Alex Collins is true creative; trained in the fashion industry, like so many others she became disillusioned with its fast and throwaway nature and turned her talents towards the slow making movement. A self-confessed obsessive knitter, her beautiful project bags feature original hand-printed fabric with consciously-sourced materials. A visit to her Instagram page reveals a fondness for natural colours, minimalist palettes and the joy of making. We caught up with her in early Spring to discover her approach to making and her creative lifestyle.
‘There are so many bag makers doing beautiful work, but I saw a gap in the market for eco conscious project bags that wasn’t being filled at the time. I had been sharing my personal makes on Instagram for a while before starting my business and it was my friends there that gave me the confidence to set up shop,’ begins Alex. ‘I’ve always wanted to do something creative and pursued a career in fashion for a time, working first on the business side for a label and later more creatively as a make-up artist. I had some amazing experiences, but it never felt like quite the right fit for me,’ she admits. It’s probably not that surprising that it was when Alex decided to step back from working in fashion she found that there was no pressure associated with her making, and her creativity bloomed.
‘My eyes were really opened – through Instagram especially – to how diverse the creative world is and just what is achievable on a small scale,’ Alex continues. ‘For the first time I saw small artisanal makers and crafts people doing things on their own terms and sustaining a living from their work.’ This epiphany led Alex to the conclusion that fashion, and more specifically fast fashion, was less and less appealing – ‘not just because of the environmental impact and waste, but the constant reinvention and chase for something new is exhausting,’ she says. ‘This slower more considered way of working that I was seeing was so much more relatable to me and made me excited to be a part of this new movement.’
Becoming part of this slow and sustainable way of creating appealed to Alex on many levels, and she is aware of the current interest in provenance. ‘I think people are slowly becoming more aware of what goes into making the things we use each day and I love that there is a growing group of people who care about the making process,’ she explains. ‘More excitingly, these people can appreciate the craftsmanship that makes handmade so special to own and use; when I sit down with a coffee in my favourite mug the whole experience is elevated because I know the artist that made it and I can picture the journey it’s been on.’
Of course, at 91 Magazine we’re all heavily invested in this experience and feel proud to be in this group of people. ‘I like to think that’s how people feel when they pull out a project kept in one of my bags,’ Alex continues. ‘That they have something really special that was laboured over with love and that each element was carefully considered.’ This handmade story is what is apparent in Alex’s pieces, from the hand-printed surface pattern, to the individually stamped logos in the lining of each roomy and attractive bag.
What’s clear when talking to Alex or navigating her website is her clear ethos to produce environmentally-sound products. Her values are instilled in every aspect of her work. ‘I am someone who really cares about the impact we’re having on our planet so it was important to me right from the start that my work wouldn’t impact negatively on the environment,’ explains Alex. ‘I don’t believe you can force people to change their habits but leading by example is really powerful.’ One of the things she loves most about her business is that it has started so many conversations with people about the environment.
‘I often get asked why I’m only using organic cottons and it leads me naturally to share about the harm cotton production is having on the earth and those people who grow it,’ she adds. ‘When you’re using organic cottons, you are limited by what’s available – but I’ve actually found that has been a help rather than a hinderance as I’m more considered in my choices and it helps push my design work having those parameters,’ admits Alex. The limited choice of fabrics in soft, muted colours has led Alex to experiment with natural dyes, as well as designing the surface pattern.
‘My design process starts out really loosely on paper where I’ll sketch freely with no pressure,’ she explains. ‘I’m really drawn to using botanical motifs in my work so I’ll often snap pictures of plants when I’m out and about to reference later and I use Pinterest to search for botanical inspiration.’ Like many others, Alex can find the blank page of a sketch book intimidating so she then likes to use the images she’s collected as a jumping off point to see where it takes her. ‘I’ll often draw the same thing over and over until I almost don’t need to look at the page – I find more interesting abstract shapes often come from these fast, loose sketches compared to those times when I’m really trying to capture something as I see it.’
For a repeat pattern Alex will then pull out some of her favourite motifs and start playing around with the layout using a pencil and a square of tracing paper. ‘I could design my repeats on the computer, but I like to use the traditional method of cutting and repositioning my drawings on paper to create a repeat design when I’m just starting to form my ideas,’ she says. ‘Once I’ve got an idea of how I want the pattern to look I’ll then clean up my drawings and transfer those initial sketches to the computer and print out my repeat pattern at different scales and mock up the bags to see what I like best before sending the final pattern to a screen maker who transfers my designs so I can screen print my drawings onto fabric.’
