A striking original who weaves style and flair into her stunning knitwear

Joan Murray pictured in her studio at Skipton
Joan Murray pictured in her studio at Skipton
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Continuing our series on the rooms where creative people find inspiration, Sheena Hastings peeks into the colourful world of knitwear designer Joan Murray.

Joan Murray must cut quite dash as she strides about Skipton. Small, and with a slender, wiry frame, there can’t be anyone else in the town or a very wide radius around it who has her special kind of style.

She waits at the gate to greet me. Her fine, pearl grey, almost waist-length hair is bound into a ribbon-bound pigtail that hangs over one shoulder. The small face has the set of someone who both smiles and thinks a lot.

The outfit she wears today is arrestingly simple yet dramatic: charcoal harem-style pants teamed with toning layers of loose, fine wool up top whose hems hang in corners at different angles to each other. The effect is ever so slightly monkish, nods to some influence from the Japanese Issey Miyake – one of the designers she most admires – and chic, in a sober and ascetic way. It’s a look that’s above and beyond whatever is going on any catwalk.

She later shows me a selection of hats, including berets and fedoras,that she dresses with several striking feathers – never just one. On sight, I can’t help wondering what comment she arouses as she queues for a few bits and bobs at M&S.

“There are people who say they look forward to seeing what I’ll be wearing next time they bump into me,” she says cheerfully, in her soft Northern Irish accent. “Even if I’m just running out for a few groceries, I enjoy dressing properly.” In this she may be cut from the same cloth as her mother who, she says later “…had some lovely dresses, even though she didn’t really have many places to go.”

To Joan clothing represent both art and practicality. “It is an artistic and a lifestyle statement. It expresses character, desires, who you are…but everyday clothes also need to be versatile, I believe.”

Her speech is quiet and considered, and she likes to quote Vivienne Westwood, who said we should buy fewer clothes but much better quality. Joan’s designs are bought by local students who save up their money from part-time jobs and European princesses as well as different sorts of women in between.

They’re united by a love of wearable knitwear with a splash or two of drama they won’t find in crew necks and raglan sleeves. The ideas about shape and form are there both in the shapes and the fabrics that she crafts by hand, and no two garments are the same.

Passing a bicycle suspended on a pulley from the ceiling in the hallway, we grab a coffee and head upstairs, where the morning sun streams onto a panoply of yarns and a rainbow selection of garments that hang, appropriately, from the picture rail. They are an exhibition of Joan’s work – conceived and created in this room in a little street in the heart of the town.

She and her artist husband Chris, who also works for Royal Mail, have studios side by side. He paints while she works away at her sketches or on a knitting machine – there are four in this small room.The space beneath a disused loft bed is a walk-in wardrobe containing Joan’s collection of vintage clothing in vibrant fabrics that she blends in with her own designs sometimes, as well as embellished wool felt bags she has made and the beautiful shoes that complement it all.

High shelves house the cones of cashmere, silk and wool yarns bought in from Johnstons of Elgin or spun in Yorkshire. A wooden bedhead fashioned into a foldaway table holds the sewing machine.

The room has blue-painted internal shutters, and propped up in one corner is a large “book of memories” – colourful reminders of places, fabrics, museums, objects and ideas from her travels around the world that might stimulate creativity. Included are stunning pictures from Turkmenistan, which she visited as part of a cultural exchange some years ago and learned traditional hand embroidery techniques.

She says inspiration is everywhere, and when her daughter Emily Ann (a lingerie designer) once rang up saying she was struggling for ideas, Joan advised her to sweep the floor then study the motes of dust dancing in rays of sunlight.

In recent years Joan has been exploring geometry in her work. A gossamer light dress in fine silk or cashmere knit will follow the curves of the body and swish out into a fish tail, but the contrasting colours and sharp triangles worked into its fabric add a depth and movement to the garment even when the wearer is standing still.

A fan of fabric might ripple out behind as she walks. A tunic might have an in-built cowl that also serves as a hood. A poncho is also a tabard with one sleeve. The one item can look very different from one angle to another. The juxtaposition of softness and angularity is everywhere.

