Janet Kennedy obituary | Design

Clothkits were as core to mid-1970s domestic do-it-yourself imagery as television’s The Wombles or The Good Life; they came as a length of fabric with all of a garment’s pieces printed on it to be cut out and sewn together for an outfit.

This did not feel like dressmaking, more like modelmaking with needle and scissors. And they had novel graphic appeal: where printed T-shirts used a torso as a billboard for a slogan or image, Clothkits patterns, silkscreened at first, were placed and shaped to the cut and construction of garments – around necklines, a skirt hem, down sleeves, like decoration on traditional folk costumes. Motifs might carry over to matching knickers or a bag to use up spare spaces on the cloth.

Janet Kennedy, who has died aged 87, was responsible for much of Clothkits patterning, working in, and then heading, its print design from 1971 until the catalogue retailer Freemans gobbled up the firm in 1988. Her sound drawing underlying patterning had got her into the firm.

Born in Pinner, Middlesex (now part of the London borough of Harrow), Janet was the daughter of Stewart Eady, who worked for a rail company, allowing the family unusual travel in France in the 1950s and 60s, and his wife, Connie. She attended North London Collegiate school, where Peggy Angus was head of art from 1947 to 1970.

Angus, an artist and exceptional – if undersung – commercial designer, was a proselytiser for lively pattern in daily living, and for creativity for all; Janet said that Angus’s motto was Art for Life. She enrolled girls at the school in her ambitious projects, and, always in need of an extra pair of hands, including to print her wallpapers, stayed close friends with some who pursued art, notably Janet, who went on to study sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art.

Clothkits games tablecloth designed by Janet Kennedy.
Clothkits games tablecloth designed by Janet Kennedy. Photograph: Clothkits Ltd

Since the 30s Angus had been a familiar visitor in the artist colony of Great Bardfield, Essex, and those artists stayed at her own rented country cottage, Furlongs, near Lewes in East Sussex, where she knew the Bloomsbury Bell family’s nearby bohemian home, Charleston. She introduced Janet to a roster of English artists who also worked in commercial design and believed in the pleasure of pattern.

She also introduced her to Tyl Kennedy, later designer of staircases, whom Janet married; she inspired her neighbour Ursula Mommens, a ceramic artist, to loan the couple, who were desperate for money, enough to buy a house in Glynde, near Lewes.

Angus praised Janet’s art to Tyl’s sister-in-law, Anne Kennedy, who was looking for someone to work within the unusual textile parameters, influenced by Angus’s radical ideas, of her young company, Clothkits; Angus’s friend Mommens loaned the firm enough to buy its first shop, in Lewes. Anne wanted to do animal prints for children, and Angus said Janet could draw anything.

Anne, with her husband, Finn, first created Clothkits as a mail-order business at her kitchen table in 1968. She was surprised, after a mention in the Observer, at its immediate appeal to a young generation that had barely learned to sew, but was in on a new desire for the homemade, willing to put in simple labour to get fun clothes, especially for children, at prices lower than fashionable imports from Scandinavia or France, and wanting playful prints.

Janet contributed those, and chose others; hers shared the unusual, strong colours, like lithographic printing inks, and world folk-art references of Angus’s tile and wallpaper work. She envisaged patterning sculpturally, how designs devised to fit garment pieces exactly would work made up in the round. Her popular Clothkits quilted children’s jacket with a farmyard design is now in revived production.

Children wearing Clothkits felt as if they were part of a book illustration or a cartoon, and the firm compiled albums of photographs of them sent from around the world by pleased families proud of their modest accomplishment. Anne’s four children, together with those of Janet and Tyl – Sasha, Patrick, Lucy and Jason – were among the firm’s catalogue models; Kennedy families had to do the standing-around-in-the-cold shots not inflicted on guest posers.

Kit and Kitty dolls in the catalogue for Clothkits, where Janet Kennedy was head of print design from 1971.
Kit and Kitty dolls in the catalogue for Clothkits, where Janet Kennedy was head of print design from 1971. Photograph: Clothkits Ltd

The catalogues so exactly represent the mid-70s that one image, young Patrick in lion-print dungarees, inspired a figure in a tapestry centred in that period that Grayson Perry designed for his House for Essex artwork, the art feeding textile design feeding textile art circle completed.

Clothkits was unwasteful (projects left few scraps), and since Anne and Janet were working mothers, the company progressively provided creches and flexible working to parents among its 400 employees around Lewes at its zenith. The firm expanded into a shop chain during the 80s, changing from kits to ready-to-wear, but was defeated even in childrenswear by ever-cheaper imports, and Freemans bought it for its long-accrued customer database, making it a dormant company in 1991. Janet did not take another permanent job. The company was relaunched in 2007, selling fabrics and haberdashery as well as dressmaking kits, and a shop in Chichester, West Sussex, opened in 2012.

Janet is survived by Tyl and her children.

Janet Kennedy, print designer, born 28 June 1934; died 8 July 2021

This article was amended on 10 August 2021 to make clear that Clothkits relaunched as an active company in 2007.