Get to know the Slowstitch team as we go behind-the-scenes and explore how Ann and Serge met, their partnership in work and love, secrets of natural dyeing techniques and much more!
Ann and Serge met in Japan over a shared love of Shibori natural dyeing and textiles. Escaping the hustle and bustle of Bangkok they moved to Chiang Mai in search of peaceful living and the thriving creative environment the northern capital is so famously known for. Slowstitch Studio is currently located in the couples home on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and a new Slowstitch Studio store has recently opened in a street lined with local craft and textile design stores overlooking lush rice fields. We met up with the delightful duo to learn more about the masterminds of Slowstitch Studio and delve a little deeper into how the beautiful handmade textiles are created. Join us for a candid conversation over tea.
Ann from Slowstitch Studio.
How Did They Meet?
Can you tell us who you are and a little about your backgrounds and how you first met?
Ann: I'm Ann and I'm part of Slowstitch Studio. My background is actually in textiles. I'm from Bangkok and I went to study textile design in England. After I graduated I had a job in Bangkok for a couple of years and I quit to go and learn something new in Japan and that's where I met Serge through this workshop. So there I learnt about Shibori and indigo dyeing and he was there as an apprentice at that studio.
Serge: I'm Serge and I'm the other part of Slowstitch Studio. I'm from Russia originally but I've been moving around all over the world. My background is not in textiles at all, it's in organic permaculture and I just met a textile man by accident when I was living in Japan and we became friends. I started staying at his house and learning about textiles and that's where I met Anne.
So what was it about Shibori that you just loved that made you want to focus on it?
A: Actually before I went I didn't know anything about Shibori or indigo dyeing I just wanted to learn something new but before I went the mastercraftsman taking the workshop sent us homework. He sent us a big piece of fabric and we could design a pattern on it and he explained on paper what we needed to do. So at that point I didn't really know what I was doing but designed it anyway according to the instructions but I put my own design in it and I stitched it and I thought "well I don't know how this is going to turn out, I don't know how this works but I really enjoy the process of stitching." Once I went there and learnt more about Shibori, the process of actually taking apart the fabric and revealing the pattern is quite exciting, so yeah I quite like that process.
S: It's very meditative when you really get into it, it's just you go line by line by line and you get into a rhythm and it's very calming. I don't have an art background of any kind and I'm not particularly good at drawing or designing. When I made my first few pieces I realised that the medium of the textile and the needle and the thread, they were already doing half of the work for me. I was just kind of participating in that process and then something came out the other side and it was a beautiful piece of textile and I thought "hey, I can could make cool things" and yeah I got addicted to the feeling of just working with my hands and making something beautiful.
Serge from Slowstitch Studio.
So after Japan, you two obviously met and hit it off in Japan and you both came back to Thailand. What happened after that?
S: We got on really well because we were both on the same wavelength. We already wanted to support our lives doing this kind of thing so it was kind of natural to progress to a situation where we thought maybe we can build a business out of this.
A: So after Japan I came back to Bangkok and we were just trying to figure out how we could work together but also with my two month training I didn't really know much about Shibori still, so we were just kind of practising in our own time while he was in Japan and I was in Thailand. Serge would come and visit for two or three months each time and I would show him Thailand and we learnt about indigo here and from then we just kind of grew and improved our techniques on Shibori from that point.
S: I think we did that for about a year, there was a lot of practising over Skype. After a year of doing this, we realised we have to make the commitment and be in the same place.
So now you guys make pillows, table runners and home decor items and you're also doing bags and clothing as well?
A: Because my background is kind of in interior design, home decoration kind of field, instinctively I wanted to do more homeware type of stuff. I also want to make clothing, but I do not have the skills or the knowledge about pattern making. I thought for me as a textile designer I just like textiles for the sake of it being a textile, so I just like the beauty of the fabric so I don't necessarily think that every time it needs to be turned into some product. With pillows and scarfs and wall pieces, they are quite simple in terms of design, whereas clothing has to be on actual people and there are a lot of things that need to be considered.
S: Since then we have expanded into bags and we do a little bit of clothing for our own fun just like the stuff we wear but it's definitely something we want to focus on in the future.
To shop Slowstitch Studio's beautiful collection, click here.
How do you come up with the designs and what is the process to the finished product?
A: Ok, so the process is we work with just white, plain white fabric, or plain natural fabric like no pattern on it or anything and then we would draw the patterns with water soluable pen and then we would, depending on different designs, we would have different ways of stitching the design. We then stitch and we pull all the threads so the fabric gets compressed, you know really small, into a really small bundle and then you tie all the treads really tightly. And then with that bundle, you soak it in the water for a night or a couple of hours and then you start dyeing. We mainly work with indigo because that's what we started with, the whole Shibori. So with indigo, because the process involves dipping the fabric in a dye bath and it has to be oxidised for 20-30 minutes and that's how you build up a dark indigo color on the fabric. So with our work, we usually do that 8-10 times for each piece. So that takes up almost a whole day to do that and after that, after the dyeing is done, you take apart all of the threads and then the pattern reveals itself on your textile.
So when you make the patterns do you just try things and see what happens?
A: For me, I often start off with "let's just try this" you know, I don't really think much about it and I just kind of try it on different things. I don't even know if it is going to turn out ok or not ok. Especially when I was learning Shibori in Japan I was just doing different things without any kind of guideline. I didn't really look at the book so much I just thought "hey what if I did this, how will it turn out?" So that's my kind of approach to work but Serge's approach is different.
