Friday, July 11, 2008

Interview - Penelope Durston

Cottage Industry exterior featuring Penelope's beautiful hand-made bunting made from recycled tea-towels

Cottage Industry interior

Penelope's colourful vintage fabric cushions

Penelope's Durston's beautiful shop Cottage Industry in Gertrude st, Fitzroy, completely snuck up on me. I thought I had my finger on the pulse of all interesting Melbourne happenings... and then one day a couple of month ago, speeding down Gertrude st on a rainy Melbourne afternoon, I noticed Pene's gorgeous shopfront, framed by 2 strands of colourful hand-made bunting... and I wondered how on earth it had slipped under my radar! Turns out, the lovely Pene Durston is a veteran of Melbourne craft and design... She's worked for some of the biggest names in Australian fashion and homewares including Mariana Hardwick and Country Road, and has always had her own creative businesses too - whether designing, retailing, manufacturing, or consulting.

Cottage Industry was only a matter of time for the prolific Ms. Durston. After a serious accident in 2000, Pene re-discovered her love for hand-craft, and re-launched her own label again for the wholesale market. In 2006 she moved her hand-made empire into a stunning, light and airy Fitzroy studio (pictures below)... and then in January of this year stumbled across the perfect little shop in Gertrude st for her burgeoning business to set up shop. Less than 2 months later Cottage Industry was born!

I can't imagine a more industrious person than Pene. She has no interest in outsourcing the design or making of her wares - she somehow finds the time to handmake nearly all the stock in her shop.... plus she still lectures at RMIT, and is always involved in some other crazy crafty project. She's one busy woman! Pene's current project is part of Melbourne's State of Design festival - she's collaborating with other local designers to create tableware and furniture for the Eat Green Design temporary sustainable restaurant in Little Collins st. Eat Green Design is a restaurant space with a difference -
it has been developed as a temporary, customised environment that explores ecological principles, environmental responsibility in design and sustainable consumption. All elements of the restaurant - from tableware to furnishings will be re-worked and recycled in some way, and the menu will emphasise slow and organic food, and locally sourced produce. A little preview is here. For more info and bookings visit the website.

A big thankyou to Pene for her time with this interview! If you haven't already visited, do drop in to Cottage Industry one day soon... and if you visit on a Saturday, you might just be lucky enough to have a yarn (s'cuse the pun) with the lovely Miss Pen Pen herself. :)

Tell me a little about your background - what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing now?

I grew up in a family of five kids with mum making all our clothes, knitting, etc. My sisters were always making things - its just what everyone did. I started weaving when I was very young and that somehow lead to me deciding to follow some form of art training rather than go down the more academic path that everyone is supposed I’d take.

I studied a BA in Textile Design at RMIT from 1984-6 in the peak of the whole Fashion Design Council times when everyone made their own clothes, printed their own textiles. Instead of part-time café work my part-time job was as a free-lance details designer for Mariana Hardwick which started when I was in second year at RMIT. I also designed and manufactured embroidered fabrics for independent fashion designers.

After leaving college a friend and I opened brother/sister businesses designing, manufacturing and retailing homewares. I still worked as a fashion and accessories designer, creating for companies like Ipanema. We closed the retail store in about 1992 during the downturn. (We had been successful (!?)copied by Country Road, Plane Tree Farm, etc and decided we wanted different things from life.)
I still free-lanced after this and also worked as a chef for a change of scene. In 1998 I was head-hunted by Jane Parker to consult to Country Road re-vamping their textile based homewares. I did this for a year and a bit.

In 2000 I had a serious accident and in all the best clichés it refocused me on what I wanted - or perhaps what I didn’t want - to be doing. Stuck at home recovering I began getting back to what I love best - making things by hand and learning skills. I am not one of those people who can just send work out to be mass-produced (even on a small scale). I want to participate in the process - sadly not a good way to make a living!

I began to design for my own label again and wholesale. Things have been slow but steady (with those highs and lows inevitable in small craft based businesses) with continued work for other people supplementing income at times. In 2006 I was lucky enough to take over a studio space in Fitzroy and move the mountains of ‘stuff’ and machinery out of home - it had become worse and worse over the 16 years I had been living in Brunswick St! In January this year faced with no lease renewal at Brunswick St I stumbled across the Gertrude St property and literally knew within 24 hours that I had the lease- very strange and one of those times you think it must have been meant to be. 7 weeks of renovating and I opened the shop!

Pene's incredible studio in Fitzroy

It seems there is real resurgence of craft-based industry in Melbourne… what are you thoughts about the growing popularity of hand-crafted homewares and accessories? To what do you attribute this current trend?

Melbourne has always had that nice sense of art and design that places like Sydney (cliché) never seem to generate. Craft like so many things has a swings and roundabout cycle. In the past the cycle was more to do with the type of craft (eg macramé in the 70s, spinning and weaving etc out where I grew up), but I think over the last 20 years we have had a society that was more interested in the ‘craft of consuming’, shopping became the hobby du jour.

