Catscans & catwalks

Meet Brooke Roberts, the radiographer who uses her patients’ CT and MRI scans to design her own knitwear.

By Lorenza Bacino

Image of Brooke Roberts

Fancy a new jumper this autumn? How about visiting your local hospital radiography department for ideas and inspiration? The idea may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Brooke Roberts is a knitwear designer with a difference. By day she works as a cardiac radiographer at King’s College Hospital, one of London’s largest teaching hospitals. And by night she designs amazing knitwear based on her patients’ CT and MRI scans.

Wearing what looks like one of her own creations – a short wool jacket with swirly patterns in pink and brown, and a full-length skirt, Roberts arrives at our meeting a little late and a little frazzled. She’s been frantically getting her yarn orders in on time, just one of many jobs she is saddled with as the lone driving force behind her own fashion label.

Four years ago, after working with other designers, Roberts felt confident enough to go it alone. She set up Brooke Roberts Knitwear and already supplies luxury knitwear products to a number of exclusive shops in London’s Mayfair.

We meet at the swanky and aptly named Hospital Club in London’s Covent Garden, where Roberts (BAppSc (MRS) ‘97) won the Club’s Creative in Residence award in 2011. She explains that the club is a place where creative people come to cross-pollinate ideas and network. This is much more than idle chatter. The owner of the Club is Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who also funds a brain research institute in Seattle. Allen has invited Roberts to use images from the Institute.

Her life is exciting but “difficult because I’m juggling two careers. Mine is an emerging label and my product is quite niche. Even though I’m unable to focus all my energy and time on developing my label, my two careers complement each other perfectly.”

Roberts says she’s always harboured a love of science and an interest in fashion, but never thought the two careers could co-exist so harmoniously. While studying Applied Science at Sydney, she attended a friend’s fashion show at UTS. It turned out to be her light-bulb moment.

Image of Brooke Roberts AW 2013 collection

Brooke Roberts AW 2013 collection

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she enthuses. “I thought it was amazing that people could be so creative in expressing themselves and working to a non-brief. I loved the idea you could come up with anything and it was right. Something told me that this is what I should be doing. But I was committed to finishing my course first.”

As she casts her mind back to her time at Sydney, her overwhelming memory is of “newness and opportunity”. Growing up in rural Victoria, meant moving to Sydney was her first experience of living in a city. Through sports, mostly netball, she made links with Wesley College and ended up living there in her second and third years. “It’s just a beautiful place to live and I felt very lucky to have those opportunities.”

As far as academia goes, Roberts particularly enjoyed the imagery associated with her physics course. She was less excited by the actual physics. “I’m not a natural at physics so I found the course harder than I’d expected. But aesthetics has always been important to me so I enjoyed the cross-sectional anatomy and I loved the photography module I did, especially learning about wet developing.”

During her course, Roberts undertook a clinical placement at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, which led to a full-time job after graduation. She headed to London in 1998 where she has since worked in tandem as a radiographer and as a designer – initially for other people.

Her job as a radiographer helped finance courses at the London College of Fashion and at Central St Martin’s where she studied “innovative pattern cutting”. It was at this point that Roberts wanted to do something technical in fashion, rather than just design.

Image of Brooke Roberts AW 2013 collection

Brooke Roberts AW 2013 collection

Aesthetics has always been important to me so I enjoyed the cross-sectional anatomy and I loved the photography module I did.

“I wanted to be a cutter so I was honing those skills,” she says. But she didn’t have experience of knit and it wasn’t until she began collaborating with another designer that they developed a way of cutting knit that was like cutting cloth. It’s complex because the level of detail in a medical image is so enormous that it is impossible to condense the detail into a knitting machine.

But Roberts clearly relishes a challenge, especially a technological one. “MRI and CT scans lend themselves well to knit,” she explains. “They are digital files so at their most basic level, they are pixels and in a knitting machine a pixel is a stitch, so they’re programmable, and they do translate. But you’d need a machine that was hundreds of metres wide to cope with that level of detail,” she laughs.

“So I had to go through a process of translation. I can simplify medical images and I can enhance or reduce their definition and make the image just black or white. It’s called the ‘grey scale’ in medical terms. When I play with the image, it loses its texture and becomes flat and then I can make that translate.”

Roberts only works with yarn and sources it mostly from yarn fairs in Italy. She particularly likes to order finer wools that originate in Australia and New Zealand as her family are wool farmers in Australia. “I use composition yarns, and I use viscose, wool, cotton, silk, plastic, metal, but I never use anything woven.”

Roberts’ approach is refreshing in that she doesn’t get her inspiration from other fashion designers. Instead, a lot of her ideas come from interior design and textiles. She makes time to go to as many exhibitions as possible to feed her thirst for innovation and creativity. She found a recent exhibition on pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum particularly beautiful and relevant, as it included a series of x-ray images of the shells revealing the pearl inside.

“There are many things going on in my two fields of science and the arts and I want to be instrumental in bringing them together.”
With her boundless curiosity, her thirst for innovation and her love of technology and design, it’s easy to imagine the name Brooke Roberts going way beyond her knitwear label. She’s already got her eye on interiors and accessories, as well as other ideas of getting involved in education and pioneering programs that explore science from a creative and artistic perspective.

Last year she spoke at the high-profile TED talk series, at the invitation of a biophysicist in Athens, who is also a jewellery designer and saw her work online. The biophysicist was part of the TEDMED team and asked her to speak in Athens at TEDMED Live.

Roberts’ creativity has also been recognised through her inclusion in the Hospital Club list of the most innovative people in British fashion in 2013, which was published on The Guardian website.

“I’m a big dreamer. Even when I’m focused on something, I’m constantly getting new ideas about what I can make, where I can go and who I can work with.”