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Work / International Women's Day

“Textiles are for girls, materials are for boys": how Seetal Solanki of Ma-tt-er is crossing the gender divide

Seetal Solanki is founder of material research consultancy Ma-tt-er, where she works on design projects of all kinds, bringing expertise in materials, where she aims to “bridge the gap between all industries”. Here Seetal talks about the terminology used and the gender-biased associations different words have in her field, and how a refreshed approach could provide more opportunities for everyone.

“Materials” and “textiles” are two words that are loaded with questions, gender biases. They play a defining role in shaping someone’s identity and their role in the world.

“Textiles” brings up so many images; many of us instantly think of a woman sat behind a sewing machine making curtains or clothing. However, for most of us that work as textile designers, this isn’t the case. In fact it is a satisfying and rewarding job to do, which requires a huge amount of handiwork, maths and a hint of physics.

The frustrating part is the perception of textiles and how the term always brings you back to the gendered notions of yesteryear that dictated school subjects like Design Technology, where boys were expected to take up woodwork and graphics, and girls assigned to dressmaking and textiles, and food technology. Even in the hidden curriculum, research by the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) found last year that toys with a science, technology, engineering and maths focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys than girls.

The age old question of “what you do for a living?” always popped up and whenever I used to say I’m a textile designer; often the first question that person would ask was “can you make me a dress?”, my reply was: “Well I could but it would be pretty bad. But I could make you the fabric that makes up your dress”. There were a lot of confused looks being exchanged, and to be honest it would be far easier to say that I worked as a brain surgeon than go on to explain what a textile designer is. These questions were playing havoc with my own identity as a designer and as a female, let alone being a middle child tomboy growing up.

Describing myself as a textile designer only went so far, as the term wasn’t wide enough to explain the breadth of work that I was doing which crossed many fields of design.

It wasn’t until I landed a job at Nissan as a Colour, Materials and Finish Designer (CMF) I was questioning what the differences between textiles and materials, and was there in fact a difference?

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Schoeller Textiles

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I often use the analogy of cooking as a way to describe how we work with materials – using one ingredient to its full potential as a chef would with one dish multiple ways. The very idea of cooking and textiles as a job, traditionally, resonates with a female in a domestic environment. With the help of Netflix and its food-based documentaries this has brought a different perspective to what that role of a cook actually looks like across both genders, the amount of skill and attention to detail that is needed to create such dishes is likened to the role of a textile designer. Bringing both industries the recognition they deserve.

A big part of what we do at Ma-tt-er is to communicate what a material is, how it can be applied as well as the people behind them.

Materials conjures up very different images in comparison to textiles. Mainly of material science, innovation and engineering. Some might say a more ‘male’ dominated industry.

The Masters course I studied, back in 2005, at Central Saint Martins was called Textile Futures. A few years ago, under the directorship of Caroline Till, the course changed its name to MA Material Futures. A liberating move which I was absolutely thrilled about. This simple name change has created incredible opportunities for both men and women across the globe from varying disciplines such as physics, anthropology, product design and fashion; solidifying and validating the need to develop a new term for what the role of a textile designer can do.

The world of materials has enabled women on a much larger scale. Material designers have been, and are, increasingly being considered for roles within experiential design, tech-based design, the sciences, aerospace, automotive and pretty much anything that involves a surface or experience, especially with the emergence of Google Project Jacquard which combines circuit boards and a weave structure for a wearable piece of technology.

FastCo Design believe that ‘Specialist Material Designers’ will be a job for the future. I’d go further and posit it as a job for the immediate future too.

This new approach to materials feels like a step towards gender equality within design, with opportunities and education shedding labels and restrictions and jobs becoming more skills-focused. In an article written for the Business of Fashion about the “six fashion careers of the future”, Peter Logan (technical director of raw material development at Lululemon) explains how “materials are at the heart of our industry”, so it feels only right we embrace this open attitude, and stop asking designers whether they can make a dress or not.