The whole concept of ‘make and mend’ and hand me downs and personalising clothing and the home by the use of handwork just stopped. Shop, consume, throw away= soul-less.
The whole recycle movement (‘make and mend’ is really the highest form of this) has pushed people in to suddenly ‘needing’ the feel of dirt under their fingernails. Craft has personality, warmth, heart and generosity that people seem to need these days. In times of economic depression and turmoil people become clever and creative.

Sadly people buy ready-made craft products rather than make them themselves because they have lost the skills, or were never taught how to make. A whole generation missing these basic skills is a very sad outcome from consumerism.
The ‘cup-caking of craft’ really angers me - the rant is on the blog. Independent working women suddenly stuck at home after having kids and in need of craft, and needing to justify their hobbies and existence by selling their mediocre crafted products. Craft in most cases should be enjoyed principally for the making of an object by hand - enjoy it for itself! I am a professional skilled designer who happens to use craft techniques to produce (hopefully) well designed and made pieces. I am constantly skills hunting and developing. I am not complacent about my practise it is an on going exploration and learning curve.

Some more of Penelope's creations - I love her shopping bags made from tea-towels. A beautiful alternative to the ubiquitous green supermarket shopping bag!

I often feel that Australian designers try very hard to give their work an ‘international look’ or appeal, and often lose a sense of integrity in doing so. By contrast, your work instantly strikes me as the perfect example of an ‘Australian’ design aesthetic. I’m not sure why! I guess it’s a combination of the printed imagery you use, as well as the balance your strike between traditional stitching techniques and contemporary shapes/colours. Do you see your work as reminiscent of any particular era or culture? Do you strive for any particular ‘look’ when designing and creating your work?

I love the ‘make and mend’ philosophy, best seen in the Great Depression, where nothing is wasted, objects are recycled and made over in something else, we have had a long tradition of this in Australia. Also, maybe it is the Australian sense of humour, not taking things too seriously. I’m not trying to push recycling by making skirts out of tea-towels, its more ‘you’re wearing something OBVIOUSLY made from tea-towels and did you realise that you’ve got a wombat on your bum!?’ Don’t be so serious! I think the obvious sometimes gets overlooked and we should really love it for its levelling nature - something we all recognise, a shared experience or history. Lets be a tourist in our own country and enjoy the tacky!

Tea-towel skirt featuring the map of Tasmania(!) and a gorgeous rik-rak trim.

The type of stitching I do is related to patching (make and mend again) used all over the world but especially in the ‘boro’ style used in Japan. I love the way something so very practical - darning stitches - can become something so incredibly beautiful. I like things to be ‘organic’ in their development, perfection and evenness creep me out (like scary precise patchwork- eeek!)
I love many eras and cultures and as I always wanted to grow up and be an archaeologist I have that love of the history of textiles and all it covers. I want to dig through things and uncover how and why and where they were made. I certainly have more of a historical view or ‘look’ rather than a ‘now’ fashion look when I design. I love utility clothing, natural fibres, practical and beautiful wins hands down every day.

You are one of a growing number of designers with popular blogs! Do you see your blog as a way to connect with other like-minded designers, or with potential customers/clients? How much of your web-presence is a personal outlet, and how much of it is based on promoting your work?

The blog was started as a way of catching up and ranting at friends but like anything in the public arena…… put it out there and people might read it……..

It has developed from there. With the store opening it has gone on to a life of its own. Sometimes I feel like I can’t be as vitriolic or depressed as I used to be and need to show a more public face. But maybe people also like a bit of a rant! I certainly did not start the blog to promote my work, mainly it was to show friends what I was up to, but now I get joy out of documenting what I’m working on. I’ve always been very bad at documenting work as it always left the studio very fast. Blogging lets this recording happening in a less formal way and I feel less pressure about perfect photos, costly shoots, etc. Maybe by blogging you also let your potential customers participate in the creative process, they have an interest in seeing the finished work.

Blogging is an immediate way for retailers to hook into your work and - hey - websites these days out-date so fast. Blogging is cheap and cheerful and a bit make-and-mend and do-it-yourself! We like that! (A lot of the blogging community scares the willies out of me- they are so very scarily cheery, I really don’t want to belong to a club that would have me!)

How do potential clients/customers find you? Do you ‘market’ yourself?

I’ve found over the years that people have just sought me out. I’ve never bothered to advertise and have only ever dealt with editorial. I often feel that if someone has got in contact with me then they really are interested in my work and therefore I don’t need to ‘sell’ the story of what I do. Being a bit ‘shy’, too, I prefer my work to sell itself if possible.

