There’s craft, and then there’s craft.
Don’t get me wrong, I totally support craft in all it’s forms – your Nanna’s delicate lacework tablecloth, your daughter’s first holey attempt at knitting a scarf, and even that costume you made for your 5 yr old to wear at halloween, using just coloured cardboard, sticky felt and a stapler. Craft is for everyone!
HOWEVER some clever crafters are just true masters, with a level of skill one can only muster after years of experience, passion, practise, and sheer perservence. Nikki Gabriel is one such crafter. Her work is exquisite – stunning, unique hand and machine knitted garments which fall so delicately from the wearer’s frame it’s as if each fibre is clinging on for dear life. Truly unique. And what’s more, the entire range is made right here in Melbourne by Nikki and her team of talented knitters!
I am so in awe of Nikki’s incredible body of work, and her unique vision for knitwear and knitted textiles. Her recent foray into handspun yarns and DIY patterns seems like such a natural progression…. (Watch out Debbie Bliss!).
Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I was a bit of a gypsy teen and moved from city to city; and was always interested in how design engages with and improves life. I toyed with different soft products that reflected this.
It was only when I moved to Melbourne in 1997 that I decided to study textiles at RMIT, and gravitated towards knit. After graduating I created a small handmade knitwear range and sold it to a few retailers.
Sales grew quickly over a couple of seasons, and I very suddenly found myself running a full-time business. I have tried to very carefully position the business to function as a more process driven studio, with a genuine affection for the product.
Having worked in several commercial knitwear design roles has informed and influenced a direction for my own work; seeking to find an antithesis to that pace of production.
Most evident of this, is in the time I spend in sourcing the material to work with from its raw stage, and finding the creative reward within this, and every design step thereafter. It makes for a slower production, but allows for originality and a sincere result.
It’s a great compliment getting interest from Akira Isogawa and Aurelio Costarella, and having the opportunity to collaborate with them both. It’s allowed me the chance to surpass my own limits, and create some amazing pieces.
I’ve also worked with Jenny Irwin on a knit component for costume for Bangarra Dance Theatre; which was a really interesting design brief. I enjoyed every aspect of it.
Can you give us an insight into the inner workings of your business? How is the business structured? Do you employ helpers or do you do most of the day-to-day tasks yourself?
I design and produce new collections twice a year. I have 8 hand and machine knitters who work on a casual basis for me. During production they are full-time.
I train the knitters in the hand-made productions; as I write all my own patterns which are a bit unconventional and scribbly compared to regular knitting patterns, and the knitting can be labour intensive. Some knitters have worked for me for 5 years now, and I couldn’t possibly function without them, as they’re just brilliant.
I am now working on my own bespoke yarn collections; which involve sourcing fleece from the farmers, learning about the grading of quality of wools, alpacas, cashmeres and mohairs, and understanding how their processed to fibre. This is a great project; I get out into the country, meet really wonderful and surprising people, where everyone has a yarn to spin (excuse the pun).
I’ve been designing my own knitting patterns to accompany the bespoke yarn; and came up with the concept of the Construction Patterns. The Construction Patterns are an accumulative pattern, where one shape becomes something else by adding another shape to it.
This took some time to develop and refine, and I worked together with my husband, Anthony Chiappin who runs a graphic design agency. As we were developing the product, it evolved further into a concept of interactive design; as it involves the maker in the process of building, innovating and interpretation – yes, all whilst knitting.
Where do you turn for inspiration – books, magazines or the web? Do you pay attention to trends in the broader design world like architecture, film, etc?
I love the tactility of books and magazines, I read novels and spend a lot of time in bookstores; looking at print mediums, graphics and illustration; I’m interested in the textures of the images and words.
However it’s nature that inspires me the most; a bushwalk is visually intoxicating for me. I grew up in remote South Africa and it’s there I developed a habit for observing the character and tactility of things I find in amongst nature.
Which designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by Indigenous Craft, in the resourceful application of materials, and in the ceremony, ritual and purpose of making. I love the work of the basketry and textile artists from South Africa and the tapa cloth makers from New Zealand.
Friends who are in creative businesses inspire me; it’s sometimes so tough, and, I’m enamoured of their courage and determination when I see their successes.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Mornings are my higher energy time, so I develop new work. This might involve sample knitting, sketching, pattern writing or experimenting (yarn twisting, colouration with plant dyes, felting, heat shrinking, painting and spraying fabrics etc).
In the afternoon I’m co-ordinating production and deliveries, or I go out to source new materials. My studio is at home, so I try to inject some versatility in my routine, although close to delivery deadlines and as I’m always running behind schedule, its just production 7 days a week, morning and afternoon.
What are you most proud of professionally?
Little special toasting moments; like when my first season sold out; or the sublime memory of sitting with Akira in his studio while he showed me fabrics for his new collection to match yarns with.
What would be your dream project?
To receive a commission to travel the world to look for the most unusual and exotic fibres to work with, once I’ve found them spend days exploring their characteristics to discover what to make with them.
What are you looking forward to?
Being an old lady surrounded by a life-time of objects that friends have made; and fibres and yarns that I’ve collected.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
Where do you shop in Melbourne for unique and/or handcrafted textiles and fashion?
Mmmmm, I’m a bit of sucker for high fashion; so I windowshop to admire the designers I can’t afford; like Marais in Royal Arcade, or Assin in Little Collins St. For something special I can afford, I’ll go to Pieces of Eight Brunswick St, Cottage Industry Gertrude St, RPM Lygon St, and Claude the Bird Armadale.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Plant Craft Cottage in the Botanical Gardens.