A month ago a man of colour faded from existence at the age of 91 — a bit like his velvet ribbons above. The man was a textile designer, born in Serbia, educated in Czechoslovakia and Israel, intrigued and influenced by the pointillism of Seurat. Bernat Klein became one of Britain’s most famous designers in the 1960s, and the toast of Paris when top fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior, Cardin, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent embraced with enthusiasm his vibrantly coloured mohair and velvet tweeds. Later he employed a battalion of hand knitters to create sweaters and cardigans in richly hued mohair and other fancy yarns produced in his mills.
Making his home in the Scottish Borders, Klein became obsessed by colour, and came to believe colours were as important as words as they could prompt a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. Whilst this belief may be challenged — especially by writers — I can understand where Klein was coming from with this.
My father was a textile buyer whose grandfather was a tailor, and whose mother, when young, worked in his tailoring business, hand stitching the lapels of suits — a highly skilled operation I believe. So I come from a family with thread and fabrics in the blood, with a love of the tactile feel of cloth and yarns.
When my husband and I first moved to the Borders, textile mills still abounded, and it was easy to pick up, at mill sales, lengths of sumptuous materials and wonderful knitwear. But times changed and mills shut down. Over the years as they closed we went to sales to pick up mementoes. We were at the closing sale of one of Klein’s mills, and I was able to pick up some lengths of his tweeds and other materials for a song. His loosely knitted mohair cardigans kept me warm through many long winters, becoming old friends.
When, a few years ago, a small exhibition about Klein was held in one of his old mills, which had become part of Heriot Watt University’s Textile Department, we rushed along to see not only his textiles, but also his paintings and extracts from the books he wrote.
Mills have a very distinctive smell of oily wool that swaddles before you’ve had time to take in surroundings — enormous weaving sheds and workrooms with thick floorboards worn to a lustrous patina, impregnated with decades of lanolin; long, wide tables with brass yard rules on the edges; large baskets on wheels for moving cones and pirns of yarn; the pirns themselves, smooth and shiny from the constant rub of wool in a myriad colours, and sleek wooden shuttles sprouting ends of the last used yarns.
Decades after their manufacture Klein’s clothes still seemed to me desirable, but then good design has a timeless quality, and the colours still make me feel breathless and weak at the knees. Wandering through the exhibition, it was both moving and thought provoking to travel Klein’s journey from enjoying the Borders countryside, to creating abstract paintings of it that then provided inspiration for the colours and weaves of his yarns and tweeds.
“As I painted the gentle Borders countryside in the spring, absorbed the blue evenings of late summer, caught my breath at the incredible richness of its clear coppery autumn and finally brooded along with its morbid winters, I kept on seeing everything in terms of colours and cloth. Colour was all around me, pursuing me, cajoling me, asking to be admitted into my life.” (Bernat Klein, Eye for Colour, 1965)
So I can understand Klein’s fascination with colour and texture, and to him these became his means of expression, his words.
In my last book one of the characters was a textile designer. The book about to be published substitutes the colour and textures of sand and seaweed for fabrics. The one under revision has the feel of materials bringing back memories of a mother who lived in India during the years leading up to independence. The inspiration for this book came from an aunt who had been in India during that period.
As I was checking Bernat Klein’s obituary for this piece I discovered that he came to Britain in 1945 on the SS Franconia, a Cunarder White Star line vessel built by John Brown’s yard on the Clyde. The Franconia was the ship used as headquarters for Churchill during the 1945 Yalta conference to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganisation. It was the same ship my aunt and uncle also travelled on during their sojourn in the tropics. Amongst the memorabilia that has come down to me is a post card of it.
What a small world we live in!