I’m the type that is suspect of hype and over-sell. Too many designers in Australia are heading in the direction of having the publicist and agent before actually doing any work. I don’t see that my designs are approachable to a huge audience and I’m not interested in that sort of market. I’m enjoying slowly puddling away designing and creating and it doesn’t interest me in making a huge splash. This is what I do and who I am, it is not something that I out on as a public image. Integrity in my designs and manufacture is very important for me but I certainly don’t want to be either fly-by-night or preachy.

More Cottage Industry eye candy

Which designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?

I’m inspired by many things and people but this can change on an hourly basis! Designers like Antonio Marras whose Sardinian heritage influences his design work, and Piet Hein Eek and Tord Boontje are the type of people whose work I admire. I find historical photos and just historical pieces in general a fantastic place to start for mood and feel. Countries like India are exciting on many levels and I’m itching to go travelling again in the near future (its been a while!)

Where else do you find inspiration – ie books, magazines, your environment, travel, your family and friends?

Inspiration is everywhere- its on the tram, in art galleries, a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. You just have to be open to looking. (But I am also a complete magazine and book junkie- English Elle Decoration, World of Interiors and I love Selvedge magazine, from a textile view point it is just so exciting.)

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

At the moment work is divided –very unbalanced at the moment- between the shop/office, the studio and teaching at RMIT. At the moment, there is simply not enough me to go around! As I pretty much do everything (although I’m only doing shop-girl duties on Saturday) I have a lot to do! If I do get a chance to sit in front of the TV I’m still handknitting, crocheting, stitching something- if it has to be done then…………

What are you most proud of professionally?

I think the satisfaction of making something that someone wants to own is probably the greatest thing. It connects you to the wider community and is very flattering.

Photos from a day Penelope and friends spend decorating the tree outside her shop with hand-made lace doilies! This idea came from Janet Morton's work, seen on the wonderful Lovely Textiles blog (these images from Elvis of Lovely Textiles' Flickr)

What's the best thing about your job?

Making! There is nothing more exciting than coming up with an idea, working it out, making it and then sitting back in amazement that you have made this ‘thing’. It is a very satisfying feeling.

And the worst?

Exhaustion, not enough time in the day, too many things on the boil- and the bookwork!

What would be your dream project?

I really don’t know…………. Perhaps working with the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad in India, they own the Calico Museum of Textiles and design and manufacture the most wonderful work. But really once you’ve done the ‘dream project’ where do you go from there? Everyday, even when its hard and depressing, is another day of learning and really what is better than that?

What are you looking forward to – professionally or personally?

Opening the shop has been a great step forward and there is so much that I now feel that I can work towards. I have a lot of projects that I have been unable to put in to production until now, now I have an environment that I can showcase them in. (and maybe a holiday at some stage- its been a big year so far!)

Melbourne Questions –

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

The lamb shanks at the Builder’ Arms weren’t bad the other week or the dumplings at Oriental Tea-House or cheap lunch take-away from Don Don……….. as usual it always depends on the company, the weather and how hungry you are!

Your favourite shop in Melbourne for the materials/tools of your trade? – ie fabrics, haberdashery etc?

I love RJ Harvey in the Nicholas Building, I’ve been going to them since I was a teenager (when they were on Swanston St) and would kill for one of their haberdashery counters. Tailoring, hardware and stationary supplies are just so timeless and utilitarian, I love a trade!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Saturday morning I’m getting ready to open up the shop, its my shop girl day! I’ve probably spent the first part of the morning running around getting the Saturday papers and breakfast and if I have the time a quick cuppa before I open the doors.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

The back streets of Fitzroy. Having moved up the hill to Gertrude I’m falling in love with this end of my suburb. I’ve lived in Fitzroy for 16 years but its nooks and crannies are fascinating. Little views and vistas down lanes and finding a special tree or building is exciting.

Just a little editor's note - my Gertrude st shopping guide doesn't currently include Cottage Industry because I wrote it before Pene opened her shop! I must amend it. In the meantime, just so you know where you're going, thought I would mention it's a few doors up from 'amor y locura' which is on my map. (ie the Nicholson st end).

Cottage Industry
67 Gertrude st


Ph. 9419 2430

Open 11am - 6pm Wednesday-Saturday


  1. Amazing I'm so excited about this festival! Beautiful pics and information!

  2. beautiful. thanks for sharing lucy. x

  3. Thanks so much ladies! :) I appreciate the comments and kind words... I am so excited about the Design Festival too!

  4. Lucy - this is a fabulous interview and penelope durnston is super talented - look forward to visiting her shop when I'm home next

  5. Miss Penelope is an ongoing inspiration to me, I can't wait to get back to Melbourne to see her store. And she sent me here, I am enjoying your blog.


  6. Great post Lucy! I can't believe I spend most of my life on Gertrude and haven't been to Penelope's shop yet. Next week, for sure.