A story of a New Zealand textile artist.
I started decorating textiles as a teenager because I never found fabrics in New Zealand that expressed what I wanted to express. The limited designs available at the time did not tell a story that I could relate to, so I started painting on fabric. It began with clothing, bedding and small gift items, then when I mastered screen printing I began decorating larger pieces and printing multiple items to sell.
The business side of things I have had to learn as I go, but I knew from the beginning I wanted to only use fabrics that were not contributing to an industry standard of high use of chemicals and exploitative labour. I was the first artist/printer in New Zealand to use organic cotton and hemp fabrics as a base cloth. In the 1990s and early 2000s not many people had even heard of organic cotton. It certainly is a lot more vibrant now with the lifting of tariffs and the advancement of technology for digital, knit and woven products.
My business organically grew alongside raising my family. I built a purpose-built studio in the Waikato and developed my signature range of New Zealand iconic prints. My family and I relocated back to Auckland in 2010 and I started doing more business development with the aim of making a living off my work.
My tea towel range grew as I kept adding new designs. Many of which I crafted from woodblock printing and simple hand-drawn designs. Many of my stencils were hand rendered as I wanted the print to show the craft of the artist as much possible. This hasn’t changed over the years at all. My prints are still handmade before applying to the fabric.
I grew my sales and to begin with, the point of difference on the market was that I was printing the tea towels myself. So I went along with that and printed more and more tea towels – all by hand. In 2014 I was approached by a distributor who wanted to market my tea towels. This was amazing for me as it was a struggle to constantly switch between being the seller and maker.
I began printing like a machine and I invested in a carousel which was so much fun. My studio would be absolutely covered in tea towels drying and I could hardly move sometimes.
I was so busy I had to just keep going. I was also working with my New Zealand made range of table linens which was very special to me. I did bespoke printing for designers and the general public and some teaching as well. But there was always the problem of the base cloth with my tea towels, and the more I printed the less time I had for design. Nobody was importing the kind of cotton that I wanted.
I kept printing and searching for organic cotton, I did find a manufacturer in India and I had an opportunity to test them out with a contract print for another brand based in Vanuatu. I had hand-printed her initial range and for the next one I suggested she move offshore, this would give her a much better price point and she could also do some digital prints and cushions, which I wasn’t prepared to make. This turned out well, I lost a customer but gained a potential manufacturer.
I was under a lot of stress as you can imagine and in 2016 I had a neck injury that rendered me immobile and in a lot of pain. One day while out with my son I felt a tightness and pain in my neck by the next morning it was excruciating and I could not move. We called an ambulance and they gave me some serious painkillers but really there was not much to be done. It's like my body had stored up so much trauma it just froze up. This really can happen. I couldn’t move for a long time and any improvement was small, like being able to get out of bed, to bend down, to wash. Cleaning my teeth or water in my hair would set off more tremors of pain. I could not drive so when I was able to go to my studio I had to be driven and the journey was painful as well. I could not print and I realised things had to change. I did some calculations on having a contractor print my tea towels for me, it was going to push the price up too much. I decided I couldn’t manage that so I had to just let the stock run out and ‘temporarily’ stop business.
This is one of these moments where there’s a fork in the road. I chose one path.
The other pathway would have been to claim insurance (which at the time of my injury I forgot I even had) and use that to pay for the contractor to continue printing my tea towels until I had recovered, then decide what to do. This would have been a better business choice. But looking back I did not have the support, I suffer from depression and anxiety and I felt I was being punished so I retreated. I worked in retail for two years, closed my studio and went back to my contact in India and started the journey towards organic cotton. This gave me time to make more designs and work on getting the fabric sampling right.
In 2018 I invested in a shipment of organic cotton tea towels that were made to my specifications with GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standard) from India and I started to rebuild my business. I finally had my product the way I wanted it. 100%. I released the new range back into the market but after nearly two years' absence many retailers did not want to stock the organic cotton tea towels because they were no longer printed by me. I respect that but I realise I need to clarify where I stand on this issue.
New Zealand does not have a textile industry. Some items are made up here but most are not. ‘NZ Made’ in the textile industry means that a product is made by importing the fabric first and then assembling it here. Some weaving of cotton is done here and wool can be made here but generally all textiles are imported. So a more accurate question for New Zealanders, heavily reliant on imports is ‘How is it made?’
So entering the market again was a massive learning curve and I am grateful to the retail stores and galleries who first stocked my product and still do so. They know who they are and they are my heroes. I found new stockists and felt more confident with the quality of the product.
Enter COVID19. What little I had rebuilt in a few months – stopped. During this time I was Marketing Manager for New Zealand Opera and my other skills of communication had a chance to develop. I carried on making art but the market mostly stopped.
My brand had always been about genuine authenticity so as a textile artist, the base cloth and how it is made is the most important building block of my business. I’m not interested in ‘NZ Made’ just for the sake of it. Why print here on sub-standard cloth that is made on the backs of poor farmers exposed to too many chemicals and sub-standard labour that keeps people in poverty? Not to mention the impact on the soil. Also, I am an artist, not a printer.
So in buying my products you are supporting two things: A New Zealand textile artist who is rarer than our native Kiwi bird, and a local business that is helping make the world a better place by helping reduce the exploitation of people and the planet through better textile manufacturing.
2023 and I feel better than ever. I am excited about the future of my business. I have a new distributor and many ideas on new designs. There is more awareness of genuine sustainability and there is more on offer for consumers wanting this.
My brand champions the beauty and social enterprise opportunities of textiles. I strive for the perfect balance of New Zealand Made and Global Textile Standards. We can take full advantage of this technological age but it's always people that bring us together in more meaningful ways and I intend on being one of those people.
My textiles tell the stories of New Zealand and they celebrate the many occasions that a family accumulates over the years. Memories of love and a desire for peace.