First up, can you tell me who you are, and a wee bit about your business?
My name is Lucy MacDonald and my company is called Arra Textiles, named after my great grandmother, Arra MacDonald, who was born and brought up on Orkney and passed her love of textiles on to me. My first collection was launched in 2016 at New Designers, One Year On with a small collection of handwoven, bespoke throws and cowl scarves. For the first 18 months I worked from home before moving into a dedicated studio space on a nearby local estate last summer.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Each day is different for me and depends on which stage of the design and making process I am at. Before starting a collection I build a theme using photographs of colours and textures I find in the natural world, along with coordinating yarn shades and structures. I design my woven patterns from scratch using traditional techniques combined with a modern floor loom to create contemporary and engaging designs. Once I decide on yarn shades, quality, and the pattern, I begin to make the warp. Each warp is different from the last and is made up of hundreds of individual threads in a specific colour pattern. Each thread is wound onto a spool which is then wound by hand onto a beam at the back of the loom. Once the beam is full, each warp end is threaded in a specific design pattern through a heddle, then through a metal reed at the front of the loom. Once the warp ends are tied on in sections at the front of the loom, the weaving can begin! My loom is a hybrid of traditional and modern technologies. A computer box controls the shafts with a foot pedal to lift them as they are so heavy. I use a traditional fly-shuttle system and manual beater to weave the cloth, and can weave around one metre every two hours depending on the design. Once I have finished weaving the fabric, I cut it off the loom and take it home to hand wash and press. Each piece is hand-sewn either by myself in the studio or by Kalopsia Collective in Edinburgh, for bigger orders, before being finished with an Arra Textiles label and tag. Setting the loom up can take up to 60 hours, dependent on the design, and each collection or commission takes on average three months to complete.
Where does your passion for the industry stem from?
With the textile industry being the second largest polluter in the world, sustainability is one of the most important aspects of my practice. I strive to produce as little waste material as possible by using every last scrap of material and reselling any yarn cone ends.I always use natural yarns to weave with; be it Alpaca, Cashmere, British Lambswool or Merino Wool. The majority of the yarn I use is sourced in Britain; designed in the Scottish Borders then spun and dyed at a mill in Yorkshire. Traceability is an important factor in my work and I try to use materials which reflect this ethos as much as I can. I use 100% renewable energy sources in the studio and consider the environmental impact of each stage of design, production and marketing. With my Zero-Waste production policy and emphasis on traditional craftsmanship, I am passionate about producing work which will become timeless heirlooms to be enjoyed for generations to come, before biodegrading naturally at the end of its lifespan.
Did you study? Where?
Before launching Arra Textiles I studied Design for Textiles at Heriot Watt University for four years during which, I was chosen to take part in an Erasmus exchange to study at Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland for a semester of my third year. After graduating I worked for a range of different companies, from large corporate businesses to independent studios before deciding to find a loom and set up on my own!
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m most proud of the fact that within two years, I’ve been able to take Arra Textiles to the point where it is paying for itself and providing enough income that I can make it my full time job. When I first launched the business I was worried that there wouldn’t be a large market for pieces produced using a heritage craft skill. However, I think that recently there has been a huge resurgence not only in hand-weaving and craft-based practices, but also in consumer appreciation and awareness of sustainably-made products and how they can impact the environment through their shopping habits.
Who are the influential figures you look up to for inspiration?
I don’t think that there are any people in particular that I look up to for inspiration, but I like to follow other businesses that have started out small and whose practice focuses on a craft finding success on a national scale. I think it’s important that heritage skills are celebrated and it’s great to see so many other designer makers creating sustainable businesses based around something they love.
What exciting projects do you have in the pipeline for the near future?
I have a commission coming up to weave fabric to upholster the interior of a 1974 VW T2 Campervan. It’s very different to anything I’ve designed for before but I’ve been given a lot of freedom with the colour choices and pattern and can’t wait to see the finished project! I’ve also begun to develop a limited range of accessory products to sell though galleries and shops, something I’ve not done before now.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
I love the fact that I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself and can work as fast or slowly as I feel. I have so much freedom that even with all of the stresses and paperwork that comes with running a business I wouldn’t swap it for anything!
What is the biggest mistake you have made in your career so far and how could it be avoided?
I think my biggest mistake also turned out to be the best thing I could have done. Two years after graduating University I was struggling to find a job that I was really passionate about and enjoyed, so I decided that rather than work for someone else maybe I should just set up my own business. After months of deliberation, I moved back home, bought a brand new £18,000 weaving loom from America using all of my savings, the rest of my student loan and also a little help from family. Straight after, it felt like it was the biggest mistake I could have made. The loom took 9 months to be built and during that time I constantly worried that I’d done the wrong thing and would be stuck living at home again, but this time with a very expensive piece of machinery. In the end it was the best mistake I could have made, and all the time spent worrying about it and whether it was the right choice was worth it. I’m not sure that it could have been avoided really, I think that it was actually more of an opportunity than I realised at the time and pushed me to throw everything into making Arra Textiles what it is now, and hopefully what it will become in the future!
What does your workspace look like?
I have a small studio in Kincardine O’Neil, the oldest village on Royal Deeside, where I have my AVL dobby floor loom, lots of cones of yarn and an area to display my work. Since it’s so compact, I have to be quite neat and tidy when working. I like having an organised work space and I take lots of notes as I work to keep track of what I’m doing. The studio is open 11pm - 4pm, Wednesday to Saturday from September to January and then by appointment the rest of the year; so customers are able to come in and see how everything is made and buy pieces from the collection.
Who is your design inspiration?
I’m inspired by all sorts of people and things. Colour is very important to me when designing new work and I love finding other artists using a similar range of blues and greens. I have a painting on my studio wall by Australian illustrator Marc Martin which is full of inky blue seas, stormy skies and a tiny orange boat. It reminds me that design should be fun and that I’m creating pieces for people to enjoy and have as part of their everyday lives.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
To take my time and not rush through things. I want my business to grow organically, at a steady rate that I can keep up with. I’ve become better at saying no to certain things or delaying projects until I know I am able to fulfil them properly. I think this has helped me to grow the business to the stage it’s at now without getting stressed or feeling out of my depth at any point. By taking my time before launching the business, I was able to start off with a strong foundation with practical elements such as a business name, logo and website. This also gave me time to figure out a clear design signature and identity within the industry.
What are you looking for from the textile industry currently?
For a while now I’ve been trying to find a sustainable and ethical supplier of yarn to work with. I’d like to use 100% traceable yarns, dyed without producing chemicals harmful to the environment, but so far it’s been difficult to find a reliable source.
Find Arra Textiles online:
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