Nature, heritage and homewares: making the tea towel meaningful

Kate Watts of Crown and Feathers screenprints her original designs onto high quality cotton and linen teatowels in her Dunedin workshop, using eco-friendly waterbased inks. Inspired by objects of household history, and the natural world around her, she feels her work brings lightness and enjoyment to everyday chores.

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What do you make?
I design and hand print a range of tea towels with designs inspired by vintage kitchenware and birds.

How did you get into your craft?
I studied Craft Design at Christchurch Polytech, though I’ve always made things. My parents used to keep me quiet with a pile of cardboard, scissors and glue when I was a child. After I finished studying, I decided I needed to learn a trade, so I started a clothing label and taught myself to sew, in that order! I designed and made clothes for quite a few years, and sold through around four little boutiques around New Zealand.

Towards the end of this time (It’s a jolly hard way to try to earn a living) I started making fingerless gloves, which turned out to be quite popular. I stopped making clothing for a while, and worked for Southern Opera and the Court Theatre as a casual machinist, but after a while started making the gloves to supplement my income. The first gloves I made were knit fabric with patches of brocade sewn on with a zig zag, which were cute, but not very easy to make in larger quantities. I taught myself to screen print as a way to add a point of difference to my gloves, that was much more suitable to boutique manufacturing than stitched patches. The gloves sold really well, and became a full time job.

I started printing the tea towels a few years later when I felt like designing a slightly bigger print! Most of the prints on the gloves are only 5 x 13cm, so it is nice to have a bit more space to play with, with the tea towels.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Yes, a Bachelor of Design from Christchurch Polytech.

Printing duck tea towels

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Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I banned myself from any medium other than textiles years ago. I love many things, fine metals, resins, wood.. but I realised early on that it is expensive to tool up for each material, you end up storing so many different kinds of materials, and you need a different kind of work space for each craft… I’m really glad I decided to specialise. I think I have developed a really good skills base, textiles is a vast creative field all in itself.

Tell us about the techniques involved in producing a print onto textile:
I start with an idea, which I follow up with hours of drawing. I usually start with a pencil, then sometimes move to a pen, sometimes watercolour. The duck print’s uneven tone was created with a stamp pad and fingerprints. Usually the work will then go into photoshop where I will sometimes heavily over draw, sometimes lightly touch up, depending on what the design needs to translate well to print. A tea towel design will usually take 8-16 hours to design.

I usually test print a small section of the design to check how the texture is reading and to test colours that I think might work. The pink and green that the swans are printed in took me hours to mix, they are colour matched to some of my favourite old 50s teacups.

I make my own screens using a thermal screen process – you might notice that my screens look a bit different to most screen printing screens, which usually have big wooden frames. I decided to use thermal screens, as I started my business in our old tiny little 40s dining room and really didn’t have enough space for traditional screens. The thermal screens are an expensive set up cost for the machine, but the ongoing running costs are super cheap and the whole process is super fast and very compact. The screen quality is a bit average, but I design around its limitations.

I use Australian made eco-friendly water based printing inks.

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a really early swatch book with a guest appearance from percy

What inspires you?
Lots of things! When I am designing I often start with a walk through native bush, followed by a trip to the museum. The jelly moulds are inspired by the old battered metal ones Mum used to make us jelly in when we were kids, and the one with the kitchen utensils is drawn from items in the kitchen and scullery at Olveston Historic Home in Dunedin. Flocks of birds, a feather found on the beach, familiar things.

Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I believe that waking up under a beautiful duvet will make you feel better, that drying your dishes with a pretty teatowel will bring a lightness to an otherwise dull chore. Aesthetics can improve our every day life in small and meaningful ways.

Aesthetics can improve our every day life in small and meaningful ways.

Describe your creative process:
Running a medium sized creative business is quite time consuming, there are many aspects that need to be kept on top of, like ordering materials, keeping the websites updated, sending out orders to my retailers, making sure we have enough stock. I also do all of the screen printing, which can often take a couple of days a week, so unfortunately the creative bits often get squished in at the last minute in a real rush and it can get quite stressful, trying to come up with something good enough within tight deadlines. On the upside, it means I have learnt to commit to a design and bring it through to completion quite quickly, but I know if I had more time my work would have a more considered beauty. I throw away at least 1/3 of the designs I work on every season, sometimes they just don’t quite work out, and you just have to let them go!

Test printing and coulour testing

Screens of a design that didnt make the cut

Describe your workspace:
It’s a great big mess! I’ve got a lovely big space in Dunedin, I’ve just got way too much stuff.

When I first started out I just had one little 50s extendable formica table – I did my printing, then I cleared off the table, then packed up my orders, then cleared it all off to print again.

Now I’ve got heaps of great big work tables, there’s a separate area for everything. One for printing, one for the computer, another for the sewing machines, another for pressing and sending the orders out. I feel pretty lucky! I’ve got great views of some lovely buildings too. I’d love to show you, but honestly, the state of it is a bit embarrassing.

Five words that describe your mind:
Busy, a little chaotic, inquiring.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
I’ve got customers who have been buying from me again and again over the years, I think that’s the best compliment. And I get people calling me and emailing me to tell me how much they love my packaging. I should really update my listing photos, it’s much nicer than what I’ve got pictured! I guess you’ll just have to place an order to see it. ;-)

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Packaging

What are you currently listening to?
National Radio! It’s great company when you work by yourself a lot of the time. I’d like to listen to more music though, maybe a mix tape full of 50s girl groups and Nick Cave. Oh and throw in some early punk please!

Recommend an album:
Well I would have to say The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It just takes you away to another place, it’s a very special album, from beginning to end. Otherworld, other time.

What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
I read so many Agatha Christies, I still love them.

