We met with Bristol-based knitwear designer, Amber Hards, to find out more about her journey from a Fashion & Design student to running her own fashion label.
Inspired by the patterns and textures found in nature, Amber experiments with contrasting yarns and techniques that produce beautiful and tactile garments imbued with texture, volume & movement.
For those who do not know you, who is Amber Hards?
I'm a knitwear designer based in Bristol with a passion for pushing knitwear & people's perception of knitwear forward. I studied fashion & textile design at UWE and loved Bristol so much that I ended up staying ‒ I've been here for 11 years now. I'm surrounded by wonderful creative friends in so many fields - they constantly push and inspire me to keep going. I take joy, delight and inspiration from so many things ‒ nature really inspires me. I'm attracted to unusual beautiful things, I love browsing antique shops and collect vintage and antique jewellery.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I'm not sure how vivid this memory is but it has always stayed with me and I cherish it. I remember going to visit my Great Aunty Kay who we were very close to and every time we got there me and my sister would immediately ask her to show us her cupboard of curiosities. This little cupboard was filled to the brim with little mementos from her travels over the years. She would take each little figurine out of the cupboard and tell us the story of each one and I just remember being so engrossed and mesmerised by them. Her whole house was filled with lovely things that hold wonderful memories. When she died when I was around 7, I was completely devastated and miss her so much still.
Have you always wanted to be a fashion designer?
When I was a child I wanted to be a chef, a swimmer, a hairdresser, a police woman and probably a dozen more jobs. I remember being on holiday and drawing clothes when I was little, but it wasn't until my GCSEs and A Levels when I had the most incredible teacher who gave me the confidence and inspired me to believe in myself and follow my dream. Studying textiles with her was just so much fun, I had so much passion for the work I was producing, trying everything I could think of. And I think that's my strength now ‒ I love to experiment and sample away.
Where does your fascination with yarn come from?
I love producing something from nothing. I had never seen a knitting machine before I started Uni, but after one workshop I was just hooked. There's just so much scope for creativity and so many yarns to choose from. I'm a real fan of contrast, whether it be colour, texture, stretch, movement, there are just endless possibilities. And to see something you made from a cone of wool on somebody is just such a wonderful feeling.
How would you describe your brand and where do you think it fits within the fashion industry?
My label is growing slowly ‒ this is the first time since graduating that I have been able to focus entirely on it. I've learnt on the way to mix up my designs ‒ show pieces for catwalk shows & editorial shoots & more commercial pieces to keep the label going. I make everything myself & I think right the now the fashion industry is changing- people want to know the people behind the clothes, & want to support them. I hope to be running the label on a made to order business so that I'm able to keep the production in house, but it's a very difficult industry to be in. There's a lot of competition & it's hard to get heard so the best thing to do is stay true to what makes you different, ignore the trends & create something you are proud of.
What are the aesthetic principles behind your designs?
I love texture. I spend a lot of time playing with yarns & techniques, it's what excites me the most about knitting. I work a lot in monochrome but am starting to branch out with colour. They put a lot of pressure on colour at Uni & I didn't like it so I designed my graduate collection in all white, and that has stuck with me. White also shows the stitches & textures really well but I'm ready to start adding in some colour now.
What about the ethical ones?
I always want to have a hand in the creating of my clothes & if my label grows, then I want to be able to support other makers with a decent wage. Nothing gets wasted, ends of cones of yarn go on sampling & I recycle the cones they come on.
Where do you source your materials from and what are the criteria behind your choices?
I source my yarn from two companies based in Leicester that have been running for a long time & where possible source wools from the UK. I look for quality mostly ‒ and then it comes down to what my research indicates. Do I need light feathery yarns, or dense, or stretchy or soft.
What does turning a piece of fabric into a garment mean to you and what is the most rewarding step in the process?
I am a part of every step of making a garment. From sampling and designing to making the finished piece. I love starting with a cone of yarn that I then knit into a fabric which in turn gets made into a piece of clothing. It's often a painstaking process ‒ machine knitting is not as fast as most people think ‒ the machine only works with me operating it. I tend to use time consuming techniques for some pieces & have had more than one occasion crying at the machine, but when it works & you've knitted something that nobody has seen before it is just amazing. And all from a cone of yarn.
Volume and movement seem to be key elements in your approach to design ‒ why are they important to you?
I think the movement comes down to watching catwalk shows online & seeing how these incredible gowns moved; think Galliano at Dior or Alexander McQueen. It's just so beautiful! Volume usually comes down to the research, the collection I am working on at the moment is more paired back and drapey, but I do love making big floaty impressive pieces too.
