North is a Darwin-based social enterprise that creates clothing and interior textiles using hand-printed fabrics sourced from art centres in Indigenous Communities in Australia's Top End. All of their textiles are printed and made locally, creating beautiful pieces, while also contributing to the preservation of pride and independence among Indigenous artists.
We caught up with North's Founder, Crystal Thomas, and head of Communication and Project Facilitation, Amy Nicholas, while we were recently in Darwin, to chat about North's beginnings and the facilitation of creative collaboration.
Jessica: Are you guys originally from Darwin? What are your backgrounds?
Crystal: I’m from Melbourne. I moved here in 2012 for three and a half years, then I moved back to Melbourne for two years, and I've been back here now for about eight months. I don’t have any plans to leave and it’s very exciting to be back! My background is in textile design and interior design.
Amy: I'm from Perth originally. My background is in youth work and photography. At the moment I study social work and I'm really interested in social enterprise as a community development tool.
Jessica: How did North come about?
Crystal: I saw these incredible fabrics for the first time when I moved up. I’ve always loved texile art and seeing Indigenous stories translated into the textile medium was exciting. I started collecting fabrics and would purchase a new design every few months, often sending pieces home as presents. It brought me joy to have the textiles and colour around the house and to know that the sales of fabric were supporting remote Art Centres and their artists.
Indigenous art centres started producing hand screen-printed textiles in the early 1970’s on the Tiwi Islands. Bold prints were very popular at the time and textile production in the Top End expanded rapidly. I believe it was a thriving medium for many years and then it kind of fell away in different art centres. About twelve to fifteen years ago, some of the art centres started to revitalise the textile industry. When I first moved here there were a number of great established art centres producing beautiful textiles, but they were only sold remote, or from a few outlets in Darwin; there was no access for them outside of the Territory. They also hadn't been used in the context of interiors, they'd just been sold by the metre. I was working in Interior Design at the time and so many Art Centre’s were excited about custom printing for design projects.
So the idea of North started with identifying that a platform to bring all these textiles to the marketplace was really needed. As North has developed, we've worked closely in collaboration with community in the way that has been unrolled. The textile industry has expanded exponentially in the last three years.
Jessica: Expanded within the Territory, you mean?
Crystal: Definitely within the Territory, but there are a lot of collaborations happening now. At the art fair the first year I arrived here there were like three art centres that had fabric and they were kind of rolled up at the back of the art centre stands. Now when you go to the art fair about thirty or fourty art centres have fabric. It's a core part of a lot of art centres business and art centres are working on a lot of collaborations with different people.
Jessica: How did you get started?
Crystal: North was quite an open book when it started. Because we had so many connections to the interior industry we thought that was a good way to start. We developed some cushions and the upholstery collection so we could start spreading the word down South and bring these textiles that were produced in community to a broader audience. The textiles are artworks and stories of the artists that have been created and printed for years and North is just a platform for these artworks. We work with the centres on doing some custom colours, but that's about the extent of that, the designs already exist.
Amy: In the branding of North we try hard to make sure to convey that the designs aren't anyone else's beyond the artist’s. It's not just 'Aboriginal art', you know? It’s the work of a specific artist, from a specific country, who has their own story to tell. We try hard to make sure that the meaning behind each work is conveyed properly through NORTH, but it’s always tricky.
Jessica: Have you found, particularly coming from down South, that there is a real Territory aesthetic?
Crystal: We can't talk on behalf of the artists in terms of what their stories represent, but most textile prints are artists stories translated into fabric.
Amy: When I first saw the bush dye by the Anindilyakwa artists on Groote Eylandt, it was really clear that it was a unique reflection of the land. Every single piece is coloured from country, with intentional design by the artist. The fabric is so clearly unique to Groote Eylandt.
Jessica: The Anindilyakwa artists’ bush dying in your sleep range is so beautiful. Can you talk me through the process of it?
Amy: I first visited the art centre while I was working on Angurugu community as a youth worker. The art centre is across the road from the rec hall, so we'd go over and chat to the ladies as they dyed out the front of the centre. The dyeing process usually starts with a bush trip out on country. The artists enjoy dyeing out by the river or on the beach at Umbakumba but sometimes they’ll just head out to collect the right materials for their dye pots and work back at the Angurgu art centre. Dyeing practice is not new to the island, dyeing Pandanus for weaving has long been tradition. Bush dyeing practice carries that knowledge into a new medium and draws on a broader spectrum of traditional knowledge on Eylandt plant life. Aly de Groot, a well known Darwin fibre artist, facilitated the development of natural dyeing with textiles over a number of years through workshops with the female artists who were interested in diversifying their practice. Aly now works at the art centre full time as their Art Director and bush dyeing is now a key medium for female artists across the Eylandt. The artists share much more about their practice on their new website if you’re interested in learning more – anindilyakwaarts.com.au.
