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Weaver Renée Van Ginkel on Loving the Craft

Weaver Renée Van Ginkel on Loving the Craft

There aren’t many stories that involve a career in fashion design, a goat farm in Israel, and a Japanese weaving school. Yet, for Dutch textile designer and weaver Renée Van Ginkel, that’s all familiar territory. And, as of 10 months ago, she can also now include getting back on track with her passion for weaving and starting her own business, StudioBenibana!

Kinship + Craft spoke with Renée about the experience of reconnecting with her creativity since becoming a mother, her love of weaving, and starting her business. It’s still in the initial stages, and life has certainly thrown challenges, but Renée is excited for what’s to come!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Renée holds up her Sprinkles sarong, which was hand-painted on muslin cotton (hand-spun and handwoven in India) 100 x 200 cm (39 x 78.7 in). | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — Hi Renée! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your work. To get started, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into weaving?

I am originally from the Netherlands, where, straight after high school, I studied fashion design. The childhood dream was a glamorous one, but it turned out to be very different in real life. Disillusioned, I found myself working in an office on the industrial side of Amsterdam, dreaming of a different view and a different life.

So, sick of the grey concrete and the grey sky in Holland, I decided to get closer to nature and do something completely different. I left for Israel to work on a homestead and care for ten goats. There, I fell in love with all of it: working with my hands, the animals, the weather, the plants, the people, and my [now] husband. Back home, I decided that I had to find a way to combine all those parts of me.

I love working alone, drawing, and getting my hands on different materials and remembered that I had once heard about Kawashima Textile School in the hills of Kyoto, Japan. So, I thought perhaps weaving was the answer for me — which it turned out to be. I studied Japanese Ikat weaving in Kyoto during a three-month course. When I came back, I moved to Israel, but quickly got side-tracked by becoming a mother. My children have gotten bigger, though, and last year I finally felt like time was opening up for me. So I started to resume my weaving journey. StudioBenibana is the continuation of that!

K+C — Now, you live in the countryside in Israel with your husband and two children. What was the inspiration that led you to weave as more than a general interest?

My weaving came from my career slowly evolving. Understanding more about who I am, what I want, and what fits me. Also, understanding what that first interest in fashion design was all about: creating something beautiful, to the eyes, to the touch, something useful, basic, and simple. And that the process involves creating and designing just as much as it involves the craftsmanship of making. 

Benibana, the flower behind the brand name, is the Japanese term for the safflower plant with bright yellow flowers. When dried, it produces colors ranging between yellow and red. According to Renée, dying textiles “with the Benibana plant is a process that makes you feel like a magician.” | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — As a mother of two, you’ve mentioned the difficulties of managing your time in posts on your Instagram account. We can also relate — there’s just never enough time for everything we want to do! What has motherhood taught you about yourself? Do you look at time differently now as a mother?

I think motherhood made me more productive and time-efficient than I have ever been. Sometimes I feel so deprived of time that I really use it to its fullest, which is great. I even believe that, because it held me back, it gave me some space away from my work that I otherwise would never have taken. That has proven to be crucial for shaping an idea into a good idea.

I still don’t have enough time to execute all the ideas I have for the future, which is incredibly motivating. There’s always a whole list of new things I want to work towards, and that is really nice. I think motherhood has been the biggest push to pursue my dreams. It woke me up and made me realize that there is no time to waste on insecurities and fears. 

Gathering inspiration and digging in

K+C — What influences the style of your work? It seems that a lot comes from your colorful, blooming garden at home.

When I started StudioBenibana, I wanted to make things that I would wear or buy; that was very important to me. Soon, I realized that I am very driven by what I love to make. I love working with colors, taking risks, trying difficult or time-consuming techniques. It’s satisfying when a project is challenging.

Of course, I totally get inspired by my magical garden. But I also get a lot of inspiration from other artists and makers, starting with my father, a painter. I think those are all of the ingredients of my style.

Renée usually starts with a series of drawings that she uses as references during the process of weaving or hand-painting her pieces. Although she mainly works when her children aren’t around, her five-year-old daughter, Ruby Mae, has started mimicking her, coming up with designs herself. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — What steps do you take when you typically start a project?

First, I make a series of drawings from which I choose a couple that I want to continue testing. Then, I color them using paint, choose the materials and technique of coloring, and afterward determine the order of when to do what. I decide which threads become what color and how they will be painted or dyed. Some I paint off the loom, some on, and sometimes they will be tied and dyed, etc. Each step has its own effect and look.

Then, I start to make the warp. Because I often work with very fine strings, I like to start the tedious work of unrolling skeins and rolling bobbins early on. That way, I don’t need to do it all at once and lose my patience. Once the warp is ready, I can start painting, putting the threads on the loom, and weave away. It is always a funny feeling that the actual weaving is the very last step in my process. 

Renée winds paper thread on her Japanese kiwaku, a wooden spool used in the preparation processes. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.

I realized that I am very driven by what I love to make. I love working with colors, taking risks, and trying difficult or time-consuming techniques. I like it when a project is challenging.

The material usually arrives in a skein, which is a loosely coiled length of thread. Afterward, Renée dyes the material if she wants a specific color. Once finished, she wraps the loose thread around the kiwaku spool, which makes it easier to handle during the weaving process. Renée dyed this particular thread using the Benibana plant. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — Materials are a big part of your process. From initial mock-ups on various materials to choosing from multiple types of fiber, whether it be peace silk*, bamboo fiber, merino wool, cotton, ramie. What are your methods for choosing the right materials?