What are some of the challenges of running a creative business and what is the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned along the way?
Motivation & confidence are the biggest challenges. It's often a very solitary job, and some days things just don't work creatively. It's hard to keep yourself going, never mind pulling creative genius ideas out of nowhere. It's so important to have a good support network around you- I get so much encouragement from my friends & fiancé that I'm on the right track. And also making money ‒ it's very challenging. To make enough to pay yourself & keep yourself afloat is hugely difficult, especially in this financial climate. I've learnt to give myself a break; if I'm having a bad day I stop what I'm doing & try something else. I try not to beat myself up & do something that will make me happy & get me into my groove again. I'm not very good at working from a place of angst!
How did you find out about Bristol Textile Quarter and what does this community mean to you and to your business?
I heard about them when they set up through a stylist that I know & an open evening that they had but it's only recently that I've had some real contact with them. I just taught a machine knitting for beginners workshop & will be teaching more in 2018. I think it's a fabulous place & really hope to get to know them a lot more in the future. It's invaluable to know people in a similar situation to you, even to get a well done, I love that!
What would be the dream collaboration for you?
Hmmmm that's so tricky, there are so many designers, makers, illustrators, stylists, photographers that I admire. I have a few in the pipeline so that's already wonderful. It would be amazing to work with Tim Walker or Katie Grand, Bjork, Florence & the machine… I could go on!!
Who or what inspires you?
So many things inspire me, but mostly in my work it revolves around the patterns & textures in nature. The collection I'm working at the moment is looking at artist Agnes Martin & ancient roman/greek attire. I get inspired by designers too & the work that they produce ‒ it pushes me forward with my own work. Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Faustine Steinmetz, Mark Fast, Craig Lawrence, Louise Goldin… I could go on!
What was the best advice you have ever received?
It wasn't exactly received but read. In Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, she talks about always finding space & time for being creative, and to keep working because you never know when an idea will pop into your brain and change everything. I keep the book on my bench in my studio to give me a boost when needed. It's an amazing book with some really interesting ideas in it.
What keeps you driven?
I've always found that my need to create is exactly that, a need. I've never seen it as a hobby, more like a compulsion. There's only been a couple of years when I wasn't creating since Uni, when I've been working in jobs that weren't right for me and I just didn't feel right. I need to do it to keep me balanced and happy (even though it can be hugely frustrating at times).
Where is one most likely to find you when you are not delivering workshops or working in your studio?
I like to hang out at the Old Market Assembly. I sometimes take my sketchbooks down there when I need a change of scenery. My friends run the Wardrobe Theatre which is at the back of the bar, so there's usually someone I know hanging around. It feels like another home!
What does a typical day look like for you?
I like to start the day with some yoga, it feels good and makes me feel more centred. Then I'll either get straight on the machine & start knitting samples, or I'll be making garments or drawing. Every day is different, I try to feel what I'll be most productive at & work around that. There's usually some time for some dancing if I need a break too! Leading up to a show or a market, I'll be frantically making things, sometimes not even getting dressed! That's one of the perks of having a home studio I suppose.
What would we find in your wardrobe? How would you describe your personal style?
My wardrobe is pretty simple. I don't wear much colour & am trying to update it all to be a bit more classic & grown up! I like to dress simply and use my jewellery to change things up.
What is your favourite dish?
That's easy ‒ roast dinner. I absolutely love everything about roast dinners, I like making them, I like having friends over to eat them. They are just perfect!
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
The Old Market Assembly, the Greenbank makes great pizza, Chomp is great too, St George’s Park is lovely & I love a good walk around the harbourside. Ooh, Cox & Baloney too ‒ I went there for the first time recently & it was amazing, cocktail in a teapot… perfect!!
Are you working on any special new designs or projects at the moment?
I'm currently designing a new collection that I hope to be finished in late Autumn. It's been really exciting to start making clothes & designing them properly again. Hopefully all will go smoothly & I'll have them up online and ready to order by the new year!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
Mostly I want to be satisfied creatively, I want to be working on this label & turning it into a success & for more people to own some Amber Hards knitwear! To be able to do this & live without worry would be the most wonderful thing.
Can you recommend us:
A song: Harry Belafonte, Jump in the line. Probably my favourite happy song ever to dance to! A can’t help but make you smile song that picks me up when I need it!
A film: Funny Face. One of the most beautiful films with designs by Hubert De Givenchy... I first saw clips of it at a couture exhibition at the V&A. It’s a real visual treat!
A book: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. A really inspiring book with some interesting ideas about what it’s like to be an artist, creativity & how big ideas & inspiration come to you.
Thank you, Amber for the insight into your creative and personal realm.