Interior decorating is more than choosing the right accessories and furniture. Fabrics, with veracious patterns or design, go a long way to creating the ideal ambience in a space for you. Despite the slump of the once vibrant textile industry in Kenya, there are still designers who continue to produce proudly Kenyan fabrics. One such home textile brand is Simply Sandara, based in Nanyuki at the foot of Mt. Kenya. Since the brand’s official launch in August 2014, Head of design and founder – Sandra Hill – continuously aims to provide a contemporary and novel approach to textiles. One that encourages innovation and challenges the status quo. TDS talks to Hill about how this brand is readdressing the contemporary Kenyan textile-design narrative.
Take us back to the moment/ series of decisions that led you to start you brand…
I was the marketing manager for an aviation company, but the job just wasn’t floating my boat. I had this niggling voice inside of me that kept saying I needed to be living a more creative life. That I needed to be making more art. I also had two small kids and really wanted more flexibility with my time so I could be with them. I was on Facebook (at work – tut tut) when I came across a link that took me to the ‘Print & Pattern’ blog. It’s a surface pattern design blog and on coming across it, it just flicked a switch inside of me that screamed, ‘This is it! This is what I have to do!’ I got this enormous rush of inspiration and when I got home that day – I got my camera out and started taking photos of everything in my garden that I thought would make a nice pattern.
After that, I just began designing my own patterns in my spare time. I stayed in the job for about another year before finally quitting in September 2011. I then worked for my husband, running the carpentry section of his construction business, while I continued to teach myself all about surface pattern design and hand printing fabric. It was only in 2014 (three years later) that I finally felt I had a product that was marketable – and launched Simply Sandara.
No formal training at all?
No, not at all! I’m entirely self-taught! It feels more like surface pattern and textile design selected me, than I selected them! I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Surface Pattern Design until that day I discovered the ‘Print & Pattern’ blog. Most surface pattern designers license their designs to big companies, who then manufacture their designs onto company products. This didn’t feel right to me – I wanted to have control of how and where my patterns would end up, so I began teaching myself how to hand print my designs onto fabric. There was a lot of trial and error involved and late nights at my dining room table.
Which probably helped shape your design process… What steps do you take to create print fabric?
I have different methods but this seems to be the most common design process: I just draw! Or take photos on my iPhone! I keep a sketchbook (and my phone) with me all the time and in moments when I can, like waiting for an appointment, I’ll sketch/photograph things that capture my attention. Often these drawings/photos don’t lead to anything but sometimes they trigger an idea that I feel inspired to pursue. I then begin building a series of similar or related drawings. I’ve come to learn over time what designs and patterns work well with the method of printing we use, so I’m always designing with this mind. The process is long. Sometimes a pattern just clicks and we move fast and other times it takes time and experimenting with to get it to feel ‘right’.
You’ve been known to express your preference for screen printing over hand block printing – why is that?
Hand block printing means that you carve your design into some kind of block (wooden or lino), then repeatedly ink the block and stamp it onto the fabric. Whilst I loved this method and the texture it gave – it was very slow and labour intensive. I knew if I wanted to make my business commercially viable, I was going to have to ‘speed things up’ – that’s when we started experimenting and teaching ourselves how to screen print instead. With screen printing you can cover more fabric more quickly.
Do you ever dabble with the latest technology?
I had considered digital printing in the early days, but there is something so very special about the hand printed method. It gives the fabric ‘soul’. It’s a transfer of energy from one dedicated person to another. And this has become essential to our aim. We’re here to keep artists and artisans working and creating – so digital just isn’t an option for us now.
“You only print onto 100% cotton fabric that is manufactured here in Kenya.”
Using cotton and only fabric manufactured here in Kenya is of upmost importance to us! We don’t use any imported fabrics. Kenya used to have a thriving cotton industry (check out the Kshs 200 note – it has cotton pickers on it!). There is now hardly any cotton grown in Kenya – it all comes from Uganda and Tanzania. There was an amazing textile factory here in Nanyuki that produced world-class textiles – it’s been bulldozed to the ground! Cheaper imported fabrics have put these cotton farmers and textile manufacturers out of business big time! And it’s so sad for our Kenyan economy! So I’m steadfastly supporting the remaining Kenyan textile manufacturers and hope that by combining Kenyan textiles with contemporary Kenyan textile design – we can help put these industries back on the map.
