I'm reading
Caroline Swift is a ceramicist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Caroline Swift is a ceramicist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Caroline Swift is a ceramicist
Pass it on
Pass it on
"The toughest part is working out what you truly want to do."
Conversations
1 April 2010

Caroline Swift is a ceramicist

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Manu Da Costa

Kate Bezar on Caroline Swift

Caroline hails from Scotland so as you’re reading the following, you’ll have to imagine it spoken in her ever-so-charming accent. Hers is a tale that ranges from the Highlands to Italy to to India to England and eventually to where we found her, in Barcelona. It will also take you from the dizzy heights of being the head of knitwear design for Benetton, to the rewards of teaching students English in a Buddhist temple, to the trials of running a business of your own. Strap yourself in.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

KATE BEZAR: For some reason I assumed you were English.

CAROLINE SWIFT: No, Scottish.

Is that where the interest in designing woolly jumpers came from?

In a way, I suppose yes, but I probably chose the worst place any teenager could to study. I went to a place called Galashiels which is down on the southern border of Scotland. It’s incredibly beautiful, but very isolated, there are no train links and you really are surrounded by sheep. I used to escape on the 95 bus every Friday to go to Edinburgh and come back after the weekend. It was where all the original knitwear industry was. Now there’s hardly anything left, but when I was at college, which is over 20 years ago, it was still a working industry and quite a decent industry. I studied Industrial Design Textiles and specialised in knitwear design. Three of the four years were in knitwear design so it was actually a very good place to study in that respect.

Did you know pretty early on that knitwear was what you wanted to do?

It was between some form of textile design and architecture. I always knew I didn’t want to do just an arty degree, which sounds a bit weird. I wanted to do an arts degree that had some functional, commercial application as well.

Why was that important to you?

I really wanted to see things made, done and produced.

But you knew you had a creative bent?

Oh yes, absolutely. When I was 14, I changed schools and that was really significant because my previous school had told me I wasn’t very good at art and then I went to this new school and the teacher really believed in me. He really took me under his wing and I loved it from then on. I knew that was it. It’s weird … If I had stayed at my other school I would have taken German instead. I am so glad that I found art and something that I love doing, otherwise I think I would have been frustrated all my life.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Isn’t it funny that something that happened to you as a 14 year-old could so fundamentally change how things would turn out?

And who you are … Yeah, it’s crazy. Thanks to good teachers.

Then was it pretty much straight out of university that you started working for Benetton or did that take a bit longer?

No, no, I went to New York. It was my first job and it was a placement-type thing, for four months. I loved it there, absolutely loved it and really wanted to stay, but the woman who was running the company was moving to Canada and I couldn’t find another job. I didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up coming back to Scotland and living in Loch Lomond at the age of 21 because my parents had just moved there. So beautiful, but so isolated. I couldn’t drive and there were about two buses a day into Glasgow. I just remember it raining every day and I thought, this is not for me, so I moved down south and worked for a company outside London. I did menswear for them – mainly men’s cashmere, very classic.

In many respects it was a good job because the head designer got made redundant after six months so I was sort of promoted to her position. I was so young, I didn’t know what I was doing but it was really good, really good training, I learned loads, absolutely masses. You know, it was exciting to start with. We used to travel to Japan and the US … I did that for about four years but then I really wanted the chance to do womenswear, more fashion. I had always really wanted to move to Paris. I started to learn French and I thought, right, I’m going to go to Paris, I’m going to hire a car and sleep in my car … You know the sort of things you think when you are really young. And then I met my boyfriend and that was that. Six months after we met, he moved to Italy so I ended up moving to Italy instead.

Was it in anyway hard to leave such a good position at the men’s knitwear company?

No, no, it was good timing because they’d closed the office in England and moved their factory to Wales, so it was becoming very difficult really. It was also a weird time in the ‘90s with the recession … It was terrifying moving to Italy; I didn’t know what I would think of Italy, and I obviously couldn’t speak the language but I was ready to do something new. I freelanced for about six months and did some work for companies back in the UK. Then I just wrote loads and loads of letters to people and, funnily enough, got two job offers in the same week, after having looked for quite a long time, about a year. I decided to take the offer from Benetton.

Did you ever consider going out on your own?

No, not at all. I was too young, not experienced enough and besides, I really wanted this chance to do womenswear. It was just something I’d never done and always really wanted to.

What was the role you took at Benetton?