What are you reading now?
Robert Heinlein. He’s a bit disappointing. I’m in the mood for some more recent sci-fi, I’m curious to see where the more recent writers think the future holds for us, on this big old ball of rock.

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Anyone who is out there making incredibly beautiful work and sharing it with us.

Tell us about your pets:
I miss my old studio cat Percy from Oamaru. He came with my last house, he’s got a tonne of personality, not all of it easy to live with, but he’s awesome in his own way. He’s still back in Oamaru, I do think about kid(cat?)napping him sometimes but he’s probably happier where he is.

If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I would be Floral Girl, and if you sit still too long I will appliqué floral designs on you… or maybe just tie your shoe laces together.

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What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Part of me is is saying: think big. We are the ones holding ourselves back. Write a solid business plan, and write one that you still want to be doing in ten years. Put some holidays in it. And be open to the market telling you what it wants – I never set out to make gloves, but it’s put food on my table for many years. And costings! The numbers never lie. They can be brutal, but you need to listen to them. Find good mentors, and a network of like minded business buddies. :-) Make sure you’re not squishing the fun bits into what ever little bits of time are left over after all the rest is done.

The other part of me wants to add here that if you like having money to spend, want to have more than 60c in your savings account, full time self employment in the crafts is probably not the path. How many people are making more than just enough to get by? I think the dream gets a bit over sold, and I am wary of adding to that. But then what is life for? Some of us just aren’t meant for the 9-5.

I do think there’s a lot of joy and quite a bit of success and fun to be had doing it part time.

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I brought a super cute purse for my friend in Harajuku, Tokyo last year. it was in an awesomely fun sticker shop, the staff were so friendly, and the purse was a cut out shape of a girl flashing her knickers, in a yellow dress on one side and blue on the other. It was fun, cheeky, surprising, and really nicely made.

What’s in store for 2016?
Later this year I’m planning on going back to study fine arts, to get back in to the creative groove, to make the most beautiful work I can.

Kate has kindly offered one of her gorgeous linen swan vase print tea towels (you can see her working on one below) as a prize for one lucky Felt reader. Printed in a classic retro swan design in white, these natural linen tea towels wash up beautifully, don’t stain the same as a white cotton cloth, and they do a beautiful job on your dishes. To be in to win, simply leave a comment telling us what you like about Kate’s story and her gorgeous designs. The draw will be made on Friday 3 June and is open to New Zealand residents only.

 

Purchase from Crown and Feathers on Felt »

 

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18 Responses to “Nature, heritage and homewares: making the tea towel meaningful”

  1. Ellen says:

    Kates products are all so beautiful. Love the colours and designs.

  2. Vynka Short says:

    These are absolutely gorgeous! I totally agree that making everyday items that bit more beautiful, actually makes life better! I love the fact that Kate started off small printing at a Formica table and that she’s managed to grow her business by doing something she really loves. Beautiful!

  3. Clazena says:

    Great article. Gorgeous work as always Kate!!

  4. Love love love, I am all for making the more mundane tasks more beautiful, and i also love your business advice. Beautiful work

  5. Katie says:

    Hello from a fellow CPIT graduate :) I’ve always loved your tea towels and gloves :)

  6. Rebecca says:

    Wow! That’s really amazing. I love what your doing, turning the humble tea towel into something beautiful. Keep up the good work!

  7. Juliet says:

    I love Kate’s philosophy and agree that adding beauty to your day can significantly improve it.

  8. Corrinne says:

    “Aesthetics can improve our every day life in small and meaningful ways”. Wow, that is so true. I am trying to keep only things in my life that bring me joy. It is really amazing how happiness can be increased by making the little things special. I love your swan tea towels – I have a Crown Lynn swan in the centre of my mantelpiece – it brings me so much joy!

  9. Holly wiseman says:

    Stunning and so uniquely NZ. Kate has combined incredible quality and design into what is the perfect addition to your kitchen or gift for a friend.

  10. Melanie says:

    Gorgeous work – certainly sounds like she lives and breathes what she does, which is great. But on the non-work side, I like the fact that she still hankers after her previous cat – I like cat infatuation. Also that she listens to National Radio while working – radio is like having a friend around when there’s no one there, and it can be very informative also.

  11. Tamara says:

    I admire her passion – what a fulfilling journey. Adore the aesthetic of her design, timeless. I am all for beautiful yet practical things!!!

  12. Sarah Hosie says:

    Oh wow!!! I absolutely love the swan tea towel, would love to win!

  13. Kyla says:

    Beautiful work! I love that you are bringing a refined print based aesthetic into the everyday. I like the fact you are using water based eco inks and fabric with a texture that adds to the artwork. Historical references and drawing upon utensils at Olveston makes me enjoy the imagery even more. Great to hear your business advice and experience of being guided by the market. Lovely!

  14. Jenni says:

    What a beautiful aesthetic, so detailed and pared back. Lovely!

  15. kat mcdonnell says:

    A great read. I love her quirky attitude and her honesty about setting up and running a business – I feel very inspired!!

  16. Linda says:

    Your work is beautiful. However I really enjoyed reading about how you started and the advice you give for anyone starting out their own creative journey. :)

  17. Cynthia Peat says:

    I remember my brother loving your swan tea towel as we had one just like it when we were growing up. ( Sadly the swan ended up with a broken neck ) My brother was visiting us from the UK at the time so the swan tea towel now resides there.

    Everything about Kate’s work is special and I admire a women who follows her heart and passion !

  18. Monique says:

    Thanks for your business advice :) I am in the beginning stages of a small business so this was much appreciated.

    It truly does make life that wee bit lovelier when you have a few pretty things to make you smile

    x

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