It does have its challenges dealing with local manufacturers and supply can be quite erratic – but it’s more a symptom of the state of the industry itself – which is why it makes it so much more important to stick with them through thick and thin.
And you’ve still managed to put out and sustain complete collection…
I designed our two current collections. One is a collection of organic leafy designs called “It’s a Breeze” and other is a collection of culturally inspired designs called “Mirage”. I normally design about five different prints per collection as this gives the most flexibility in terms of mixing and matching. And we aim to launch one or two new fabric collections a year, inspired by what’s catching my attention at the time I start thinking about a collection. But I have so many ideas in my head for different collections I’d like to design – that I don’t think I’ll be running out of ideas or inspiration for a while!
Are these collections one off?
We will continue to offer all of our collections indefinitely. I think different collections speak to different people – so there should always be something for someone. It also takes a lot of time and work to create a collection, so once it’s launched we need to maximise its exposure otherwise the work would feel wasted.
Do you design everything under the brand or do you outsource?
So far, I’ve created all our fabric designs. But – I’m deeply committed to encouraging other Kenyan artists to harness their talents and I encourage dedicated artists to develop their own fabric collections with us. I have already begun this with my colleague Elijah Mungai, a great illustrator, that’s now designed two patterns of his own and is working on a new collection for 2018. We’ll be launching his two designs online at the end of this month.
How would you describe your style?
I think I would say I have quite an understated, rustic style. I really like to pair things down to the bear minimum. I like to keep things simple and raw (rough around the edges). I’m about the imperfections more than the perfections – I love the ‘happy accidents’. I think my style has ‘loosened up’ a lot since I first started designing as I have had to adapt to the screen printing method which has forced me to design patterns that are more forgiving.
Can a customer order bespoke patterns for themselves?
Honestly, I’m getting away from designing bespoke patterns for people. It’s a lot of work and often the cost and time involved is just not justifiable unless it’s for a big quantity of fabric. I’ve found that people often want me to copy a fabric design they have seen elsewhere – which I’m just not prepared to do as its plagiarism. We are all about authentic Kenyan design and I feel that we need to be getting people to appreciate this rather than just copying.
In your opinion, why isn’t fabric printing readily done here?
I think it’s because there are a lot of challenges involved, especially here in Kenya where supplies are not so readily available or expensive. It’s also the lack of awareness, knowledge and skills. There isn’t really anywhere in Kenya where you can go to learn this stuff. I think Kenyan schools need to start taking arts education more seriously for a start, then more collages and art institutions need to consider textile design and printing as a course offering.
What can we look forward to from Simply Sandara in 2017?
We have a lot of plans for this year – a new outlet in Nairobi being one of the main ones! And a few new product offerings too. We have two new collections that we’re launching online at the end of April. One is designed by me and is called Samburu Soul and the other is by my colleague Elijah Mungai and is called Toile d’Afrique.
After we launched a new website in February this year, people can order our fabrics, cushions and lampshades online. We are also really keen for people to sign up for our mailing list as we want to build good relationships directly with our customers and end users. This is REALLY important to us.
At first, Hill started her home textile brand as a way to live lie doing what she loved; making art. As a child she was told that art would never sustain her financially. Hence her decision to build a business selling hand printed home furnishing fabrics so she could keep making art and hopefully make some money too. But the aim has become more than that now; with the focus shifting to encouraging creativity and artistic talent in Kenya. “By allowing myself to make the most of my artistic talents and creative urges, I hope to give others permission to do the same,” says Hill.
Haven’t been to her Website yet? Head over now to learn more about the meaning behind each of her collections (all the prints have a story to share), meet her design team and get some additional tips and tricks to becoming décor fabric savvy.
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