I was designer for Sisley which is their younger, more trendy brand of knitwear. I was the designer for both men’s and womenswear.

They didn’t mind that your portfolio was fairly conservative at that point?

No, but I’d spent a lot of time that year completely re-doing my portfolio.

And what happened from there?

Well, I loved it. I can’t tell you how much. My boss was just amazing, he’s retired now, but he was an absolutely incredible person and just gave us loads of freedom. When he got moved from being the head of Sisley to be head of Benetton he just said, “You guys can just do it on your own. I trust all of you.” We had a ball. We were young and so enthusiastic, keen. We worked really hard and it was great. It wasn’t at all what I’d thought it would be like.

I thought Benetton might be all red jumpers and yellow plastic coats, but it was brilliant, edgy and even sophisticated.

There was just this great energy with all these young people.

It didn’t matter that you didn’t speak Italian?

Well, my Italian was actually alright at that point, but in the office they didn’t really speak Italian they spoke dialect,B Venetian dialect, which was all very confusing but I’m now fluent in it! It’s a bit like being here [in Barcelona] actually because you’ve got Spanish (Castellano) and Catalan. All over again I have two different forms of a language to learn.

And you just gradually moved up through the ranks at Benetton?

I did. The brand had really grown so I had three assistants and it was a lot of work, but then my boyfriend decided to move back to England to do an MBA.

Bugger!

Yeah, bugger! So again, six months after he moved, I gave up my job … Well, I handed in my notice and they said, “Look, we don’t want to lose you. We’ll keep you on as a freelancer and consultant for us. You can do all this research and all the shopping trips and just come back and give us some designs for the collection.” So, that’s what I did, but I didn’t enjoy England. We didn’t move back to London, we moved to a place called Leamington Spa which is a smallish town, don’t even ask me where it is. My boyfriend and I weren’t getting on and we split up. I thought, Oh God, so I moved to London. My sister had been friends with this guy who owned this company called Alma Home. He was quite an interesting person, he did all sorts of interiors … He did a lot of the leather pieces for Babington House and the interiors for Madonna’s study in New York. We’d always talked and I told him I was really interested in doing something else at this point, again, seeking the thrill of something new. I had proven that I was good at womenswear and I wanted to do something for homes. He was quite keen so he said, “We’ve got a spare room, use that as your office and do a little bit of work for us and we’ll pay you.” I did a little bit for them, not masses, but that kind of got me thinking it was more the direction I wanted to take. I wasn’t quite at the point of being sure though.

I was going on trips to Tokyo and around Europe and stuff and I’d been looking at shops in a different way. I’d become more interested in interior shops than fashion shops! Anyway, when Benetton found out I’d split up with my boyfriend they asked me to come back as head of knitwear design for all their brands; Benetton, Sisley, the lot. It was kind of the opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, but in my heart of hearts I knew it wasn’t genuinely what I wanted to do … I wanted to kind of take the road a bit less travelled in that respect and try something new. I knew it would be a really tough and political role. Benetton was such a big, important brand and made so much money for the company that more people got involved in making decisions. A lot of the time when lots of people get involved you’re not so happy with the result. But it was an amazing opportunity so I bravely said yes, packed my bags, went back to Italy again. Back and forward, back and forward. I did that for three years. Blood, sweat and tears.

And it was what you expected?

It was totally what I expected. I was being a manager and I’m not good at being a manager; I’m not massively organised, I’m good at being creative and I know that. I can say that more confidently now because I’ve been through that and through setting up my own business. Now, quite a few years down the line, I can look at it objectively. At the time I just wanted to do really well, but I don’t think I did. My heart wasn’t in it. I liked the people side, but it was hard work.

Were you doing any designing or was it really all just managing?

I was doing some because in the first six months two of my girls, one who did the womenswear and one who did the menswear, both went on maternity leave. I ended up having to do quite a lot and it was too big a job. The [Benetton] family are very much still involved in the company. The family were lovely and very kind and supportive and I did have their full support, but I was just unhappy. At that point, really, I was looking at other things thinking, I have to be doing something else, but I didn’t know how to do it. To be fair, one condition of going back to Benetton was that I could design some of the home collection as well. They said, “Yes, yeah, yeah, sure, sure,” but of course it wasn’t possible, I didn’t have time.

So, what was the breaking point?

Well, I would spend my weekends at home, just making things, and I felt really happy doing that.

