Sometimes in life, you are lucky enough to come across people who embody many, if not all of the good things you would wish for yourself. Their love and enthusiasm for life and family, passion for their work, and a deep respect for the earth and what nature provides. All this and more can be said of Ellie and Claudia, the mother and daughter team at the heart and soul of Elka.
Following on from last week's blog 'The CraftCourses guide to becoming an arts and crafts tutor,' we were privileged to be able to ask Ellie some questions about her sustainable textiles business 'Elka' and find out about her journey towards a craft business that is creative, challenging, rewarding, and completely on point with regard to the movement towards sustainability and using the natural world all around us.
Q1. Could you tell us a little about yourself, your background and your craft?
I’ve always loved creating. Art and design were always my thing at school. Growing up in the Middle and Far East I was entranced by the vibrant souks. My dad is a great collector of antique and vintage textiles and ceramics, so I was surrounded by colour and pattern from a young age.
I did a Foundation in Art and Design at Winchester School of Art in 2000 and went on to complete a BA in Textile Design specialising in woven textiles and an MA in Design for Textile Futures, both at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, graduating in 2006. I have been weaving ever since.
I have always been passionate about sustainable textiles and the more I investigated the production processes of seemingly ‘green’ yarns, the more I realised that they weren’t quite as environmentally sound as they initially appeared.
Mum, Claudia, started working with the business in 2018, naturally dyeing linen yarn for my weaving. This quickly progressed to selling the yarns on our website, and with 30 years teaching experience and a high demand for in-person natural dyeing workshops, these followed shortly after.
Q2. Tell us about your workshop space.
Having moved the studio several times over the past three years due to the needs of the business changing, we have spent this summer building a home studio.
It has been built for purpose which really is quite dreamy. At one end it has our table for filming, photography, workshops, and weaving, and at the other is a small industrial kitchen area for the natural dyeing.
A natural dye garden is currently being planned and will be planted around the studio, watered in the hotter weather by rainwater gathered from the roof.
Q3. What do students learn on your courses?
Our in-person and online courses in weaving and natural dyeing are suitable for complete beginners and those who have a little experience that would like to brush up on their skills.
They take you through all the basics, from materials and equipment to terminology and resources.
Both courses cover all the basics, including several ways to make your own loom in the ‘Weaving on a Budget’ section, and both cover the basic weaving techniques, however the comprehensive guide covers ten different weaving techniques and all their variations, includes five projects, and on enrolment you are invited to join our Facebook support group where you can seek advice and share your work.
Our natural dyeing course will teach you about different fibres (animal and plant) and how to prepare them for dyeing. You will learn about different dyes, and where you can find them (foraged, kitchen, grown or shop bought), preparing and maintaining an indigo vat, a glance at shibori, and extending the colour range by modifying, overdyeing, and mixing dyes.
Also covered are the often-overlooked issues of colourfastness. You will learn which dyestuffs to steer clear of (looking at your beetroot/ turmeric/ red cabbage) to avoid disappointment, and how to conduct your own lightfast and washfast tests.
Q4. Tell us about your working relationship with your family.
I absolutely love working with Mum. Our skillsets and chosen crafts are very complimentary and we spend a lot of time laughing. I hadn’t realised until we started working together, how incredibly useful it is to have someone to bounce ideas off. It saves a huge amount of time if you’re an overthinker like me.
Mum is very much into the science of natural dyeing, keeping meticulous records of all her experiments, leaving me to simply wonder at the colours that emerge from her dye pot!
Mum’s sister, Eliza, has been growing a natural dye garden at her home in Gloucestershire, the dyestuffs from which are used in the natural dyeing workshops and will be used for dyeing experiments throughout the year. My nieces have also started working with the business at the weekends, helping in the studio and preparing weaving starter kits.
It has always been my dream to have a family business and to my delight, without any real planning, it’s happening!
Q5. Why did you decide to do your natural dyeing course as online, on-demand?
As for so many, the pandemic changed everything. We had just moved to a bigger studio to enable us to host in-house workshops, alongside teaching all over the South of the UK. I’d known for some time that I should be looking at producing an online course but just hadn’t found the time. Well, there’s nothing quite like having your income switched off overnight to motivate you!
I decided that the easiest way of teaching weaving online was to offer the course as pre-recorded sections that people could work their way through at their own pace. As individuals learn in such different ways, the course can either be completed by watching video tutorials, or by following downloadable PDFs, or a bit of both.
