Based in what she calls a “creekside paradise” on the Gold Coast, Ellie Whittaker has quickly made a name for herself and the bold, joyful fabric designs she brings into the world. But, as we learned when we sat down recently to learn more about her and her creative practice, don’t call her a sewist.
Tell us about yourself!
I’m a mum of four tweens, raising them along a bubbling creek in the Gold Coast hinterland with my left-brained husband. Drawing has always been my happy place but I’ve had past lives in theatre and film so now I combine all of my loves in this age of social media. I create wild fabrics, make a fool of myself on the internet and dance with my community of fellow colour-loving souls! Basically, I’m just out here having fun with the stuff I love and trying to make people smile.
What was your journey into fabric design?
I grew up around fabric but realised very quickly that sewing wasn’t my forte. My mum owned a country fabric store and her mother was an amazing quilter, but I never considered myself ‘crafty’ because I couldn’t sew. I would say I considered myself ‘arty’ and even chucked a couple of art degrees under my belt but it wasn’t until I had my kids that I decided to set about making little ‘arty things’ for my kids.
I create wild fabrics, make a fool of myself on the internet and dance with my community of fellow colour-loving souls! Basically, I’m just out here having fun with the stuff I love and trying to make people smile.
I was pretty resistant to sewing, not because I couldn’t hold my own, but because I didn’t need to do it. My grandmother, mother and sister had that skill covered! But when I discovered print-on-demand fabric sites that meant I could put my own drawings onto fabric?! Well… I was hooked and immediately taught myself the skill. I’ll never forget the thrill of holding my first fabric samples. I still have such a heartfelt love and appreciation for sewists and consider it the ‘greater’ of the skills. But this is my way of being part of this precious craft! I’ll forever consider myself the little girl tagging along to the fabric store with her drawings.
Where do you find inspiration for fabric designs?
I am a very lucky lady living in a very beautiful country and this just spews out into my designs. I have a lot of joy I want to share; a lot of fond memories of growing up in different areas of Australia from the bush to the beach to the rainforest. I’m really privileged to have travelled a lot as an adult, as well as having lived in the US and Europe, and I think that really helps in seeing our country with fresh eyes. I really appreciate living here. I also don’t take life very seriously, so anything that makes me smile or giggle I want to share. I try to share joy, not just motifs.
How does the process go from the initial idea to the finished fabric?
It varies. Usually, I think of something I want to share that I think other people would find lovely or funny. Sometimes a motif, like a magpie swooping, will percolate for years until it hits a serendipitous moment… a trend and motif will converge in my mind and I’ll think, “Yes! That’s how I’ll do it! I’ll do a city made of checkers with really subtle little Maggies chasing riders!” I use trends as the vehicle for motifs I want to share. That way those who buy my fabric get something they actually want to wear but get the joy of a little shared joke. I’d like to think that helps make my fabrics sentimental to their owners, too, so they stay in their wardrobe as a favourite.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day is different and since I have a tendency to hyper-fixate, I try and block out whole days, rather than hours, for drawing. Initially, my designs start out as fun sketches while watching movies with the kids, staring out the window and lazing on a couch. But once I get started on a fabric repeat, there’s a lot of back-and-forth with my iPad and iMac, so I’m somewhat glued to my study. While I dive deep into pushing pixels, I listen to Audio Books or ‘watch’ (listen to) shows. It really doesn’t feel like working.
I’d like to think that helps make my fabrics sentimental to their owners, too, so they stay in their wardrobe as a favourite.
When I emerge victorious, holding aloft a new design, I quickly realise it’s getting dark and the kids need dinner. I really get lost when I draw and it’s the best feeling. But this is probably one day out of five. As well as designing, we license my existing designs and have our own organic and sustainable fabric store, so four out of five days are probably spent on the ‘business’ side of things: accounting, marketing, sourcing fabrics, planning ranges.
Do you have a favourite substrate to work with?
This is a tough question! They all have their strengths. I call my designs ‘digital painterly’ because they are quite vectorised but I try to give the effect of them having been hand-painted. For this reason, I really enjoy working with organic linen or organic linen blends. The loose weave helps to soften the ‘digital’ feeling of my prints. But some prints should feel more digital and look fabulous on a recycled swim, for example. So it depends on the print!
How does designing for fabrics differ from other kinds of art and design work?
I’m not sure if I got this from basically inhaling fabrics growing up, but there’s something innately satisfying to me about a good fabric repeat. It’s a real challenge. You have to make sure no elements stand out on their own (unless that’s your goal), that there’s lovely colour harmony, and that the pattern flows like a painting you want the viewer’s eye to go from left to right, on repeat. If you ask me to create a one-page flyer, I’m a mess. I just feel at home with a repeat – they dance and sway.
What considerations have to be made for designs that will be used on fabric?
Like I said, I can sew but I don’t consider myself a ‘sewist’, because I really have such a high regard for the term! But I think it really helps to have an understanding of sewing and sewists. Knowing how the design will be cut up; which motifs will be in that sweet spot about a foot from the selvedge; knowing the right scale to fit both kids’ and adults’ wear (if that’s the intention); understanding how to stagger a motif so a dress doesn’t end up with two identical, giant motifs above each another; creating coordinates that dance together instead of competing; keeping abreast of what’s happening in the sewing community and the fabrics they’re looking for, the garments they’re loving… all of this and more helps to inform my fabric designs.
But in this day and age, the biggest challenge is trying to make on-trend yet timeless fabrics. I want people to love their garments forever. So while they’re sometimes trend ‘aware’, I want people to hold on to them forever, because they have a deeper meaning for them. I want people to be sentimental about my designs!
What do you find rewarding about fabric design in particular?
Fabric design is a gift you give other people. I may create the design, but the sewists breathe life into it. It’s the greatest honour to me when someone chooses my fabric because they’re saying, “I see what you did there and I want other people to see this!” And then they make it their own. The most rewarding thing is seeing photos of peoples’ creations because it’s like the joy has come full circle back to me. I say I’m trying to spread joy with my fabrics and I really mean it.
What is the most challenging part of the design process?
The dark pit of despair when you’re halfway through an artwork and realise your skills aren’t on par with your vision! This is probably true for all creative – being alone in your head, unable to explain what you’re trying to do or why it’s not working. I get so mentally agitated when I have a creative problem, I really feel for everyone around me… luckily they’re all there for the after-party!
Fabric design is a gift you give other people. I may create the design, but the sewists breathe life into it.
How does it feel to see people wearing things they’ve made with your fabric?
I’m so incredibly honoured. It brings me indescribable joy and gratitude. I always say it never gets old, and it really doesn’t. From seeing my own newborn babes in their little nappy covers to my (now tweenage) kids spotting strangers at the beach in my designs, my heart just jumps and I think, “My gosh, I’m so blessed to do this.”