Constance Collins: Creating Handwoven Art Couture

It’s no secret that sustainably made and detailed textiles are in fashion. Whether draped over your shoulders or upon a chair, to hanging in your entryway or hanging out on your Insta grid, Constance Collins strives to ignite her artistic fire through geometry and color with her one of a kind, handwoven creations guaranteed to be a must for your closet, home, and life. In this PATTERN-exclusive interview, Constance of constance brand discusses how she became the thriving textile artist she is today. From recounting her time at IU learning weaving techniques to her tips on launching your own career in the fashion and textiles industries, Constance’s insight is invaluable for the budding artist and entrepreneur in everyone.

Monica Sallay: You call your works “art couture.” Can you explain that a little?

Constance Collins: There is an ongoing discussion among my friends and family whether I am a designer or an artist. When I created wall pieces, I referred to myself as an artist, but used the term textile designer with my wearables. Recently a client from Chicago sent me this note, “…Thank you for a wonderful new art piece”.  After reflecting on that, I am now defining myself as an artist for all of my work.

Couture is the business of designing, making, and selling fashionable custom-made clothing.  So art couture reinforces the constance brand values of unique design, attention to detail, and luxurious, yet sustainable, fabrics.

MS: What made you gravitate towards weaving and textiles?

CC: In my freshman year at IU, my friend across the hall was taking the Intro to Weaving class, but the pipe frame loom and yarn butterflies were sitting in the corner gathering dust. Intrigued with the beautiful yarns and curious why she was not captivated with them, I asked if I might give weaving a try. Ecstatic, she gave me the loom, all of the yarn, and the directions for tapestry weaves.  

Bloomington in the fall is a beautiful place and I found a tree where I could spread out and begin my adventure.  To my surprise, hours passed without me even noticing.  It was only the fact that the piece I was creating was nearing completion that pulled me back to the present. I knew at that moment, under a tree in Bloomington, Indiana, that I had found my passion. I couldn’t wait to become a sophomore so I could enroll in this Intro to Weaving course!

MS: What was it like studying Fine Arts with a specialization in Woven and Constructed Textiles at IU? How did your education help you in your career?

CC: The Woven and Constructed Textiles department at IU was a wonderful place to develop and grow while I was there. Unlike other schools where competition replaced collaboration, our department nurtured a cooperative spirit. We all had our own design aesthetic and voice, so no one was threatened and everyone willingly helped each other, if needed. I would not have survived in a cut-throat program, but thrived at IU.

MS: How difficult was it to pick up weaving?

CC: Weaving requires a lot of patience. It takes several days and multiple steps for my loom to be ready to weave. This process is arduous and may cause your back to hurt.  It requires intense concentration so that warp yarns don’t get out of sequence and distort the pattern. I often thread warps with over 700 individual yarns carefully placed through different harnesses in the correct order.

But the act of weaving is Zen-like for me; watching the fabric grow as I throw the shuttle back and forth is breathtaking. Dressing the loom quickly fades and I know I will go through the backbreaking task of preparing my loom for the next time.

MS: Can you quickly explain the process of creating your favorite piece from concept to production to selling and promotion?

CC: Weaving incorporates individual vertical (warp) and horizontal (fill/weft) yarns to create a fabric. My design process begins by selecting the fiber content of the yarns and the specific colors. Then I create the warp striping and select several potential weave patterns. It is imperative that the warp design aligns with and compliments the weave pattern, so some tweaking of the warp design is required. Weaving is a time-consuming art form, so I dress the loom for multiple pieces to amortize the setup time. All finishing is done by hand, including fringing or sewing to perfectly align seams and patterns.

I exhibit and sell at juried art fairs around the Midwest and Southeast, as well as online through my website, constancewcollins.com

MS: Who or what are your inspirations for your textile creations?

CC: Menswear, first and foremost; here is where you find the mixing of patterns in beautifully woven fabrics. As for specific designers: Alexander McQueen, Antonio Marras, Ermenegildo Zegna, Etro, Haider Ackermann, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Walter Van Beirendonck, and Yohji Yamamoto. I also include Chanel, as they produce gorgeous fabrics most like handwoven and I love their use of fringe (I am a huge fringe fan), and Stella McCartney for her eco-conscious viewpoint.

MS: Where did you teach? What are key points about the fashion and textiles industries that you shared with your Textiles and CAD Design students?

CC: I was an Associate Professor in Fashion Design at The Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago Campus before returning to Indianapolis in 2013. In the CAD class I was teaching students how to design woven fabrics and use the CAD program at the same time. It was a lot like learning a foreign language for my students. I believe we are losing some of the essential design elements of woven fabrics, a travesty in my opinion.

This is why I continued to teach long after I wanted to launch the constance brand. If I do not share my knowledge with younger designers, it may be lost forever someday. There is a major CAD program in the fashion and interior design segment that boasts on its website, “No Technical Knowledge Required”. My favorite quote from Alexander McQueen addresses this statement: “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules, but keep the tradition. I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you deconstruct them.” —No Technical Knowledge Required…Nonsense!

I covered the social responsibility of the fashion design industry in Textiles and all of my courses. The industry has major polluters as well as human rights violators and, as future leaders in our industry, it is important that students understand their responsibility in our planet’s future and support human rights for everyone.

MS: What is your opinion on the current state of the fashion industry (textile business and just in general)?

CC: I am encouraged that more brands are addressing the scourge of our industry, as mentioned before, and that consumers, particularly the younger generations, are looking for more sustainable options and ones where human rights are not violated. I have long promoted the need for consumers to speak up and let brands and retailers know how they feel through my blog and Twitter account. In business, when you speak with your wallet your voice will have the most impact.

The most exciting breakthrough in the Textile industry from my perspective is the collaboration between Stella McCartney and Bolt Threads to produce an alternative to cultivated silk. Bolt Threads has bioengineered a protein-based yarn inspired by spider silk. It will be several years before this yarn is available to the public, but, for me, it gives hope that my bamboo and silk line may become even more sustainable in the future.

MS: What is your favorite piece available in your shop?

CC: For me, it is not so much about favorite pieces as favorite fiber blends. The newest fabric to my line is the bamboo and silk blends. These are extremely lightweight by hand-woven standards and provide a soft hand and superb drape. People are always amazed when they touch these fabrics. At my last two shows in Chicago, people visiting my booth kept using the word “exquisite” to describe the bamboo and silk items.

Looking ahead to the cold months upon us, my alpaca, bamboo, and silk blend is still a favorite of mine. I plan to continue with it at this time, but if the bamboo and silk continue on the current trajectory, I may someday find myself working only in these yarns.

MS: What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a small business in fashion or textiles, but doesn’t know where to begin?

CC: I am a big fan of internships. Where I taught, these were required to graduate. But whether you are a student or not, internships are available and I highly recommend them. After graduation, take a job with a company in a related field. You will make mistakes when you first start out, so make them on someone else’s dime. Never think a job is beneath you, but use it to learn from the experience which will help you when you are on your own.

Starting your own business based upon a personal passion or skill is great, but you need to realize that, as you become successful, there are more demands on your time and energy. And too often, what suffers is the work that you were doing that generated the initial success.  It’s important to balance your time between the things that you are an expert in versus those that you now have to do for the sake of the business. Don’t let the passion and joy in the skill that you have get diminished by everyday business issues.

Find Constance and constance brand on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Check out gallery of recent products available in the constance brand online shop,

Photography by Jake Foster. Models: Lindsey Essington & Orlando Mathews.

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