Her ideas for the bags, pouches and tool wraps come directly from her experience as a maker; Alex is a beautiful knitter and keen sewist and so understands the limitations of what’s available for other makers. ‘I knit and sew for fun just like my customers do so new product ideas will usually stem from me needing something that’s missing from the collection,’ she says. ‘I’ll have a clear idea of the function the product will have, and I’ll develop the idea from there.’ Once Alex has the basic shape she wants, she’ll carefully consider things such as the number of pieces that can be cut from a single print or metre of fabric to minimise waste and then makes a few prototypes to get the final piece just right.
Working from her London flat, Alex is the epitome of an independent business owner, and she admits that she has found this enormously liberating. ‘I feel very lucky that I’ve created a life and a business where I get to dictate what’s on the agenda each day and to a certain extent the pace at which I work,’ she smiles. Everyday can look totally different, as many small business owners and artists will understand, and that brings joy to Alex each day. ‘I batch tasks and try to dive straight into my work first thing in the morning before I’ve had time to procrastinate and daydream the day away!’ she explains. ‘I check if any international orders have come in overnight and I set my three priorities for the day – I find picking three things to work on for the day is brilliant for keeping my focus,’ Alex adds. ‘Throughout the week I will be printing and dying fabric, sewing for the shop, working on new ideas and product development, Instagramming, keeping on top of my accounts and doing my freelance work for The Fibre Co.’ she continues.
The Fibre Co. is an independent yarn producer and dyer based in the UK, and Alex works on the promotional side of the business. ‘I work alone which suits me just fine, but I do love listening to podcasts which keep me company,’ she says. ‘My desk looks out over the garden and I’m easily distracted by the sweet little birds just outside my window; I’d love to find a way of incorporating these little feathery friends into my work- perhaps you’ll see a bird print in the future!’
Being a one-woman show does of course have its own challenges, which anyone who works from home will no doubt identify with. And with the rise of social media as an important business tool, it can be hard to switch off. ‘I find it impossible to separate myself from my “brand” or online identity,’ Alex says. ‘Perhaps you’re seeing a more curated version of myself through Instagram and my business, but it’s still me – I’d hate for there to be a disconnect when people meet me offline and I think it’s a positive that people are reminded there is a human behind the business.’ This personal touch is evident even throughout Alex’s self-confessed curated content. But her communications and inviting website carefully convey Alex’s warm nature and love for making. ‘I am quite a private person, so I find it hard to share on social media sometimes but it’s something I enjoy and I’ve found the Instagram community to be so supportive and engaged,’ Alex explains. ‘There are some people I follow who are doing some really exciting things with video which I would like to experiment with more, I’d love to share more of my process with my customers and bring them along on this journey.’
As her business grows, Alex is working on new prints and designs inspired by the yarn-lovers around her. ‘This Spring I’m collaborating with Garthenor, who source, produce and sell certified organic wool products from their small family farm in west Wales,’ she says. The bags were of course hugely popular when Garthenor took them to the Edinburgh Yarn Festival earlier this month. ‘I have new prints coming to the store this Spring and I’m working on a personal project that I think is going to bring some new energy to my work,’ continues Alex. And to stretch her creative muscles, Alex is taking part in The 100 Days Project. ‘Starting 3rd April I’ll be experimenting for 100 days drawing, painting, block printing, screen printing and who knows what else on fabric,’ she ventures. ‘It’s easy to get stuck in your practise when you sell what you make so I’m excited to see where this project takes me creatively.’
Describe your work in three words: Functional, Timeless, Scandi
What are your making rituals? A new knitting project always starts with hand winding my ball of yarn which feels like a ritual of sorts. It’s such a meditative process, I’d hate to switch to doing it by machine.
Tea or Coffee? Apple tea is a favourite but if I was pushed to choose I’d have to say coffee. Taking five minutes out with a really good coffee feels like an indulgent treat in the middle of a busy day and I wouldn’t want to give that up.
Mountains or Sea? It has to be sea. I feel all the feeling when I’m near the ocean, its so vast.
Night Owl or Early Bird? Early bird…not too early mind you!
I wish someone had told me… It’s never a good idea to leave something until the last minute. Actually, I’m pretty sure I was told this all the time growing up, but it’s taken me a long time to learn that lesson for myself.