Jessica: How did the design process work with your sleepwear range?
Crystal: The art centre suggested that the collaboration should feature silk as this fabric works beautifully with the bush-dye process. From there we brainstormed potential garment ideas based around a sleep wear collection. We started working with a pattern maker in Melbourne to create the first lot of samples, did a lot of tweaking, then we actually ended up calling on a small label in Melbourne and showed them the patterns and they suggested some more tweaking too. It took a long time to get the patterns right.
For our next collaboration we’ve been very lucky to have better resources during the design development stage so this can be done in consultation with community.
We've developed a range of different garments that we know will work well in the market place. We're taking that to community to work through a very open and inclusive workshop to generate ideas and interest in the kinds of garments that could be created and develop those ideas. That might be a big frill on the sleeve, or a belt, or a flowing dress. So we'll work in consultation with community in that design process. Then we'll work with our patternmaker -
Jessica: Same patternmaker?
Crystal: Well, for our first collection, we used three patternmakers. So that was a bit of an experiment to find people, all local as well, who we wanted to work with. Now we just have Ken the patternmaker! So we'll work with Ken on pulling those elements and that feedback together. We always call out to people in the industry who we respect. We've found we have a lot of friends in the industry and it has been so warm and welcoming.
Amy: The textiles themselves are so exciting to work with, so everyone has been really supportive in jumping on board and helping out, it's been really wonderful. There were so many people who worked on the sleepwear collection so it was so exciting to see it launched at the art fair.
Crystal: And at the moment, we're working with experts in each field who we trust. Things are tweaked, and we'll listen to our sewer when she says something like, hey this is great but we can make the waistband 2 centimetres higher in this type of elastic, so we really are responsive. We're working with some beautiful craftspeople and artisans and sewers, all along the process. The pieces we did for the sleep collection definitely evolved by being informed by these artisans who we work with and it will be the same for the next collection.
Jessica: It must be so fun having a party of people across the country invested in this!
Amy: It's love. Everyone is pouring in love, excitement and their own expertise. Because we're not starting with a fixed idea of, well this is the design or this is what we want it to look like, it means whatever unfolds is more exciting.
Jessica: Was this sleepwear collection the first apparel design process you've been involved with?
Crystal: Yeah it was. We did the development of a lifestyle collection that had bags and purses and what not. The design development of any collection follows a similar process, you know, looking at the design, creating patterns, creating samples, tweaking and going back and forth with the sewer or for the bags it's the leather craftsman, to get the desired result. But this was the first time we worked with specific patternmaker apparel sewers. We had really great resources and a great team.
Jessica: Why is it so important for you guys to be having your supply chain in Australia and making it here?
Amy: It's almost a given. If we're looking for a new product, we're looking for the sustainable or ethical option always. Respect for country is part of our mission statement and ethos, so that feeds into how we practice sustainably. But also, we want to sell goods that carry meaning and that carry stories, so it makes sense that they are made in a meaningful way. I feel like manufacturing overseas robs you of that meaning. There's so much uncertainty around working conditions and if you're paying less, you're paying less. That's the bottom line. It's just so much more exciting for us that we're sending work to Ken the patternmaker, then we've got to run around to share those patterns with our sewer.
Crystal: We have built so many working relationships with passionate people within the design industry. It is very important to support other makers and keep those crafts alive within Australia. Guy and Lee from Louis Ferrier are two inspirational artisans we worked with on the lifestyle collection. Guy is a leather craftsman that works out of his Mentone workshop in Victoria with his wife Lee. Guy felt very humbled to be able to work with the textiles as a base for the product design and we all worked closely together to develop pieces that represented the textiles in a thoughtful way.
It is fun and rewarding to be invloved in the production journey and see everyones hard work unfold. I don’t feel that the journey would have been shared in the same way if we were working overseas; unless we were based overseas. It would have lost the intimicy and the shared excitement.
Amy: I also think that everyone we work with, because we work in Australia, is giving a little bit more. We're inviting them to collaborate on the production more than simply be a producer.
Jessica: So you find people are a bit more invested into it on a personal or creative level?
Amy: Yeah, and it's a much greater reward from it as well. It feels a lot better when we're chatting to artists and saying, the person who sews this lives in Melbourne, and the person who printed this for us is down in Sydney. The place is important.
Jessica: How have you found coming up here from a design background in Melbourne? How is the Northern Territory different creatively, aesthetically or the process in general? Is there a collective or shared Australian aesthetic that you've found?
Crystal: The Territory is such a different terrain to so many other parts of Australia. There are a lot of different types of australian aesthetic. The Indigenous artwork we celebrate at North are depicting Territory stories and country, so a Northern Territory aesthetic does shine through. It's our job with the branding of North to complement that in the way we might put it on a postcard or do graphics around it, but we're informed by the artwork and that's why it has a Territory aesthetic. I think also why I was drawn to the artwork in the first place is I was very drawn to the landscape itself and the colours within it, and Amy too, so we love the work.