With the success of the online weaving course, when we came to producing the natural dyeing course, we knew we had a template that worked. Though the subject of the courses is very different, the layout is presented in clear, bite-sized sections and the content is easy to navigate.
There is only so much you can teach in a day, so although there’s nothing quite like learning in-person, with the online courses you’re able to cover so much more. Once enrolled you gain lifetime access to them, and you can refer to them time and time again.
We now have a weaving and dyeing community group on Facebook where people can share their work and experiments.
Q6. Can you talk us through the stages of the production process?
When I asked mum if she’d be up for producing an online version of her natural dyeing workshop, I don’t think either of us had any idea of what a colossal learning curve it would be. With the online weaving courses there’s a lot of action and less talking, whereas the natural dyeing courses are the opposite, a lot of information and less action, so we had to completely re-think how to film it. We dealt with this issue by filming large parts of the course in stop motion, a lengthily process involving taking hundreds of photos and editing them together into films.
Getting the audio right has also been a challenge. Due to a noisy office next door, we had to build our own mini sound booth and upgrade our microphone. Mum wrote the initial script based on her in-person natural dyeing course and we worked our way through, one section at a time.
The course is made up of fifteen sections and, as a general rule, each section took about a week to produce. We’d spend about a day thrashing out the script and working out what needed to be stop motion or video. Then we’d film the section, trying to take images for the PDF instructions as we went, but this wasn’t always possible, and these were often taken afterwards. And finally comes the editing…a lot of editing!
For the first few months, every time we finished a section, we’d think of a better way to do it and ended up re-filming a lot, so it felt like we were making no progress at all, but we finally found a style and system that worked and eight months after we started, the course launched this September.
Q7. Do you still craft in your spare time and, if so, what do you like to create?
I do still weave when I’m not teaching but far less than I’d like. I’m hoping that the studio moving back home will free up some more time for the growing list of projects I have floating round my head. Last year I started experimenting with weaving with wire and naturally dyed linen and produced ‘Tide’, a collection of large and small sculptural textile pieces. This collection really helped me reconnect with my creativity after a long period of feeling like I was stuck in a rut.
I’ve also been enjoying making scarves from all my leftover yarn stash. Instead of mass-producing scarves I think people will want to buy, I’ve been going with the flow and just throwing in whatever yarns I like, free weaving!
Q8. What other craft/s do you love apart from those which you teach?
I love taking photos, which is convenient as I have to take so many for our business, and my love of drawing and painting has recently been reignited through crafting with my daughter who will thankfully spend hours creating.
Q9. Who / what is your biggest source of inspiration professionally?
I think mum and I would both agree that our students are our biggest source of inspiration. You learn so much from the questions they ask. There really isn’t anything more rewarding than seeing their work develop into their own unique styles.
Several of our students have gone on to set up their own creative businesses which is just wonderful.
Q10. What advice would you give to other people looking to teach their art via online resources?
Don’t be put off by your competition. Use them as inspiration. There’s plenty of room out there for everyone and you must start somewhere.
Our courses are built using the Teachable platform which I would highly recommend. The support from them is exceptional and the platform is very user friendly.
Social media, love it or hate it, is currently a huge driver in course sales, though you don’t want to rely on it entirely. Last year we were reminded of this when Instagram froze our account with no explanation at our busiest time of year. We eventually worked out that they didn’t like the ‘Linktree’ link in our bio, but it was a painful experience!
The most important thing is to get people onto your mailing list, so you have complete control over your marketing.
Q11. Is there a particularly funny, poignant, or interesting experience you could recount from one of your courses?
My biggest takeaway from years of teaching workshops, is that working creatively with your hands is a powerful healer.
People attend workshops for all sorts of reasons. To deal with bereavement, loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and of course those that simply wish to learn a new craft. Whatever the reason, working with your hands to make something is a very mindful process and really helps with keeping you present.
I’ve lost count of how many people have attended a workshop and stated, ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’, usually because they were told so as a child (sewing teachers you have a lot to answer for!) only for them to discover that they are terribly creative indeed. I believe very strongly that we are all born creative, and creativity is for everyone! Thank you so much to Ellie and Claudia for this wonderful and inspirational story of Elka and how a family business has developed through hard work, determination and a shared love of creativity as well as a willingness to share that with others.
You can access Elka's incredible online courses via the links in the text above or via the links below. We hope you too will find the inspiration to follow your creative dreams.