Book of Kells Collection Part 2: Research

‘[…] Research means creative investigation, and good design can’t happen without some form of research. It feeds the imagination and inspires the creative mind.’[1]

Part two of this series of posts is precisely about the importance of research for creating a concise, creative and mature fashion collection. As you might remember, my first post about this collection is about finding a theme, which in my case it will be the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin) and Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library). Once I established the main theme, I have decided to ditch the Lindisfarne Gospels and concentrate only on Kells. Why? Because I was intrigued by the Latin verses and the decorating motifs and because I have found other bits of information that make this book all the more tantalizing.

First of all, there is evidence that the Book was started at the island of Iona (called Hy until the 14th century)[2] and later sent to Kells, in Ireland. As I previously discussed, we cannot tell which part of the book was produced where, but we do know that it is clearly associated with St Columba (this includes Iona, Kells and Lindisfarne). One of the illustrations (fol. 201r) is a fish-man that is grabbing the T-stroke of the word fuit in the genealogy pages in Luke’s Gospel. Right next to fuit is the word Iona (prophet Jonah), from which the name of the island is derived.[3] Iona is Hebrew of Jonah, and its Latin equivalent is columba. Both words mean ‘dove’. Colum Cille (St Columba) means ‘the dove of the church’ in Gaelic, for those of you who are curious. Adomnán, abbot of Hy (Iona), in his Life of Columba, describes how St Columba (d. 597) is indeed named after the prophet Jonah.[4] Therefore, Meyvard concludes that the fish-man figure is pointing out the phrase fuit Iona, not because it signals the name of the island where the manuscript was written, but because that was the name of the saint associated with the monastery where it was probably produced.

Secondly, some of the figures in the Book of Kells resemble figures found in Coptic manuscripts. A Frankish monk by the name of Arculf visited the monastery of Hy when Adomnán was abbot and stayed there enough time for Adomnán to write about him. De locis sanctis was an account of places in the Near East according to the testimony of Arculf.[5] Arculf spent time in Egypt and maybe brought manuscripts or other sort of visual material that contained Coptic illuminations, and this was probably used as inspiration for various illustrations in the Book of Kells (mainly, fols. 72.v, 273r and 309v).[6] This is noted also by Francis E. Stephens, who in 1946 took pictures of  some understudied pages of Kells. He noticed certain interlineal designs that resembled some sort of Eastern script in red ink, and usually was accompanied by a small illumination of a lion. These were used to denote stops in the manuscript text and they may very well represent an Insular scribe’s attempt to copy a script of which he knew neither the language or alphabet.[7] Eastern art may have made its way into Insular manuscripts.

It is this last detail which has captured my attention today. A simple design, a mixture of Eastern script and art and Insular designs, that can be further explored for aesthetic purposes. Since I have already satisfied my academic instincts for today, I think it is time to move into the fashion bit.

I started my research book (or sketchbook) where I collect and analyse the material gathered. I start by collecting various photographs and images of designs in the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels to see the artwork in question. I have also reproduced some artwork by hand with gouache and repeated some of the animal designs.

To the left, Lindisfarne Gospels (images taken from the British Library webpage, http://www.bl.uk), and to the right, images from the Book of Kells.

Left: ‘Tunc crucifixebant […

I am focusing on the animals portrayed (lions and dragons primarily) because I found that using the letters might not work. Since I plan on using neutral colors to keep with the brief given, I want the design to be noticeable enough in trapunto and embroidery stitches without it looking patchy and grandma-like (sorry, Grandma!). Sketchbooks provide you with the opportunity to play with ideas and develop them fully (or discard them if necessary) by giving a platform where to process and analyze the complied information. They are ‘a window onto your thinking processes and clues as to the origination of your design ideas’.[8] What is more important, sketchbooks are not solely for your use, and what my students usually forget is that industry individuals can and will ask you for your sketchbook, in addition to your portfolio.[9] So you have to keep in mind that you have an audience and you have to be clear and precise about your research investigation. Don’t pretend everybody to understand what your thoughts are!

Images from beasts and interlacing from the Book of Kells. Top left: possible trapunto design

Lindisfarne Gospels

Here I include some photos of my research so far. Notice how I have also collected information of current trends and silhouettes that can inspire what I want the collection to look like. I chose Calvin Klein and Jil Sander A/W 2011, in addition to some dresses by Louise Gray. A trick that I have is to use pictures of designs I like and embellish them with possible embroidery designs to get a good sense of proportion and silhouette before I design my own clothes. This process also helps you to clarify ideas and can aid in the technical aspect of design—pattern cutting. Before you even put a pin on your dress form, you can decide if the proportion you have in mind is working or not and that saves you LOADS of draping and drafting work later.

I hope you find this interesting enough since it is a very long post!

Sketchbook page on silhouette. Jil Sander A/W 2011 and Louise Gray

More research. To left: ‘Secret of Kells’ movie (2009) Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture.

Jil Sander 2011 with collage and drawings by me. This aids in deciding proportions, silhouette, colors and embellishment placement.

Same as above. Jil Sander 2011.


[1] Richard Sorger and Jenny Udale, ‘Starting your research’, The Fundamentals of Fashion Design. (Lausanne: AVA), 16.

[2] Paul Meyvart, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin. 71:1 (1989): 6-19.

[3] Ibid, 6-8.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] Ibid, 13. Bede also wrote a book named De locis sanctis where he mentions Arculf because Adomnán presented a copy of his De locis sanctis to king Aldfrith of Northumbria in 686 AD.

[6] Ibid, 13-19.

[7] Francis E. Stephens, ‘An Interlinear Design in the Book of Kells’. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquieries of Ireland. 76:4 (1946): 213-15. Yes, I know this is an outdated source and the debate has probably moved on. Remember, I am trying to do a fashion collection!

[8] Sue Jenkyn Jones. Fashion Design. (London: Laurence King/Central Saint Martins; New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002), 152.

[9] Sorger and Udale, 22.

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5 thoughts on “Book of Kells Collection Part 2: Research

  1. […] will be amazed at what will come! And you can see some of my research here. Enjoy!!! Share this:MoreFacebookLinkedInDiggPrintEmailRedditStumbleUponTwitterLike this:LikeBe the […]

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  2. […] you remember one of my first posts, about fashion research? Here’s the end […]

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  3. julieta599 says:

    Lo voy a referir a mis estudiantes.

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  4. […] Previously, I explained the steps for producing effective fashion research and for applying it creatively. However, I return to the topic now because, again, I find that students have difficulties doing research. […]

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