Radiographer and designer: Making brain scans fashionable

Brooke Roberts, Radiographer

Brooke Roberts

Radiographer Brooke Roberts describes how inspiration from a routine CT procedure led to an intriguing dual career in the world of fashion.

It was while performing a CT head scan at the North Middlesex Hospital in London in 2008 that it struck me how textural and stunningly beautiful the scan images were. As they appeared on the screen slice by slice, I saw the structures form and recede as if for the first time. It set off a creative spark in me that continues to this day.

As a radiographer and fashion designer I mix medical images and fabric design in two careers that may seem miles apart, but actually complement each other beautifully. I have been a radiographer since 1997 but always craved a creative career. It wasn’t until I graduated from a fashion degree in London in 2005 and began juggling both careers that I realised how creative and artistic radiography can be, particularly with 3D reconstruction software in CT scanning and advances in ultrasound and MRI imaging.

sinus scan jacket

Knitted quilted sinus scan jacket

The chance idea in the CT scanner at the North Middlesex Hospital led me to a knitwear factory in Italy in the pursuit of translating CT head and sinus scans into knitted fabrics. I had a basic understanding of knitting after 3 years working part-time with an emerging knitwear designer, but I had been focussed on the technical side (pattern cutting and garment construction) rather than knitwear design. The factory owners let me loose with some basic programming knowledge and a computer, and armed with scans given to me by friends and family I began developing the digital designs required for the industrial knitting machines, combined with a myriad of yarns, to create sinus and brain scan fabrics. I went through a process of assigning each pixel in the scan to a needle on the knitting machine and soon realised that the many thousands of pixels far exceeded the 900 needles across the length of the knitting machine and I would need to manipulate the image to reduce the number of pixels while maintaining the essential aesthetic shapes in the scans.

It was an experimental process that was a technical and painstaking challenge. Once achieved, the knitting process began and I mixed wool, cashmere, silk, nylon, camel hair, viscose and bio-ceramic yarns to explore colour, texture and fabric properties. It was the most exciting job I had ever done.

To realise my idea and refine it to a final product, then create a fashion collection to present at London Fashion Week was exciting, rewarding and terrifying. I decided to launch my fashion brand because I had found an exciting connection between medical imaging and design and I wanted to spread the message of how inspiring medical images can be. I wanted to celebrate the beauty in the images and start a new conversation to bring science, technology and fashion closer together.

In 2011, after winning the Creatives in Residence Award at The Hospital Club, London (the name is coincidental!) I collaborated with the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which was founded by Paul G Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and the owner of The Hospital Club. The club used to be a hospital but is now home to creatives who wish to network and make use of the creative facilities including a HD TV studio, gallery and cinema. My collaboration with the Allen Institute for Brain Science allowed me to explore Nissl stain images and MRI brain scans of mice and interpret these into knitted dresses, which are now housed in an installation at The Allen Institute in Seattle.

Dresses installed at The Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle.

Dresses installed at The Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle.

This collaborative opportunity led me to explore the fusion of medical images with other graphics, including the tessellating artworks of MC Escher. I continue to develop my fabrics by creating hybrid designs for each collection. For example, combining MRI brain scan structures with Matisse cut-outs and applying tessellation effects in my Autumn/Winter 2014 collection. The illusion of animal shapes was created by morphing a section of an MRI brain scan so that when turned through 90 degrees the shape changes from an elephant to a squirrel.

Autumn/Winter 2014 development sketches

Autumn/Winter 2014 development sketches

My most recent collection combined MRI brain scans with 8-bit video games and cardiac ablation images and was presented by a group of inspiring and pioneering women, including BBC Click’s Kate Russell, The Guardian Technology Editor Jemima Kiss and Cardiologist and triathlete Dr Laura Ann McGill. This is fashion for women who are engaged with the world around them and are making an impact—role models rather than fashion models.

8. Jemima Kiss
9. Laura-Ann

I have been very fortunate to be offered opportunities to traverse the medical/fashion divide by giving a TEDMED talk about how radiography and knitwear design mix and also a Wired 2014: Next Generation talk about creating your own business.

Currently I am working as a full-time locum cardiac radiographer at King’s College Hospital, London (I have been based almost exclusively in cath laboratories for the past ten years, despite exploring CT and MRI for inspiration) while running my fashion label out of hours.

I am working on an upcoming collaboration with a London museum and my new collection which will be launched in the USA and UK, and represented by pioneering and inspiring women from the science and technology sectors.

For more information or to contact me, visit my site brookeroberts.net, email me brooke@brookeroberts.net or follow me on Twitter @BrookeRobertsUK

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