New pages. Clean, smooth white sheets, empty and waiting for a pencil to move freely across the page. I don’t go anywhere without one, two or even three sketchbooks in my bag or pocket. Even now, looking over my desk, I can see five of them. A small blue Smythson notebook, two dark-red Moleskine sketchbooks, my diary and an extremely pretty handmade Minnieolga pad that I bought in Paris a few years ago and haven’t yet unwrapped. On a shelf in my wardrobe and upstairs in a drawer I have about another 30 assorted, untouched books waiting for their moment.
I have always loved paper – even before I decided, at the age of 11 or so, that I would design clothes for a living. On Saturday afternoons as a child, my dad would take me to the local art shop where I would spend my 10p pocket money on a new sheet. I liked the procedure, the assistant opening the wooden chest and presenting the colours, weights and textures. While my dad went next door to get “some things for tea”, I would bypass the “sugar” paper drawer and drool over the textured watercolour and fine cartridge sheets. I’d make my choice and watch as it was carefully rolled up with brown paper, then carry it home and rush up to my bedroom, unroll my purchase and excitedly dream up an artwork that would be, must be, amazing. This is always the best bit – before the pencil hits the paper and everything is still possible.
Sketches are beginnings, the workings of the imagination, idle meanderings and sometimes just doodles. They can be something or nothing, treasured or erased. But they are the moment of conception between an almost unconscious collection of creative jumble and structure.
There is a process to my time spent sketching, and at its best it is comparable to a long walk in the countryside. Firstly, I need to prepare and research – I need to know where I am going – and then I must get into my pace. There are the first uneven steps taken finding the path; I waste time retying my boots (finding the right pencil) and then hopefully I switch from consciously walking to striding ahead, fully engaged – sketching. This is the time when the good ideas flow, so I work hard, knowing that sooner or later I will become either lost or tired. To begin with, concentration is crucial, but this quickly gives way to a feeling of relaxation, where I am falling into my sketching. I relish the moment when I can no longer hear the traffic passing outside, when the biscuit tin loses its pull and when the vibrating of my phone doesn’t shake me from my thoughts. There is a joy in looking up and realising that you have been so busy you have forgotten where you are and, on a perfect day, who you are.
In my studio I have two large boxes containing about 50 used sketchbooks that I have held onto over the years. Recently, undertaking a rather ambitious lockdown clear-up of 30 years of haberdashery hoarding, I opened one of the boxes and flicked through some of the mostly black books. Little pencilled dresses danced headless across the pages; ideas sketched on planes, trains and hotel rooms peppered with some “you had to be there”-type sketches of design details stolen from vintage-shop trawling. In each there were notes on fabrics, a diary page or two. There was the collection we were working on, but also the travels I took. Now and again there would be one of my husband Matthew’s drawings. Or random notes I’ve made about all sorts of things. Then occasionally I would find one of my daughter’s endearing designs for princess gowns by “Isabella aged 3”. Memories fell from the pages, and I realised they are little histories really. They are multifunctional and I think, looking back at them, they are more like diaries than anything else.
Let me try to explain my obsessive purchasing of sketchbooks. Firstly, there is the problem of never quite finding the “right one”. A book may turn out to be too heavy, the cover too hard, or it could just feel like something for a special occasion, best kept for later. A beautiful marbled Italian book may excite me at the time of purchase but the ones I actually use mostly have a soft cover with an elastic that wraps around the book to hold it closed – not fancy, but practical. The colour of the cover can change, however; orange is a current favourite.
Sketchbooks are the ideal small purchase to make on a trip – souvenirs of a place. In Delhi, I have found some exquisitely covered with the fabrics of silk saris and in LA I will visit the boutiques along Abbot Kinney Boulevard for something new with an appealing hook – last time I bought one that said “Small Things” on the cover. I couldn’t resist. If I really want to treat myself I shop in Astier de Villatte in Paris, where I can find pages with gold-foiled edges and abstract covers.
I have read that buying too much of an item may indicate a fear of its scarcity. I must admit feeling comforted by my personal stock levels of sketchbooks. The idea of living without pen and paper and the ensuing inability to transfer my creative thoughts from mind to paper makes me feel uneasy. Because a new sketchbook symbolises hope and a new beginning where brighter, better ideas will flow. As I open the first page, its blankness is beautiful. As I reach for my pencil, I believe that anything can happen and that this will be the page where I draw something magical. Perhaps that’s why I never finish a book and have five on the go…
How to Make a Dress: Adventures in the Art of Style by Jenny Packham is published by Ebury Press at £22
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