JACKET WITH FISH AND PLANTS from the Botanical Collection of wool fabric printed with handcarved linoleum blocks, 2010. Photograph by Peter Groesbeck.
K. Riley

Painted Fauna and Flora—Branches of Silken Variation




Surface design is but one facet of a larger picture in which she makes use of curiosity to power a wide range of directions in wearable art.

What makes an aesthetic distinctive? Perhaps one may call this a style; a range of aesthetic elements that form a coherent whole. But what are the origins of a style? Tracing back, one will find at its heart imitation and experimentation. Always involving elements that have come before, thereof comes structure; always deviating from these elements, thereof comes variation. Through variation one may find elements that have come before, and thus similarities and coherencies take shape.

COAT WITH TULIPS from the Turkish Collection of handpainted silk crêpe with painted silk chiffon appliqué, 2007. Photograph by Matthew Hollerbush.

It is the exploration of the mystery, the experimentation, the untaken paths taken that have informed Pennsylvanian fiber artist K. Riley’s artistic evolution. With that came a very sound structure, as from the beginning Riley had a natural affinity with textiles. Originally from England, Riley’s father was recruited by Boeing, which resulted in the family moving to the United States in 1968. Her mother was a dressmaker, and Riley moved from making clothes for her dolls to making her own clothes as a teenager. This organic process led to her participation in fiber retail, also at a young age. “I took a year off after high school, before I went to college, and I started a retail business with my mother and my sister, where we made clothing and sold it,” Riley explains.

She would continue to work each summer for her family’s business, while going to the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Riley feels she had a solid art education at Moore College. Naming a few teachers, she reminisces, “Debra Warner and Michael Ochevsky from the textile department were probably my two favorite. Betsy Ginsberg too. They were all wonderful.” In her senior year at Moore, for her internship, Riley would work with Mary McFadden in New York City doing handpainted fabrics. Of course, this provided the vital seed from which Riley’s artistic career sprung. “I guess I never thought that I’d be in any kind of clothing business, I thought I would be a textile designer,” she remarks. Working for McFadden, however, Riley “saw how you could turn handpainted fabric into a line of clothing. And that’s kind of what started me. When I got back, I had that whole feeling, okay, I can make fabric that is specifically for one item of clothing.”

After college, Riley began her own business, as her mother wanted to retire and her sister had a child. Her early work was largely handpainted sweaters. Riley recalls, “I handpainted silk and appliquéd it onto handloomed sweaters. I used a resist process to paint the silk. I stretched silk on a frame then I outlined the designs with hot beeswax, using a paint brush. I painted within the beeswax resist; the wax stopped the paint from spreading. I cut out the painted designs and appliquéd them onto the sweaters.” Explaining further, Riley elaborates on the limitations of knitting, “when you’re knitting, you’re kind of restricted whenever you do any kind of pattern. It’s like everything is done in a square block, on a grid form. There’s only so much detail you can get on a grid form.

SLASHED JACKET WITH PANELS from the Turkish Collection of layered, slashed and washed silk and linen fabrics with handpainted silk chiffon appliqué, 2007. Photograph by Matthew Hollerbush.

“I did that for ten years with the sweaters,” Riley remembers. “And I was very successful. But I found that with knitting, I felt I was being boxed into a corner, and that I’d done as much as I could. I couldn’t grow any longer. So I stopped knitting and just started painting silk, making clothing that way.” Riley’s interests in textiles coincide with her attraction to drawing and illustrating, which has resulted in her extensive devotion to surface design. That said, it is important to recognize that Riley’s artistic essence is the epitome of diversity. Surface design is but one facet of a larger picture in which she makes use of curiosity to power a wide range of directions in wearable art, including her focus on a garment’s shape and form, as well as its texture. Like a branch spreading, Riley has various collections that experiment with contrasting aspects of the overall design, always exploring new avenues.

Two examples are Riley’s Persian and Turkish Collections. Completed in 2006 and 2007, respectively, one can already see traces of Riley’s process. In her Persian Collection, every piece incorporates changes in surface texture. Her Slashed Jacket With Buds is made from black layered silk and linen, which is then cut and washed to form the ribboned surface. However, the presence of a flat silk panel, painted with an abstract flower design, posts its counterpoint, creating visual and textural contrast.