My only method for choosing the right materials is through trial and error. Before every new project, I plan a 50 cm test [section] for it — this way, I can easily try things out ahead of time. I know the kind of fibers and threads I like. So, whenever I see something interesting or nice, I just buy it. And when I find a good combination, I’ll use it.

(*Note for the reader: Peace silk (also known as Non-Violent Silk or Ahimsa Silk) means non-violent silk breeding and harvesting. Once the silkworms have spun their cocoons, they are kept in a sheltered location until a harvest can be done without disturbing the animal’s natural metamorphosis cycle. This process can take between two and four weeks, which can slow collection times down but is a necessary part of harvesting the silk without causing harm to or killing the animals.) 

K+C — The preparation for some of these materials seems so strenuous. (We’re looking at those thin threads!) What gets you through these parts of the process, such as winding-up new bobbins or tying a new warp on the loom?

I love it! I really enjoy doing tiny, strenuous, tedious jobs, and it makes me feel so good after I finish threading 2,000 threads without a mistake. Of course, it helps that I have kids that force me to take breaks. Spreading these kinds of jobs out definitely helps with the patience levels.

Depending on the job, though, I also like to listen to a podcast. But most of the time, I think it’s really good for the creative process to allow for these moments where I am just ‘doing,’ so ideas can all of a sudden come to me. It’s the perfect combination between craft and creation.

A close-up of one of Renée’s handwoven shawls, which she weaves on her floor loom. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.

It’s wonderful to dissect a drawing into separate components, choose colors, materials, etc., and then put it back together with threads. No matter how hard I try to be precise and control it, the result is always a surprise, which is somewhat therapeutic for me as a control freak.

An aerial view of Renée’s floor loom with one of her handwoven pieces. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — Color also seems like a focus, and specifically that of natural dyes. StudioBenibana gets its name from a Japanese flower that you often use to dye. What are the challenges of creating and using natural dyes, and what do you enjoy most about them? 

Color is definitely important in my work. Very early on, I discovered that creating specific colors that also need to be bright, washable, and lightfast is incredibly difficult. Even impossible sometimes with natural dying. Also, it is occasionally necessary to add environmentally questionable mordents (such as Chromium) to fix the material, so I diverted from using them in most of my work.

Natural dying will always be something exciting to me, though. To dye with the Benibana plant is a process that makes you feel like a magician. It is a skill on its own, and definitely a dream of mine to collaborate with a natural dyer for some limited edition pieces at some point.

In this particular piece, the differences between painting on the loom and off the loom are clearer. When the fabric is on the stretcher, the color that Renée applies typically feathers out and has a softer appearance. Whereas, when Renée paints on the loom, she is able to achieve sharper patterns through the use of stencils. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
One of StudioBenibana‘s sarongs stretched out after going through the hand-painting process. Renée works with both pre-woven fabric, which she then paints by hand, and weaves cloth herself. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
A hand-painted sarong shortly after being removed from the rack. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.

Loving the craft and all that comes with it

K+C — You studied weaving in Japan for a little while. How would you describe that experience? And what takeaways have you incorporated into your practice from that time?

For me, the total immersion into Japanese culture and into weaving 24/7 was amazing. I stayed in a dorm in the school, and there were only a few more international students.

Otherwise, to breathe, be patient, be precise, and try doing [the craft] perfectly were highly valued in this school. To be honest, I think all those things just really fit who I am. I love the small precise stuff. I love the meditativeness of it, the silence, the sounds of the loom, the patience you need. However, I also love the anticipation of seeing the end result. 

It’s wonderful to dissect a drawing into separate components, choose colors, materials, etc., and then put it back together with threads. No matter how hard I try to be precise and control it, the result is always a surprise, which is somewhat therapeutic for me as a control freak!

K+C — In notes about your work, you’ve also referenced other types of weaving or dyeing methods from around the world. This includes Ikat — a resist dyeing process from Indonesia — to Jamdani (or Dhakai Jamdani, or simply Dhakai) from Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is a particularly complicated weaving method. What draws you to various techniques?

When I went to study weaving in Japan, I also learned Japanese Ikat, called “Kasuri,” so I immediately got in touch with an intricate technique. If I see something new that I love, I want to know how it works, how they do it, and [then] try it. Weaving is such an ancient art. There are intricate techniques and masters of those techniques all over the world, all with their own niches. It’s such a huge sea of knowledge and craftsmanship to explore and from which to learn. I feel really excited to get to know all of that and to be able to incorporate the things I like into my own work.

A detail of the finely woven and brightly colored threads in a StudioBenibana piece. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.
K+C — What do you wish more people would know about weaving?

I think it’s nice for everybody to know how fabric is constructed. For example, who makes it, what it takes to prepare the fibers, or grow them even. Awareness of the process will always create more appreciation for the products people end up buying.

One for luck!

K+C — The first anniversary of StudioBenibana is coming up in September! What are you most proud of trying or achieving so far?

In this crazy hectic year with kids at home, no traveling, my husband’s business falling, and a huge move — I think it is a great accomplishment that I managed to get on track with my passion and start a business in what I like to do the most. I’m heading into the next year full of energy and excitement! 

K+C — Thank you, Renée!
An assortment of StudioBenibana textiles. | Photograph courtesy of Renée Van Ginkel.

Interested in textiles? Check out another article here about Indian textiles and here for an interview about weaving projects in Taiwan.

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