The next time you’re at REI choosing between an orange and blue climbing rope and a yellow and green version, think of Nadine Marchal. Ditto when you step into a colorful climbing harness or strap on a pair of Teva sandals. She is the textile designer, weaver, and visual artist who gave all this gear a little style.
After graduating from the University of Lyon with a degree in literature, the Frenchwoman spent much of her spare time exploring the storied Val d’Isère, tucked in the French Alps. Marchal had a problem with the plainness of the technical gear she needed in the mountains, so she decided to add some life. “Climbing harnesses were just white and boring,” she says. “I thought that it would be more fun if it had designs. So I started drawing up weavings for harnesses and practicing the patterns on my loom.”
Marchal went back to school for textile design at the Bellecour School of Arts and eventually brought her ideas to gear manufacturers. In 1988, she took over the artistic department of Beal, a manufacturer of climbing ropes, harnesses, and webbing based in Vienne, France. “It was the most famous rope-climbing factory in France at the time, and here they were saying, ‘Do you want to design?’” she says. “The only answer I could come up with was, ‘Why not?’”
It wasn’t long before American companies began to hear of Marchal’s talents. She’s responsible for creating Teva’s first designed sandal strap (the lizard pattern). She also introduced the first jacquard (intricate variegated patterns created on special looms that give the fabric stretchy capabilities) on climbing gear webbing. Marchal has since worked for Black Diamond, Petzl, and Lupine. Twenty years later, she holds court as Teva’s resident webbing designer.
Job: Textile designer
Hometown: Lyon, France
Home Base: Saint-Christophe-d’Allier, Auvergne, France
Favorite Ritual: “Having my coffee in the morning.”
Her Job Description: “When I say I’m a weaver, people sometimes don’t understand that it’s a job. If you say, ‘I’m a designer,’ they understand.”
Her Favorite Tool: “My loom. It’s so important to try all my designs on my loom, because you have to play with the material. You learn how the design works beyond how it looks. It comes alive. You play with colors, and the design can surprise you in ways you can’t experience with computer design or drawings.”
The Process: “I do sketches of the design I want to create, but I also use a computer to map out the pattern and analyze the details of the fabric and the pattern. With the computer, we can see how buckles or Velcro will affect the width of the webbing or the number of threads and colors we can use without having to test every option with a handmade sample. When we choose what fabrics, threads, and colors work best for the design, I go to the factory and practice the new techniques and the pattern on the loom. You have to create samples to test the resistance or the thickness of each pattern—the computer can’t do that for you. After doing samples on the loom, we check to see if the final product is OK and if it’s what we want aesthetically and functionally. Does the team agree on the design and the function? If so, we can then begin the process of mass production.”
How She Makes Gear Look Good and Work Well: “There is a compromise between the quality and the aesthetic. It’s a balance you have to find between creativity and research. It can be beautiful, but gear is no good if you can’t use it. You have to ask, ‘Does this look beautiful?’ while also asking, ‘Can this go in the water?’”
How to Collaborate with a Brand: “It’s always a compromise between the ideas you have and adapting them to satisfy the brand you’re working for. You have to learn to connect your creations to something more commercial. When you have an idea, follow it and see it through. Then, adapt your idea to the brand.”
The Most Rewarding Part of the Job: “When I see someone wearing the sandals I design, it’s a gift, because no one knows that I made it. It’s a secret, and I like that secret.”
How She Unwinds: “I love to be with my animals. I have horses at home, and I love them. They’re perfect to calm down with, because no matter what, they’re always happy and always nice. The perspective of animals is important for balancing the perspective of people. And the other thing is music. My husband is a musician, and we share that passion and create things and perform together.”
Her Most Powerful Piece of Advice: “Just go! Go where you feel you can go. If you feel something, believe in what you feel, not what you think. Then go. When you analyze, it’s not good. Just follow your intuition.”