It was just so cathartic after a full on week. I would give people gifts and people would always say, “You should be doing this for a living, you’re really good at this.” It was like, “Yeah, yeah, how am I going to do this for a living, how is that possible?” There was no deeper thought to it than that, except, I want a change, I don’t want to go into another job doing the same sort of thing, it’s not the company, it’s the job. It was being just a knitwear designer. I wanted to find the same feeling of exhilaration in doing something new. The whole industry had changed, even in the eight years that I’d been working at Benetton. We used to do two collections a year and a few little ones in between; what we would call ‘flash collections’. You’d put all your creative energy into these two collections and work really hard and then you’d have a rest between them, but when I was doing it for Benetton, we were doing about 20 collections a year. There was no break. I was actually very uncreative in that respect, because I just felt like we were churning out stuff. I just couldn’t do it. My heart wasn’t in it and at that point I probably just didn’t care. I felt that I was paid well, I lived in a really nice flat, but I was really unhappy. You know, a lot of people would say, “Oh my God your life is great”, but I really wasn’t enjoying it.

So, anyway, I didn’t have any other ideas, was quite desperate and thought, I don’t know what to do so I’ll take some time out, take a year off, think about it. So that was what I did.

You didn’t worry that by having a year out you’d lose touch with the industry and not be able to get back in?

Yes, I did. Benetton was upset that I was leaving. I think they felt slightly betrayed because I was leaving them at a difficult time although I tried to get as much staff in place as possible before leaving. But, I had decided that I was going to Sri Lanka and India. My boyfriend and I had been separated for three years at that point and I thought, It is time to get my things back and move on, because he had quite a lot of my stuff. Anyway, after our first meeting we ended up getting back together after all these years apart and it was quite ironic because we got engaged about a month before I left to go … I still really wanted to go and all the plans were in place. After we had split up three years previously my boyfriend had spent a few months in Nepal so he knew how important it was for me to travel and so off I went.

Did you spend a year away or did you cut it a bit shorter than that?

I cut it a little bit shorter, I think it was about eight or nine months.

How did that time out shape you?

To be honest, I just really needed a rest. I was exhausted. It was wonderful. There I was, I had come from the world of fashion where everyone’s really on edge, tense and competitive all the time … I really admire women who carry on in that industry because I think it’s got a shelf life. You can only do it for so long and then you’ve got these young, ambitious people coming up and you just have to leave it to them. It’s a cycle. Anyway,

I went from that to being in a Buddhist village teaching children English in a temple.

Just the loveliest, loveliest people I have ever met in my life. So grateful … They’d never seen anyone foreign before. The monks were just wonderful and the family I lived with were lovely. It was great. I was so used to the rhythm of being a workaholic nutter, they’d say to me, “No, no, that’s it for the day. We finish teaching at two.” I’d think, what am I going to do for the rest of the day? It was weird. It was good. I wrote a diary and I would spend lots of time under my mosquito net. After a few weeks I got moved to another school which was further down the coast, near the beach. At the start I was the only volunteer on the island, but then a couple of others came so I had some friends and that was great. We went traveling at the end together. Bliss.

Was it done through a volunteer organisation of some sort?

Yes, exactly.

And why did you choose Sri Lanka?

Well, I had always really wanted to go to India. There were two places I really wanted to go to, India and Africa, but I was really scared … It’s funny now if I look back on that. To put my fear into context, I remember taking a trip to Bali in the early years when I was at Benetton and I was petrified of the mosquitoes because I react really badly to them. I had a suitcase packed full of every type of repellant possible – even one the size of a fire extinguisher. What a drama! So I thought, there are two places I’m really terrified of, but I want to push myself, I want to do something scary, something exciting, so it’s either Africa or India. I thought Sri Lanka would be a good start, a good introduction to India, because it is easier, it’s not as harsh, not as poor in that respect.

And did some of the Buddhist philosophy rub off on you?

I only taught in the temples, which were really just basically a few pillars and an open space with a roof. I didn’t go to any of their services or anything, so no, not really in that respect, but just in seeing how kind they were, I suppose. People with nothing and they are so kind. It just made all the other stuff seem like nonsense really.

Did those nine months change you much as a person or were you just far more relaxed?

I came back very sick.

Oh did you?

