My textile design class in college was one of the more difficult studios for me. In my furniture or drawing classes, if I messed up, I’d just tweak it until it looked right. Textiles took that control away from me. If the technique isn’t done properly before it goes into the bath, there’s no faking it when it comes out of the dye. That’s especially true when working with traditional dyeing techniques that have the perfect end result in mind. Serge and Ann founded Slowstitch Studio, a textile company focused on Japanese indigo dyeing, to foster their love and passion for creating textile accessories, clothing and interior soft goods with hand-dyed fabric.
Serge was introduced to Japanese handcrafted textiles when he met a man who raised silkworms and grew indigo on a rural mountain in Japan. The man became Serge’s mentor and taught him how to create indigo textiles. Ann, originally from Thailand, went to college in London. One of her first courses at school introduced her to textile design, and she received her bachelor’s degree in textile design with a specialization in weaving. Ann did computer-aided design work for an interior decoration company in Bangkok after graduation, but she missed the connection to the fabric. She quit her job and moved to Japan to study natural indigo dyeing and traditional stitch-resist Shibori techniques. Serge and Ann met in Japan while studying under the same craftsman. They have since moved to Thailand to start Slowstitch Studio and its accompanying textile garden to make their work sustainable.
The name Slowstitch comes from the painstaking technique in traditional Japanese textile design, where the fabric is marked with a pattern all over and then stitched with needle and thread where marked. Stitching, rather than tying or knotting, takes a significant amount of time — but the result is perfect. The carefully calculated stitches come out of the dye stunningly executed. The work of Slowstitch Studio is undoubtedly a labor of love. It’s clear that this business has been founded on passion and the desire to enrich our world with beauty and true craftsmanship — and today, Serge and Ann are sharing that perspective after the jump. –Lauren
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
Ann: I’ve always wanted to create a lifestyle where I could freely devote my time to develop work, explore the directions that I was interested in, and grow as a designer. After graduation, I worked for a company as a textile designer. I really enjoyed it when there was lots of work to keep me busy. However, there were also times when the workload was low and I kept thinking that I could be doing so many other creative things instead of just sitting at my desk waiting for the office hours to be over. I was also eager to learn something new outside of the usual office environment. I took this as a sign and decided to quit my job and flew to Japan to study indigo dyeing and Shibori for two months, which was where I met Serge.
After coming back from Japan, I took some freelance design jobs and started working on my own textiles. Although I had valuable experiences and a wonderful time working for other people, I couldn’t imagine going back to work in an office anymore. So I decided that the way to go would be to create a business that would allow me to do what I love and support the life that I want to live.
Serge: By the time Ann and I got to know each other in Japan and started discussing the possibilities of running a creative business together, I had already been running a (very) small shop that stocked my indigo-dyed textiles. I loved the freedom that came with being my own boss, but I was thinking more and more about finding a partner to work with. When we met it became clear that we shared similar values in regards to our work. From the beginning, we knew it was important to us that our craft is able to support itself without needing continuous funding from other activities.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Ann: It was in my foundation year in college when I dabbled into textile design. I wanted to do fashion at first, but realized during the course that I get quite obsessed with manipulating cloth, creating detailed textures and working with yarns much more than designing garments. I continued to do a BA in textile design and chose to specialize in weaving because I was fascinated by the process, the looms and the enjoyment of creating textiles with my own hands.
Serge: For me, it happened as a complete accident when I was living in Japan. I began visiting somebody living in the countryside just to get away from the concrete mayhem of Tokyo. Initially, I was only interested in getting some exercise in the fresh mountain air and came for a few days every week to cut bamboo on the hillside next to the main house where I stayed. The man I was visiting was a craftsman, and after a day of cutting bamboo we would sit over cups of sake and he would teach me about the different species of bamboo and how to tell them apart, how to make the correct cuts, how to treat it after harvesting, the various tools and techniques involved in processing it, and then the actual weaving of the strips into forms. Aside from bamboo-related crafts in the house, there were also looms, silk-reeling equipment and indigo vats, and eventually it wasn’t long before curiosity got the better of me. The very first time I pulled the dark, wet bundle of linen out of that strange-smelling cold liquid and watched it slowly change color from green to blue, that was a special moment for me. It really resonated with me. I was very lucky to have had that experience. It laid the foundations for everything that was to follow.
Unfortunately, the first thing that followed was the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. Afraid of radiation, I left Japan and traveled for a few years. It was a turbulent time for me, and all the while I could not stop thinking about the few pieces that I had dyed in the mountains. I suppose the activity had a kind of grounding effect on me that I needed, and in the end, I felt that I could not do without that experience being an everyday part of my life. Nowadays, if I don’t have a piece to work on then things tend to fall out of tune, like something crucial is missing. Like leaving your house and realizing you’ve forgotten your wallet or your glasses or something important like that. That was when I began to suspect that working with my hands and mind to craft beautiful objects was central to me being able to live a good life.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Ann: Don’t compete or compare your achievements with other people’s, but instead try to do the best you can do. Be yourself and believe in your work.
