London-based Helen Snell’s company 20th Century Cloth designs unusual 1950s-inspired fabrics, available to buy on its own or as a range of homewares. Sara Walker finds out how it all started.
“My background has always been in textile design, it’s all I’ve ever really done career-wise,” says Helen. “When I left Winchester School of Art with a degree in printed textiles, I went straight into the textile industry. At first, I created my designs on paper and sold them on through agents, and those designs had the potential to end up anywhere in the world. I sold a lot of designs to the USA – I used to know who bought what but I rarely got to see the end results, which was frustrating! In the end I couldn’t cope with the sporadic income so took a job working for a company who supplied M&S. When I had children I left the retail industry and took a break before setting up my own business in 2012.
“I’ve always loved crafting and sewing and I love the 1950s, as well. I couldn’t really find any fabric I liked from that era so decided to design it myself. I was determined that everything would be made in the UK, as during my stint in retail I’d seen manufacturing gradually move abroad until very little was made here. British-made does work out more expensive but it’s an important factor to me.
“I still had contacts from my time working in retail, so when it came to setting up on my own I already knew some suppliers as a starting point. As I expanded the product range, finding the right people became a bit of a nightmare though. That was until I met Kate Hills, who runs the directory Make It British listing UK manufacturers. She was enormously helpful and I still use most of the suppliers she put me in touch with.
“As a designer, I’m unusual in that my designs start on paper. A lot of people work purely on computers these days, but I don’t want to lose that artisan, hand-drawn feel – original 50s designs don’t have clear, sharp edges or perfect pattern continuity. I love texture as well, and you just can’t replicate that properly on a PC. When I’m happy with my design, I scan it in and use specialist software to do the pattern repeats, then the printers do a mock-up so I can adjust the colours.
“My first products were dress fabrics and wash bags, then I added pocket mirrors, lampshades, interiors fabrics and cushions. My most popular design is called Ventura, which features space-agey abstracts on a cream background in a 1950s colour palette of greens, browns and reds. Another one called Twilight also does well, which has always taken me back a little because I designed it very quickly and everything just seemed to gel! It’s a striking design in dark teal and black, so perhaps people’s imagination is caught by how unusual it is. My own personal favourite is probably Starlight – abstract squares in a pink and grey palette – that’s what my living room cushions are covered in. I sell an awful lot to the USA – one of my customers specialises in restoring 1950s Airstream caravans so orders a lot of interiors fabric. Most of my customers find me because they’re attracted by that period of design, which is quite niche. I also sell a lot to the Nordic countries, who seem into that retro style.
“One of the worst things about running your own business is the paperwork – that’s been a bit of a steep learning curve! It’s only now that I’m starting to feel like I really know what I’m doing. Marketing has been another challenging aspect, as I find it difficult to put myself out there. The best part is definitely getting feedback from happy customers and seeing photos of their projects. I used to do a couple of specialist design shows, and I loved chatting to the people who came to the stand. In the future, I’d like to introduce a range of wallpaper but I don’t to grow the business so much that it loses that artisan feel – I’m too much of a control freak!”
To find out more about Helen and her designs or to buy online, please visit www.20thcenturycloth.com.
All photos (c) 2020 Helen Snell/20th Century Cloth. Main image shows cushions in Starlight and Atomic Blonde designs.0