Representing the creative future

Fashion Schools in lockdown: Swedish School of Textiles

Public education in a country with no lockdown: It is more complicated than it sounds

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe, Sweden’s experimental approach to restrain the virus has been widely debated. Implementing social distancing regulations without entering a full lockdown, the restrictions on Swedish fashion students are somewhat more relaxed compared with the rest of the world – but it comes with its own hardships.

Nanna Graversen's screen

As a public university, the SST is funded by the government, which means that home and EU students don’t pay any tuition fees.

Moving face-to-face tutorials online, the students of the Swedish School of Textiles (SST) can still access university sewing machines, ironing boards and construction tables via an online booking schedule. “There are limitations in regards to how many students can work simultaneously and for how long,” says Director of Studies Saina Koohnavard. They have hand weaving looms and a practical studio space at hand and can borrow domestic knitting machines for their homes, a privilege that most students worldwide do not have at these times.

In Sweden, there’s a ban against student charges in publicly funded higher education. As a public university, the SST is funded by the government, which means that home and EU students don’t pay any tuition fees. Students are eligible to apply for the Swedish student finance scheme, CSN, to receive grants and loans to support any extra living costs. As there are currently no international students at SST, for whom a bachelor’s degree would cost approximately £60,000, there are no privately invested funds going into the studio facilities and equipment that students are now missing out on.

Nanna Graversen's screen

SST is located in the small city of Borås, a place with a renown history of textile production. Having most of their industrial manufacturing outsourced throughout the 20th century, the inventive spirit has sustained inside of the university walls. Furnished with state-of-the-art machines, where students are able to explore innovative materials and techniques on a full-time basis, you probably won’t find this range of equipment at any other fashion course in the northern hemisphere. The technological luxuries have enabled a process where the SST students can produce most of their pieces on their own, instead of relying on technicians, helpers or external manufacturing companies. After a risk analysis, some of these workshops are now exclusively operated by allocated staff.

“It’s very weird to go outside and see people crowding in the sun outside of pubs, and then you go to school and there’s like two people in one room alone.”

Instead of manufacturing garments themselves, students prepare digital files for technicians who produce their pieces on site. Not having 24/7 access to individual sketching areas, photo studios, advanced machine parks and textile labs is a big shift. Nanna Graversen at the MA implies that although the final submission demands have been altered and reduced, keeping the studios open somehow maintains the expectations of their performance. “At the moment I might be able to go to the machine park and have something knitted, but I can’t make a cutting test or see how the yarns react. It makes it difficult to figure out what I want or how I’m going to use something, so keeping it open is more of a sweet gesture I think. Being half stuck at home and not feeling completely safe at school either, we’re not really able to work properly.” BA student, Cornelia Ferm, believes the middle way is sometimes harder too. ”The teachers ask us why we’re not making use of the studios, so then you feel bad for not using them. It’s just that it doesn’t make sense to work there under those conditions.’” BA student Josefine Gyllensvärd highlights the complexity between how the government’s guidelines have been implemented in school compared with the rest of society. “It’s very weird to go outside and see people crowding in the sun outside of pubs, and then you go to school and there’s like two people in one room alone.”

Johanna Larsson's tests

The studio disruption has pushed many of the students to work from home full-time. “The problem for me is that it’s not really worth spending hours on public transport with my whole collection twice a week for four hours of studio access,” BA student Lisa Kristiansson explains. “An industrial sewing machine can easily be replaced with a domestic one at home. It’s more difficult to access any special equipment, which is what most of us actually need.” Lisa’s project requires no sewing machines, but she finds the lack of printing facilities difficult to come around. “We’ve been told from day one that we’ll never have access to this amount of machines and labs again, and to make the most out of the time that we have. But the end of that time came a bit earlier than expected.” According to Saina Koohnavard, “the greatest difference here is that changes have been implemented much faster and more directly. We don’t know for how long we are going to keep working in this way when we will go back to how things were before, and if we are even going to return at all.”

Lisa Kristiansson

“It becomes obvious to me how many design and construction solutions I came up with in correspondence with my classmates by being around every step of each other’s work.”

