Feeona and Troy Baalham of Uimi in their Thornbury studio, with baby Bonnie!  Photo – Brooke Holm

Knitted Uimi blankets and cushions in their Thornbury studio.  Photo - Brooke Holm

I LOVE these knitted ‘gingham’ Uimi blankets!  Photo - Brooke Holm

Uimi blanket and cushions.  Photo - Brooke Holm

Even after almost five years writing this blog I have to say I still get so totally PUMPED when I stumble across a new Australian company, designing and manufacturing beautiful product locally.  I don’t know why but I just feel like high-fiving every single independent design business out there who are still manufacturing in Australia, YOU GUYS ROCK!  We first found Melbourne-based Uimi at Design : Made : Trade earlier this year, and instantly knew this was one local design studio worth keeping an eye on!

Uimi is the creation of textile designer Feeona Baalham and her husband Troy, whose background is in web development. From their small Thornbury factory overlooking the Darebin Creek, Uimi create an amazing range of knitted products for the home, as well as a womenwear and kids range.  My absolute FAVOUITE pieces are their stunning blankets, throw rugs and cushions, which come in the most vibrant colour combinations, using the finest, softest Italian wool and organic cotton.  All Uimi’s creations are knitted in house on one of four amazing knitting machines Uimi have invested in.  It’s a pretty impressive set up!

What is most impressive about Troy and Feeona is their commitment to doing everything themselves. With a small team of just five staff, Uimi design, sample and make every product in house.  Of course this means the quality control is truly incredible!  It also means Feeona and Troy can be quite flexible, and there is minimal wastage, because every order can essentially be made on demand.

Aside from the demands of running their own growing business, Feeona and Troy also have two gorgeous kids under 3!  In fact, their eldest, Lola, arrived in 2009 at about the same time that Uimi launched their first summer range… and now the family have been joined by sweet little Bonnie (who makes an appearance in the portrait up top!).  Of course, running your own small business doesn’t really offer up a whole lot of maternity leave, so inevitably, Feeona has mastered the fine art of maternal multi-tasking! Bonnie can often be found in the Uimi studio and office, being wheeled around in her highchair whilst Feeona attends to enquiries and designs new products!

Uimi is stocked at a wide range of retail stores Australia wide, all are listed here.  We’re also thrilled that we’ll be stocking some of our favourite knitted blankets and bold geometric cushions by Uimi at The Design Files Open House in Melbourne next week!  Because, as we proved last year, you just can never have too many cushions!

Tell us a little bit about each of your backgrounds – what led you to textile design originally, how did you first cross paths, and what spurred you to eventually launch Uimi in 2009?

Feeona: I completed a BA in Textile Design at RMIT, specialising in knit. In my honours year I did a job placement at a knitwear manufacturer. It was there that I was introduced to industrial knitting machines. I’d been using hand-knitting machines in my course, and while the concept is the same, I was fascinated by the potential of these machines.

Soon after graduating I went into partnership with another textile designer and we formed a specialised knit studio called Pleksi. The business offered two services – swatch design development and a small run production service. As the production part of the business grew, I realised using hand-knitting machines wasn’t going to be sustainable. We invested in a second hand industrial knitting machine and went on to do work for well-known Melbourne labels including Saba, Calibre, T.L.Wood, and other smaller independent labels. The seven years experience I gained at Pleksi allowed me to develop my own approach to knit and gave me the confidence to start Uimi.

Little did I know that creating Uimi would coincide with another creation, our
first child, Lola!

Troy: If you told me 10 years ago I’d be running a knitwear company, I wouldn’t have believed it. When I first met Feeona I was working for a US computer company as a web developer. I knew nothing about knitwear. I guess I learned a thing or two over the years, but more importantly, I realised just how passionate and talented Fee was.

In 2008 Fee started kicking around the idea of starting up a knitwear company. We decided to give it a shot, and Uimi was born. In early 2009 we found out that Fee was expecting our first child, Lola. We decided to forge ahead with uimi, even though it seemed a little crazy at the time. Lola was born in June, and then five weeks later our first summer range was born.

Things have been very busy ever since.

Studio details – fancy metallic fibres and a knitted machine creating one of Uimi’s knitted blankets. Photo - Brooke Holm
Uimi specialises in eco-friendly knitwear for the home and the body, and is committed to manufacturing in Australia, in fact all of your products are designed and made right here in Melbourne. Why is local manufacture such an integral part of your business, and what challenges do you face in maintaining this commitment?

There was no question for us about manufacturing in-house. It gives us more flexibility and control over design and quality. We can offer our customers better lead times and more options. This means a bigger investment for us up front in equipment, but the long-term benefits are worth it.

