I have always loved rummaging! There’s something about textiles en masse that really gets the creative cogs working; a tantalizing glimpse of colour on colour, or an interesting pattern or texture.
I come from a family of textile artists. In the 60s and 70s my grandmother and her sisters all worked for Edina and Lina – a knitwear shop on King’s Road, London. Their homes in South Wales were always strung with half completed sequined dresses and skirts left to ‘settle’, and matching jackets with peplums and padded shoulders. Chair cushions were a child’s fertile hunting ground for scraps of lining, strands of wool and silk and hand-written patterns that, in those days, looked more like secret coded messages.
Today I am a writer and obsessed with detail. Textiles and art installations have always provided the impetus for anything I write, and my move to Lucca in Italy two years ago was an important turning point. This small city has its roots in an ancient silk industry making it an ideal base, even today, for finding and recycling materials. Shortly after arriving here I discovered, to my delight, a twice-weekly designer vintage clothing market at the top of my street. I felt very fortunate indeed. At first my finds were general – garments and accessories I wanted to wear or buy for friends and family. But it wasn’t very long before everyone made it clear their vintage wardrobes were full to bursting for some time to come, and I felt I needed a new strategy to justify my regular disappearances in amongst the busy stalls.
About a year ago, my older son – a pro musician – emailed from Spain and mentioned that he needed a bow tie for a special event in Barcelona. He had looked everywhere locally and couldn’t find what he was looking for. He wondered if I could find one in Lucca?
Taking stock of my ever-growing collection of bits and pieces, it quickly became clear to me that I was in the midst of a lifelong passion for silks and linens; the collection of old ties and scarves was significant, but no one at home was rushing to wear them, and this seemed a shame. I also realised that the market offered pretty much everything it was possible to call a garment or accessory, but I had yet to see a single bow tie. Remembering the jacket and shirt my son planned to wear, I chose a material I thought would complement the outfit and fit the function (these things can easily turn a man clown-shaped) and headed out for the local haberdashery shop for the necessary hooks and slide adjusters. By the time evening came, a perfectly subdued and elegant bow tie was ‘winging’ its way to Spain and I had really enjoyed the process.
I suddenly realised I wanted, even needed, to give up my job in bilingual education and focus on starting up a business in textile upcycling. I had always admired people who devote themselves to a real passion, and although my teaching work used to be mine, it hadn’t been for some time. To begin with, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of changing my working life from something ‘serious’ to what I considered sheer indulgence. But I started reading about others who had become involved in the world of recycling and upcycling, and felt increasingly convinced. My family were very encouraging and, luckily, my younger son is highly computer literate and was able to guide me through the process of setting up online. The rest, as they say, is history. My Etsy shop Strut and Go… now exists to highlight the best of found textiles gathered from foraging in the markets of Tuscany, especially in Lucca.
I buy second hand materials from local people I have come to know well. Many Italian traders specialize in selling designer clothes direct from the factories based in Prato near Florence. Their stalls are also always interesting for the genuine bargains they have, and labels include everything from H&M to Prada, Custo, Lacroix and Missoni. The variety is astonishing and the presence of such big names ensures a steady flow of interesting prints and patterns. My favourite find is a John Galliano child’s cardigan in net with appliqued flowers. It cost a grand total of one euro and will be set in a frame. For me, however, the best stalls are those dealing in the second hand and bankrupt stock – everything from rolls of linen to single balls of unusual wool. The stalls set up in a different town six days a week, meaning that there is a rapid turnover of stock and fresh materials on a regular basis.
Because of the amount of travelling I do small accessories have been my focus, however I’d love to branch out one day into bigger creations. I am interested in transforming denim mini-skirts into handbags, for example, and jean legs into smaller wash bags. But for now, creating bow ties for men and women means that even when I find a small piece of silk, wool or linen of extreme interest, I can turn it into something highly wearable, and the 3D nature of the accessory gives it the quality of a piece of jewellery. It is this last idea that really excites me, and encourages constant reappraisal and experimentation. I am not interested in mass-production, so my customers can rest assured that every single piece featured is unique and carefully sourced whilst enjoying the fact that their garment possesses a little life history of its own.
I never cut fabrics or garments of significant value, but the new life that can be given to really old material is very rewarding. Sometimes an ancient but beautiful silk scarf can have a serious moth issue, but can be salvaged, backed with inter-facing and given a completely new lease of life as a tie or bow tie. Depending on the piece, several different and individual bow ties can be created since there is no mass production here! It means I spend my working days richly rewarded and always looking forward to the next market. Each accessory is also accompanied by its own ‘short story’ – explaining its provenance and describing the workshop whilst providing details of how the accessory was completed.
I have friends here – Italian and English – who specialize in different areas; one collects old hessian and sack cloth and creates very desirable appliqued shoulder bags; another is always on the lookout for unwanted XXL white shirts in the softest Egyptian cotton to use in her creations for children. Another recycler, based in Siena, raids her relatives’ wardrobes for old materials to create accessories for her own online business. We all supply local boutiques in Tuscany, but the main selling really happens online. The notion of upcycling from unwanted clothing is well established, and all that is left to find and maintain is the energy and enthusiasm required for any worthwhile activity!