Manawatu maker couple Kate and Heather often get asked about their business name – Defining Ply, or Ply for short. “We chose our name as a nod to our (exceptionally dorky) penchant for word play. Ply can mean tempt with wares, twist threads together, or working as a master of your trade. Defining Ply is a verb, something we do, something that can evolve; we learn, we pull things together, we work with our hands, we hope to draw like-minded humans to us.”
Who are Defining Ply?
Heather: tea brewer, taper of parcels.
Where: a tiny alpaca farm in Tararua.
Fuelled by: tea.
Also: body positive, queer positive, intersectional feminists. Strong opinions about fonts, and pens.
What do you make?
Copper, sterling (and soon brass!) jewellery, hand stamped with designs, patterns, quotes, lyrics, and other cleverness.
How did you get into your craft?
I was a creative kid with a busy brain, a magpie’s eye, and what my mum calls champagne taste on a beer budget. Actually, that’s all still true. I began by making (ugly) beaded jewellery and built my literal and figurative toolkit from there; I moved into copper stamping a few years ago because it was the perfect way to meld my love of words with the satisfaction of making something tangible.
“Choosing words and designs is a pleasure in itself… The quote or lyric needs to stand on its own, but it’s also important to me that the original context – and the original artist – line up with who I want to be.”
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I have no formal qualifications, though have studied widely – anthropology, psychology, creative writing – and taken many excellent classes online; I particularly love Kate Ferrant Richbourg’s Craftsy courses, and the varied and accessible classes from beaducation.com.
Your favourite materials, tools, processes?
I’ve fallen for so many artists, authors, genres, and even architectural periods since I started mining for Ply, because it reminds me to read/listen closely and with care.
I also really, really love hitting things with hammers. As of Christmas, I have my first set of wonderful, wonderful noise cancelling headphones. I can bash away for hours! Such delight.
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces.
Choosing words and designs is a pleasure in itself, but I have a detailed mental checklist to ensure they feel right for me, and for my customers, before I stamp anything. The quote or lyric needs to stand on its own, but it’s also important to me that the original context – and the original artist – line up with who I want to be. The space on each design is limited, so the length is a very practical concern.
Actually making a piece starts with a lot of measuring and re-measuring – I go through a lot of extra fine sharpies. Measure three times, stamp once. Stamping is quite fast, and – as mentioned above – lots of fun. Unfortunately, most errors are more or less irredeemable, which can be terrifying; my hands get sweaty when I’m faced with all the vowels in fluorescent.
The most taxing part is the finishing: filing, deburring, shaping and polishing. I use Vallorbe files, a Dremel Micro, and a variety of hand tools. I often end up with silicone and metal dust in my laugh lines.
What inspires you?
Words, language. Especially from ladies, non-binary folk, and BIPOC. Rebecca Solnit writes about having been a lonely child, a bit weird and not quite comfortable in any space, and that books and stories were where she lived, and was at home. I love the worlds and connections we build with language, and love the thread of continuity they’ve created throughout history and across cultures.
Also music, comedy, silence, and love.
And trees. Trees are the best. Between the Dendrology episode of the podcast Ologies and the episode ‘From Tree to Shining Tree’ by the podcast Radiolab, I’m hopelessly besotted with all things tree. Also they’re just beautiful.
“I love the worlds and connections we build with language, and love the thread of continuity they’ve created throughout history and across cultures.”
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I don’t have anything so coherent as a philosophy, but I do try to pay close attention to the choices I make and how they affect others. Life can be crappy and hard, so I try to be as kind and as open to learning from other humans as I can.
Accessibility and affordability are a big priority. I started stamping with copper because it’s gorgeous, but more because I could afford it; I could afford to learn and make mistakes with it. We’re adding sterling options and more elaborate pieces now, but it’s important to us that Ply stock pieces with a broad range of prices so that other people with champagne taste can have something gorgeous and meaningful on a beer – or fizzy drink – budget.
Describe your creative process.
Jessamyn Stanley, a badass yoga teacher, often says that the hardest part of yoga is getting to the mat, and I find this to be true of my studio time as well. Once I’m there and working, Heather (the aforementioned co-director of Defining Ply, also my marvellous wife) often has to make me stop, hydrate, and consume adequate nutrition.
Describe your workspace.
