Creative Dundee

Dundee Fashion: Mhairi Abbas

Mhairi Abbas is a Knitted Textile & Colour Designer. In this chat, she talks about resilience, working from home, and what the future of fashion might hold.

This is part two of a six-part series of conversations with makers in the local fashion industry, produced by Chris Hunt – PR & Events Director at Genuine, and Founder/Director of Social Enterprise Scotland Re:Designed CIC, New conversations will be out every Friday!

What do you do?

I am a Knitted Textile & Colour Designer, and I started my Knitted Fashion Accessories label in 2017. I was halfway through maternity leave at the start of the pandemic, returning in September so am now juggling work with a houseful as my husband has been working from home too.

Normally I sell mostly at markets and had shops like Kist on Dundee’s Perth Road and other Stockists prior to lockdown, so I am hoping to start back with them again in the future. During Covid-19 I have been focusing on designing a new collection and keeping my website stocked. I am looking forward to launching a new collection for 2021/22 all going well.

How do you do it?

I use a hand-powered knitting machine and dye techniques to create highly finished accessories with a focus on hands-on craftsmanship. My work is very process-driven and each piece is hand-dyed, knitted and hand-finished by myself. I was a Designer in Residence for two years running at DJCAD after studying there. The residency wrapped up nicely just prior to my maternity leave, so like many I have been working from home since then. The business has been ticking over well enough, though it has not been anything like my usual capacity and turnover. Working from home brings many challenges, lack of space being high on the list as renting a studio during the pandemic is not an option. I am looking into how that might work post-pandemic as space is at a premium with my boy now 1 year old, it all adds up to a challenging environment.

I am looking to see how I can fully embrace online events, as well as working back towards any physical ones too.

What do you think are the challenges and opportunities working in this sector locally?

With all the challenges the last twelve months have thrown at us it has really made me see how resilient I am to persevere and has given me the opportunity to reflect. Currently with lockdown the challenges are all with my home bubble. Working in the wider Dundee community has many opportunities for sharing as it is a hugely creative place.

Why do you love Dundee?

I am originally from Shetland and came to study at DJCAD, not knowing quite how much of a hidden gem it is, there is a truly creative community here. At University, I was in a student bubble so did not connect with the creative community much until I started being more proactive and volunteered with NEoN Digital Arts Festival.

By the time I graduated the V&A was being built, the Design Festival had started, and Dundee had become a hub, but as a smaller city it is easy to find the people you need to talk to make things happen.

What do you think is happening to Fashion right now, in Scotland and generally?

Scotland has so many brilliant Designers right now, it is a very exciting thing to be part of. I love the concept of a Circular Economy, it is so clearly the ideal way to work – but not everything is set up that way, so it is difficult, more an ideal to work towards. Personally, for my business and what I make, I try to ensure my materials are as sustainable as possible, though there is still so much confusion and different camps as to which fabrics and techniques are sustainable. I use 100% Merino Wool which has numerous benefits such as being easy to repair meaning the garment is long lasting. Some of my pieces are made with small amounts of cotton highlights and for this I use reclaimed yarn thus reducing my environmental impact. That is an integral part of the business, which people can buy in trust, and one which I’m looking to grow and develop.

What would you like to see happen in Scottish Fashion, or in Dundee for Fashion?

Locally I wish we had more Studio space, there is room for smaller low key or short-term constructs like six months in a shop space or shared machinery, rather than sole tenancy deals which so few can manage anyway.

Fashion and Textiles or Art as a whole is really quite a major community. Personally, it would be a dream to develop a Knitting and Weaving Studio or Collective. In the past I have done a little research into that, it would be great to have that kind of creative space in Dundee.

In the past markets have always been a key go-to for me but since Covid-19 I see the need to learn and do more online in the future. It is already enabling me the freedom to connect with different communities and broaden horizons in places where I could never reach before, opening up a lot of opportunities, and has such huge potential.

Tapping into a new customer base for all of us should be a major campaign, but generally looking for new audiences, online stockists and events is a key element going forward.

Do you agree with the importance of collaborative working?

Totally important, if not vital from my experience. Going from a great group of around 30 on my Textiles Design course, to a Residency, and now working from home I know that creative conversations are vital to learning varying aspects of work and broader information exchange is super valuable, on top of and around others within Fashion – which is key of course too. Talking about other forms, expression and creativity improved my practice as well as focusing on design, sales, or structures. It is about having an aspect of art within your design practice for emotional benefit, and I think it can be quite trapping to focus only wondering if something does not sell. My design process loosened up a lot with surprising results and more fluidity once I took that pressure differently and became part of a larger collaborative network.

What are your hopes long term?

In many ways the Arts have not been taken seriously enough during the pandemic across the UK, it is as simple as that. Everything has been hit and miss. I hope long term it is taken more as something people really need from Fashion to Theatre – not brushed off as a fad or after-thought or self-indulgent. We need to reframe it as it is not only jobs, but ALSO wellbeing. I hope people, myself very much included can find a way to adapt and embrace opportunities which come out of it eventually. Finding new ways to work individually, and collectively. We are all too guilty of working in silos, so I want to look outwards together and work towards common goals to support each other in our city, and in the industry as a whole – from new initiatives and networking to how we plan for the environment.

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