In our second blog ahead of thread 2018…a festival of textiles on Sat 30 June l 9am-6pm, we caught up with Kim Winter of Flextiles fame. Kim will be joining us at thread, as an exhibitor and as a guest speaker in the talk programme. We quizzed Kim to find out more about her work and to see what she was most looking forward to about taking part in the festival…
Hi Kim, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Hello! I’m a textile artist creating unique upcycled work (clothes, accessories, homeware) by dyeing, printing or felting. I buy items from charity shops, auctions and jumble sales and then either overdye with indigo using a technique called shibori or contact print with real leaves – the pigments from the leaves transfer onto the fabric. And I upcycle old wool sweaters into wall art or cushions by combining them with new felt. I also take commissions, so if you have stuff you already own that needs a new lease of life, come and talk to me!
Your career path is rather unusual. Would you like to explain to our readers how your business came about?
I never went to art college. Instead I studied biochemistry at University College London and then worked as a journalist and editor for 25 years. I worked at the British Medical Journal, the British Council and finally ended up as managing editor of the consumer magazine Which?.
In 2009 I took redundancy and started my own editorial agency building websites. Because I wasn’t commuting I had more time so I took some evening classes in textiles at Morley College in London. I loved it and started doing more courses at Morley and with other felting and dyeing specialists (the scientific background certainly helps here!). Then in 2013 I decided to try selling what I made and Flextiles was born. I still build websites, quite often for creative people, because I understand what they’re going through.
Why did you start to upcycle clothes and accessories? Is it a way for you to bring together your various interests – environment and ecology, textile, fashion, craft techniques and maybe a touch of chemistry?
To be honest, it was initially for more practical reasons! I’d produced a huge stash of fabric from my indigo shibori dyeing and ecoprinting but didn’t know what to do with it. I tried making it into bags and pouches but I’m not a great seamstress and it took forever, which made them very expensive if I charged for my time.
So then I wondered if I could use readymade items instead and started upcycling things from charity shops. I’ve always been interested in reusing stuff – my partner gets really embarrassed walking down the street with me as I’m always picking up discarded items! And it’s more interesting for me because each upcycled piece I make is different, so I don’t get bored. I wasn’t sure how it would go down with potential customers, as most makers sell things they’ve made from scratch. But there’s now much more interest in the environment / ecology, recycling and buying vintage, and lots of people seem to love the idea!
What are you favourite techniques to give old clothes and accessories a new life?
I only work with natural fibres – silk, linen, cotton and wool. Depending on the item, I have various methods for upcycling it.
- I overdye it with indigo using a technique called shibori(sort of sophisticated tie dye). I fold, stitch, clamp, bind or roll the item before dipping it in the indigo vat. I dip the fabric several times in the vat to build up the colour. Indigo requires oxygen to turn blue. When I remove a piece from the vat the colour is actually green, and as it is exposed to the air it turns blue before my eyes – it’s quite magical! Letting the fabric oxidise between dips also makes the indigo more colour fast. Where the fabric has been tied, bound or stitched, the original colour and pattern of the fabric shows through against the indigo blue.
- I use a technique called ecoprinting, where I bundle the item with real leaves and steam it – the pigments from the leaves transfer to the fabric. The marks left by leaves depend on many things, including the time of year, the conditions the plant was grown in, and the pH and hardness of the local water. This makes the results rather unpredictable and often difficult to repeat.
- If woollen sweaters or scarves have been damaged by moths, I can incorporate them into new wet felted piecessuch as cushions, wall art or vessels. I lay out layers of new fleece and then cut out pieces of old sweaters and lay them on top. Then I wet everything with soap and water, and rub and roll till the old and new fibres attach to each other. As felt is created, it shrinks – sometimes by as much as 50%! – so I have to allow for this when I lay out the wool.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Because I work with plants and natural dyes, a lot of my inspiration inevitably comes from the natural world, like seedpods and diatoms – I’m fascinated by natural symmetries.
But inspiration can come from all around if you take the time to look – whether it’s muddy footprints on a pavement, frost on a car window or a pile of tyres on a pavement. I once made a piece inspired by the changing patterns of an accordion opening and closing!
Mistakes and serendipity are another great source of inspiration. When I was doing screenprinting at Morley College I was inspired to combine shibori techniques with screenprinting after I noticed the textures produced by not ironing the fabric properly before printing!
Can you tell us more about felt, what you do with it and what do you like about it?
Felt is one of the oldest known fabrics in the world. It’s made by wetting layers of wool fleece and rubbing and rolling with soap until the fibres interlock to form a robust fabric that is light but incredibly tactile. It can be used to make something as robust as a tent (like a Mongolian ger) or as delicate as a cobweb scarf.
By blending different colours of wool it’s possible to get effects almost like watercolour. And using resists allows you to create seamless 3D objects with incredible textures, or to incorporate non-woolly features like stones or shells. When I’m not upcycling, I love making sculptural 3D felt. Sometimes I make vessels but mostly it’s purely decorative and non-functional, so I show it in exhibitions run by South London Women Artists and the International Feltmakers Association.
Are there any other techniques that you would like to learn and develop yourself?
There are so many interesting a textile techniques – I think if I had the time and money I would spend my life going from one workshop to another! J
At the moment I’m doing a short course in random weave basketry, which I love – it’s another way of creating organic forms. I can’t quite see a way of combining it with my other techniques yet – but give me time!
What is the achievement you are the most proud of?
It has to be the ecoprinted silk I made for a wedding dress. A customer bought an ecoprinted scarf from my Etsy shop and then emailed me a few weeks later asking if I could make some ecoprinted fabric for her daughter’s wedding dress.
I was a bit worried at first, thinking I’d have to print acres of fabric, but we met up and she showed me the style of the dress she was thinking of, and it was much simpler. And the timing was good – the wedding was in November, so I was able to make the fabric in July and August, when the leaves are full of the right pigments and I could get strong prints.
I handed the fabric over in September and then it was the bride’s mother’s turn to feel the pressure, as she was making the dress! She sent me some photos of the dress just before it was hand finished in October, and I was blown away – it looked absolutely stunning.
The official wedding photos by the Kitcheners were even more amazing – one of them now features on prominently on my website.
Just for fun…
If you were a colour which one would you be?
Given that I work with indigo, it has to be blue. Although I wear gloves when dyeing, I have to take them off when I’m unpicking stitches, so my hands are literally blue. It washes off fairly easily, but my fingernails often stay blue for a couple of days!
If you were a textile item (clothes, accessory, home ware), which one would you be?
A Japanese indigo boro, heavily patched and stitched!
We are really pleased to welcome you again at thread in 2018! Would you like to tell us about what you would be exhibiting and selling?
I’m really pleased to be back – I always meet some lovely new people as well as catching up with familiar faces. I’ll be bringing my latest batch of upcycled garments and scarves – each one is unique, so when they’re gone they’re gone.
This year I’ll also have some scrap bags containing experimental samples and offcuts of shibori and ecoprinted fabrics. Last year I had a few random pieces of indigo shibori cotton that got snapped up, so hopefully the scrap bags will be popular.
For more information on Kim and Flextiles visit flextiles.co.uk
You can see Flextiles in the exhibitor’s marketplace. Kim will be speaking on her passion and expertise on ‘Reuse, remake, relove!’ in the talk programme in the Long Kiln Gallery.
thread 2018…a festival of textiles is on Sat 30 June l 9am-6pm. The day tickets are on sale here!
Further details on the talk, exhibition, participation sessions and the workshop programme will be added on the thread pages here in the forthcoming weeks. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter @maltingscraft and Facebook to keep up to date with news on the festival.