Fashion upcyclers and creative co-working space owners Julia Harris and Sarah Valentin tell us how they built their creative business by embracing sustainability…
When Cardiff born sisters Julia Harris and Sarah Valentin were searching for a new studio space in their hometown they stumbled across an old munitions factory in need of a lot of love.
It may have been ten times as big as they needed and a project many people would have shied away from, but it encapsulated their love of taking something old and unloved and giving it a new creative lease of life.
After a lot of hard work, The Sustainable Studios were born, offering workspaces for the local creative community and a place where they could run upcycling workshops alongside their ethical fashion label Dati.
We caught up with the sisters to find out why they were driven to bring people together to create, and how they strive to share their ethos of living a more sustainable life…
Hi Julia and Sarah, your space is amazing! Can you describe it, and tell us how it works for you?
Julia: So The Sustainability Studio is a multi-purpose space we design in and run workshops from. Our workspace has a huge pattern cutting table, sewing machines, storage, clothing racks with our collections on, mood boards and mannequins. It has a door, which sounds silly, but means when we need to concentrate and really focus we can shift from studio managers to fashion designers.
The building used to be old munitions factory – what did you have to do to make it workable?
Sarah: It was an immense amount of work. The electrics and heating were condemned and we had to find solutions to all sorts of problems, but the shell of the building was there. Beneath the dust, cracked paint and rubbish was a space we’d dreamed of. We had help from all sorts of people, but mainly our family and friends to build, repair, carry, lift, sand, paint and clean the place to make it what it is today. Our dad Mike is an electrician and really handy, so he did lots of work on the space, and Jules isn’t afraid of a drill either. If you ever set up your own space, make friends with a fire inspector and a few builders!
What’s the best thing about running a creative co-working space?
Julia: The people, our members. They make TSS what it is. Without them we’d just have a building, but with them we have a community. Our members have forged friendships beyond the building and work and have fun together, which is what it’s all about. They support each other in all sorts of ways from freelance advice to borrowing a screwdriver.
Can you tell us about the kind of makers you have in your community?
Sarah: We have a ceramicist, sculptor, silversmith and goldsmith, artist, fashion designers, videographers and film makers, a photographer, a lifestyle and fashion blogger, animators, illustrators and graphic designers to name just a few…
What collaborations have come about from makers sharing the space with each other?
Sarah: So many, and that’s one of the main reasons why we started TSS. We usually connect one creative to another and wait for an exciting collaboration to happen. Many of our members create and make together, from videos and photo shoots to workshops and events. Our label, Dati, recently collaborated with member Boutique de Nana making bespoke clothing from remnants, which was amazing.
What does your average working day look like?
Julia: Every day at the studio is different – some days you’re cleaning the loos and putting the bins out, then on others it starts with a visit from a local university. Since starting the studio we haven’t had much time to work on our own brand, but now we dedicate a couple of days a week to that. One random conversation over lunch can spark the next creative thing, or sometimes you’re a shoulder to cry on while holding a drill to fix the door.
You started your upcycling fashion business 12 years ago – what made you want to be sustainable with your making?
Julia: We’ve always upcycled clothing and run clothes swaps, it’s something we were brought up doing. We both had things we couldn’t bear to chuck away and we thought we could cut them up and rework them to give them another lease of life. It then occurred to us that this could be a fashion brand too. The pieces we make are unique and unusual but always wearable. 12 years ago no one understood the words upcycling and clothes swap!
How do you think people’s awareness of the environment has changed since you started?
Sarah: When we first started there was hardly any support to be sustainable, barely any news coverage and it was fairly taboo. It’s always been second nature to us and we’ve done workshops for all sorts of people to get them to think sustainably. Today it’s hard to ignore the media coverage and reports, from plastic in our oceans to global warming. We think there’s a feeling of renewed responsibility for our planet and the way we live and consume, it has to change for the next generation.
What are the easiest sustainable swaps people can do when crafting or buying?
Sarah: We like to run the studio as sustainably as possible, so we always think about making and buying from ethical sources, whether that’s charity shops, eco businesses, or as local as possible to make our carbon footprint smaller. It’s always worth looking in charity shops for textiles – we ran a kimono making workshop using scarves bought at charity shops. Our furniture is bought on Gumtree and Freecycle, and from charity businesses that support the community. We even got our wood to make the pod spaces from the business opposite throwing out pallets.
You run a lot of workshops – can you tell us more about them?
Julia: We did a lot of ‘wake up and make’ workshops last year and have always done upcycling workshops too. It’s about bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together, sharing our skills, making people think differently about fashion and how clothes are made and what their life cycle is. We don’t like to see materials end up in landfill and these workshops are a perfect way to educate people about how they can be more sustainable and fashionable at the same time. From scrap leather we made earrings, turned cloth into badges, and we teach basic sewing skills so people can repair instead of throwing away.
Where do you go to find inspiration?
Julia: We go outside and we love to travel, from the Seychelles where Sarah’s husband is from to places around Wales. We love nature, beaches and gardens. If you can get out in to a green space it always makes you feel better.
What’s been your proudest project?
Sarah: The studio is a project we’re hugely proud of, obviously. Aside from that we did a project called ‘Women Then and Now’, which celebrated the diversity and history of our city with a group of young women in the Butetown area of Cardiff. The project bridged the gap between generations.
Name three things you can’t live without…
Julia: Charity shops, music and a mug of tea.
Sarah: Chocolate, a nice shower and good shoes.
What’s been your biggest craft fail?
Julia: Curtains – I made them hungover and one is shorter than the other.
Sarah: I don’t have a craft fail, but I do have a fashion fail – I once wore orange hot pants!
What are you working on right now?
Sarah: A new business idea, we can’t tell you yet!
What’s the best creative advice you’ve been given?
Julia: Follow your heart and don’t look at what others are doing.
And finally, what does making mean to you?
Julia: Freedom to have fun and experiment – even when you make crap curtains!