Artist and fabric maker Grace Wood has been a resident of the Blue Mountains since she was a child. Following her graduation from University of NSW College of Fine Arts, Grace undertook an apprenticeship with Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra, eventually returning to the mountains to establish her own studio. It is here that she creates her understated felt textiles with a range of natural wools from sources as local as possible.
Working with felt has always been of interest to Grace. “Growing up in the mountains I think I always knew about felt. It’s just one of those things that’s everywhere. I had an early understanding of it in a more crafty way. In later years, my aunt, a hobby textile artist, agreed to teach me a little bit of felting. We have a farm out in Bathurst, with sheep, and I became interested in how I could use this rural background in my design work…in a really unique and contemporary way.”
This distinctive approach can be seen in her collaboration with architect and designer Sean Tran, on their project Shhorn. Shhorn, a menswear house “guided by experiments in drawing and an exploration of natural materials,” began in early 2016 and was one of only four menswear finalists for the coveted International Woolmark Prize. This prestigious endorsement celebrates exceptional fashion from around the world made with Australian Merino wool and has been awarded to the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.
Shhorn’s nomination has lead to a significant period of growth for the young business. “The whole reason Woolmark exists,” says Grace, “is to promote the wool industry, and the prize is really designed to assist in that promotion. It’s fantastic for us in so many ways, starting out. It’s helped us figure out how to work together, and it’s put us in touch with all these different people from the industry who are helping us source materials.”
Sean adds that being involved with the prize has reinforced their desire for a sustainable Australian wool industry. “It has been the biggest step for us,” he says. “We really want to support Australian farmers and Australian sheep. Bring the manufacturing back to Australia.”
Grace and Sean provide complementary skills and a shared vision that focuses on reconnecting with traditional processes and exploring the cultural value of fashion. The integrity of their business surpasses design and craftsmanship to thoughtfully consider the unique qualities of their key material. With materiality at the heart of Shhorn, there is a bold emphasis on the raw beauty of the wool in its felted form.
“Felt is the oldest textile tradition in the world,” says Grace. The process of creating felt involves layering fleece in different directions and applying heat, pressure, and soap until the fleece locks together to create a sturdy but gentle fabric. The practice of making felt into a garment is time consuming. Weaving is also labour intensive, with the initial set up of a floor loom taking around four days, followed by another four days of weaving, and then the construction of the garment begins.
This lengthy and intricate work is a passion for Shhorn, as well as a defining characteristic of their aesthetic, business practice, and philosophy. “I think that everyone should be aiming to make beautiful things,” says Sean. “The whole idea of industrialisation and production being the beginning of a business, rather than the art of things, has made people think that if something is beautiful then it must be art, rather than saying ‘why not make something beautiful that you can use’?”
This year Shhorn will produce a new range of around twenty unisex garments using their delightfully complex-looking Glimakra loom. “It’s not as if we want it to be exclusive or limited edition, this is just what we can produce. Shhorn is never going to be a label where we can produce 100 things and sell them at wholesale to different shops. Literally every millimetre of these garments passes through our hands three or four times. Nothing goes untouched by us,” explains Sean.
The future for Grace and Sean is the continuation of modest growth. “We’ve had so many people express interest in what we do. They’re just really excited about seeing these skills brought back to life. It’s inspiring,” says Grace. However, commitment to the quality of their product, sustainability, and dedication to process is paramount. Sean explains: “I think we will always be involved in the handwork too. I think society sees that as the bottom end of the food chain, but for us, that’s the top end.”
The work produced from Grace Wood’s modest studio, overlooking the Woodford Valley, represents the new vanguard for design in the Blue Mountains. The beautifully textural products draw inspiration from the landscape and are transformed into sophisticated pieces worthy of any of the major art and fashion centres of the world.
Words by Chloe Killen. Photography by Ona Janzen