3056 – Julia Moon Billings, Woollenflower

Julia at home in her Brunswick backyard

Portrait: Julia at home in her Brunswick backyard

Sometime in Australia’s recent past Melbourne laid claim to the title of Arts Capital of Australia (amongst several other monikers). With its award winning urban design, a multitude of arts festivals, gallery laden postcodes, hipsters artisans, and business collectives – it certainly has a right to that claim.

 The city boasts all manner of exhibitions, gigs and events year round and in addition to its many established festivals Melbourne also has a visible fondness for independent, youth and community arts.

Seemingly etched in a Melburnian’s blueprint is interest in free and artistic expression, this combined with an Australian-wide eagerness to back an under-dog has seen a ground swell in interest in the work of fledgling local artisans, their skills and their start-up brands.

Like all trends there are many factors at play, and many new arts-business models have been mobilized by the rise in the availability and use of social media and interestingly also by the popularity of the slow movement in the face of digital modernity.

Additionally global economic factors have forced many in recent times to look to new careers, bundle that with an interest in preserving tradition, layers of multiculturalism, and a growing population… and you have a few solid reasons as to why you can now see the work of more local artisan’s in Melbourne’s boutiques than a decade ago.

Julia Moon Billings is one such new business artisan. She works with wool, making unique garments and teaching others to do the same. She blogs under the name Woollenflower. Through her work she explores modern and traditional global working methods and combines her knowledge of plants and herbs to explore colour and create unique natural dyes.

Like so many Julia spent her twenties travelling and studying, which for her included, languages, naturopathy and horticulture. During her studies she discovered a natural focus for the genus and healing properties of plants – additionally she loved the way they looked and developed a continuing love affair with the designs found in nature.

I caught up with Julia at home in Brunswick, and surrounded by a wonderfully and eclectic collection of plants, art and found objects we talked about her love of wool and the wearable arts.

 Hi Jules, thanks for talking to TENANT today. I love this knitting room of yours…and the commitment a home-studio represents. When exactly did you start working with wool?

I started to knit semi-seriously about 10 years ago. At the time I was motivated to make tailored and practical garments to keep myself warm while working outdoors in horticulture… but I also wanted to give my hands (which were in the dirt all day) and my eyes a treat by working with beautiful textures and colours.

This knitting room space is just over a year old. We moved into this house five years ago and by that time I was knitting regularly. When we did a small home renovation I took the opportunity to create this knitting space to assist me in my transition to teaching and business production.

Julia's knitting room

Julia’s knitting room

 What do you call your profession and your industry?

I call myself a Knitter and knitting teacher – covers my hand and my machine work. I don’t really like any of the monikers that are around, terms like ‘Crafter’… but it is a good question as I don’t want my work or its reputation to stay sanctioned in a domestic world and the word ‘knitting’ is very much considered a domestic term. But at this time is the right word to describe what I do, it is a grass roots term, and correct!

How did you come to teaching?

I started working in a new yarn shop and they put the call out for teachers to attract and inspire customers.  At the same time I had started to take children’s earth science and sustainability classes at CERES in Brunswick and was really enjoying exploring teaching methods and learning through the responsive communication of teaching.

When I started teaching other people the basics of knitting I simply really enjoyed seeing people’s excitement at creating their very own fabrics.

This spurred me on in my own knitting education and I travelled overseas to attend a knitting camp in Scotland and to take classes with some of the big guns of the hand-knitting world.

Sitting in on classes with such longtime knitters and experienced teachers showed me how much there is to learn in any given craft and just how important it is that people pass those skills on.

Woollenflower, Colourwork cowl

Woollenflower, Colourwork cowl

Woollenflower, Handknitted Shetland cardigan

Woollenflower, Handknitted Shetland cardigan

Woollenflower, Arrow scarf shawl

Woollenflower, Arrow scarf shawl

How exciting to meet and learn from some of the best in your field…

Yes it was, I think I’ve always been a bit slapdash with most things, either that or focused for a time and then left wondering where the passion went!

Yet with knitting, I’ve somehow managed to learn, or I wanted to learn, how to be disciplined, to apply myself to one craft and to build up my skills and knowledge.

And, while people come to knitting for many reasons, I really hope to help those who want to explore and expand our ideas of hand-knitting the tools to do so.

