I discovered a raft of interesting makers and independent design brands on my recent visit to the North London home of interior designer Louisa Grey, but one in particular stood out: Stitch by Stitch. A selection of its beautiful cushions and throws adorned the sofas and daybeds, and I instantly fell in love with their monochrome colour palette, textured surfaces and intricate embroidery.
I was intrigued to discover that although they’re designed here in the UK and have a contemporary aesthetic, Stitch by Stitch’s textiles are actually hand-crafted in northwest India and Nepal by artisan weavers and embroiderers who use traditional techniques. In fact, supporting artisans and their craft sits at the very heart of the company, and its commitment to ethical sourcing and fair trade is truly inspiring.
Keen to find out more, I chatted to Karen Sear Shimali, who runs Stitch by Stitch alongside founder Graham Hollick, about its ethos and the fascinating story behind it…
Hi Karen! Please could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and Stitch by Stitch?
“Stitch by Stitch is a home-textile brand producing heirloom-quality, handmade pieces such as cushions, patchwork quilts, throws and rugs. We work with small producers who use traditional techniques, mostly based in Nepal and the remote Kutch region of Gujarat in northwest India.
“I actually first met Graham at Winchester School of Art many years ago. We both studied textile design, but Graham focused on knitwear and fashion whilst I studied constructed textiles such as weaving, felt-making and machine embroidery. The course was very free and allowed us to just be creative for three years – what a treat! Since then we’ve both had creative careers – Graham worked in Paris for internationally renowned trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, and I worked in the interior design industry in London, selling contemporary European and British furniture, rugs and textiles. As a result we both bring different skills and valuable experience to the business.”
How did the company come about?
“Graham founded the company after being invited to take part in a cultural exchange programme with hand embroiderers in Kutch, who were looking for ways to expand their international market. He worked on a fashion project supported by Ela Bhatt, a philanthropist and activist who founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association, and later created a range of home textiles with the same embroiderers.
“He wanted to develop the collection further after returning to London, but he knew it would be too big a project for one person and needed help on the sales and marketing front. The timing was perfect for me – my young children were at school and I was itching to start a creative business. The opportunity to return to textiles and put my training and experience together was ideal.”
How would you describe your collection?
“It has evolved over the years, but the main focus has always been a contemporary take on the traditional, hand-crafted textiles of the weavers, embroiderers and quilt makers involved. We work directly with small producers and groups of artisans, and fair-trade principles are at the heart of what we do. Our colour palette tends towards neutrals and natural dyes such as indigo, and because our work is largely handmade, our products are high-end, luxury pieces.”
Please can you tell us about the traditional techniques used?
“Our Kantha quilts and cushions are woven from locally grown Kala cotton – an ancient species indigenous to Kutch, which is entirely rain-fed and requires no irrigation, fertilisers or pesticides. They’re then adorned with Kantha stitching, which consists of tiny stitches in close, neat rows, using one long thread to ensure no knots are visible on the surface. The Desi cushions and throws are also made in Kutch, on traditional pit looms. They use local sheep’s wool, which is hand-spun and dyed with natural plant and insect dyes.
“Our Nepali Radhi rug weavers work on narrow, nomadic back-strap looms, weaving un-dyed, hand-spun wool from their own sheep, before joining strips of woven cloth and then washing the finished rug in hot water to felt it all together.”
Ethical practices are clearly very important to you. How do you support and empower the artisans you work with?
“Support and empowerment come from paying a fair price for the work that’s produced, and that’s central to our philosophy. We’re not interested in making the next mass-produced item for the cheapest possible price; all our products have soul and have been touched by many hands in the making.
“By working with NGOs and our production manager in Ahmedabad, we know that the artisans are paid fairly for their work and that their livelihoods are supported. We buy all our Kala cotton fabrics from a Kutch-based NGO that employs local farmers, hand spinners, dyers and weavers, and we source our wool from a co-operative of weavers in the village of Bhujodi. In Nepal we work with another NGO, SABAH, that helps hand weavers in the remote villages to sell their expert work to a wider international audience.”
How do things work on a practical level? Do you visit the artisans you work with, and do they get involved in the design process?
“Graham made many visits to India and Nepal in the early days of Stitch by Stitch and met all the artisans we now work with, but we soon realised that unless we were able to spend extended periods there, we needed to employ someone on the ground to act as a liaison. We now work with a fantastic Gujarati woman who has design training herself (and was a course leader at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad for some years) and shares our passion for traditional techniques. She understands our motivations, our aesthetic and our quality, and has many contacts – in fact she introduced us to our amazing quilt makers, who ad-lib a bit with the fabrics we give them and make sure each quilt is unique. SABAH deals directly with our Radhi rug weavers in Nepal, since they’re based in remote locations. We also use WhatsApp, Skype, email and Instagram messages to communicate directly with the artisans.”
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
“Most of our inspiration comes from paring down the traditional designs to their essential elements, and being true to the techniques and materials. We like the cotton fabrics and wool to speak for themselves, so we don’t fiddle about with them too much. For example, we added a frayed fringe to our Desi wool cushions to emphasise the raw nature and natural colour of the yarns. We also draw ideas from textile traditions in other cultures, and Japanese Boro fabrics were an inspiration for our raw Chindi quilts. You have to keep an open mind and an eye on everything – that’s something art college teaches you.”
Do you have any personal favourites from the collection?
“My absolute favourite is the raw Chindi quilt – it’s such a beautiful piece, and I love the fact that you can see how the patchwork fabrics have been joined together since all the frayed seams are on the surface. It’s not too perfect!
“Graham’s favourites are the Radhi rugs – he bought one in a market in Kathmandu and spent two years tracking down the weavers to produce our own collection because he loved it so much. He was obsessed with it!”
Finally, what’s next for Stitch by Stitch? Do you have any exciting plans or new designs on the horizon?
“We’re working on some quilts which mix block printing and Kantha stitching and so create a bit of a trick for the eye. But I think the most exciting thing we have in the design stage at the moment is also a bit of a departure for us: woollen blankets woven by a British micro-mill. We wanted to branch out into small production and also do something a bit closer to home. We’ll always have our handmade items in the collection, but they have a niche market because they take a long time to make. We’re looking forward to having a range of pieces that we can produce in larger quantities and at a slightly different price level, and we’ll launch them in the new year.
“We’re also hoping to exhibit in the USA next year, at a very exciting event. I can’t say any more about that at the moment, so you’ll have to join our mailing list or follow us on Instagram for updates!”
Head over to Stitch by Stitch’s website to see the full collection, and find the company on Instagram at @stitch_bystitch.
Most photography by Stitch by Stitch; images one, two and eight by Abi Dare