V&A Dundee

Festive Design Market: Helen Ruth Scarves

On the run up to our Festive Design Market, we talk to some of the exhibitors about their work, their inspirations and process. Hear from Helen Greensmith as she explores the narrative and aesthetic behind her bold contemporary designs.

I start all my designs with sketching. Sometimes an idea for a scarf will come in to my head as a fully formed image, so I’ll sketch that down, and then begin working out the details. All the imagery is drawn out with pen and paper, and then I use digital processes to almost ‘collage’ the motifs together to create the compositions. I like the aesthetic this creates - where creatures or plants are out of proportion with other elements in the design and adding to the dream like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel.

A photo of a woman sitting in a studio.
Helen Greensmith

Colour plays a big part in the process too, and I can spend days or weeks tweaking the colour balance to create something that feels fresh and unusual but at the same time harmonious and flattering to wear. Once I’m completely happy with a design I’ll send the file to be printed in Glasgow at the Centre for Advanced Textiles, who have wonderful capacity to print vivid colour onto luxurious wools and silks. To be able to say that my scarves are designed and printed in Scotland was something I always wanted to achieve.

My Grandad was a great story teller, we used to call his made up stories ‘Stories from the mouth’. I love the tradition of folk tales and songs that are passed on through spoken word, how they might change or be embellished by whoever is doing the telling. Grandad’s stories were often inspired by local landmarks where we grew up in rural Aberdeenshire such as the Maiden Stone at Bennachie - and as this is also a source of inspiration for me, it felt right to create a scarf from one of his stories - the Theory of Flight. Some of my designs are inspired by traditional tales, and others from personal memories or experiences I wanted to capture the feeling of - such as the Hooligan’s Ball inspired by wild nights of ceilidh dancing in village halls.

A photo of a studio filled with scarves and equipment.
A woman hand painting a design onto a silk scarf.
  • In the studio

  • In the studio

There is an overarching theme that comes from the natural world, the wild Scottish landscape and creatures in particular. I always wanted to create a brand that was unmistakably Scottish but with a contemporary feel, so I always like to incorporate elements of Scottish imagery or symbolism. Some collections have a strong theme, for example the ‘Lore of the Land’ collection which was very much inspired by Scottish mythology and folk tales. Other collections are looser and draw ideas from my own experiences. Whatever the theme, I always enjoy spiking my colourful and whimsical designs with some slight sinister undertone or element. This is often a theme in traditional Scottish stories, and I’ve always been drawn to those tales that have a dark or melancholy twist - so you’ll maybe find a sneaky skull or spider lurking somewhere in the foliage of the design!

An illustrated scarf
An illustrated scarf

2021 was a big year as I celebrated ten years of my brand. I launched a limited edition scarf collection which was a great success, as well as some other new additions to my range, and some wonderful collaborative projects. So a lot to reflect on for 2022 and draw ideas from. I’m pretty terrible at making plans and sticking to them. But I do have some ideas floating around in my head - I’m very keen to bring out a new collection that draws on what I’ve worked on this year, potentially with some textile art pieces or wall hangings that are a bit more experimental or one-off.

I recently launched a collaborative collection with a fellow Aberdeen designer/maker - Hackley - who creates handmade bags. It’s a project that’s been in the making for almost a year so we are very excited to have the designs out there now and really proud of the finished collection. It’s been an absolute joy working with a fellow creative, and with someone who has a skill set completely different to my own. I feel like we learned a lot from each other’s practice as well as how we work and plan. It’s been a great opportunity to experiment with different fabrics and uses for my prints, and I’m sure this won’t be the only collection we create together!

You can find Helen at our Festive Design Market on Saturday so pop by and say hi.

Festive Design Market is in collaboration with Tea Green Events.