Jessica: One thing I’ve noticed, even just on a long weekend here, is that you can't escape the physicality of the landscape and the climate. It's on your skin the entire time.
Amy: You can't forget you're on the land. When you're inside there are geckos. The lack of cement. The jungle creeping into your windows, the heat!
Crystal: You respond to it. Your life is driven by the climate and the country.
Amy: Yeah, you're so aware you live within a cycle as well, you know? Wet or dry.
Jessica: I noticed that your website mentions that your process might slow down because of flooded roads during the wet!
Amy: You'll want to go out to community, but you can't! You'll just get stuck.
Crystal: Many art centres are only accessible by small plane for a good chunk of the wet season. North is simply another platform and opportunity for some of those communities. Collaborations and stockists are so important to assist art centres when they're cut off in the wet season. But I think secretly everyone wants to be cut off in the wet season, because the dry season is so hectic!
Jessica: How did you find it when you first moved here? Was it a shock coming from Melbourne? Or did you just fall in love with it?
Amy: People talk about Territory time - not today, not tomorrow, not Tuesday, not Thursday. Things happen when they need to happen, at the right time, they have a way. It's a lot slower. You know that feeling in Melbourne where you're always in a rush to go somewhere? In Darwin it's just a little slower, everyone is a little more aware, and it's a little bit too hot to work in that way!
Crystal: I think I found that pace a little bit difficult to start with! Now I'm addicted to it. That's why I came back to the Territory, and I don't think there's space for any other way in the future now, this is what it's about, this is perfect.
Jessica: So you're talking about doing another range with Ken the patternmaker. Is it likely to be sleepwear again? Or after that first range are you looking at exploring different apparel?
Amy: I guess we'll find out. There is an art centre who are interested in working with us in that way and it will be an adventure collection, they're producing really colorful prints. With the other collections, we'll find out. The upholstery collection for North will always hold a valuable place and a good point for interior designers to use indigenous textiles in commercial settings.
Crystal: And that's a really exciting space. It's a space in which artists can really experience their artwork on scale and en masse where it's publicly appreciated. We really hope to expand that collection and have hotels feature textiles in their foyer or a public gallery adorn the walls of their entry lobby. For the artist to physically see their work in these spaces. [North is now offering Interior Consulting services - more information here]
Amy: Crystal recently interviewed Gabriel and he was saying how excited he gets when he sees people wearing their prints. At the art fair quite a few of the Anindilyakwa artists came in from community and we were spotting people wearing things that were Anindilyakwa dyed, and it's really exciting to see your own work celebrated.
Jessica: Do you have any advice for designers who are looking to do collaborations with an art centre or a particular artist?
Amy: I would propose you honestly question, are you willing to create enough space for that collaboration to be genuine? Or whether would you like to take a design from community and integrate it into your own work. Perhaps both are useful for the art centre when there is income generated but its really important to be clear with your intention. Things take time in community to happen in the right way, things happen in a different order at a different pace, and that really needs to be respected. I think, if you can respect it, then you can create a really strong collaboration that everyone can feel excited about. I believe that if you’re trading in Aboriginal art, you’re trading in work that holds incredible significance and meaning, and that in such you absolutely have to honour that.
Crystal: Also consider the journey and how you intend to share that journey with your partners. In the very initial stages of thinking about North I noticed that many collaborations or partnerships that were happening with other organisations were bringing a monetary gain to community, but the artists weren’t involved in the journey. Some artists wouldn’t know what came of a licensing agreement. Not all artists, but many artists are really excited and proud to see their work and the results of partnerships. A Tiwi artist I’ve known for a while, always proudly shows me this photo of her artwork in an apartment in Paris. The buyer of the work simply posted this photo on facebook and tagged the Art Centre with some words of appreciation. The Munupi crew are pretty tech savvy and this photo quickly made it’s way back to the artist. Communication is really important.
Amy: The transactional nature of Western culture is often, well I've paid for that so it's mine now. But you can never own a story, it can never be yours, so you must be mindful of that.
Crystal: The communities that we are working with are remote, so they aren't necessarily getting to see the impact of their work or the results of their work or other people enjoying it. It's really important for a designer who is collaborating to carve out some time to go through that process properly. We decided to start a newsletter at North to make sure artists had the best opportunity to see customers and press excited about their work. We also started ‘Be Territorial’ an online platform with interviews from artists and other creatives invloved in the Indigenous art sector.
Jessica: It sounds like along your entire process, there’s a real acknowledgement of the importance of relationships, in otherwise standard transactions that might be, well I spoke to so and so on the phone, sold them this thing, which might not happen in another space.
Amy: North has a community and we work with communities. It's all relationship based and that's where the meaning comes from. I just think it means that the final products we produce are of high quality and are loved, because at every stage they have been treated with love and respect for what they are, which is art.