After isolation in Borås became too overwhelming, BA student Freja Wesik moved back to live with their parents and turned their living room into a studio. “I just couldn’t work from my flat anymore. Living, breathing, and working from the same room, seeing the same holes in my wall all day, every day. I felt tired all the time, couldn’t cope with my mood swings and wasn’t able to work at the same tempo that I’m used to. I have more space here.” BA student Cornelia Ferm and her partner had their bedroom and living room merged in order to make room for her studio space. “In one way this situation has been a bit relaxing. You can’t have any fear of missing out when nothing is happening. But on the other hand, I’m not able to focus for more than 4 hours, which is a big difference, since I’m used to spending long days in school. It has affected my work and my energy. When I lose my pace I start doubting myself and get into a negative spiral. It becomes obvious to me how many design and construction solutions I came up with in correspondence with my classmates by being around every step of each other’s work. It is very easy to help out when someone is stuck. It breaks my heart that we won’t be able to celebrate the end of this education together.”

Freja Wesik

“The joy of creating as a designer quickly disappears after 12 hours behind a screen.”

The beginning of the lockdown was working out quite well for Nanna Graversen. “I had to hand stitch my knit pieces together, which was a great way to collect my thoughts. With the social distancing, I’ve started to trust my own decisions, but the feedback and open communication that helps you reflect on your own work is something I truly miss.” As the MA students were only one month away from their April examination, the limited access to the university facilities disabled them from making any drastic changes to their projects. Finishing off what they already have, they had to rely heavily on photoshop. “We’ve finished the MA digitally in many ways,” says Nanna Graversen. “I had to hack a computer with no space left. At least now I’m not scared of making my own imagery and presenting my work digitally. Although, the joy of creating as a designer quickly disappears after 12 hours behind a screen. When we got feedback on the final seminar, they advised us on the presentation, but other than that, what can they say? The idea of showcasing a final collection that represents 6 years of work, learning, hardship and insane hours of labour, all vanished within a month. I still don’t know how to express this sadness and loss.” The lack of printing studios is also affecting MA student Monika Colja. “The construction of my garments took place in the printing lab, so my work was essentially stopped when the labs closed. I’ve been able to borrow some things to print in my flat, that’s taking place on the floor between the kitchen and the bed. It started out as this fun situation, imagining all the weird scenarios that students around the world are placed into. But that excitement only lasted for a day. I have to wash my big printing screen in the shower and constantly move things, as I also have to live in the same space.”

Monika Colja

Saina Koohnavard admits that these conditions are exposing new challenges to their students. “In this particular scenario, decisions need to be more informed than before. For example, how do I prepare my work for production and sampling? How can I communicate it clearly so that people from various fields can understand it?” At the same time, Saina admires the creative solutions her students are inventing in these uncertain times, as they explore 3D software, re-interpret craft techniques, construct their own large-scale looms and build their own design tools. “It’s a great strength to have as a designer, that I believe will come in handy post-corona.”

BA student Sigrid Schiotz believes that the pandemic could possibly affect the way that we interact with our workspace and our colleagues in the long run. “It could open up new ways of consulting for example, which is quite common in our field. It could maybe lead to something interesting and positive in the end.” In her case, the restrictions have had a positive effect on her waterproof outdoor collection. Using a lot of glueing and heat pressing, she was relying on the tape machine for sleek and clean finishings. Now, the lack of equipment has added another aesthetic dimension to her project. “I had to put the tape on the outside with another colour. It’s more graphic, so artistically, it could be a blessing.”

Sigrid Schiotz

Final year BA student Kristian David has transformed his parents’ apartment into an atelier and is settling in with the idea of staying at home for another year. “Working in isolation forces you to shut out the world and dig deeper into what you have. It limits me in a positive way, where I feel like integrating scraps and things I already own, instead of feeling the need to buy more. I was going to embroider an Arabic scripture with the machine in school, but the induction got cancelled, so I just had to find ways around that. Maybe I can use my dad’s handwriting as an alternative? Things like that can make your work fresh and simple.” Besides, Kristian finds that isolating brings along other forms of emancipation. “Here I can blast loud Iraqi music while working, which would’ve probably been inappropriate in an academic space.”

