Girl TORQUE: Textiles in cars

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

I was chatting to a textile designer the other day. She has a degree in textile design, specialising in woven fabrics. She spent some time hand-weaving fabrics for high-end home interiors and she is an artist with fabric – but she doesn’t work in fashion, or soft furnishings for that matter.

She’s employed by Holden, where she works on colour and trim for the cars we drive.

That’s right, not an engineer but a textile artist, making sure that the bits we take for granted – the seats we sit on as we drive – look and feel right and go the distance.

So how does someone go from hand-weaving fabrics for Britain’s plusher living rooms, to designing automotive materials?

Rebecca Christianson’s an interesting woman. Her interiors period was followed by a job in Germany, working on seating fabrics and leathers for Opel – the Euro branch of GM. Then she moved to Australia to design knitted and woven seat fabrics and headliners for a company supplying the auto industry.

And when I say design, I don’t just mean its look. There’s a lot more involved. It must withstand the sort of sun damage that rots household curtains, not to mention the punishment your seats get as you slide on and off them all day. The weave can’t distort or degrade but it still has to look good, even if its appearance and feel come across on only a subliminal level. Must be a bit dispiriting for its creator at times, after all, when’s the last time your first response on viewing a car was, ‘looove that fabric!’ But you’d sure notice if you hated it, the colour didn’t match or it fell apart after only a year or two of use.

From Australia, Rebecca returned to Europe and worked on a Hyundai concept car. That must have been fun, for you can push the envelope without worrying about wear factors and practicality – you only need to look at the leather shag-pile carpets in some concepts to realise their creators are artists, not engineers.

She also did some trend research, visiting interior design and car trade fairs to develop future fabric strategy. You think fashion’s forward-thinking? The seat fabrics being designed now are for cars which won’t sell for several years, and folk like Rebecca must work out what will be fashionable way ahead of time.

She must have liked Australia because she’s back, now working on stuff like wheel finishes and cabin plastics and their texture; on paint colours and exterior trim; all the things that make your car look good and feel right.She even travelled to Korea to help develop materials for the new Cruze, including its innovative fabric dash.

Rebecca’s fascinating to talk to, and a great advertisement for thinking laterally in these straightened times. You can imagine her parents’ horror that she was doing a degree so manifestly not suited to steady work in the modern world. Then their pride that this young woman with a flair for fabric is now so pivotal to something we take for granted – the cars we drive.

Read previous Girl TORQUE columns here.

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