A Chat with Elizabeth Olwen

JUL 7, 2015 updated Jul 29, 2021

Creating a fabric collection is an exciting but involved process. From gathering inspiration to getting started with the the hands-on designing process, it takes a lot of work. As a part of our SpoonChallenge: Creating a Fabric Collection with designer Bonnie Christine, we’re sharing exciting interviews with textile design rockstars. Today we take a few minutes to dig into inspiration, daily life, and design with Toronto-based designer Elizabeth Olwen!

Describe your typical day

This is an organic and ever-changing thing… But every day starts with a good cuppa tea and a snuggle with my two cats. I work from home, so I can ease into the day. I spend a good deal of time answering emails and managing the administrative aspect of my business, and on good days, lots of creative work. I could be working on new greeting cards for a client, or developing home decor products, or planning my next Skillshare class, or my favourite, just spending time drawing or developing new patterns with no particular client in mind. I do find that I really like to work on the most creative aspects of my work at night, away from my computer, when I know that work emails have stopped for the day and I can feel most free. I tend to work a lot, because I love what I do, but I’m always actively striving for work/life balance and making time for myself and the people I love.

Describe your creative process

I like to surround myself with inspiration, and always have my eyes open when I’m out and about, in the city or camping or wherever, always looking for something that might spark an idea. I take lots of photos and have a nice big catalogue of inspiration for when I need ideas. And if ideas seem to be forming and growing, I’ll whip up a mood board that I can keep by my side while I’m working towards new collections. Then I just draw, and draw, and draw. I like to get away from my computer for this part, go outside or put some music or background TV on, and just let the ideas pour out freely onto a page. Once I feel like I’ve got a lot of ideas to work with, I start digitizing my work — I take a picture of my work with my phone, and then trace the image in an app on my iPad called Inkpad, which allows me to export vector graphics and further manipulate them in Illustrator. I’ll bring all my motifs into Illustrator and start to gently assemble my patterns, piece by piece, with lots of love and care. And hopefully, at the end of that, I like what I see and do a little happy dance.

What do you find inspiring?

So many things… but nature is at the top of the list. I love flowers and leaves and trees and it never ceases to amaze me how each one is so unique. I find that idea so inspiring. I love the gardens I walk by in the city, the forests I camp in during the summer. I love daydreaming about British landscapes and am eternally inspired by fairytales. I also collect vintage fabrics and wallpapers– a constant source of inspiration to me.

Why do you think design is important?

Because life is messy and complicated sometimes. And in the midst of all that, I think it’s so important to have reminders of all the beauty in the world. To strive for a more beautiful life. To keep creativity alive in our daily lives. To be inspired. To take satisfaction in the simple joys of visual beauty. I really do get satisfaction from beautiful design and I think it has the power to lift people up, like a bright floral umbrella on a rainy day.

When did you know you wanted to pursue design as a career?

I’ve always known, though growing up in a very small town with little exposure to design, I can’t say it was encouraged. I almost went to school to be a landscape architect, which amuses me now because to some degree, I became one… I create digital gardens now. I ended up going to art school and quickly fell in love with design, training as a graphic designer and working in advertising for many years before realizing that something was missing. I took a creative sabbatical in Berlin and found myself getting up to create patterns every day, and I haven’t turned back! I truly believe I’ve found my calling.

Do you have collections or designs that you like better?

I always try to make them the best they can be, and don’t like to put something out into the world if I’m not super excited about it because if I’m not excited, why would anyone else be? That said, there are certain collections or designs that are extra special to me: pivotal designs where I discover I could do something I didn’t know I could; designs that surprise me; collections that push me past what I thought I was capable of, or where I can see my style evolving – those have an extra special spot in my heart.

  When I’m in my studio, I feel that the world is full of possibility

How have your experiences shaped your aesthetic/process/look?

When I was a kid, I lived in a pattern-filled apartment. Our kitchen had this amazing floral wallpaper, and when the adults were engaged in adult conversation, those patterns were my windows to faraway places. I would get lost in my own little daydream, trying to figure out where the pattern started and ended, and looking at all the little details that made it so special. This feeling is something I strive for in my work… I like to keep them varied, dense, engaging, so that every time they go back to it they might find something new and interesting and create the backdrops for their daydreams.

Who influences your work? (this can be anyone, not just an artist) and why?

Drake! His ambition is super inspiring to me and it doesn’t hurt that he’s from my city, Toronto. It seems like it’s been part of the Canadian identity for so long to be the underdog, to downplay our successes, to not be overly confident, and to leave room for someone else’s success. He’s helped create a real sense of pride and confidence about our city, and ourselves, and the amazing things that are happening here. His success and perspective keeps me moving forward, and aspiring to be the best I can be at what I love.

What’s your favorite color?

I always say that it’s impossible for me to choose just one… but my top 3 would be mint, mustard and peach!

Where have you felt the most inspired?

I always feel really inspired when I’m traveling, and seeing new things with fresh eyes. I mentioned my sabbatical when I spent 3 months in Berlin, just being creatively free in an incredible city. I love to go camping and do that often in the summer, I enjoy being in the middle of the forest surrounded by trees and greenery.

If you could live in a painting, what painting would it be?

Anything by Matisse! His work is so joyful.


If you could only wear one fabric, what would be on it?

Flowers, of course! 🙂

What’s the secret to a strong collection?

The perfect balance of cohesion and contrast… a bunch of motifs, shapes or qualities that come together perfectly, and then something quite different to break it up. And a really beautiful colour palette.


About Our Guest Author

Elizabeth Olwen is a Toronto-based surface designer. Inspired by pastoral beauty, nature in its most playful forms, folklore, and romance, Elizabeth’s work is driven by the desire to leave something beautiful behind with every step she takes.

Her obsession with patterns began as a child when she would become mesmerized by the orange floral drapes in her mother’s kitchen. Surrounded by bold, unapologetic prints, patterns were something that she could lose herself in; a window to faraway places. Through the years, the love of patterns remained, and inspired her to start making her own.

Elizabeth loves old wallpapers and vintage fabrics, cannot be forced to choose a favourite colour, and is hopelessly devoted to travel. She has a growing collection of licensed products available in the market, with clients like Land of Nod, Cloud9 Fabrics, Madison Park Greetings, Target, TeNeues Publishing and Landor.

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