Binge Swatching

By Karen Brooks

Last year, Olivia Pagnotta was shopping for holiday gifts at Anthropologie when a familiar pattern caught her eye. “Hey, guys,” she called out to her friends while examining the subtly sparkly multicolored sweater. “I think this is a color palette I made!”

Pagnotta, a senior in textile design at the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce, had done an internship in the knitting room at URBN—the Philadelphia-based retail corporation comprising popular brands like Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and Free People—the previous summer, choosing color combinations and knitting swatches for upcoming garment projects. She knew some of her work might make it onto the sales floor eventually, but that first glimpse still took her breath away.

“Of course, I bought it. I love a good sweater, which is probably one reason I enjoy knit design,” she says. “But it does feel a little funny to wear it.”

The Medford, New Jersey, native calls that internship a “direction translation” of the skills and techniques she has learned at Jefferson, where the textile design program prepares students for careers creating designs for printed, knitted, or woven fabrics to be used in everything from apparel to wallpaper to furniture upholstery. As Pagnotta puts it, “We create things that other artists and designers then use to create other things.”

Pagnotta draws inspiration from the complexity of human emotions, using her designs to capture feelings that words cannot adequately define.

“I try to evoke strong feelings through color combinations and have always been intuitive when it comes to color,” she says. “If I’m sitting by a fire, I will pay attention to the colors around me and remember all of them. Then I can go create a palette that reminds people of the coziness of curling up by a fireplace on a cold day.”

Pagnotta’s fluency in the language of color helped her earn the top prize in the International Textile Alliance’s 2019 Showtime Cover Competition, hosted by Showtime Market, the largest home textiles trade show in the United States. Her winning design began as a class project where students were asked to create a print based on the works of an artist from a list provided by the instructor. Pagnotta picked contemporary abstract painter Moe Brooker, known for his bright and bold patterns and shapes.

“Brooker paints with these energetic brush strokes, and his motive is to convey joy and happiness,” Pagnotta says. “I related to that and wanted people to look at my design and feel joy. My design is traditional, with leaves and branches—but I made it fresh by using fun colors. It was incredible to start out doing it for a class assignment and then to find out it won this competition.” Pagnotta’s design will be featured on a future cover of Showtime magazine.

As impressive as her textile design accomplishments have been, Pagnotta spent her first three semesters at Jefferson as a health sciences major focusing on occupational therapy. Craving a more creative outlet, she tried to appease herself by pursuing art projects on her own time. A favorite medium since childhood, colored pencils were rarely far from reach; she used them to sketch her surroundings, her friends, and her cat, Honey.

At the time, she had one roommate studying fashion design and another studying textile design, and she found herself envying their assignments. The former would be experimenting with fabrics, bleaching or dyeing them to see how they turned out, and the latter was immersed in a live-model figure drawing class. “I want to do stuff like that,” Pagnotta thought. She ultimately transitioned into the textile design program, a move that surprised none of her loved ones—many of whom expressed relief that she was rerouting to a path that aligned with her longtime interest in art.

“‘Studio culture’ really appeals to me,” Pagnotta says. “You can be in there working on something, and people who are not even in your class will help you—both peers and faculty. We’re all so excited about and invested in what we are doing, we can’t help but look over at others and ask, ‘Oh, what kind of weave is that? What project is that for?’”

She points out, however, that she hasn’t left science completely behind.

“Chemistry is an important part of what we do, especially in color dyeing and finishing. We’re not just learning how to design for aesthetics, but how every single part of the process should be done—like how to dye a fabric so it holds up and what techniques to use to prevent colors from bleeding or fading in the wash,” she explains. “Our program takes us all the way from the fibers to the final product.”

She knew some of her work might make it onto the sales floor eventually, but that first glimpse still took her breath away.

A byproduct of all of this knowledge, Pagnotta says, is greater mindfulness when purchasing items for herself. She can spot “fast fashion”—inexpensive, trendy clothing that copies catwalk or celebrity styles and is mass-produced cheaply at breakneck speed—wherever she goes. 

“I can feel a fabric and know instantly how it was made and whether it’s good quality. Fast fashion is everywhere, and school has made me more aware of it than ever,” she notes.

Although she now spends most of her days designing print and knit patterns, Pagnotta’s affinity for colored pencil sketching endures. In fact, she attributes much of her success to years of drawing with the medium because, like knitting, it’s one in which artists can’t create new hues.

“Colored pencils are not like watercolors, which you can mix together to make a whole new color,” she says. “Instead, you’re blending solids. With yarns, it’s the same—you’re not actually mixing them, but picking individual yarns that will convey a new color when put together. I think using colored pencils for so long gave me an edge when it comes to knit design.”

Set to graduate in May, Pagnotta is not sure what her future holds. She plans to stay in Philadelphia to pursue as many opportunities as she can find to hone her skills in different areas of textiles and design.

“I know I made the right decision by switching programs, and I know I don’t want to limit myself to just one thing. Right now, the possibilities are pretty endless.”