Art and Textiles on the Cutting Edge: Elaine Yan-ling Ng’s Fabrick Lab

Indigo wooden coasters

“What do you do?” When confronted with this inevitable question, Elaine Yan-ling Ng usually takes a deep breath. As the only textile designer who is also a weaver in Hong Kong, she is used to explaining the difference between someone who designs a pattern that is then produced elsewhere, and the tantalising blend of textiles, art, architecture and technology that she creates at her own studio workshop, The Fabrick Lab, in Kwai Chung.

The British Chinese designer’s eclectic oeuvre ranges from ethereal colourful fabrics that mimic nature, to sculptural body-extension jewellery formed through the intricate layering of wood. It also includes textiles, thermoplastics, and a collection of leather wall tiles that adopt their origami-like, three-dimensional forms from complex mathematical formulae.

Ng’s original plan to follow a career in fashion was fortuitously redirected after an eagle-eyed tutor at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins saw her sketch books and suggested a course in textiles instead. When she spotted the looms, it was love at first sight. “I knew then that I was a weaver at heart,” she says.

She is also something of an experimenter. Early works saw the young student melting woven plastic to make water resistant fabrics, followed by exploring three-dimensional forms, weaving with coloured metals, and investigating alternative smart materials such as shape-memory yarns. “It’s not just about making something that is beautiful or decorative,” says Ng. “For me, it is about exploring and reinventing textiles through a process of constant analysis, refining the process until the design is finalised.”

After graduating in 2010 with a Master’s degree in Textiles Futures, Ng initially worked as a colour and material designer at Nissan Design Europe and Nokia Design Beijing. In 2015, she decided to return to Hong Kong to establish her own studio, drawn by the city’s proximity to the wide range of manufacturing in Shenzhen.

That year, Ng won a Designers of the Future Award from crystal giant Swarovski, and began experimenting with the brand’s most futuristic crystals in a mesmerising crystal-textile installation titled “Sundew” that was first shown at Design Miami/Basel, and then at Hong Kong’s Art Central in 2016. The installation encapsulated the designer’s fascination with robotics and innovative textiles, with three jellyfish-shaped structures that responded to movement detected by hidden sensors, mimicking the movements of a tiny carnivorous plant as it consumes its prey with hand-woven Swarovski Crystal Fabric infused strands.

Sundew, where robotic and textile merge, by Elaine Yan-ling Ng – Photo by James Ambrose

Ng’s fascination with weaving is not limited to the avant-garde. One of her longest and most painstaking design projects involves exploring ways to protect and develop traditional weaving in China, inspired by a visit in 2013 to a series of villages in Guizhou, southern China, renowned for their intricate craftwork. The project goes beyond helping villagers to preserve their craft, heritage and dignity, to seeking ways to develop a more sustainable way of living through making crafts for urban consumers. Offering a viable economic alternative to the lure of factory work is key for younger villagers who have been leaving home to find better paid work in the city.

Ng says she first came up with a way to give the villagers’ woven material a more “contemporary” quality by introducing high-strength transparent nylon copper. “[I] sent them a box of copper yarn with weaving plans, as if I was working with industrial mills,” she recalls. But she soon understood that working with village weavers was not the same as working with a factory. When she returned to the village a month later, the instructions were still in the box. “I very quickly realised that it is important to go there and spend time with the villagers to understand them better,” she says.

The project proved to be more costly and time consuming than she had anticipated. Luckily, Ng was able to secure a HK$150,000 grant from the Design Trust fund to create a documentary to record and share the story. The fund gave Ng the luxury of spending time with the villagers to gain their trust before starting to co-design together and build permanent facilities for the families that would increase their competitiveness. A training room provides a better working environment, along with a permanent stove and dye vats that incorporate pulley systems that mean the textiles produced are not limited to certain widths. The villagers can now produce goods up to the industry standard.

Batik craftwork on wooden stools by Elaine Yan-ling Ng – Photo by Viola Gerskill

The outside support has proved invaluable, says Ng. Today, in addition to a collection of elegant indigo dyed silks, the project has also expanded to develop the batik process on wood. The collection of small wooden tools made by the local artisans is now available at a range of design shops in Hong Kong, Shanghai and London. “We are the only place in Guizhou that can batik on wood so this gives villagers a competitive edge,” says Ng. She calls it “the perfect example of how innovation can work with heritage craft skills.”

It was Ng’s time-consuming research into indigo dyeing with the villagers that led to a new design opportunity with luxury furniture manufacturer Stellar Works, which asked her to collaborate on an innovative furniture design project led by Jun Aizaki, a Brooklyn-based Japanese designer and the founder of Crème. The techniques Ng learned working with the Guizhou villagers proved ideal for solving the challenges Crème faced with indigo-dyeing its contemporary wooden furniture. The project brought another benefit, too, as Ng learned first hand about the furniture industry’s specific requirements in terms of widths, and thickness of textiles.

Ng returned to Guizhou with a new mission to design a sofa with Stellar Works, featuring a contemporary interpretation of the villagers’ striking indigo patterns. The resulting sofa, along with a screen, were showcased at London Craft Week earlier this year. Some of Ng’s other genre-breaking design projects this year include an installation commissioned for the Hong Kong Design Centre’s Confluence 20+ exhibition at Milan’s Triennale during Salone del Mobile. Titled “Sensus,” it was created in just six weeks. The prototyping system project integrates robotic elements with innovative textiles and movement of animal-like figures.

“My idea was to challenge the interdisciplinary relationship between designers, robot engineers, and knitted textile programmers, bridging these diverse fields of expertise whilst also pushing the traditional boundaries within robotics, 3D printing, and ADF knitting,” explains Ng. “We are taking this opportunity to create light weight textiles as kinetic parts.”

The name “Sensus” — the Latin word for “sense” — reflects Ng’s narrative of a new breed of interactive creatures inspired by bioluminescent sea-worms. The three creatures, suspended in a sleek inky black space, are brought to life as they respond to the physical presence of visitors. Responding in slow, hypnotic dance-like movements, they create what Ng describes as “an organic live relationship between the creatures, fabrics, and the visitors.” Each creature has distinctly different behaviour, which Ng says ranges from vivacious to charming, reflected in the way the creatures breathe, move and interact with humans.

“Adding different characters to the robots increases a visitor’s curiosity, making them more self-intuitive,” Ng explains. “In this way, an audience’s emotions and other senses are engaged, and as they start to observe the creature closely, the textile becomes part of them.”

Projects of this sort may receive the most attention, but Ng’s studio is also a treasure trove of practical, bespoke textiles that she designs and makes for interior designers and architects. “With our own professional in-house weaving facilities, we are able to design and manufacture to our own high standards,” she says. “This is proving attractive for the local design industry looking for unusual textiles to use in their projects.”

Ng says her studio does not compete with textiles brands that carry large ranges of textiles. “We are the opposite of this because we don’t just weave fibres – it could be any material. Our specialty is borrowing textile techniques to construct something new from special projects to fabrics,” she explains.

Hong Kong has long been recognised as a challenging environment for young designers, but Ng remains positive. “Anything is possible when an artist is given the chance to explore new materials and new technologies,” she says.

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