We see the idea of the Slashed Jacket With Buds expanded in Dot Slashed Jacket With Tulip, where broad, flat silk panels alternate with layered slashed linen and silk. Again, a bright painted panel of a flower provides stimulation. The Persian Collection is roughly divided among these two variations, one uniform in surface texture, one alternating. This dualism, or perhaps more accurately termed, multilateral approach, creates several foundations upon which elements of a cohesive style are built. Playing with smooth or rough surface textures, applying painted panels or keeping open spaces, and experimenting with the cut and drape of the garment—these are the areas of possible contrast that Riley uses to create aesthetic complexity and coherence in her Persian Collection.

The Turkish Collection continues this avenue of design exploration, with a noticeable simplification of elements. Elegant, graceful and sumptuous, by eschewing the slashed fabric and transferring the painted imagery to the entire garment, Riley has accomplished a different feel and look by just adjusting a few aspects of the design first seen in the Persian Collection. By maintaining throughout both collections similar elements while adding new ones, Riley’s process is most clearly visible. It is incremental and it builds upon itself. It takes new steps and then decides what is kept and what is left.

TURQUOISE KIMONO WITH FLOWERS of handpainted silk chiffon using brushwork and salt dyeing, 2004. Photograph by John Woodin.

Clothing throughout the world, from ages past and present inform Riley’s creative palette. As seen with two of her collections, Middle Eastern fashion is one source of influence. Another is Japanese textiles. The broad open space provided by the kimono is alluring to any textile artist, and Riley has played with the form for many years. It appears that the kimono is where Riley stretches her color theory and patternmaking. In contrast to the mainly black Persian and Turkish Collections, Riley’s kimonos are usually suffused with bright pastel colors of purples, yellows, reds, chalk white, and salmon pink. “The kimono form is a great form, because it’s an easy form to paint, an easy form to decorate,” Riley says appreciatively. “A traditional kimono is made of narrow strips of fabric that are handstitched together and taken apart over time. It all fits together with no waste. You don’t cut out a kimono. They’re the perfect canvas.” Mirroring its construction, Riley often makes each strip a panel, featuring a separate design or pattern. Areas of dense and sparse decoration provide space for the eye to focus and to travel, encouraging one’s gaze to remain mobile.

Her kimonos are another way to view Riley’s growth process. Several series of kimonos made in 2002, 2003 and 2004 show shifts in composition and decoration. While the differences are not major, in Riley’s earlier kimonos several elements are varied to achieve each final piece. Each panel of the garment is either a flat color, decorated with a dense repeating pattern, or bearing a more open design. These are juxtaposed in various combinations, creating garments that are either solidly patterned or checkered with open and closed space. In the 2003 kimonos, the noticeable change is the development in the patterns and designs themselves. Leaves and flowers imprinted against lustrous green and violet silk contrast with the abstract patterns of Riley’s earlier kimonos. A complex rendition of circular objects on a black silk surface seems like an open rock face exposing scores of fossilized ammonites; they also resemble flowers, when the design is projected and tweaked on a purple background. If there is a progression, it is from the abstract designs of 2002 to the more representational designs of the ensuing year.

PLUM SHORT KIMONO of silk chiffon and glass beads, 2002. The silk is discharged using paste applied with a brush. Fabrics are painted and pieced. Photograph by John Woodin.

It seems that Riley has a habit of circling back to previous explorations. Her 2004 kimonos return to the abstract designs of two years previous, but possess a superior sense of color; the patterns themselves are better rendered, as well. Comparing these earlier and later kimonos, it is as if Riley’s work is coming into focus, as the lens of a camera whirs.

This cycle of returning to earlier motifs and refining them seems to be an integral part of Riley’s artistic process. It means that her clothing is always evolving in iterations. However, because Riley does not simply focus on one aspect of her work, but pushes out on several fronts, she improves not just on a single level, but on multiple ones.

Riley’s odyssey into the realm of variation is responsible for her newest work, the fruition of long experimentation with diversity. It is as if many separate strands have at last been woven together to form a tapestry of Riley’s experience, artistic sensibilities and innovation. This summation is surprising because of its departure from Riley’s previous work. Simpler, as if refined from the raw material of her prior work, colored in matte grays or shining silver with an emphasis on form, and decorated with impeccably printed fish, insects and plant life, Riley’s Botanical Collection is certainly a new direction.

The Botanical Collection features linoleum block printing, and it is the first time Riley has utilized the technique. “Linoleum was developed as a floor covering back in the late 1800s,” Riley recounts. “I use a version that’s attached to a one-inch-thick block of wood. My blocks range in size from two by two to ten by twelve inches. I sketch a design on the linoleum surface and carve out the image with a knife and U- and V-shaped tools. The blocks work like a woodblock print but the linoleum is easier to carve than wood.”