Yeah, I was quite ill. India certainly left its impression and it took me a few months to get my health back. When I came back I saw all the things in the West that we really moan about and that we should really be grateful for. I just thought we don’t really have any idea how lucky we are. I remember feeling the carpet under my feet and I felt like its pile was three foot high. It was just like, oh my God, and loos, you know, proper toilets and supermarkets! I remember the first time I went to the supermarket and everything was so glossy and rich and wow. I suppose the biggest change though was that I was more in touch with my hippy side, which has always been there … So, yes, it absolutely did change me. I don’t know if it made me more relaxed though, I think it’d take a lot more than that!

So you came back, reunited with your fiancé … Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do then?

I was looking forward to planning the wedding, but had no idea at all what to do workwise. I hadn’t even thought about it when I was over there.

You didn’t?

Nope. It was pretty nice actually, not worrying or thinking about it. I thought I’d just come back and see. It was hard, it was hard coming back and living in England after all those years, rainy old England again, on the west coast in a city called Bristol. It was tough. I had no job, was in the house all day and was like, Right, what am I going to do now? I didn’t really know what to do so I just wrote down a few things and then I thought, I’m going to write a book. As you do. I’d always been interested in food, that was another thing, and years ago I’d had an idea, that I’d quite like to have a chocolate label and design all these chocolate products. At that time nobody was really doing anything cool with chocolate and I spoke to a few chocolatiers, but I just didn’t have the confidence to do it. It was too random. Why on earth would someone who designs knitwear want to do a chocolate label? I remember meeting my sister in this pub in Covent Garden for a drink and at the time I’d had some talks with Marks & Spencer, which is quite a big retail group in the UK, and I said to her, “I’m so excited, I’ve got this idea for chocolate and it’s amazing. I can just see it.” My sister just looked at me and said, “Have you heard back from M&S?” and it was just like, Oh, yeah, what’s the point?

No one would have had faith in me doing it; I didn’t even have faith in myself doing it!

I’ve always been interested in lots of different things, but how can you do something you have no experience of? So, on the food side, because I’d always had this chocolate idea, I just thought I’d start doing some work on that. I started making some cakes and cookies and all sorts of sweet things and photographing them.

For sale or for you guys?

No, just styling, just ideas. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I quite fancied being a kind of Martha Stewart-type person. A bit of this, a bit of that. I enjoyed doing that, but then I couldn’t find the plates I wanted for styling and so I thought, I’m going to make them. I started making things out of papier-mâché and different materials and they were quite interesting. Then one day I was walking with a friend and we walked past this place with a sign that said, “Teach yourself to make ceramics.” I thought, you know what, I could do that, that’d be great and of course, I was free during the day. So I started doing two afternoons a week and from the first moment I tell you, from the first day I was in there, I loved it, I thought it was amazing. It was so practical and earthy and I just loved it.

I imagine your plates weren’t quite like what the other people in Bristol made?

No, possibly not, but the teacher was good to me. She was fantastic, an absolutely amazing person. Again, just another person that comes along in your life who helps you along in some respects. She’d studied at The Royal College of Art so she was good. Then I started showing people some of the things that I had been photographing. I didn’t get a book deal because it wasn’t just food; I did some interesting things with plants and other ideas for weddings and Valentines … They all thought it was beautiful, but couldn’t quite work out who would buy it, who the market was, because it was sort of between crafts and food … I did get one offer from Conran – they wanted to take the chapter on cookies and make a whole book of it, but it was really commercial so I turned it down. This was a change in me, all of a sudden. Previously I would have said, “Absolutely! Commercial? I’ll go for it.” Instead, this was me beginning to say no, and I said no for quite a few years to lots of things. I didn’t want to compromise anymore.

I wanted to do it my way or not at all. Some of my family thought I was crazy. They were like, “God, you’ve turned down a book deal from Conran, you’re nuts.” I thought, well, I’ll get someone else to publish the right thing. In the end, nobody else did it and I suppose maybe I wasn’t persistent to give it to enough publishers. The interesting thing was that by this point I had a portfolio I was sending to magazines and I got some great work with them and then I did this food presentation for a woman called Li Edelkoort.

She’s Dutch isn’t she?

