For those who marvel at, adore and delight in surface pattern, this winter and next spring/summer have offered an almost overwhelming choice. Where to look first: to the clinical precision of Arabic-inspired geometry at Kenzo, or perhaps the heady, heavy call of shimmering gold-shot Indian brocade at Anna Sui? After almost a decade of mass-produced conspicuous consumption, which came to a head in the flash-trash, boulder-shoulder 1980s revival of last season, we can at last breathe a sigh of relief and stop trying so hard. With such a sensory feast, this year is set to be a true celebration of the handmade.
Worldly worries are all too real at present, so it is perhaps no surprise that designers are offering as distraction a historical journey, back to a slower, more artisanal way of life. Certainly it is no bad thing to look back to the days when "handmade" meant exactly that: textiles took time to create and were valued all the more for it - pieces such as the woven raffia velvet kuba cloths in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which were painstakingly made by hand and so prized they were often used as currency and were buried with the dead as a mark of status. Similarly, phulkaris and baghs, from Punjab, are large embroidered blankets stitched from the back in floss silk and so fragile that one mistake means unpicking weeks of work to retain a flawless finish. Traditionally, each took months to create and were valued enough to be used as part of a dowry. Tales abound of families starting to stitch them years before their children were of marrying age, to create the perfect and most valuable cloth.
These pieces, though some may have lost their traditional roles in our modern world, can still teach us something: the value of an item that has been tirelessly worked on until it is as good as it can be, something that has no defined role other than to be exquisitely beautiful. Should we hark back to a so-called golden age, long past and beyond reproach? Of course not. However, there is value to be had in taking stock occasionally and learning to enjoy what already surrounds us, rather than constantly searching for the new. And that is how this year's pattern-heavy collections can be seen: as a fleeting reconnection with our past and an opportunity to enjoy it in a modern context. Compared to the haste and fury of the rag trade, these tales may seem old and quaint. But as the fantastical creators that dictate fashion look further afield in search of the new, it seems that they, too, are relishing something that's been under their noses all along.
Batik refers to a hand-applied wax pattern that masks fabric during the dyeing process. Wax is molten, so patterns can be applied with great delicacy, but it is also fragile and cracks during dyeing, leaving distinctive hairline veining. The effect is spontaneous, immediate and retains the feel of the artist's hand. This is another technique that Dries Van Noten has embraced for spring/summer 2010, and with such diverse batik-practising cultures to reference, from South East Asia to Africa, he has taken the simple option and included them all. South East Asian batiks centre around Indonesia and are delicate, if sombre, traditionally in earthy tones of brown and mushroom. Each area produces its own patterns, from the florid floral swirls of Solo to the block patterns of Yogyakarta, which Van Noten has translated almost directly into his collection. West African batiks, meanwhile, are much freer and more spontaneous, with characteristic bold strokes and strong use of colour. The energy is palpable, and again Van Noten has harnessed it almost directly. Marc by Marc Jacobs, too, has fallen under the spell of batik, but with a more stylised, linear interpretation in a glorious sunshine yellow.
Clean design never dates, so perhaps it's no surprise that designers are offering deceptively simple answers for difficult days. The symmetry of a complex and endlessly repeating pattern is strangely soothing: the pattern is doing the work so you don't have to, if you like. Having adorned the walls and floors of the most famous buildings in the Middle East for many centuries, perhaps it's inevitable that the designs of the tiles and frescoes of our region's architecture would eventually have a moment of glory. It can go two ways: a motif of diamonds in a circle, as seen at Temperley of London, is uncompromising in its simplicity. Blocked out in stark black and white, this brash combination might prompt some to shy away, but don't dismiss it too readily. Kept large-scale and teamed with a balloonish trouser cut, the effect is confident and daring. For a quieter confidence, look to Kenzo, which has drawn on the full history of a design sensibility that stretches from Iraq to Turkey, using Arab-esque geometries in soft, mottled colours. The result is breathtaking in its modernity, despite referencing a style that's more than 1,000 years old.
