"Cultural textiles have always inspired and fascinated me, the colours, textures, embroideries, beading, tassels, tradition and culture all evoke a magical world of intrigue. A world of women sitting sewing and whispering, looms clacking, wheels spinning, stories of life being woven into cloth. People wearing their words, their culture, history and tradition in thread." – Kathy Williams, April 2020.
Sewing circles, silkworms and social enterprise. The story of leading textile artisan and natural dyer Kathy Williams spans generations and is intertwined with the lives of women across the seas.
"Ever since my grandmother taught me to hand stitch, when I was young, I have felt this affinity with textiles," says Kathy, who was just seven when her Depression-era grandmother introduced the idea of ‘a use for everything.’ “Her house was carpeted with rag rugs she and her mother had made. My first project with her was a patchwork quilt. I loved the bundles of treasures I found in Grandma's sewing cupboard and in her linen press. I now have similar bundles!”
But young Kathy soon found something missing in her practically minded apprenticeship. “As a child I craved to be part of a more enriched culture where women sat together to hand embroider or hand stitch with techniques and skills passed on from mother to daughter. The easy talk and gentle whispers while they embroidered colourful and detailed historical stories on beautiful hand-spun, hand-loomed cloth for births, marriages, deaths, festivals and celebrations – I yearned for something like that.”
After training as a hairdresser and a stint teaching in a private college Kathy, who “always had some sort of textile project going on the side” discovered silkworms. She became a sericulturalist, rearing silkworms, importing containers of silk from China, advocating for a local Victorian industry and assisting with research and development for a new genetic strain for local silk production.
“For 25 years I bred those silkworms - I fed them, cleaned their environment, built them spinning areas and introduced them to mates,” recalls Kathy. “Every year I gathered their eggs and stored them safely, ready for the next generation."
The cumulative experience of watching these animals spin silk over several years cemented in her a deep respect for every single strand of thread. “How could I waste one thread when I know how time consuming that process is. So precious!”
Meanwhile, Kathy’s love of cultural textiles continued to burn deep. “I love how everything is connected. There is so much information in hand-generated textiles. They tell a story you can touch.” She began working in local community houses with refugees from South Sudan, Congo and Karen women, teaching them textiles and sewing. “It was such a rewarding time in my life.”
Over time, Kathy has gleaned a deep knowledge of textiles but this has come from a hands-on approach rather than traditional channels. "I have never worked in the industry per se, I've always been an outlier and I am self-trained. If I wanted to know something, I'd research it, apply the knowledge and learn that way.” She went on to experiment and perfect techniques in natural dying and discover the fascinating hand spun Indian textile practice of Khadi. “Trial and error is the best. Ten years ago I felt paranoid that I needed a certificate and did 12 months of Textile Design and Development at RMIT but never went back as the only thing I was learning was CAD and I realised that I didn’t really want to do that!”
Since becoming a mother Kathy focused more deeply on her textile work, making and selling fashion items to supplement her income. She opened her first studio in 2003, creating wearable art from scraps of silk she collected from dressmakers. Invoking her grandmother, she would sew the scraps together to make lengths of fabric, over-dye them and then turn them into new garments.
She also worked on commissioned art projects from councils, made, sold and ran creative cloth doll workshops and even made hand-stitched 15th century turned shoes. Then, in late 2016 she started Because of Nature. “It started as an indulgence and creative playground for my obsession with hand crafted textiles,” she recalls. “People at art markets loved what I was doing, which in turn gave me confidence to continue. My children had all left school, my responsibilities had been met and I felt the time was now or never. So, I quit my job, took a leap of faith and decided to follow my dream.”
Then, six weeks into her new business, an invitation to India tipped her world on its head. She had been asked to present a fashion collection at Lakme Fashion Week, where she collaborated with social entrepreneur and kindred spirit Praveen Chauan. Together they founded The Happy Hands Project, an innovative textile project to preserve cultural practices and support women through employment in rural India. Their first workshop was in Gaya, in the country’s far north-east.
“After that trip, priorities shifted dramatically as I fell completely and utterly head-over heels in love with all of the ladies! But to achieve our vision for Happy Hands, Praveen and I needed to create cash-flow. That’s when the idea of a streamlined range of garments through Because of Nature really took off.”
It led to the creation of The Elemental Collection – a 100% compostable, naturally dyed capsule range of contemporary clothing. Because of Nature then donates 30% of its profits to The Happy Hands Project, as well as selling scarves made by the ladies and returning 100% of those profits, too.
“Praveen and I carry everything regarding our work in our hearts,” says Kathy. “It’s a hope and dream of two simple people who have enormous respect and compassion for rural women and village artisans of India.”
Kathy says more exciting developments will be announced soon. “It shows the empowerment of women through sustainable employment is not unobtainable. We are working so very hard to make this a reality.”
Because of Nature will continue to donate 30% of all profits into The Happy Hands Project and eventually, once the women have achieved a standard of skill relevant to running a viable slow fashion business, the label will be gifted to them.