Aug 26, 2023
Explore the three independent design studios that are practising sustainability through refining textile art and science
Having the time and space to explore the possibilities of textiles means everything to the founders of Tanchen Studio, Mai Textile Studio and Uncolour Studios. From weaving to dyeing, they share a
Having the time and space to explore the possibilities of textiles means everything to the founders of Tanchen Studio, Mai Textile Studio and Uncolour Studios. From weaving to dyeing, they share a love for tactility, experimentation and research in their creative practices. It is what motivates them to venture far and consider the impacts the medium has on both people and the planet. Now that crafting and slow fashion are entering public consciousness, Vogue Singapore discovers why these studios came to be and how their work is changing our relationship with textiles.
The story of Tanchen Studio’s creation is like a woven cloth that entwines Singapore and China. Founders Sanchia Tan andAmber Chen crossed paths at Central Saint Martins in London as undergraduates specialising in textile design. Working together in the same programme, the duo bonded over a shared obsession with block weaves and double cloth.
Post-graduation, Tan and Chen took on different pursuits. It was only after a meet-up to conduct workshops that Tanchen Studio formed organically at the end of 2019. By then, both wanted to focus on weaving as their main practice and having studios in Singapore and Shanghai gave them the freedom to bounce ideas off each other.
Tanchen, an amalgam of Tan and Chen’s surnames, is also a play on the word ‘tension’. They are translating this vital aspect of weaving into their creations, where functionality stems from elasticity and suspension. “Flexible materials invite users to reappropriate and reimagine these items for a variety of purposes,”shares Tan. “The handcrafted aspect of our pieces injects personality and a patina onto the objects’ surfaces.” By leaning into the aesthetics of the handmade, Tanchen Studios eschews the perfect for the practical. A visit to trimming markets for deadstock ribbons, beads and elastic yarns is how a collection begins. Besides, embracing the challenge of using scraps is the magic behind Tan and Chen’s 0/0 bags, Mazha stools and a large-scale installation for WHM Studio’s flagship store in Beijing.
“Sometimes we’ll throw things in a washing machine to see how they hold up. Then we brainstorm, from considering the thickness of a cord to whether something needs a lining to be more elastic or stiff,” explains Chen. “Our products have varied prototype sat different stages of evolution that are still being used by the team.”
“The handcrafted aspect of our pieces injects personality and a patina onto the objects’ surfaces.”
Through objects that harmoniously blend form and function, the two weavers are determined to dispel the notion that upcycling and recycling isn’t chic. Although the tendency to neglect the labour and time behind textile production is hard to shake, Tan and Chen are optimistic that more will be cognisant of their consumption habits.
“It’s why we do workshops. They’re hands-on lessons about what it’s like to create a textile from start to finish,” adds Tan. “In turn, we see how our products are received and learn what works for users.”With half of Tanchen Studio’s identity situated in SoutheastAsia, Tan and Chen are excited by Singapore’s growing scene of textile artisans. After all, the region has strong design identities and continues to cultivate traditional crafts by infusing them with modern sensibilities. For now, Tanchen Studios seeks to stretch itself by taking on custom projects, installations and collaborations with people from diverse disciplines.
Leong Minyi had been working in the fashion industry after graduating from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, but several years in commercial design drained colour from her life. Buoyed by her passion for fabrics, she sought out Kyoto’s Kawashima Textile School in 2012. One fateful email connected Leong to her mentor Bryan Whitehead and the rest is history.
“My experience with different artisans at Whitehead’s village was reinvigorating. Seeing their dedication opened my mind to the Japanese world of hand weaving and manual resistance techniques like tie-dyeing (shibori) and stencil-dyeing (katazome)”, Leong recounts. “How they were honing their craft through experimentation and always moving forward resonated with me. I realised there’s no fixed way of doing things. Two people could do the same shibori and it’ll come out completely different.”
From understanding natural dyes’ properties to spending long hours assisting in Whitehead’s workshops, Leong’s learning curve was steep to say the least. Her efforts, though tireless, were fruitful in refining her skills.
“When we value what goes behind a quality creation, we don’t easily buy and throw things away.”
