#ckcontributors | How I work – Suzanne Oude Hengel

In this post, I will explain my approach to design and how my process impacts my work, as often I think the process is more important than the end result.

My working style is not linear or even circular as I’m often working on various things at one stage.

Image from @writerspost

The starting point for me is both the product concept, the material / yarn choice and the technique (as in the stitches / bindings) as they all impact each other. After researching or finding out the needs of the project and sourcing yarns, I start ‘sketching’ ideas, which is done directly on the machine. 

There are a few design principles that I integrate in every one of my designs:

  • Create an all in ONE UPPER: That it is a one-piece upper (the material comes off the machine with minimal need for processing). 
  • A focus on FUNCTIONALITY : There has to be functionality directly integrated into the fabric such as support, comfort or ventilation.
  • Not using glue when bonding the upper to the sole. 

Having my own set of design principles is often helpful at the beginning of a project, especially if the brief is broad, as it ensures I keep my aesthetic, meet the design criteria, innovate with originality and maintain my integrity.  

I produce endless samples to investigate all options and rarely throw anything away, as very often the best ideas come from mistakes. By working on and closely to the machine I am able to adjust my designs as I go, allowing for an adaptive and flexible working style. 

Having an understanding of how the machines work also helps to inform my design process. I think it is important to know what is and isn’t possible because that allows me to strive for the impossible.

Photography by Masha Bakker Photography

I aim to bridge the gap between technician and designer within my practice. 

This is why my week is divided between my studio and working as a technician at the Textielmuseum | Textiellab in Tilburg, where I have access to industrial knitting machines, allowing me to further develop my technical knowledge and programming skills.

Photography by Dana Dijkgraaf wearing Helen’s T-shirt

After creating my first set of samples, I analyse what does and doesn’t work, and how these findings affect the initial concept. Sometimes this means the direction of the project changes completely. My method of analysis starts with playing with the samples on a last or directly on the foot. Aesthetics and functionalities are both equally important within my work –  for me there is no point creating something if it looks ugly

I give high value to colour within my work and continuously play with different combinations and gradients as colour can often add extra depth; highlight key areas of interest and/ or functionality. I enjoy being intuitive and spontaneous when approaching colour use and this also takes experimentation to perfect. 

Photography by Ella Reynolds

The questions I always ask myself whilst designing are :

  • Can footwear be processed/ produced in a simpler way? / Can I make the process less complex ? 
  • How can I make my design more sustainable ?
  • Is there a smarter way to do this ?
  • Can I push the machine further ?
  • What would the outcome be on a different machine ? 
  • What am I communicating with this ?
  • Can I make the production process more transparent ?
  • Is it answering to all needs of the foot ? 
Photography by Dana Dijkgraaf

Once I work out the next steps I continue developing – zooming into the details and fine tuning as far as the budget goes, the time booked on the machine and the deadline, allows me to.

Due to the fast paced nature of the industry, fine tuning an idea until I am truly happy with the results isn’t always realistic. 

In the final stage of designing, I look critically at my own design process. I ask myself if I applied my own design principles in a good way, and what I could do to make the design better next time. 

Photography by Dana Dijkgraaf

Everyone has their own creative process that works for them and I think it is important to understand how you work, so you can make the most of it.

Knowing your own process will also allow you to foresee recurring struggles / obstacles that emerge along the way.

Develop your vision, your own way of doing things rather than following what you think is right or best!

Suzanne Oude Hengel

Creative entrepreneur, Knit researcher, Footwear innovator and Technician @textielmuseum

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