Pukka Fabre's first fabric llection

Tom Parker

'For me, textiles feel like a bloody good meal, with a bloody good bottle of wine in the company of bloody good friends.’ What French-born Nicole Fabre doesn’t know about antique textiles, isn’t worth knowing. Over the past 35 years she has fallen in love with hundreds of museum-quality French examples, reproducing some of them for her eponymous label. This grand passion shows no sign of waning, especially with the creation of a new and exciting company underway with Jools Cornell, founder of Pukka Print, which produces beautiful hand-block-printed linens.

Jools and Nicole knew each other a little because their fabrics are sold through Helen Cormack’s London showroom Tissus d’Hélène. Jools had approached Nicole last year in the hope of buying a design or two from her archive to take to her block printer in Jaipur, Gitto Patni. Luckily, as it turned out, nothing was for sale (Nicole regrets once selling some irreplaceable pieces and vowed not to make that mistake again). But why not reproduce something together? Jools’s experience with Indian block printing and Nicole’s expert eye could be a formidable combination. Neither woman was prepared for where this partnership would take them.

Along with Nicole’s business partner, John Laflin, the three set off to Nicole’s warehouse in Norfolk to select a fabric or two, but before they knew it, they were carting piles of them back to Nicole’s house nearby and spreading them out on the kitchen table. ‘I looked at Jools and her face was like a child on Christmas Day,’ Nicole says. At this initial meeting, unable to help themselves, they put what would become five new collections together: the first, The French Collection, was launched at this year’s London Design Week, with another to follow in the next 12 months. ‘It was completely instinctive and the amazing thing was that we were pretty much in total agreement,’ says Jools. ‘It felt very special.’ Four of the patterns chosen for printing in India for this first collection date from the 1760s. They were selected for their scale, which needed to be suitable for block printing, and for their colours. Nicole has great respect for the original colourways, which were conceived with such skill. Both women were also mindful of what Helen Cormack thought, as she has a keen commercial instinct and would be the one selling them.

John was instrumental in developing the scraps of fabric into repeats. As the former design director of Liberty of London Prints, he approached the task with masterly attention to detail. He had a brilliant idea for ‘Persia’, a paisley in The French Collection. Imagining it as curtains, he scaled each stripe so, when the curtains are open, you can choose to see just the paisley or the flower stripe part of the pattern. Last September, the repeat artworks and original fabrics were sent to India, where the designs were hand-carved into wooden blocks. Each colour in a block-printed design requires a separate block, so the more colours or ‘separations’ a textile has, the more complicated it is to produce. Only an experienced block-maker and printer could guarantee the project’s success. Jools had previously printed nine collections with Gitto: ‘She’s the best block printer in India – a natural teacher and, once you’ve earned her trust, very giving of her knowledge.’ Having never met Gitto, Nicole was a little nervous. ‘I’d heard about her – her character, professionalism and temperament – and was petrified. But we found we’re similar in character and share a sense of humour, so we hit it off straight away.’

Gitto’s desire for perfection is extremely rare in the world of block printing –and her experience and wisdom influence every stage of the printing process, from the separations and carving of the blocks through to the colour mixing and printing. By the time Nicole and Jools arrived in Jaipur in November, the wooden blocks were carved and ready. Nicole confesses she had kept her nerves under wraps. ‘I watched the printer place that first block on the cloth. The dexterity! The precision! That sold it to me. I have seen a lot of block printing but of this exceptional quality? Never!’

There is an echo of a fairy tale in these designs, first imagined by a jobbing textile artist in eighteenth-century France and brought to life by many hands. Later, they were all but forgotten. If Nicole had not fallen in love with possibly the last tiny scraps of fabric, their story would have ended there. But now they find themselves in India 250 years later, where many new hands have worked to bring them back to life.

Jools, Nicole and John are jubilant about the results. ‘What started out as a one-off collaboration has developed with enormous speed, trust, passion and energy into a new company called Pukka Fabre,’ Jools explains. ‘Now we’ve planted this seed, it is growing and just going to get better and better,’ says Nicole, ‘It is like Casablanca, the start of an amazing friendship – a partnership between two women with a passion for textiles’.

Pukka Print: pukkaprintlinen.com
Nicole Fabre Designs: nicolefabredesigns.com
The French Collection by Pukka Fabre is available from Tissus d’Hélène: tissusdhelene.co.uk