Florals have been the perennial fallback of fashion for centuries, from the roccoco blooms of Marie-Antoinette to the faded blossoms of Liberty prints. They are a mark of femininity that fashion usually flirts with in some form or another. After the recent fads of romantic rosettes and Georgia O'Keefe-style proportions, the flower has once more been reinvented. Slightly abstracted and stylised, the new florals are pretty but never girly. More importantly, the proportions are back at a natural scale. The biggest prints on the runway this year are are at Marni, whose pop art approach is fresh and vibrant, while DKNY's 1930s-influenced prints are overworked with beading and kept sharp and urban with an edgy grey undertone. Thakoon has opted for layers of contrasting florals, again reminiscent of the 1930s but this time in the guise of housecoats: pretty yet somehow utilitarian. But it is the print maestro Erdem who has truly embraced the inevitable femininity of the look, embroidering, appliquéing, printing and floating them on a sea of nude silk. Looking curiously like Victorian découpage, the overall effect is of having to dip one's head to pass through a bower in an English country cottage garden.
More often associated with the cold and dark days of winter thanks to the thickness of the jacquard weave (named for the French inventor of the jacquard loom), brocade is at long last enjoying a moment in the sun. For spring, designers are taking inspiration from the sari makers of India and opting to use the light, intricate "zari" brocade, traditionally used as a border decoration. Still rendered in metallics, the characteristic sheen is retained but handled in a light, summery way. Anna Sui has, for spring/summer, created a dress seemingly patchworked out of sari borders, so sweet and fresh because of the gleaming gold, rather than in spite of it. Kenzo's cropped, double-breasted jacket retains its opulence with golden art nouveau swirls on a dove-grey background. The integrity of the brocade is maintained, yet the contrasting tone keeps it modern. Paired on the runway with crushed velvet trousers, this look captures the luxurious quality of a painting by Jean Auguste Ingres. Looking even further ahead, Oscar de la Renta's pre-fall collection has picked up almost all of these pattern trends including a fabulous pink and metallic brocade dress in his trademark Fifties-style silhouette. For a more budget-friendly solution, befriend your local sari store, where your patience in scouring the shelves will be rewarded with armfuls of shimmering brocade saris, all for less than the price of an average handbag.
Strictly speaking, this is a woven fabric, not a printed one. Long overlooked in the West, ikat is a highly regarded, labour-intensive weaving process used extensively in South East and Central Asia. Geometric patterns are painstakingly marked out on to yarn and tightly bound with threads that act to prevent colour reaching the yarn in the subsequent dyeing process. With skill and careful planning, the intricate and complex patterns only emerge as the yarn is set on a loom and woven. It is enjoying a renaissance in the West thanks in part to the meticulous research of Dries Van Noten, who commissioned ikats for his spring/summer 2010 collection from a remote part of rural Uzbekistan. His swathes of rich ikats, executed in shimmering silks and in mainly traditional colourways, showcased the very best the craftspeople had to offer. The weave was seen, too, at Diane von Furstenburg, handled in mustardy yellow and picked out in white and grey. Being a traditional technique, the ikat's colour palette consists usually of soft and warm tones, but if that feels too hippyish, look to Gucci, who brought ikat bang up to date in matt black, grey and orange, interpreted as a strong, slightly outlandish print.
A love of tradition need not mean the end of innovation, as this kaleidoscopic trend proves with the birth of a new hybrid between fashion and technology. Digitised prints have transformed the world of textiles, allowing a print to be altered to fit individual panels of cloth, meaning the pattern can wrap seamlessly around the body as never before. They might be computer-driven, but these items can be exclusive, customised and often fiendishly complicated, their creators defying the limits of patience. Visually, many of these start where the collage artist Eduardo Paolozzi left off, with images dragged, repeated and manipulated past the point of recognition. Basso & Brooke, known for their mastery of print, have created a series of body form outfits more suited to space travellers than terrestrial dwellers. Resembling psychologists' ink-blot tests, their patterns contrast the fluid and the geometric, and are aggressively beautiful in their creepy symmetry. Nathan Jenden's hyper-real prints, in a sugary-sweet palette of pinks, greys and jarring orange, Alexander McQueen's reptilian effects and Manish Arora's heavy embellishment also took advantage of the ink-blot effect. However, the prize for digital abstraction must go to Elie Saab, who looked to the work of Seurat and the French pointillists of the late 19th century, enlarged to the point of pixelation, creating a cascading surface of light and shadow that tumbled down the body.