We are extremely proud to be one of only a handful of knitwear manufacturers helping to rebuild a vanishing trade. Since joining this industry over 10 years ago there are half as many knitting mills as there used to be, and even then there weren’t many.

We are passionate about using the highest quality sustainable and safe natural fibres. This poses a challenge for us in maintaining reasonable price points, as we import all of our yarn from overseas.

Imported Italian yarn in Uimi’s factory –  Photo - Brooke Holm
What general process is involved in the creation and construction of your designs? How did you learn this trade and master the knit machine?

Feeona: Generally I like to devote two days a week to developing new products. Our knitwear programmer comes to the factory on one of these days and we run through and sample up new ideas. We are so fortunate that we have the freedom to do this.

The first step is putting together colour palettes for our three ranges – Home, Body and Kids. We quite often have our yarns dyed up in our own colours. Getting the palette right for the season is one of the most important processes.

We love to experiment with pattern and colour and sometimes, mistakes become best sellers! Texture is also an obsession of ours; we have enjoyed such a positive reaction to our blankets and cushions. We are currently working on extending our range of women’s wear, using whole garment technology.

Using the hand-knitting machine during my course gave me a solid technical understanding of how knitting machines work. When I upgraded to the industrial knitting machine I was surprised at the similarities. We also have great support from our machine supplier, and our clever knitwear programmer.

Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Uimi – how is your studio and factory structured, how many people do you employ and in what roles? Do you outsource any significant roles?

After growing out of two different studio spaces in Clifton Hill, we relocated to our shiny new factory in Thornbury in March 2012. We now have plenty of room for our knitting machines (and more down the track), as well as a showroom and office overlooking Darebin Creek. Hopefully we will be staying put for a while!

I oversee product design and development, and manage production. Troy handles the day-to-day aspects of running the business, as well as marketing and managing our online and social media presence.

Team Uimi consists of five fantastic and dedicated individuals. We have two full-time hand finishers, two part time factory staff, and one part-time design assistant. It’s a small team, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.

We outsource the programming required to run our designs on the knitting machines, but all aspects of production happen in house.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

There is no such thing as a typical day at Uimi – every day comes with its own set of challenges.

Our first priority of the day is reviewing our knitting schedule, and getting the
knitting machines up and running.

The usual tasks of finishing and preparing what we’ve knitted the day before, and checking and shipping orders, are interspersed with showroom visits, yarn stocktakes and orders, and lots of hugs and kisses with Bonnie, our youngest daughter who spends her days at the factory with us.

Feeona programs the knitting machine.  Photo - Brooke Holm
Not only are you are both business partners, but also real life partners with two adorable children under three! What’s the secret to working successfully as a husband and wife team?!

There’s no secret – we just work well together. It also helps that we manage distinct parts of the business. Troy has input into the creative process, and I contribute to the general business side of things, but ultimately, we let each other focus on what we know best.

Which Australian designers, artists or creative people are you liking at the moment?

Genty Marshall from New Black Global Trends – we contributed to Genty’s Design Futures “Colour Visions” exhibit at this year’s Decoration+Design trade show. Aly from Maiike makes simply amazing quilts and toys. Dee Jenkins’ unique illustrations have brought the Uimi brand to life. We’re also inspired by Toni Maticevski’s creations, who also designed my (Feeona) wedding dress, and we also like the work Katie Geppert is producing.

Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration?!

We regularly check Textile View magazine, Collezioni Trends magazine, Pinterest and The Design Files (of course!) and View On Colour magazine.

What would be your dream creative project?

We are lucky enough to be able to say that Uimi is our dream creative project. A close second would be renovating and decorating our slightly unloved house. One day…

What are you looking forward to?

We are counting down the days until our annual extended family trip to Fiji next year. It’s nice to live on ‘Fiji time’ for a week instead of ‘Uimi time’.

Uimi knitted blankets.  Photo - Brooke Holm

Melbourne Questions

Your favorite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

We have lived and worked in North Fitzroy and Clifton Hill for many years, and love the fact that pretty much everything is right there on your doorstep. Lots of great restaurants and cafés, and a growing list of interesting local retailers.

Your favorite fossicking spots in Melbourne for the tools or materials of your trade?

We’ve got a great yarn agent now, so we don’t really need to fossick, but there was a time when we visited the Yarn Barn in Coburg regularly to look for interesting colours and textures.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Classic Italian fare at our favorite family restaurant, Chianti Bistro, in Clifton Hill. Very kid friendly and great food. Lola loves the “sketty”.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

After picking up some strong lattes (and a babyccino for Lola), the whole family is usually off to the factory to kick-start the knitting machines for the weekend’s knitting. Then it’s back home to do normal family stuff with the girls. We work hard all week, so we try and keep the weekends family focused.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

The best kept secret is what’s coming up in our winter 2013 range. You’ll have
to wait until February next year to find out!