Yeah. She was doing a talk in London to designers and architects etc. about trends for fashion and interiors. I met them in Paris and they asked me if I would do the food for their seminar. I did all these cakes and at this point I’d made some bigger plates and things. I met a lot of really interesting people that day, people who still now are really helpful in all sorts of ways and are extremely good contacts. There was a guy from Royal Doulton, which is part of Wedgwood. It’s classical, British ceramics, but they’ve been quite arty in the past few years, and he said, “Your plates are really interesting, really interesting.” I started to get people asking if I’d make cakes for them too but I wasn’t sure if that was the path to take, I was more interested in the concept of it than actually doing the production. At that point I thought I quite liked the idea of doing food trends for people, giving them packaging ideas and working as more of a consultant. I wrote to quite a few companies and more commercial co panies like Marks & Spencer again, but this time for food, and they were saying to me, “We love what you do, but we’d really like to just buy it. If you could find a producer, a small producer, we’d be interested in buying these things.” Again, I just didn’t feel ready to produce. So I felt a bit lost. I was still doing some freelance knitwear which helped pay the bills, thankfully, and supported me while I was doing all this stuff. Then I joined a ceramics studio and I started to make a few things like Christmas decorations which sold really well and then I just started experimenting with different ceramics and was never out of the studio.

How did you sell them?

The studio had a little shop front.

How long ago was this?

About four years ago.

It helped my thoughts to evolve to actually making and selling some of these ideas that had been building up for years.

Two years ago I thought, right, I’m going to do something that brings all this stuff together. My sister was always saying to me, “You should have a website, you do so many things and nobody can see what you do.” So then the idea came together, of putting some of the things together that I loved. You know, doing some clothes in a non-compromising way, just the way that I like them and making some ceramics. I thought maybe I’d do some glass too. Really, it’s only a fraction of all the things I’d like to do. I would like to do some food and chocolates and I would love to do more clothes and some textiles for interiors. Add to that lights and soaps and candles and paper things. I’d like to do everything, really.

So at the moment is your business really just online?

And I do a little bit of wholesale too.

Tempted to have your own shop at some point?

I’d love my own shop. There are so many different directions the business could go in. A shop would be amazing, but not here in Barcelona. It’s a lovely city but it’s not the time because there is a real economic crisis in Spain and also I am not sure it’s the city for a shop of mine.

But you’ve managed to set up a studio there and produce things?

Yeah, which is great. My husband asked to be transferred here to Barcelona with his company and so, yet again, I had another opportunity to follow him to discover another country. I work in a shared studio with some other people, which is actually really nice because I have my own space to make everything, but am surrounded by other talented people who all do different things.

It will be fascinating to see where you end up next. Ultimately, it’s doing more of the same, but more. Is that it?

The last year has been so busy with all sorts of projects. I am planning a new collection and working on some larger installation pieces as well. I am also hoping to do a glass installation for a famous chef here in Barcelona, who is opening a restaurant in Singapore next year. The only problem is finding the time to realise all these ideas.

I think you need an assistant.

I do need an assistant. That would be heaven!

It sounds very much like your philosophy is not to mass produce anything, but to make it slowly and by hand, yet at the same time you personally probably don’t need to be doing that.

Yes, exactly, I definitely don’t need to be packing up all the orders, but I do enjoy the making process and a lot of my ideas come in just playing around with the materials. I rarely start off with a specific idea of what to make but I like to experiment with techniques and materials and then it all flows from there. I also think that there is an advantage in not being trained in a specific area because the approach can sometimes be lateral and hopefully can bring different results – and besides it makes it more fun.

I’m sure there are a billion people who’d love to do work experience with you although it’s probably harder in Spain.

Exactly. If I was in England, it’d be easier to find ceramicists to help, but I’ll get there.

It does sound like you are closer to what you really should be doing now than you ever have been before.

I am.

The toughest part is working out what you truly want to do.

A lot of people have really encouraged me along the way, willing me to keep going and above all been generous in all their time given to listening to me working out which direction to go in. It has not always been clear but it does not seem so random now as, despite the fact I can work in different areas, most of my pieces have a common philosophy, so it is all beginning to make sense. I think it’s sometimes a kind of journey. I hate that word, but it’s something you do have to go through. I am much happier. I love the diversity of working in different areas and the challenges that brings. I now have the chance to develop some of those ideas that have been burning away in sketchbooks over the years and there are no rules as to what to do next! I love the freedom of that. There are days where I remember … I was doing this exhibition in London last year and I was burning a door to make a table. I was outside with a blow torch, a petrol can and a box of matches. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I thought, you know what, this is the sort of thing that makes me think, I love what I do, truly.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Manu Da Costa

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.