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RNLI launches new '25 Knots' kitchen range designed by Ailsa Wilson from Tiny Bird Textiles (hey that's me!)

Ailsa Wilson 25 Knots RNLI

The brief: Redesign the RNLI's best selling kitchen range, that's inspired by a lifeboat but doesn't actually feature a lifeboat!

If you've ever heard the sound of an RNLI all-weather lifeboat's engine growl and chug into life, late at night, throttling up to 25 knots as it reaches open water, you know somewhere, out at sea, someone is relying on that lifeboat reaching them soon. It's an unforgettable sound. It's stuck with me since childhood. That little me would never have guessed that, many moons later, I would be stood on a pontoon, next to the hulking form of a Shannon all-weather lifeboat, waiting sheepishly to go aboard to have a look round in a professional capacity. It was a proud moment. I was on my best behavior but I had to work hard to keep my excitement under wraps.

Weymouth Lifeboat 'Ernest & Mabel' a Severn Class not a Shannon

(Image: Weymouth Lifeboat 'Ernest & Mabel' which is a Severn not a Shannon but is still big, blue and orange!)

The RNLI is busy raising funds for building and rolling out its new fleet of Shannon lifeboats, the next generation of innovative boats, designed to keep ahead of the waves. With a top speed of 25 knots, it's the fastest boat in their fleet to-date. So when I was asked to have a look at the design brief for the 2016 RNLI Kitchen Range, it seemed like a natural step to start my search for inspiration there. Out at sea the Shannon lifeboats are solid, sleek, awe-inspiring work-horses of the waves but it was the finer details onboard that caught my eye. Every nut, every bolt has a role to play and is depended on to perform its function. Turns out, some of that dependable detail is also surprisingly beautiful, if you look at it the right way.

I spent an hour aboard the Shannon that afternoon, in the company of a rather mystified ship's coxswain. I don't think they get many pattern designers happily rooting around the engine room looking for inspiration. And there was plenty to be found. The engine housing ventilation holes that blast hot air as the lifeboat heads out from shore at full speed, looked like a delicate snow flake. The panelling on the windows that take a pounding out on the high-seas and hold tight, even submerged underwater, immediately brought to mind a fabulous repeated pattern. As did the non-slip floor, the fibre glass walls, the mooring ropes. It all sang out to be developed into a pattern. My only problem was where to stop.

Washi concept development

(Image: my 1st initial scamps on layout paper)

I'm a paper and pencil girl at heart (could be something to do with my age and starting art college before computers were invented!) so I prefer to start all my creative development in an old fashioned 'haven't see one of those since the 90's' layout book, using all the bits and pieces of inspiration I've gathered together; colour swatches, photos, tear sheets, found objects, anything that inspires and appeals. My thinking is freer and more fluid when I'm not constrained by working on screen from the off. It's also more fun that way I find.

Washi concept development 2

(Image: the initial washi concept layout paper)

I like to work collaboratively, rather than sailing off for a week or two of radio silence, coming back with a 'ta-da' kind of presentation that can be a bit of a 'fait accompli' for clients. So as soon as I'd gathered my thoughts on paper, I hopped on my bike and cycled down to see Helen and Abbi in the retail team at the RNLI. The Washi tape route was the clear winner and required very little tinkering which was a joy, because I had my heart set on that concept.

Washi concept tapes

(Image: initial Illustrator generated repeat patterns)

I ended creating seven separate designs in all, which led me to approach the application of the designs like a collection of Washi tapes. That way I could tell more of the story about the elements of the lifeboat and the patterns they inspired. Each working in harmony together, or can be used interchangeably. But when required, one or two designs come to the fore, to play a key role (do you see where I'm going with this angle?), not unlike those extraordinary volunteer crew who man [and woman] those sturdy, dependable work-horses of the waves.

RNLI 25 Knots products group A

(Image: 25 Knots range part 1)

The range of kitchenware that we subsequently developed, became known as '25 Knots' as a tribute to the next generation of lifeboats, the Shannon. The range includes; indispensable and durable jute shopping bags, a nifty little foldaway shopping bag perfect for stowing in handbags, a weekly family planner, a to-do list note book, a diary and pen, a mug and tea-towel and an attractive peg-bag that will make handing out the washing a complete joy.

RNLI 25 Knots products group B

(Image: 25 Knots range part 2)

Working on the '25 Knots' range with Helen and Abbi was a dream job; an exciting brief that required a little lateral thinking, bold, strong brand colours and for an organisation with rich and interesting history, with a fine and honorable mission to save lives at sea. It was a proper 'pinch myself' project.

The '25 Knots' range has launched this week in the RNLI online store and retail shops. Go and check out the full range. I totally love it. I hope you do too!

Link to RNLI Online store

Link to RNLI shop locator 

Link to RNLI newsletter sign-up


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  • Chris Muirhead on

    Great to see the and read about the process,being of the layout pad era I can fully appreciate the hard work and creativity you’ve put into this collection…and it shows, pure class Ailsa!

  • beej on

    Soo amazing and completely beautiful. X

  • Martin Kentigern on

    Great to read the story behind the design of a fantastic range. That’s me sorted presents.

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