Alison Smith of Salt and Still
Textile artist Alison Smith designs and makes handmade goods for her company, Salt & Still. Each of Alison's pieces are hand dyed naturally using environmentally friendly fabrics such as linen, wool, cotton, and silk. When she isn't creating clothes and quilts from scratch, Alison dyes and stitches vintage clothing pieces, giving them a second life. Interested in Alison's slow and sustainable processes, I was eager to talk to Alison about her design process and how she became interested in sustainability.
With regards to your own work, how do you define sustainability?
Sustainability is an ongoing process. I can always identify ways where I can be doing better, but the solution is not always easy and change towards greater sustainability can be gradual. To me, sustainability is choosing materials that have low environmental impact, sourcing from vendors that value fair-trade and ethical practices, creating pieces that are made to last a lifetime, and minimizing waste in my studio practice by repurposing scraps and remnants.
Can you describe how you started your company and how you became interested in sustainable design?
I started Salt & Still as a creative practice. I was spending a lot of time doing experiments with natural dyes and chose to work under the name Salt & Still. Eventually Salt & Still did become my business, but that wasn’t its original intention.
My interest in sustainability started during college. I graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art from the University of Vermont. UVM is an institution that greatly values sustainability and environmental awareness and living in Burlington definitely inspired my appreciation for sustainable design and leading a more sustainable life.
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of owning a sustainable business?
The rewarding side is mostly the obvious things like getting to feel good about the pieces I make and their impact on the environment. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can pinpoint as challenging. I can’t think of a time when I ever felt limited by what I could achieve with natural materials. Natural fibers feel great to work with, wear, and have in your home, and natural dyes make the most beautiful earthy colors that can never be replicated with synthetic dyes.
Where do you see the fashion industry moving in terms of ethics and sustainability?
I see many independent designers moving towards creating small collections of thoughtful, utilitarian pieces that are seasonless, unisex, or that can be worn as a uniform, and these are all sustainable characteristics. The versatility of a piece that could be worn year round, by a man or a woman, or as part of a daily uniform is revolutionary at this time because it negates the need for a designer to create multiple collections in a year. It shifts the focus from quantity to quality.
How can we encourage consumers to buy and ethically & sustainably?
We need to focus on educating the consumer about what it means to buy these kinds of products. Over consumption has become the norm and the greater challenge is changing people’s mindset about what they purchase and how they purchase. Perhaps we would actually be happier with less, with only a few pieces that we truly love, but we are told we need more to be happy. We get greater satisfaction from having less, because then we can truly value what we have. And once people learn there is greater enjoyment from purchasing a few quality, well constructed, unique artisan pieces than from over-consuming cheap goods, we’ve taken a big step towards being a more ethical and sustainable culture.
Can you describe what you hope your company will look like five years from now. In other words, what are your long term goals for your company?
On New Year’s Day I write down a list of my intentions for the year for Salt & Still and I don’t look at it again until the following January 1st. That’s all I do in terms of setting goals. I get more joy from celebrating the everyday small victories than I do from making and hitting big goals. With Salt & Still the creative side will always be more important to me than the business side. I believe if I keep making good work, keep growing my creative practice, and keep taking good opportunities as they arise, the business side will continue to grow organically. One nice thing about having a single person company is that it gives me the freedom to make the choices that are best for me creatively but may not be the best ‘business’ choices.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
It changes daily but I always start work very early in the morning. I spend more time on my computer and answering emails than I would like to admit, but the administrative side of Salt & Still can be very demanding. I do everything for Salt & Still myself, in-studio, so the days are generally a mix of designing, dyeing, experimenting, photographing, sewing and plenty of seam ripping.
Tell me about your design process.
My design process almost always starts with color. I’m the kind of person who can look at a Rothko for hours and be filled with so much emotion by the color. I’m constantly experimenting with natural dyes and finding new colors that really inspire me. I might be working with a new dye and start to wonder what would this color lend its self to, should it be worn or displayed? What color would it be beautiful next to? Would this lend itself to a quilt or to landscape-inspired dip dye? I’m constantly creating mini mood boards out of swatches and taping dyed textiles to walls to see what feelings I get from the combinations of colors.
Do you have a motto or saying that particularly inspires you?
“And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right.”
From Neil Gaiman’s 2012 keynote address to the University of the Arts.
Photos courtesy of Alison Smith