I think this is an interesting point you make. I have a theory that when people really care about something, or someone I guess, they literally take-care. I think that a fastidious pride, application to learning and attention to detail are all possible signposts to one’s calling. What do you think?

Yes I think we naturally put more energy into what we find interesting but I do also recall it being a decision too; a decision that I wanted to be good at something, to work hard at it and to be connected to it.

What do you like and dislike about your industry?

I love the intrinsic openness and creativity of the craft community. At it’s core, it’s about people slowing down a bit and connecting with parts of themselves that they don’t often have time for… and that’s a great thing to be involved with.

I wish that we could produce yarn in Australia. I find it sad that we walked away from the industry last century and now rely on developing countries to do the dirty work of cleaning and then spinning fiber for us. My grandfather was very involved in the wool industry in Geelong and it’s been interesting and sad learning about its demise through my dad.

How do you approach your work, particularly when you might hit a roadblock?

Hmm, that’s a good question. I have to say I tend to avoid facing roadblocks for a few days and tend to busy myself with an entirely different task! Once I’m ready to face an issue, I find that talking it through with someone who understands the process is the best way for me. I’m lucky in having a good network of people who teach and make things around me.

What do you draw on for your work inspiration and what is inspiring you right now?

For my own personal knitting and the pattern work that I’m using in my Woollenflower designs, I find colour and pattern inspiration in many places!

Plant forms are a huge source of inspiration for me, as are the unexpected colour combinations that we see in nature… and traditional textiles, such as carpets, embroidery and weaving.

I recently spent time traveling in Iran and was completely bowled over by the incredible sophistication of Persian decoration. I came back with my head absolutely buzzing with patterns and colour.

Images from Julia's trip to Iran

Images from Julia’s trip to Iran

Ah the gifts of travel. What an amazing place to have visited! Why did you go there and what was a lasting impression that it left on you?

I went there to spend time with my mother who had decided to go with a friend on cultural tour. It ended up being just us three on the tour!

It was the people left a lasting impression – there was such a sense of pride, a grace and an inhabitance of an ancient culture, one that had been living and evolving over thousands of years. I really felt the history of the area in my bones and it was invigorating. At the same time it did not feel stalled in time it felt so sophisticated – even those who were not wealthy seemed to live mindfully and well.

What are you most proud of professionally (so-far!)?

I have two things I’m equally proud of! One is teaching at the recent Craft Sessions retreat which was a lovely moment for me, as both a teacher and a knitter (or crafter!). We need opportunities to spend time with people who are into the same thing we are and to teach at such a beautiful event dedicated to craft was a joy. I am looking forward to the next retreat, which is on again in the Yarra Valley, in September this year.

The other is a teacher’s nerd-out moment because it’s often the smallest, least-visible moments that are the most joyful – and was when one of my students, who had only made a few scarves before, finished one of the most beautifully crafted and well-fitted cardigans I’ve ever seen. To watch someone apply all those little techniques and tips and make something they are so happy with was really thrilling.

Do you have a dream project…(in your professional realm, or another)?

To design my own yarn and colours! I’ve recently been exploring dying with natural materials as a way of extending my colour palette and using my horticultural knowledge in a different way.

I’m now teaching the basics of natural dyeing and people just love it I think that plants and colour are so close to our hearts and most of us had a granny/ uncle/ mum who got into it in the 1970’s… so there is a familiarity and eagerness to learn about it and give it a try. It’s my dream class!

Woollenflower, Plant-dyed yarn

Woollenflower, Plant-dyed yarn

Woollenflower, yarns, dyed with purple carrot!

Woollenflower, yarns, dyed with purple carrot!

Woollenflower, Dyeing yarn with woad

Woollenflower, Dyeing yarn with woad.

What other like-minded people or products do you enjoy keeping an eye on?

Kate Davies designs the kind of hand knits that I love; she combines interesting texture and pattern with history and techniques in a way that keep knitters learning!

I’ve recently come across the work of Myf Walker of Tinker. She’s another Melbourne plant dyer who works mostly with fabric (rather than yarn like me), dyeing lengths of silk and other natural materials and then using them to make the most beautiful pieces. It’s lovely to see her apply the same knowledge in a completely different way.  And I enjoy seeing how the work of many hands comes together so beautifully at Ship and Shape.

How long have you lived in Brunswick and would it be a favourite Melbourne postcode?