After years of shuttling between Singapore and Japan, Leong established Mai Textile Studio in 2015. What started with the aim to keep the craft alive gradually opened doors to talks, pop-ups and exhibitions. Producing orders by herself while balancing another job was no easy feat either. Imagine spending months scouring for metres of fabrics, then a routine of stitching, dyeing, unstitching, washing, cutting and sewing just to remove a layer of starch for natural dyes to fasten.
Sustaining an optimal studio space proved difficult, so Leong transitioned to a nomadic mode of operation. Now, she continues her research and textile experiments at home. Prior to the pandemic, she conducted workshops where participants could try out shibori and Leong would clarify misconceptions about plant dyes—from wash care to fading.
With the recent revival of crafting that encourages slow fashion, Leong considers her Japanese dyeing methods a conversation starter for people to change their perception of textiles.“There’s a history and mysticism to indigo. Lots of labour and skills are needed to make a sky-blue hue become midnight blue on a piece of fabric,” she shares. “When we value what goes behind a quality creation, we don’t easily buy and throw things away. Crafting comes with the responsibility of creating without generating waste.”
Currently, Leong is looking to further her practice and reuse her leftover textiles for fashion and accessories. As for her studio’s future, she remarks: “It will always be a work in progress. I have been dyeing for a decade and the more textile artisans collaborate, the more we can improve the field. There’s much to be discovered.”
Founded by textile designers Anabel Poh and Sarah Roseman, Uncolour Studios is named after its goal to redefine industrial colouring methods. Having met during their studies at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Poh and Roseman encountered the problem of using inks with acrylic and plastisol in them. With an awareness of textile pollution, the pair were galvanised into developing a biodegradable, bio-based screen-printing ink derived from natural colours.
In garment production, the adoption of synthetic dyes isa normalised practice due to their low costs and strong colour fastness. However, they are responsible for wastewater and the plastic waste from printing makes degradation impossible. Which is why Uncolour Studios is exploring uncharted territory to spearhead change. By innovating a commercially viable bio-based ink alternative, a silkscreen print’s afterlife will have minimal environmental impact.
“We believe there’s exciting potential for development in colouring, hopefully it normalises the use of natural pigments in supply chains.”
“Uncolour Studios’ natural pigments are largely sourced from food and agriculture. They’re within the range of three to 4.5 out of five in the colour-fastness test to adhere to performance standards,” explains Poh. “To layer, build and create our dynamic colour palettes, we utilise the natural process of colour-fading.”
Nonetheless, Poh and Roseman think carefully about whether they should design products to last or allow them to biodegrade. Besides raising awareness for product care, they believe that it is urgent to deal with wastage by changing formulas used in manufacturing. Otherwise, the accumulation of garment waste will continue to drown sites such as Chile’s Atacama Desert and Ghana’s Kantamanto Market.
Keen to push the frontiers of textile printing, Poh and Roseman are developing a silkscreen binder made from a blend of cosmetic and food chemistry. Practical tests are done at their studio in Eindhoven. Meanwhile, analysis to optimise their binder’s preservation and effectiveness are done in collaboration with Singapore-based chemist Srishti Gupta.
To expand its colour ranges, Uncolour Studios is seeking partnerships with companies and research laboratories for pigments sourced from algae, mushrooms, bacteria and minerals. Also in the pipeline is the pilot manufacturing of its inks in Prato, a textile manufacturing hub in Italy. As tighter regulations emerge to change the fashion industry’s production, alternative materials that prioritise environmental impact are the way forward. “We believe there’s exciting research and potential for development in colouring,” says Poh. “Hopefully, Uncolour Studios normalises the use of natural pigments in supply chains and creates a growing ripple effect of sustainable designs.”
The September ‘Feel the heat’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for online and on newsstands from September 2023.Tanchen Studio“The handcrafted aspect of our pieces injects personality and a patina onto the objects’ surfaces.” Mai Textile Studio“When we value what goes behind a quality creation, we don’t easily buy and throw things away.”Uncolour Studio“We believe there’s exciting potential for development in colouring, hopefully it normalises the use of natural pigments in supply chains.”