Finding joy in accidental discoveries is usually a great indication you’re onto a good thing. This is where Emily from Nancybird found herself midstream with her fine arts degree during a print elective class. Switching from paper to fabric sparked the curiosity inherent in most artistic pursuits and her continued experimentation was a catalyst to bring her creations to life.
As a graduate of textile design, it was the printed elements of her bags that first appealed to me, upon discovering them 15 years ago. In a sea of ever growing sameness, Nancybird designs have remained true to their philosophy of people, the earth and art. Emily’s team brings together creations that remind us of mother nature’s gifts, while staying true to their love of mixed materials in the everyday pieces of the collection.
I’m delighted to share designer Nancybird’s story for my first designer interview.
LOUISE: What drew you to start with leather & textiles?
EMILY: I studied fashion for a year, dropped out, went travelling & came back to study fine art & did print making as an elective. At uni we printed on paper, but I could see the potential to take this further & I’d bring home screens from uni & experiment on fabric as an alternative. The idea for my bags was developed from there. With leather being the traditional material for bags, it made sense to me to add leather into the mix. I taught myself how to sew with soft leather and bought myself a leather sewing machine. For a little while I was making bags & accessories and selling them in a couple of local shops.
LOUISE: Wow, I didn’t know that. I love your resourcefulness, because you haven’t had the traditional training in knowing where to go, or who to talk to in order to source the parts for your product…let alone knowing what was a fair price to pay for it. I love how you jumped right in.
EMILY: Yes, it was pretty scary at times. For 5 years I was manufacturing locally, either with myself at the machine and sometimes with a local maker who worked out of her garage in Doncaster. Finding the right materials in Australia was really hard, even just to find the basics was difficult. Leathergoods doesn’t have a thriving industry and I knew long term it wasn’t sustainable for us to produce locally and grow. When we went offshore, it was a massive relief, because there were so many more materials and options for us to choose from.
LOUISE: Were there other driving factors as well?
EMILY: The main reason was the need to increase the quantities in order to make the business sustainable & profitable. For the first 5 years when the product was made locally, the business wasn’t profitable. It was just impossible to do the higher quantities here.
I needed the business to provide me with a wage, as well as enough money to invest back into it. I think our later expansion into other categories such as clothing was about exploring other materials. The fact that I ended up working with leather goods, was more akin to an art practise or design discipline. It was an accidental path. I feel like it’s been a natural evolution though, with all of the product being textile & leather based. I love the 2 mediums we work with and I don’t want to step out of that realm.
LOUISE: So do you think the design informs the production technique, or is it the other way around?
EMILY: I would say it’s both. Initially, our product was predominantly design led and was reflecting my love of the combined materials of textiles and leather. But I would say it’s increasingly been about the process as well. Production can inform what’s possible with design.
When I did eventually go offshore, possibilities opened up and allowed us to make even more design-led changes. I like updating things each season, including the bag shapes and I needed the production to be able to evolve with the design.
More recently though we’ve been exploring traditional techniques, such as block printing & weaving which are part of our homewares and garment collections. You get that warmth and authenticity from the hand-made and traditional techniques. Our essence has always had the tactile, earthy, natural materials at its core, but process is increasingly informing our designs. It’s a really interesting and exciting direction that we love.
LOUISE: In your recent move to using traditional techniques, why choose India over China with these textiles?
EMILY: I think the motivation to go with India was about wanting to use smaller manufacturers, that were artisan based with traditional techniques. But it was also important to me to partner with suppliers that were already accredited and regulated. After some online research, I found the best way to work with India was through FairTrade & accredited suppliers. In China it works differently. Government labour laws have strict regulations regarding for sick leave, accident insurance & overtime and so on. So, I feel absolutely confident that the factories we work with in China are already adhering to those requirements. China’s poverty levels have been significantly reduced over the past 30-40 years and there’s now an expansive growing middle class in China.
LOUISE: Yes, I completely know what you mean. There’s a perception hangover from when manufacturing started in China 30-40 years ago that suggests ‘Made in China’ is a ‘lesser quality’ product. This perception is still so sticky. You couldn’t find the people locally to make your product, even though you tried. So in fact, you had no alternative but to go offshore and it’s been a benefit for your business.
EMILY : Yes, it’s so interesting. I still find it fascinating with the perceptions around product made in India versus China. India are 10 steps behind where China are in terms of labour regulation, and yet it’s sometimes perceived to be the other way around. In India I feel that we have to go with Fair Trade accredited to really know that our product is being made through an ethical supply.
LOUISE: Moving onto some lighter topics…What’s your favourite piece in the collection at the moment?
EMILY: I’m really loving the block printing pieces. I visited India in April where we produce the textiles and saw them printing our current homewares range. I do have a soft spot for this. It’s so amazing that it still exists and this is what’s so amazing about India too – traditional techniques still being used. Educational support still exists to help farming communities study rural industry with a strong emphasis on keeping the skillset local and regional. The region we work with is really known for block printing. And the business we’re dealing with has a long line of master printers in their family. The whole community does block printing. I went to another region where they do hand weaving and that’s what they’re known for. I was just blown away by the fact that it’s all still there, relatively untouched. And the support for these communities to grow their skills is strong – so that they’re not lost. It was so fascinating.
LOUISE: Sounds like you’re really loving the whole process. I’m always fascinated to know how creative people and design based businesses balance the planning & production with the designing of a range. How do you flow with that juggle?
EMILY: There’s 3 of us now in our little production/ design team. Sarah is our textile designer and she does all of our print based product and weaving designs. She also shares the knitwear designs with Laura our fashion designer. Laura creates all of the shapes for the garments, while I do all of the leather goods/footwear design. Between us we share all aspects of our different areas. I really do see the production/sampling process as part of the design process. It’s all one.
Having the extra people in the team has really expanded the possibilities too. I was doing everything until Sarah came on board. And as much as I’m still being pulled away into other parts of the business such as admin, sales, social media & photography etc, the production plans and dates we set ourselves help keep us on track. Until it gets pushed out, in which case, we just re-set and figure out how to make it work!
LOUISE: What are your favourite sources of inspiration?
EMILY: I’m personally inspired by being out of the city and being in natural environments. It’s often the starting point for colour and for ‘seeing’ something with a fresh perspective. When we’re coming up with new colours/themes for the season & working to strict deadlines, we do go to those standard forms of inspiration for images to feed the ideas such as Pinterest or Instagram. But I think the natural world and art is our constant theme and source of inspiration. I’ve got a 3 year old, so my time to indulge in the world of inspiration is limited right now. I don’t have time to explore the galleries or bookshops, so I just have to find it where I can.
You can enjoy Nancybird’s latest Spring collection including leather bags, wallets, shoes, scarves & clothing at nancybird.com.
3 THINGS WITH EMILY WRIGHT
What was the 1st piece of significant clothing you bought with your own money?
I bought a bright orange PU coat in 1995 (!), when I was on a student exchange to southern France – I went to the Porte de Clignancourt flea markets in Paris and my heart exploded a little. I wore that coat in (conservative) southern France to my delight and their horreur for months!
When you buy clothing for yourself, who do you shop with when it’s not your own product?
Since having a little one, I seem to shop less and less. I buy basics from Everlane online occasionally, and when I’m travelling and have a little spare time I like buying from local labels – I love the memories in those travel purchases. There are so many amazing Melbourne labels I could be buying from too – I just don’t get out enough!
What’s one thing people might not know about you?
I love looking through our telescope at the moon.