We provided sketchbooks and pencils, which along with embroidery hoops, needles, threads and ‘how to’ leaflets on natural dyeing became a portfolio for the week. The J.W. Anderson cardigan, as worn by singer Harry Styles, was a popular choice. Some of the group made connections with prior knowledge: muslin fabrics imported from Bangladesh with school history lessons on the East India Company, for example.

Perhaps more unexpected was an 18th century waistcoat that fascinated Daniel, an 11-year-old who declared that he was not creative and didn’t like fashion. He joined the trip, but insisted he wasn’t coming for the rest of the project. In the end, he came every day and – by Friday – he had recreated the waistcoat by hacking a t-shirt with the hardware from a charity shop skirt. He refined his initial sketch, experimented with fastenings, and became confident with a sewing machine. For us, it was an opportunity to see a young person developing creative confidence: from an ‘I’m not/I can’t’ to collaborative problem-solving and actively seeking new opportunities.  

Hacking clothes to recreate a V&A exhibit (image Kirsty Sullivan)

The trip was a success, with a number of the young people inspired to come back and see more of the museum. They were a little disappointed to discover there wouldn’t be curators on hand all the time to answer questions!

For day two, the young people met natural dyer Hanna Whiteman and textile artist Memunatu Barrie in the ‘collaborating with nature’ sessions. Using linen gleaned from her neighbourhood recycling scheme, Hanna introduced plant dyes and natural fixatives, which have a lower environmental impact than chemical dyes. Through a walk in Langdon Park and a host of flowers from reduced-price Valentine’s Day bouquets, Memunatu explored texture and colour from the environment. The opportunity for young people to engage with practising designers and makers is a key part of encouraging them to think about creative careers. Both Hanna and Memunatu brought examples of work and their sketchbooks for the young people to explore and were happy to answer questions about their process.

Basic sewing skills followed on Thursday, using deadstock materials which would otherwise have gone to landfill. Scott introduced layering techniques such as applique with Bondaweb and needle-felting. A high ratio of adults with a range of different skills (1:2) meant that the young people were supported to try out new techniques. The adults worked alongside the young people, which sparked conversations about our roles at the museum and about their own experiences with making. There was no defined outcome for the session, so the young people had the opportunity to experiment. People came and went throughout the day, creating a lively buzz in the studio and keeping us busy! Again, it was a very inclusive session, with a range of additional needs present: the open-door policy we ran through the week allowed the young people to feel confident enough to engage on their own terms.

Reon’s logo, created with deadstock fabric, Bondaweb, and newly acquired sewing skills (image: Kirsty Sullivan)

Despite Storm Eunice raging around us the final day attracted 15 young people – a mix of repeat and new engagements. Scott had created a range of blanks to design with, including hoodies and accessories, but many of the young people chose to design directly on to charity shop or donated garments. Some draped onto mannequins, and others wanted to continue to build their designs from the previous day. The atmosphere was chaotic, productive, and joyful.

Our week at Spotlight in one word! (image: Kirsty Sullivan)

We had a lot of discussions over the week about what sustainability meant to the young people and about the activities that had engaged them most: the natural dyeing, the idea of making something from other fabrics, and recycling. There was little interest in remaking clothes into other garments, preferring to embellish items, but there had been a lot of interest in the J.W. Anderson cardigan and in images from fashion designer Ashish’s crochet collection. These resonated as they reminded the group of blankets and clothes from their own lives. We decided to combine the things they had engaged with – the dyes and the blanket – into something that they could embellish when arrived back for the final day. It reinforced the idea that textiles and fashion are not just about clothing but about the things you surround yourself with.

We were excited that the young people had engaged not only with the Young V&A team but with the activities, and that they were keen to build on their new skills. The week allowed us to encounter more young voices, to hear about the strong opinions they hold and how they see themselves. Watching these young people being inspired by and supporting each other was a very positive experience for all the adults involved.

The project provided an insight into how the Open Studio in the Young V&A Design gallery might work: a space which is radically different to others in the museum, where our young visitors can explore what’s interested them in the gallery. I would like to see drop-in skills sharing sessions: inclusive, welcoming and collaborative.

About the author

Museum of Childhood
May 25, 2022

A long-time lover of Young V&A (and formerly the V&A Museum of Childhood), I joined the team in August 2017 from the Museum of London Docklands. I have an MA...

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