Serge: Best advice for me was that a good product will find its market. Oh, and to be confident in knowing what your work is worth.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Serge: Definitely it had to be (and still is) being able to talk with people who might not know very much about natural dyeing or stitch-resist Shibori techniques, and to effectively convey to them the amount of time and effort that goes into creating a single piece. The biggest cost is easily the time that one has to invest in all the planning, stitching, tying, dying, untying and washing that goes into creating the pattern. Some pieces require several repetitions of these steps to achieve multiple colors or pattern overlay on the same cloth, and it could easily take a week or longer just to dye one yard of fabric in this way. Some people look at it and think that, like most patterned cloth, it probably comes from some factory where machines pump out hundreds of yards every day. It is an ongoing challenge to communicate to them that what we do is very different from that.
Ann: Yes, but it’s incredibly rewarding seeing someone who has never heard of Shibori start to ask questions and get really excited about our work! Also, it was quite difficult in the beginning to create the time and space necessary for getting our work done. Moving from busy Bangkok to the slower-paced city of Chiang Mai has been a big step in achieving that.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Ann: I’m not sure I’ve ever read any books that focus solely on business… but for anyone who works with their hands to make objects I would recommend Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn. It’s a great book reflecting on craft and the human experience. It answered a lot of questions I had about the nature of work and what it means to make a living through creative endeavors.
Serge: Strong in the Rain by Kenji Miyazawa. A short poem and not exactly business-centric, but I find it provides a good foundation for most things.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Ann: I think, for me, it is the importance of when to say “no.” When I first started out, I was excited to take any projects or opportunities that were offered to me because I wanted to build good relationships with people and be successful in this field. I took on projects that were too big, too rushed, unorganized or unsuitable for me and I ran into many problems and stress. It was a good lesson to learn what worked or didn’t work for me and that it is okay to be more selective and focus on the projects that feel right.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Ann: Early on, I took on a project in which I had to design and make throw pillows for a big hotel. I was introduced to this project by a senior friend who was already involved in it, and I didn’t want to let her or the client down. It was my first time getting a project from a big company that was in charge of numerous top-tier hotels in Thailand, so I was very excited. I was led to believe that if I could please the client on this project, then there would be more opportunities to design for other hotels. However, when I got involved it was already at the final stage of the project and the deadline was very tight. Because of this, I was persuaded and pushed to finish the job without signing a proper contract and the price was also negotiated down so much that we did not cover our own expenses. From this I learned to be more firm and confident with my prices and the value of my work, instead of trying to please everyone and finding myself suffering in the process.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Ann: I would spend more time stitching and reading.
Serge: I would love to have an exciting answer for that… Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in a day to finish all the things that need to get done. Stitching, writing, reading, tweaking things here and there in the dye processes, and working on new designs and ideas are some of the things I would do more of.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Serge: Sleep. Also, I love being able to work creatively with textiles, but sometimes I want to explore other mediums, in particular pottery and woodworking. I know it’s just a matter of time until I do, so until then I think of it more as a trade-off than a sacrifice. Oh, and I’ve inadvertently sacrificed some of my favorite clothes while dyeing. Never work at an indigo vat in your best pair of jeans!
Ann: It would be great if I could see my friends and family more often. We now make trips from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for that.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Ann: I would have to say that it was when we participated at a six-day craft-design fair last year in Chiang Mai. At the time we had just moved from Bangkok and were still setting up our studio to make it functional. We had no products in stock, no event experience to speak of and two months to make everything work. We pulled through in the end and had a great experience doing it.
Serge: I really wasn’t sure we could do it until we actually put up the booth, arranged the textiles and sat down. The event was amazing! We had a ton of fun and didn’t want to leave when it was over. Now I’m looking forward to doing more fairs this year, something I never thought I would enjoy as much as I did.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Serge: Absolutely. When working with natural dyes it can be difficult to keep track of all the variables. Changes in temperatures, water quality, durations, PH levels, types of fiber and amounts of material can all affect the final color. Some dyestuff can be very peculiar and yield different colors depending on which side of the plant the material was harvested from, or what stage of its lifecycle the plant was at during the time of harvest. I think that the ability to understand these variables and work with them to get consistently good results can only come from a lifetime of hands-on experience. In this sense, I think of us as total beginners. So, yes, there have been plenty of times when we could not recreate the same color or we thought everything was going as planned, but the pattern turned out quite different. Or we spent days working on a large piece only to see all the color run off because we had forgotten to boil the starch off from the fabric before dyeing. But every time something like this happens, we learn from it and improve on our process, so it’s good.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
Ann: 1: Are you self-motivated? You will have to be. It is more than likely that no one but you will make the schedule and set the deadlines, and it will be up to you to stick to them.
2: You should consider that things are bound to go wrong at some point and you should not be discouraged by that. Instead, use the experience to grow.
3: Are you passionate about what you do? That might just be the one thing that carries you through obstacles and keeps you on the path to achieve what you want in your business.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Ann: I check my emails and Instagram account for messages, updates or new inspirations for ideas.
Serge: For me, everything gets put on hold until that first cup of coffee in the morning. Getting it right is a new hobby of mine, and I am having a lot of fun with it.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Ann: Besides being your own boss, you also have to be about a dozen other people at the same time. Accounting, marketing, sales, writing, designing, promoting, website maintenance, working on images and graphics, production, etc. Those are all important aspects of running your own creative business that one should have a good understanding of.