From anthropologist to creator of knitting accessory hardware and more, Laura’s journey has held close the concepts of family, art, culture, and history. Learn more about the woman and as well as the company in today’s Shawl Pin Shawl MKAL interview with Laura of JULDesigns!
1. I see strong reptilian and Chinese influences in your shawl pin designs, while your sticks feature more flora and fauna inspirations. Where do you find inspiration for your knitting accessories and how do you turn those inspirations into a finished piece of art?
I was trained as an anthropologist and did the fieldwork for my PhD in Indonesia, looking at ideas about cosmology, that is the relationship between humans and the universe. This is really rich territory for images that show up in architecture, temple reliefs, jewelry, motifs in weavings used for sarongs and other traditional clothing, and paintings. This rich cosmological influence on visual motifs is not just relevant in Indonesia but is also present in every other culture we find throughout the world. I am very strongly influenced by this rich and ever-expanding trove of visual information coming from around the world today (including our own cultural traditions) and in the past. Several of my pins are very close interpretations of ancient Chinese designs, particularly the Coil Shawl Pin, and Naga, which is the Sanskrit for dragon, but which incorporates Chinese imagery. My sticks have these same cultural and historical influences. The Alpaca shawl stick is based on an ancient and tiny gold Incan sculpture of a guanaco I discovered after visiting Peru. The Mountain Sheep represents an effort to expand my representation of fiber animals. And the Merino Ewe came along to be a companion to the Mountain Sheep and also in response to requests I received from people who love my work and wanted to see her in the collection I am now thinking of as my “Fiber Beasts” collection. I intend to add more animals but I’m not sure which yet.
I am incorporating architectural motifs into my latest shawl pins and sticks. These motifs come from multiple influences including the Borobudur temple reliefs on the famous Hindu Buddhist temple in Java, Indonesia, tiny architectural elements in Mughal paintings from India, and the grill work in windows from Morocco. Following this work we have a new collection in the works that returns to floral shapes but is also strongly influenced by Hindu ideas.
So, in sum, I would say that my past as an anthropologist is really important in my choices about what kinds of shapes and stories I draw on to make work I hope my customers will love and by which they will feel inspired by.
For many of the JUL shawl pins and sticks we create I work closely with my Balinese collaborator – Agus. I develop concepts and ideas, often in broad strokes, introduce a series of images and ideas and some constraints — size, weight, etc. — and ask Agus to develop some designs using these concepts andconstraints. He comes back to me with usually 3 – 6 possibilities. We pick one or several and begin to develop the designs further, revising until we are satisfied with the scale and the aesthetic impact. Once the design is complete, we work very closely with our wax workers and metal workers to get the piece just right. This process takes months before we are ready to present a design for sale. The botanical pieces cast directly from nature appeal to my own love of plants and trees and the long walks I take along the Patapsco and Patuxent rivers close to where I live and work. Several of these I cast myself and several I have worked on in collaboration with US-based artisans and Indonesian artisans. Every JUL shawl pin and stick is really a complex collaboration that requires the cooperation and creativity of many artisans who help us to realize our design ideas.
2. From your website I see you work employ the eco-conscious Fair Trade principle with artisans in the US and Indonesia. Why is that important to you and how does it benefit all involved?
I feel very strongly that artisans should be compensated for their work in a manner that shows respect for their artistry and skill. When I say Fair Trade what I mean is that our artisans all determine the price we pay for their work and we work with them directly without middle people involved. In this way we can guarantee that our creative partners, upon whose skill we rely, are being adequately and appropriately compensated for their work, that their working conditions are as they choose and are humane, that they are adults and not children, and that they are in no way exploited by unscrupulous bosses.
3. Do you have any other eco-conscious initiatives?
I would love to be able to say that everything I do is green but I can not. There are demands from the marketplace and realities of working with metal and leather that are not green. Fossil fuels are used to heat the metal to do the lost wax process that creates our pins. Leather materials are tanned with chemicals that are not always the best, though US regulations and the use of Veg-tanned leathers does mitigate this a bit. I wish I could avoid using plastics in my packaging but the needs that stores have to present products in an attractive manner that is easy to display mean that plastic is important. Our leather is mainly free-range and we do as much as we can to conserve energy in the studio and recycle.
4. And speaking of Julian, your shop has an (interesting name). Please tell us more about how JUL Designs came to be. How did you get started designing knitting accessories? Did you start out designing accessories for knitters and expand from there or the reverse?
I first started JUL in response to my sister’s (Noni patterns) frustration with the poor and uninteresting options for purse hardware for her knitted, felted bag designs. I was still working as an academic but was in and out of Bali, Indonesia where I knew there were a lot of artisans so I was confident I could get something more interesting made. And so JUL was born. In casting about for a name for the business, I didn’t want to use my own name as that’s not really my style. So I used the abbreviation of my son’s name (Julian), Jul, which I thought was a lovely play on words as what I wanted to produce was jewelry-like purse hardware initially. When customers started to respond to my bag hardware by saying — I wish this were a shawl pin — the second wave of my products emerged. And so it went from there.
5.Puddles species to species question: do you have an animal friend who participates in your business? If so, what role does he play?
Funny you should ask about an animal creative partner. Yes, we have a really wonderful shop dog named Sweety. And indeed, most people know her name without my having to reveal it. She comes to the studio every day and accompanies me on the walks that serve to refresh my creative spirit. She is a quiet and calm Shi Tzu, a fabulous companion who tells us when it’s time to eat lunch and when it’s time to go home, which sometimes we really need! She was a rescue and chose me to be her savior one day at the book drop of the public library. She jumped in my car hungry and dirty and sick and we have been together ever since. I can tell from her behavior that in her life before me she was the much-loved sweetheart (hence her name) of a big man who wore full leathers and drove a Harley Davidson motorcycle. There are certain men, big men with solid bodies — to whom she runs eagerly, maybe even hopefully, especially if they are in full leathers next to a big motorcycle with a soft heart and gentle hands.
In the Studio
8600 Foundry Street
Savage Mill Box 2005
Savage, MD 20763
(by appointment: M-F, 9:30-4:30 EST)
Finally, a very special thank you to Laura for her prize donation in the Shawl Pin Shawl MKAL!