A passion for beautiful Cape Town and deep roots in fine arts compelled sisters Leila and Emma Rowett to create soft furnishings brand, Threads That Bind Us. I chat with them about their work, their plans for the future and the dynamics of sisterhood in the workplace.
Q: First tell me about your business. How and why did you start Threads that Bind Us?
LEILA: We both lived overseas: I lived in London and Australia for 16 years, and Em lived in London for 13 years. I decided to come home, and, amazingly, Emma decided to come back at a very similar time. We ended up living in Oranjezicht and spent a lot of time walking in Deer Park and walking the mountain and having such an appreciation where we were.
We both studied art at university and at one point, I made an applique cushion for one of my friends. When I looked at the back, the threads almost looked like a sketch, and that stuck with me and became our inspiration. And so we decided to create something together that celebrated not only the threads that bind us as sisters but the threads that bind us to the family and our country. We showcased our products for the first time at a market in 2016.
Q: How did living abroad influence you?
EMMA: I worked in a bank, so it was very much getting away from that corporate thing to go creative. In London, there was a big move at the time towards embracing old-school crafts like crochet and other hand work, which had a big influence on me.
Q: There a global movement towards craftsmanship and artisans. Why do you think that is?
EMMA: I think we’ve probably had enough of mass production. We seem to be entering a new world. For so many years, machines have made things – both successfully and badly too. Now there’s a new consciousness of where your cushion has been made and who has handled it and the ethics behind it.
Q: You take great inspiration from nature – tell me about your range.
LEILA: We create products in three distinct categories: functional art, wearable art, and decorative art.
We started by doing napkins, tea towels, tablecloths, and cushion covers mainly because it’s more accessible than fine art. It’s a functional art range, where you’re using your napkin, and you appreciate it because it has been hand-drawn and hand-stitched, adding value to your table. We were pleasantly surprised by how well that was received.
For wearable art, we made a dress and a top, with embroidery on the side, like little embellishments.
Now, we’re moving into wall hangings and more decorative art.
Q: What are your plans for your product line this year?
LEILA: Essentially we are artists. Our mother is an artist, and as much as we tried to play all that down, it’s in us. We’re realising that we need to embrace that. One of the things we love about living in Cape Town is that it challenges you and forces you to explore your creativity. Everywhere you look, there are amazing people creating amazing things. The main thing this year is to really explore and have fun with our techniques and our products.
EMMA: We want to push the decorative art side and explore different processes as well. We’ve been playing with a process called cyanotype, which is a very old form of photography, also called a sun print or a blueprint. It’s such an amazing technique because you work so closely with nature. It’s almost like an instant photograph that you put onto fabric or paper – the possibilities are endless! And then to stitch onto it as well and have fun with it.
Q: Do you have a favourite product in your range?
EMMA: We’ve just launched a new design – 3 stripes on a tea towel. It is quite simple and minimal. But because it’s not done by a machine, the lines are a little wobbly. It brings that human connection to the product, and it ties in so nicely with our name and what we stand for.
LEILA: I’m still a fan of our cushion covers. Changing a cushion cover is such an easy way to change the look of a room or a couch. Obviously, we’ve got a few, and it’s nice to swop that cushion cover out and get a completely different feel.
Q: Do you do all the work yourselves or do you employ people to help you with production?
LEILA: We do employ people who do production. Up to now, I’ve done the machine embroidery myself. I trained someone who was helping me at some point, but we’ve found that we’ve got to be careful who does it because of the process.
Our process is different, it is like a drawing with the machine. Everybody’s stitch is different, and I suppose it’s like your voice in a way. So we’ve got to find someone whose voice complements our voice, who’s stitch compliments our stitch.
People have suggested that we get those big embroidery machines to do it. But that goes against our impulse. We are planning to grow, and then we will employ people, but is it all about finding the right people.
Q: How do you manage working with a sister? Does it come with a set of challenges?
EMMA: It’s challenging, but it’s also extremely rewarding. There’s the communication side of things which can be quite difficult. We both have strong characters, and we’re different people. It works very well most of the time, and then some of the time it doesn’t work so well. Part of the challenge is in learning to overcome the challenges and work through these things.
LEILA: Our differences are what make us what we are. If we were too similar, we wouldn’t be doing this. It’s good to have that strong natural debate about things and to have that difference of opinion. To feel that you can thrash it out because, essentially, it is your sister and she’s not going away.
Q: What advice would you have for other craftspeople, artists, or creators who want to start something?
EMMA: Don’t think about it too much, just do it. It will change as you go and you might end up doing something different, but just do it, just start.
LEILA: We found that the things that we over-think don’t ever really work. But when we do just go for it, even if the result is not what you pictured, it’s much better than just thinking about it.