My workspace is definitely a work in progress. I find organisational systems very alluring, but then the attraction fades and I find myself surround by tools and metal and empty water glasses, wondering what went wrong.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
It’s hard to pick favourites; we have genuinely delightful customers. I love it when people are surprised by how great their piece is, or when they purchase a gift for a loved one and are so pleased they order one for themselves as well.
What are you currently listening to?
I have a startling number of Spotify playlists on constant rotation (@teaandtoebeans for anyone interested), but I’m especially loving Hozier’s new work, The Ballroom Thieves, and a list of amazing Bluegrass covers of pop songs I discovered by accident.
Recommend an album
Choosing is not my forte, so here’s the shortest list I can give:
The Hamilton Soundtrack, and Hamildrops
Melodrama – Lorde
Splendor & Misery – Clipping
Entire discography – Florence and the Machine
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
The Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry. It really was perfect for my busy busy little brain – also it’s hilarious.
What are you reading right now?
Again, still find choices tough:
The Faraway Nearby – Rebecca Solnit
gmorning, gnight – Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
Next in my queue is Devotions by the wonderful Mary Oliver.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Roxane Gay. She is fiercely hilarious, astoundingly intelligent, brave as heck. She commands any room she’s in and doesn’t pretend it’s effortless.
Special mentions also to:
Lin-Manuel Miranda, because he’s brilliant and imperfect and sets the example for maximising the good one human can do in the world.
Alie Ward, a wonderful, sensitive, hilarious science communicator whose podcast Ologies is a bright, flawless gem in the world that seems increasingly heavy and dark.
Tell us about your pets.
Well. We have 15 alpaca (four ladies, eleven wether boys, all of them quirky weirdos), three cats, and a bunch of ducks who just won’t leave.
(If you see a blur of fur or a cluster of toe beans in some of our product images – this will probably be Spencer, and his extremely solicitous assistance.)
A very astute lady (Heather) reminds me of this often. The legendary and lovely camelid behaviourist Marty McGee Bennet wrote of an old, old tale, which I shall paraphrase wildly:
A Plaid chap was bashing away at the first of a dozen trees with a blunt axe. We don’t need to know why. Another gentleman, probably wearing suspenders, came along, saw Plaid’s excruciatingly slow progress, and suggested he pause his work to sharpen his axe. Plaid was aghast. “Can’t,” he said, “I don’t have time!”
Over time (cough – years – cough) I’ve learned that there are very few situations that don’t benefit from taking a moment to sharpen my axe instead of getting caught up in the urgency of doing it Right Now.
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I love this question. The Hammer. I would be like Thor, but short and sturdy, and with seven regular sized hammers instead of one frankly oversized one.
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Keep going. You’re going to feel like a fraud, like you’re on a treadmill while everyone else is The Flash. You’ll for sure make mistakes, and ugly things, and someone will definitely steal your favourite sharpie at least once (a week).
But you can do great stuff, as long as you keep going.
Also, sharpen your axe.
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
There’s this idea of ‘voting with your passport’ that Heather and I map over to our spending choices. Sometimes necessity gets in the way, but wherever we can we want to give our money directly to the person who has put their time and skill into a product. And, of course, Kiwis and handmakers make the raddest stuff, so it’s win-win.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
Handblended tea from Libertine Blends in Wellington. They’re a small, lady-led company with beautiful branding, excellent customer service, and delicious tea. I’d never had a green tea I liked until I tried their Green Lightning, and now it’s one of my all-time favourites.
What’s in store for 2019?
Hoo boy. As always, I have so many ideas I want to bring to fruition in the coming year. I have an embarrassment of new designs waiting to be listed; I’ve just got some brass collars and cuffs to experiment with, which I’m super excited about; we’re going to see Florence and the Machine and Hozier live this year, so I expect there will be much hammering on that topic as well.
We’ve been working to limit our environmental impact in as many sustainable ways as we can; last year, we found a supplier for home compostable post bags and a bubble wrap alternative, and got our business cards printed on recycled cardstock. The environmentally responsible packaging industry is really taking off, here and around the world, and we’re really excited to get amongst it.
Kate and Heather have generously offered a sweet prize for one lucky Felt reader of a stylish Ply ear cuff of the winner’s choice (or a $20 voucher if you prefer) from their Felt store! If you would like a chance to win this lovely prize, just leave a comment below, telling us what you like about Kate and Heather’s story and their creations. The draw closes at 5pm on Monday 18 February and is open to New Zealand residents only.