S: Yeah, we're very different in that I think. I have to have all of my things entirely calculated and precise before I start. I get a lot of my inspiration from the works of people who have done this kind of thing in the past. So we would look at books together and look at the old pictures and try to figure out how they did it, how did this work? What can we do to maybe change things around, make it our own in a way, you know to put our own influence on it. There's not an infinite set of possibilities that you can achieve with manipulating cloth in this way to make patterns, there is only a set number of ways that you can fold the cloth together or stitch the cloth together so the limit is there, the limits are hard, they are set. You have to work within those limits to achieve what you want to coax the fabric and the dye into making the pattern. So working inside those limits is challenging but there's also that feeling that your trying to really push the limits further and go out further than you thought you could to try new things.
The new Slowstitch Studio in San Kamphaeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Working together as a couple and also as a business partnership do you each have specific roles in the business? You both obviously do the designs, is there anything else? How do you guys compliment each other?
S: I think mostly unconsciously. I don't think it's like we ever sit down at the beginning of the day and say "ok here are all the things you're going, here are all the things I'm going to do" it's just kind of organic and free flow.
A: Yeah, because we both kind of do the same things. We both design and we both make decisions together. I think I deal with more of the paperwork side of it cause a lot of it is in Thai and he can't deal with Thai paperwork and same with Thai clients. When I get comments or orders I ask him what he thinks, how we can achieve it and so it's kind of like a flow, we feedback off each other.
S: I think my role is more technical maybe. I'm more interested in the techniques and the way things work and try to achieve different effects on the cloth.
A: So sometimes I would be like “oh I want to achieve this kind of design” and I would sketch it on a piece of paper, and I don't really think about what techniques would go into it to achieve it and then I would ask Serge because he's more technical.
S: And it works both ways because I would have things that I might want to achieve and I'll plan them out and I'll draw them and show it to you and then you'll be like "no, this colour has to go here and lose all of this" so we kind of work on that basis which works.
A: Sometimes I have to edit things down. He's also a creator and a designer on his own, you know he has his own style and I have my own but sometimes I have to think about how long things will take, will it cost too much for the client or are you putting too many techniques together. So I have to kind of edit that down.
The Art of Natural Dyeing
You've got the whole creative side but there is a whole technical side in terms of the colors. You started with indigo and when did you start testing other dyes?
S: Within the first year. It was actually just a personal choice we just got bored of looking at blue and white all day long. We had seen so much indigo work that we thought we want to have some color in our lives.
A: I come from a weaving background and my past work is so colorful. I would throw like twenty colors in a piece. So for me to be working with one color is nice and its changed my aesthetics a little bit. I grow with the work but it's like how can we push it further and add more colors to this technique? So we started experimenting with local plants.
S: You ran around your garden picking up flowers.
A: Yeah, I went around my garden picking flowers off the ground every day until I collected a full bag and then I tried with all the different plants that I have around the house. I would boil them and see if they gave any color and a lot of them didn't work but some did work.
S: We were like the fruit police in our house if we would see anyone eating mangosteens or pomegranates and they were about to throw out their skins we were like, NO!
A: We would go to the fabric market in Bangkok and there would be people selling fruit juice and I think there were two people selling pomegranate juice exclusively and then we would buy two bottles of the pomegranate juice then ask them if we could take all of the skins to use for dyes.
S: Also your brother has a restaurant and he goes through a lot of onions. So we go and we collect the onion skins sometimes.
A: I would ask the chef there to save me a bag of onions, the smell was so bad, and we would peel the skins off and freeze the skins and experiment with that.
S: Our freezer is full of random things.
The amazing plants that create the natural dyes they use.
So what are the main fruits and vegetables that you use for the other colors?
A: So we use merobeline which is like a nut it gives a yellow, to grey to black colour depending on the amount that you use and then we use mangosteen skins, mango leaves, lac gives reds and pinks and purple, what else do we use?
S: I mean, let me try to rephrase what you said. A lot of the things that we use, they come from Chinese herbal medicine shops because they are also Chinese medicinal plants and aside from having all the different compounds that are good for your health they also have some compounds in them that make colors. So a lot of the things like Merobeline, mangosteen skins, turmeric, lac, yeah a lot of these are actually medicinal plants.
A: We can get them in a dry form so we don't need to freeze everything because we don't have that much space. We still freeze things we pick ourselves like mango leaves and onion skins.
S: Actually every plant will give you a color. Most of that is going to be a khaki green yellowish type of shade but depending on how you kind of persuade the plant to give up the color you can sometimes get varying shades.
A: It also depends on some plants have different properties of light fasteners and wash fasteners so some plants you think will definitely give color but actually, it doesn't stay long on the fabric so we experimented with that and I think we've got a good selection of good dyes that work with our textiles. It's a never-ending learning process with natural dyes because even if it's the same plant you don't know which batch you're going to get, it might give a bit of different color than the last time you tested it, so there's always an element of surprise in our work.
S: Sometimes you get eucalyptus tree bark that's been harvested from the north side of the trunk and then the other year its harvested from the south end of the trunk and then it will give a different shade depending on the exposure it's had to the sun. It's more difficult in a way than working with chemical dyes because you basically just dilute them in water.
A: It's just different colors in powder form but here we deal with different plants and different plants react differently to different ph levels. With natural dyeing you have to use different iron salts to achieve different colors. With chemical dyeing you just have one recipe for all the colors depending on the type of dyes that you use whether its acid dye or direct dyes. It's easier I think.
S: It's easier but also with chemical dyes you only get that one shade, with natural dyes you have a lot of other compounds in the plants which are technically called impurities, they basically give you a wider range of hues. So in one way, they're a little bit difficult to work with because you have to simmer them and you have to persuade them to stay on the fabric and be lightfast and colour fast but then you get a wider more complex array of hues.To shop Slowstitch's collection, click here.