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Meet your Materials and Products Coordinator, Billie Coxhead

Billie Coxhead, Materials and Products Co-ordinator at LCF and Central Saint Martins (CSM)
  • Written byN Brathwaite
  • Published date15 December 2021
Billie Coxhead, Materials and Products Co-ordinator at LCF and Central Saint Martins (CSM)

Our Library is based at our John Prince’s Street site and home to an exciting range of information resources, from books and magazines to amazing special collections of artist’s work, all of which are available as reference for our students to support their learning.

The London College of Fashion, UAL Library is also home to the Materials Collection which hosts a range of material samples and where students are invited to interact with and learn via the different sensory experiences. We caught up with Billie Coxhead, Materials and Products Coordinator who manages the Materials Collection to find out more about what her job entails and her favourite materials and projects past and present.

How did you get into this job?

Before starting at UAL in 2019, I previously worked at Ravensbourne University London, coordinating the library service and collections which included a materials library. This sparked my interest in materials and similar types of unique collections. This interest in material culture and the social life of materials goes back to studying Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths. It was great to ignite that interest again when starting to work with the materials library. I also completed a Masters in Library and Information Services Management at The University of Sheffield, where I focused my dissertation on the student experiences of the materials library.

As part of this research, I accompanied the Library team in visiting other materials libraries across London and had the opportunity to visit the fantastic UAL Materials and Products collections at Central Saint Martins and LCF. Here I had the chance to meet the person who helped develop the UAL collections into what they are today.

After graduating in early 2019, I took over the management of the Material Libraries at UAL. It felt like perfect timing for me to continue my research and new obsession with materials libraries. I am constantly learning more so I can support and guide students with their research.

A box of Alma Leather samples from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

A box of Alma Leather samples from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

What does your role entail?

Working full time as a Materials and Products Co-ordinator, I split my time across two UAL sites, LCF and CSM. My role involves supporting teaching and learning, by meeting with students online or in person to support and guide their materials research. I also work with course librarians and courses to deliver inductions to the collection. I also offer information literacy sessions, which involve guiding students with their online materials research using the resources from the subject guide.

The role also involves working to align the collections with UAL discourses and curriculum, including sustainability and the climate emergency. I've been creating resources that identify materials or fabrics that have been certified as sustainable in some way. Another project I'm working on is looking towards decolonising and anti-racism within the collections, which I hope to achieve by working with students and showcasing material narratives and the social life of materials.

Developing and maintaining the collections is another focus of my role. I attend trade shows to connect with manufacturers for samples and catalogues. It is important to build these relationships and contacts to ensure we continually update samples. The manufacturing industry moves very quickly, keeping up is key to reflect the industry to visitors of the collection. When we receive new samples, I have support from the amazing library assistants Rachel Hollis and Laura Lopez to process new and updated materials so that they are ready for display in the collection.

In my one-to-one tutorials, and being located directly in the library, I always find the conversations or enquiries inspiring and informative. Students' enquiries help me curate the collection to meet their needs. As an example, I’ve been asked by a number of students about the sustainability of a material or fabric, so I try and reflect this in the materials I source and showcase.

A fruit leather sample from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

A fruit leather sample from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

What’s been your favourite project - past or present?

I wanted to share the story of fabrics, to showcase the importance of knowing the lifecycle of a material or fabric when thinking critically about sustainability, so I purchased some samples of raw plant fibres. My aim was to demonstrate that many fabrics are made from fibres that have been extracted from a growing plant, then constructed into fabric. I think it helps to visualise this process and think about the fabric from the ground all the way to post consumer.

In 2019, the Tate Library and Archives collaborated with the Materials Collection for the Uniqlo Tate Lates, where material samples were taken from our collection and used at a handling table. The conversations and reactions from visitors were fantastic and it was great to outreach and share with the public the work we do at UAL.

A microscopic view of an embroidered sample using a Phonescope

A microscopic view of an embroidered sample using a Phonescope

Do you have any exciting projects in progress or planned?

Recently we ran some workshops for students to get to know the LCF Materials Collection. These workshops encouraged attendees to get hands on with some fabric samples that have been withdrawn from the collection or donated by fashion design houses. The samples were no longer commercially available from the mills or manufacturers and so were free to be taken away by students, who were then able to repurpose them in their portfolios. Some of the samples that were on offer were from the Vivienne Westwood design studio. Once the designers were finished with these swatches they were donated to LCF for students to use.

From time to time, we have mini exhibitions of work on display. Another project I am excited about is the RÆBURN and STOLL showcase across the CSM and LCF Materials Collections. We are always trying to inspire students by showcasing materials, products and innovative processes from a range of manufacturers and designers. Showcasing these items/garments in the collection allows interaction with innovative products up-close and brings the company profile and collections alive.

Students attending an Introduction to the Materials Collections workshop held at John Prince’s Street

Students attending an Introduction to the Materials Collections workshop held at John Prince’s Street

What is your favourite fabric in the Material Collection and why?

Both Hemp and Flax have a long history of use for clothing textiles. They are easy to grow and have a low environmental impact. The industry is dominated by Polyester and Cotton fibres but we are starting to see the production and manufacturing of Hemp and other plant fibres such as Flax (Linen) being used. My inspiration comes from The Sustainable Angle’s EduSeries and Kassia St Clair’s The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history.

Another favourite of mine is Wild Rubber by Flavia Amadeu. Flavia is an LCF graduate who’s PhD focused on rubber from the Amazon and highlights the importance of indigenous knowledge and working with communities to promote sustainable extraction, production and use of resources. Flavia discovered that there are a series of challenges that put the sustainability of productive conservation at risk. On one hand, the production of rubber promotes livelihood in the rainforest, suggesting an ecological and cultural significance for the rubber tappers, but on the other hand, this material cannot compete with natural rubber harvested in plantations, nationally or internationally.

Hopefully the samples will spark curiosity and showcase the importance of material narratives or stories before choosing the materials to use in projects.

A selection of hemp-based materials from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

A selection of hemp-based materials from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

Wild Rubber Skin samples by Flavia Amadeu from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

Wild Rubber Skin samples by Flavia Amadeu from the Materials Collection at John Prince’s Street

In addition to the wonderful physical resources that is the Materials Collection, I have created videos as guidance to give students an idea of the teaching and learning support we can provide. I also deliver workshops and extracurricular activities that help to expand my knowledge and share interests with students who are also interested in materials, all of which can be used as a learning resource.

As LCF plans it’s move east in 2023, the Materials Collection is also planning its space in the new building. As ideas and requirements for the new space are being discussed, we would like to ask Course Tutors and students to send your thoughts and feedback on what you would like to be featured, to materials@fashion.arts.ac.uk.