Kristian David

Final year BA student Johanna Larsson has forced her dad and younger brother to model for her. “Their reactions to what I’m creating are quite interesting.” Being a group of only 17 people, the SST students inevitably form very tight bonds between each other. “We are in small classes so we have gotten very close, and now we’re suddenly by ourselves. Some of the people in school had to leave Sweden and we didn’t even get to say goodbye.” The COVID-19 outbreak has also made Johanna stress her decisions of commencing post-graduate studies. “At first, I thought of getting some experience before starting an MA. But now I’m wondering what I would do if I have a break? It’s not like I can go anywhere. Starting an MA would mean I have something to do for a year, I think this will affect my decision.”

“This sudden break made me reflect on my wellbeing, and realise that things like being unable to sleep were actually warning signs.”

Josefin Gyllensvärd, who was going to look for internships in London after her degree, started to reconsider her student status as the pandemic hit. “I think if this pause wouldn’t have come along I wouldn’t have realised how bad I was actually feeling, so it’s more due to personal reasons than the virus itself. Being in school just made me keep on working, I wanted to make my teachers and classmates proud. So this sudden break made me reflect on my wellbeing, and realise that things like being unable to sleep were actually warning signs.”

Josefine GyllensvÑrd

Several measures have been taken to alleviate the SST graduation process. This year the students can choose to go up for examination in August instead of May and are given three different submission options. Normally a student who doesn’t pass the spring examination wouldn’t be able to showcase their work. As this requirement has been lifted, and perhaps along with the fact that all Swedish art education only grades their students with either a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’, it has contributed to the students feeling a bit more relaxed about their examination process this year. The students are having an ongoing conversation with their teachers regarding the format of their degree show.

“It’s quite scary that companies retract funds so quickly. Does this also reflect a future where businesses are scared to support creatives that try new methods to showcase their work?”

There has been a growing dissatisfaction with the original showcase, as a lot of money is invested into the Borås June show where mainly only friends and family attend. Being far from Stockholm where the core of Sweden’s fashion business is located, invited industry guests rarely show up. As the Borås show has had to cancel, they are now looking to exhibit online in the fall and physically at Copenhagen Fashion Week in February 2021, giving them extra time to work on their collections. The students are hopeful that these changes will allow them to rethink their traditional showcase and reach a wider audience. But along with the move to an online format, a large amount of the sponsorships they normally receive for their degree show was withdrawn, a development Nanna Graversen is wary of. “It’s quite scary that companies retract funds so quickly. Does this also reflect a future where businesses are scared to support creatives that try new methods to showcase their work?” Considering how the pandemic will affect the global economy, students are perhaps more concerned than ever of the life that awaits them post-graduation.

Cornelia Ferm

“What this pandemic is perhaps proving to most of us, is that our jobs and studies may not simply provide an occupation, but a community that is extremely essential to our well-being.”

As final year students have been asking to regain access to the studios ahead of the show in August, this is still unclear. Preparing for a scenario where the current restrictions could potentially be sustained into the fall, Saina acknowledges how challenging the pandemic has been for staff members. “We have not been able to give concrete answers to questions from our students since the situation is new and that recommendations change from one day to the other. Naturally, this causes great frustration.” Saina predicts that design schools will have to change perspectives along with the industry’s need for alternative production methods, and sees that an escalation within the digital sphere can pave way for innovation and new strategies in an industry that was already in need of change.

One fact becomes overwhelmingly striking when talking to students and staff at the Swedish School of Textiles: they miss each other. Although students are struggling with their new workplace setups, the social context that school provides seems to be what nearly all of them are lacking the most. “It’s an emotional ride studying fashion, and it feels quite lonely not being surrounded by other creatives. Someone who understands your feelings and mood swings as well as you do,” says Freja Wesik. Monika Colja feels that the end of their time together turned into a bit of an anti-climax, “The worst thing about this whole virus situation is that we got to end our time together in a really weird way. The last day we were all together was when we found out the school was closing and we were panicking the whole day about what to pack.” What this pandemic is perhaps proving to most of us, is that our jobs and studies may not simply provide an occupation, but a community that is extremely essential to our well-being. When the physical element of socialising disappears, our existing networks might become even more important to us. As Saina Koohnavard explains, “We realized that we need to collaborate more in order to come up with solutions.”

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now