I have been living in this house for five years, but have lived in Brunswick for most of my life. My family moved here from the leafy eastern suburbs in 1985, which was certainly swimming against the tide back then.

The move was motivated by one of my sisters going to University High in Parkville but I think my parents had been itching to move to a more urban environment for years. Malvern was green and lovely and a very safe and comfortable place to be a kid but I think they wanted more for the whole family. We moved into a big old terrace overlooking Royal Park and never looked back!

Admittedly, I don’t think I ventured much further north than Dawson St very often as a teenager, but Brunswick and the north was a great place to be. Getting my first taste of Middle Eastern food at Alaysia (when there was only one!), hearing the lions and gibbons calling from the Melbourne Zoo on summer evenings while sneaking a cigarette as a teen on the balcony, hanging out with kids from different backgrounds, wandering the vintage clothing shops in Brunswick St… it certainly expanded my view of Melbourne and of life.

What do you like most about Brunswick?

I like the proximity to town, the large parks and amenities like hospitals and the vibe of Melbourne University is a huge plus. I love the mix of Victorian houses with commercial and semi-industrial businesses, and the mix of home and commerce.

Despite the huge changes I’ve seen over the last 20 years, there is still great cultural diversity here and there are always people around, even on my quiet little street, so it never feels lonely. We’re blessed with great, cheap food of all different kinds, so much so that we rarely go out to eat anywhere else!

Recently, I also noticed a kind of re-connection being made with Brunswick’s textile history, with lots of small textile designers and producers moving in and living and working in the area, which makes me feel like part of a tradition. And of course, we’re blessed to have CERES and the Merri Creek and the life they bring into the inner city.

Julia's Brunswick home, house details

Julia’s Brunswick home, house details

If you did not live in Brunswick where do you think you might live?

Other than time living in Paris, spent overseas and some brief stints in St Kilda and Clifton Hill, I’ve been in Brunswick all my adult life.

In theory, there are some Melbourne suburbs I’d be willing to try, but, when it comes down to it, I can’t really imagine moving out of Brunswick! I think it’ll probably be a move away from Melbourne itself that gets me out of Brunswick, rather than a move to another suburb.

Where outside of Melbourne might you go?

I’d really love to live in Scotland for a while…in Australia maybe Tasmania for a time. Anywhere that is green, cold and has mountains – a place where you can where woollen garments everyday!

Do you think Melbourne is a traditional town?

Yes, I do… but I think we like to rework tradition, to question it and refashion it through a study and creativity.

What is a place that you have travelled to that reminds you of Melbourne?

Glasgow reminds me quite a bit of Melbourne – I think it’s the architecture, a solid commitment to the arts and good food and being able to laugh at ourselves… a bit!

What makes you proud of Melbourne?

I love the fact that there is enough diversity to make most people feel like they belong. And its green spaces, thanks to the vision of people like William Guilfoyle, who designed the Royal Botanic Gardens and many other gardens in the city, and Andrew Laidlaw, the current landscape architect for the gardens, our parks and gardens boast world-class beauty and design and make it easy to access nature in what is a pretty built-up city.

What do you think Melbourne will look like/be like in 20 years?

I’m not familiar enough with town planning initiatives to get a clear sense of how bright the future is for this fast growing city…but I hope we can find ways to combine increased urban density with our high standards of livability, water quality, air quality, green spaces etc.

What do you think is one of Melbourne’s best-kept secrets or attractions? A place where you might take a visitor for example, or someone who thought they had seen all of Melbourne?

Maranoa Gardens in Balwyn. It’s a beautiful old collection of indigenous and native plants planted out over 3.5 acres and incorporates so many amazing, beautiful and weird-looking plants that I think everyone would find something of interest there!

Thanks for your time today Julia, it has been fascinating focusing on your Melbourne life. What’s on for the week ahead?

I am going to Sydney to see my husband who is living and studying in there for three – long months. I look forward to spending hours in Kinokuniya bookshop looking at Japanese craft books! They are the best!

And lastly can you recommend a Melburnian that you would like to introduce to us to be interviewed by TENANT.

I think you (and your readers) would enjoy meeting Brianna Read, who runs knitwear and textile design label Jack of Diamonds and who is making small-scale machine knitting cool again. She’s very smart and soulful.

 Thanks again Julia, safe travels happy knitting  and enjoy the Northern climes of  fair Sydney.

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