VEST WITH MOTH from the Botanical Collection of wool fabric printed with handcarved linoleum blocks and block printed silk organza scarf, 2010. Photograph by Peter Groesbeck.

Having previously handpainted most of her designs, the linoleum printing offers much more precision. Riley fills out the details of the process, remarking, “I like to have a lot of detail in my blocks. It’s a meticulous process to carve them. To print, I pin the already cut garment pieces to a padded table. I apply textile paint to the block with a brayer, then I print each image individually.” Riley’s inspiration for the collection was partially derived from natural history prints. “Once I started to work with the linoleum block, I got the feeling of those old botanical prints that were done in the 1700s by the explorers. So when I did that collection, I wanted the shapes of the garments to have that historical look.”

The Botanical Collection is a new direction in form for Riley as well. Her earlier work was mainly influenced by the clothing of the 1920s and 1930s. “I very much like straight, soft fabric; I like that silhouette very much. And so a lot of my clothing, up until a certain period, was strongly influenced by that era,” Riley reminisces. “Lately I’ve become more experimental with the shape. I wasn’t trained as a patterncutter or fashion designer, but I’ve learned a lot about it. You realize you can make a lot of different forms just by the way you drape the fabric and stitch things together, and I’m fascinated by that, which is another reason I like to look at historic clothing. How it’s stitched together, and how the pieces are cut and how they’re put together. It’s like making a sculpture out of a piece of fabric.”

Riley mentions the flutters of trepidation she had when choosing the motifs to decorate her clothing. Detailing the beginnings of the Botanical Collection, she says, “I’ve always been influenced by nature. As a textile designer, I love the patterns on butterflies. It started with that. So I got books on butterflies, looked at all the different patterns on them, and thought, well, everyone does butterflies. So I decided, I’ll do moths, because I think moths are just as beautiful.” Utilizing insects, particularly ones with negative connotations like moths, was felt to be slightly risqué. “In general, if you tell someone that you’re drawing a moth and you’re going to print it on clothing, they’re going to be horrified,” Riley explains. “I like to find beauty in those things that others don’t find beauty in. And they don’t find beauty only because they’re not really looking.” However, her worry has been groundless, as the collection has been very popular. “What happened was, it became the opposite of that. I had so many people who just loved the insects. More people were impressed and loved them than seemed to dislike them. So I was very pleasantly surprised, after being nervous about putting insects on clothing. The response was good.”

TAFFETA JACKET WITH PLANTS, DRAGONFLY AND MOTH from the Botanical Collection of silk taffeta fabric with bias organza trim, printed with handcarved linoleum blocks, 2010. Handpainted silk pin with gold lamé and pearls. Photograph by Peter Groesbeck.

For the foreseeable future, Riley sees herself continuing to experiment within her Botanical Collection. “I feel like I have a lot more to explore with the Botanicals, with the lightweight wools I’ve been working with. I don’t feel done with them at all. I feel like there’s quite a few more years in me to work with this. For now, I want to grow that idea, I want to grow the shapes.”

As a craft artist, Riley emphasizes the importance of being able to run one’s own business. Her early experience working for her family’s store introduced her to the nitty-gritty of sales, display and marketing. “I got a feeling for working with customers, and making clothing for people, and knowing what they liked and what they would buy,” Riley mentions. “I knew how to price things, how to add up my labor. I had a knowledge of the selling end of the business before I actually graduated college. Art school can’t really teach you that. I think you’d need to go to business school, but sometimes I think that it’s a practical knowledge.”

When asked about the influence travel has had on her life and art, Riley has an interesting perspective. “I grew up in England. I’m a naturalized American citizen ... I know the language is the same, but sometimes I feel like a foreigner. I feel like I’ve traveled a lot, just because I’ve lived in different places. I’ve had to live in two different places, and once you’ve done that, I think you realize that no place is truly home anymore. You always feel there’s some other way of looking at things. Unless you’ve experienced it, I think sometimes it’s hard for others to understand that.

“I’m definitely an experimenter because I think that keeps my work fresh. I look at a lot of historical clothing. Nothing is ever new. It’s mostly been done before. You change the process; it changes how the work comes out. If you continue to utilize the same process, the clothing tends to look the same all the time. And I want my work to look different. I really want it to progress.”



More K. Riley fiber images



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