Some of the colour combinations are startling – as though she has played about with the cones of yarn in search of the unexpected.

“Yes I do that,” she says. “People don’t come to me with a commission because they’re after the predictable and ordinary.”

She says she’s not interested in what the fashion industry is forecasting for next year but freshness of ideas that will endure in a woman’s wardrobe. It almost beggars belief that this same woman spent eight years of her younger life working in a bank.

Joan, who has been a lecturer at Craven College for more than 20 years, as well as running her knitwear design business, grew up mostly in the seaside town of Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Her dad was a bank manager, and when she was 14 the family moved to Lurgan. Always good at drawing and painting at school, she nonetheless left at 16 to learn the banking business. “My parents could see I was quite gregarious and thought it would suit me.”

At a night class in ceramics her work caught the teacher’s eye, and she began to move in circles where people encouraged her to study art. Although her father didn’t really get it and never entered a gallery, she says her parents didn’t try to stop her when she proposed going to university to study woven textiles.

That was followed by postgraduate research at Winchester School of Art, then the Royal College of Art. She’d learned to weave and had begun knitting and selling garments though fairs.

By 1991 Joan had met and married Chris and they had a daughter and son. They moved to Skipton. “The children didn’t resist being dressed in quite original clothing,” she says, with a laugh.

After a year off with the children, she bought a knitting machine. “It’s complicated to learn and set up, but then the machine is like an extension of your body and I was fascinated to know where it would take me.” She was in Yorkshire but attracted attention back in London.

The V&A has a Joan Murray fabric in its collection, the Whitworth in Manchester has half a dozen of her designs and Hove Museum in East Sussex has one of her jackets.

She’d turned down a job with Zandra Rhodes years before, but was now selling fabric designs to Issey Miyake and textile designs for upholstery fabric to Terence Conran.

Much as she loves keeping one foot in London and visits regularly – partly so she can plunder her contacts book to bring speakers like the head of casting at Prada to meet her students – Joan says the young people she teaches are “a complete joy, and I love their energy. It inspires me to go further and do better in my design work.”

One of the highlights of her course is teaching 17- and 18-year-olds to knit. “There is complete silence, as though someone has cast a magic spell.”

Around half of her students go into the fashion industry and others into jobs such as event management. “The important thing is that they’ve learned to express themselves.”

It does sound like a special course, embracing the narrative of clothing and textiles, including the development of the sleeve, design in the Elizabethan times and the constraints of the Victorian era.

Joan’s suggested she should make dresses from off-cuts of lingerie silk to complement her knitwear. The results, some of them seen here, are appealingly floaty, long slip dresses of block colour, like fluttering Mondrians.

“I suppose I’d describe what I do as sculptural, and when someone comes to me with a commission, they bring their personality and they also become part of the sculpture I create. Their body becomes part of it and makes it something even more unique.”

With the passing of child rearing years, she says she has felt an increasing surge of energy, and discovered enjoyment in marrying up her work with that of other artists. Recently she collaborated with dancer/model Patricia Stienstra and Yorkshire-based photographer/video artist Steffen Goeschel to elaborate, on video, how free-form movement and sculptural knitwear can work beautifully together.

The result is spectacular and, says Joan, seeing how her clothes “live and breathe as the dance develops” brought an avalanche of new ideas to take back to the small room with the blue shutters.

Joan’s career: Stitches in time

Joan Murray was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland in 1954 and initially worked in a bank before leaving for art college.

Collections of her work are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Manchester’s Whitworth Museum and Hove Museum & Art Gallery.

For more than 20 years Joan Murray has also been a lecturer at Craven College in Skipton. She is married to artist Chris Murray, and they have two adult children – Emily Ann, a lingerie designer, and George, a dry stone waller

To see Joan Murray’s designs go to www.joanmurrayknitware.co.uk and to view Steffen Goeschel’s short film of her work see https://vimeo.com/71999766