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Potato prints and wild places: a fashion odyssey

Potato prints and wild places: a fashion odyssey

by Finn McCahon-Jones and Susan Holmes - Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Night Moth Susan Holmes 1990. Hand dyed and crinkle silk with stenciled and appliquéd decoration.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Auckland Museum’s Associate Curator Applied Arts and Design, Finn McCahon-Jones and fabric artist Susan Holmes met recently to discuss her garments on display at the Museum during the Off The Wall: WearableArt Up Close exhibition.

Holmes is an award-winning fabric artist, whose work has featured on the runway of World of Wearable Art (WOW), and in major television series. From potato-cut designs, to complex, hand-painted costumes, Holmes has nudged fashion into some wild places. Holmes told McCahon-Jones that Night Moth was her transition from fashion to art – “I fell in love with it while making it”. While assembling this stunning garment, McCahon-Jones came to fully appreciate the art form.

The love and attention to detail is clearly evident in this garment. Assembling it for display in the gallery was a real treat. Even through my gloves I could feel the delicate, cool silk and its straight cut allowed it to easily slipped over the mannequin to be adjusted. The vertical crinkled silk hugged the form and gathered itself perfectly at the floor. This is a really lovely dress that would make a perfect evening dress alone.

I had the image of the model running through the forest in the dress and its name, Night Moth. It was when the jacket sat on top of the dress that it all came together. The jacket is heavier than it looks, adorned with layers of flowing layers of silk, which contrast and compliments the colours on the dress, and form the wings. Each layer has been decorated using a different technique – dip-dying, painting, and stencilling; on the train small perforations have been cut into the fabric and accentuated in gold.

Susan Holmes began working full time with textiles in 1971; hand printing designs onto dresses in the garage out the back of her house. Holmes told Textile Fibre Forum magazine in 1988, that she experimented with block printing using potato-cuts, and dipping fabrics into progressively diluted dye baths to create her subtle colour blends that would become her signature. She was loathed to cut into the printing – and that was the beginning of her distinctive process of printing and colouring after cutting out. In the book 100 New Zealand Craft Artists, Helen Schamroth said Holmes used the dyes like watercolours, and “she tunes her lively colours by eye rather than formula”.

Magic Feather Dress Susan Holmes 1995.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

In 1972 Holmes joined Browns Mill, a craft co-op and market. “I was selling in Auckland’s only craft market, Brown’s Mill. This was a craft co-op of about twenty members, open weekends only and absolutely thronging with people. I stayed there for around twelve years, selling thousands of hand dyed, hand printed dresses.”

“I always start with the fabric; I feel it and look at it and drape it about to see how it behaves. Quite a lot depends on how much fabric I’ve got. Then I let it fall into various shapes and gradually settle on a style that will fit. All this time various colours and designs will be suggesting themselves. Then I cut a pattern, paint or print it, and the girls sew it up. I might never repeat the design, or I might use the same style but with different colours and painting. I like playing with the current fashion colours and they’re always a nice fresh start to each season, but I soon find that I add my own twist to them to make them distinctively my own”

With a master’s degree in Home Sciences, dying textiles and experimenting with chemicals comes naturally to Holmes. “Chemistry didn’t scare me. I was not afraid of experimentation.”

Holmes likes working to a brief, but her process is instinctive and dictated by the materials that come to hand. This holistic approach to design and construction help give her completed garments an edge. “They are very organic and expressive of [the] feeling of the materials”.

As the World of Wearable Arts shows become more extravagant, Holmes has to consider how her garment will be lit, what it will look like as the model pauses and turns on the stage. “If you are creating garments as wearable art you have to make it wearable – and also make it look good as a display”.

Susan Holmes - textile artist: awards and commissions

Born Auckland.
Masters degree in Home Sciences, Otago (MHSc), Trip to England OE
Began full time work with fabric
Selling at Brown’s Mill markets (sold 1000’s of garments)
Benson & HedgesWinner Best Garment, Fashion & Fantasy section
Winner: Evening section of the Mohair Awards, New Zealand
Runner Up for ‘The Great New Zealand Cloak’ Competition (for ‘Wild Places Cloak’) organised by Pamela Elliott of Compendium Gallery, Auckland.
Winner Silk Section: New Zealand Wearable Art Awards. Runner up to Supreme Award.
Winner Wool Section 1994 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards
Highly Commended in Pacific Paradise Section, 1994 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards.
Finalist in ‘Visual Symphony’ Section, 1995 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards.
Highly Commended in Silk Section, New Zealand Wearable Art Awards (Magic Feather Dress)
Highly Commended in Illuminated Illusion Section, 1996 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards.
Supreme Winner 1996 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards. (for “Dragonfish”)
Commissioned by Montana to be shown at their 25th Jubilee Celebration in Auckland in 1997. Donated by Montana to World of WearableArt™ (WOW®) Collection (‘Montana Duck’)
Premier Award For Excellence: 1998 New Zealand Wool Board Handcrafts In Wool Award For Design In Fashion
Winner 1998 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards, Transformation Section
Highly Commended for Silk Section, 1999 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards
Finalist in 2001 World of WearableArt™ (WOW®) Illumination Section.
Commissioned by Montana for the World of WearableArt™ (WOW®) 2001 show.
Commissioned in 2002 by World of WearableArt™ (WOW®) for the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, to wear in 2002 World of WearableArt™ (WOW®) show.
Commissioned by Nelson City Council to express the city’s involvement with World of WearableArt™ (WOW®)
World of WearableArt™ (WOW®): Highly Commended in Creative New Zealand Artistic Excellence Awards Section
World of WearableArt™ (WOW®): Winner Creative New Zealand Arts Excellence Award
World of WearableArt™ (WOW®): Highly Commended in Creative New Zealand Arts Excellence Award
Commissioned by Montana to express their support and involvement with World of WearableArt™ (WOW®)
WOW CentrePort Shape It Section winner for ‘Fluroessence’
Winner 2006 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards Shape It Section ~ ‘Spots and Stripes’
Selected for 2007 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards Illumination Section
Commissioned by Montana for 2007 World of Wearable Art™ (WOW®)
Winner 2008 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards: Avant Garde Section
Winner 2009 New Zealand Wearable Art Awards: WOW Factor Award
Invited Guest Artist, New Zealand Wearable Art Awards
Selected for New Zealand Wearable Art Awards for ‘GONDWANA’
Selected Open Section. 2012 Brancott Estate WOW Awards Show

Note: New Zealand Wearable Art Awards became World of WearableArt (WOW) from 2001

  • Post by: Finn McCahon-Jones

    Finn McCahon-Jones is Auckland Museum's Curator of Auckland Stories.

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