Cape Town-born and raised Leila Walter graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2014, after which she worked in the film industry. But, when lockdown hit, Walter saw an opportunity to take a path more suited to her passions and personality and started experimenting with hand-crafted cloth.
Drawing on her childhood experiences of sewing, printing and knotting with her mother and an eye-opening trip to India in 2018, Walter started Crosspolynations, a Cape Town-based hand weaving studio that specialises in one-of-a-kind and small-batch functional art textiles.
We interviewed the Design Indaba Emerging Creative to find out more about her experiences in India, the story behind the Crosspolynations name and the advice she has for fellow young creatives.
You moved from fine art to film and now textiles – take us through your creative journey over the last few years.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art in 2014. As much as I found my greatest meaning and expression in making art, at this point the art world seemed like a totally mystified, impenetrable space. In my final year of studying, I had begun doing freelance art department work in the film industry and it provided me with a means to support myself and my practice. After graduating, the work kept coming, and I slowly climbed my way up through the ranks. The jobs were creative, they paid well and really taught me how to conduct myself and communicate in a professional way. The other great thing about the film industry is that there were regular periods between jobs where I could explore other things. I have always had some creative practice going in the background – photography, collage, drawing, painting, sewing etc. Through this work, I was also privileged to be able to travel and get to explore other cultures, museums, exhibitions and creative traditions. I’ve always felt that as stimulating, challenging and collaborative as the film industry is, it wasn’t quite the right fit for my personality and preferred mode of working.
When lockdown hit, I felt like the only way I knew how to support myself had disappeared with no sign of coming back. I had a bit of savings and an incredibly supportive partner and it felt like it was time to seriously bunker down, to learn and play and try out as many things as I could in hopes of recreating my life. I got super creative and very honest with myself and I slowly built a practice which felt authentic in terms of who I am and how I can contribute best in creating value in the most honest, sustainable way possible. This manifested in the form of Crosspolynations. It's the brand that I’ve built around my passion for hand-crafted cloth, which I produce in the most local, natural, sustainable and ethical way I know how. The goal is to create beautiful products which bring joy, beauty and comfort to people’s lives and homes while celebrating ancient craft techniques and the inimitable beauty of humble, natural materials.
How did your trip to India change or challenge your perception of textiles and tactility?
My trip to India in 2018 was the most incredibly expansive experience. I have always been interested in textiles; my mother worked in the ‘rag trade’ before my brother and I were born. She was always screen printing, knotting rugs out of rags and sewing, which naturally became part of my life early on. Then when I began travelling, I would always collect small pieces of textiles. Before India, I had an obsession with African wax cloth – I absolutely loved the patterns and colours and how each design spoke to a specific region and season. Then when I got to India, I discovered cloth on a whole different level.
Their textile history is so incredibly rich and vast that it really blew my mind. India is such a vast country and each region, if not village, has its own textile speciality, a form of weaving or embroidery or dye. Each tradition speaks directly to the identity of the people who practise them and the environment in which they are created. A certain cloth woven in a certain region would use short-staple cotton spun very finely and woven loosely because the area is humid so the yarn would not snap when weaving and would produce a breathable garment suitable for the wearer. In another region, cloth would be embroidered with patterns which keep accounts of events and possessions of nomadic people [who have] few material belongings and [therefore would] adorn the ones they do have heavily. In India, my view of textiles shifted from a top-down approach – what is on the cloth or what can be made from the cloth? – to an inside-out approach – what fibres constitute the cloth, how are they brought together to construct it and how does this process create the form? Many traditional Indian clothes are simply one cloth of a specific width or length, folded and gathered in ways which create a fitted garment. All of this really made me appreciate the cloth itself as an archive and a complete form.
What is the number one thing you have learnt since opening your own business in 2020?
I have learnt so many lessons, I can’t quite believe it! I would say the thing that has really amazed me the most has been how much progress you can make if you just keep showing up, taking the next step and doing the thing. Pay as little attention to distractions as possible and keep the influence of fear in check.
Who (or what) are your creative inspirations?
Honestly, I feel like everything inspires me. Inspiration is everywhere, everything. I look out my window and the beauty of the mountain in front of me makes me want to get back to the loom, to channel it. In a less abstract way, I am deeply inspired by all forms of traditional craft and practitioners deeply involved in their material and medium. I’m very interested in the “timeless”. If there is a pot I see on Instagram that someone just took out of a kiln which looks like it has existed forever, or an ancient West African cloth which was made centuries ago and looks as relevant as ever in a luxury Scandinavian interior design store… That kind of thing. The simple, honest, natural refinement of a piece, which transcends time and place – that’s what I’m always looking towards for guidance. I’m also really into modern quilting at the moment. I’m inspired by materials, particularly natural, and the reuse or reimagining of “waste” materials. I’m also always looking to contemporary art to which I feel a resonance.
What is the story behind the Crosspolynations name?
Crosspolynations is a bit of a pun. I was literally across the ocean in another country when I came up with the name. But really, what it speaks to is how traditional and craft knowledge and skill is gained and given. It’s all about community and collaboration, the sharing of techniques and lessons and an influence which travels. I like to think of craft knowledge like a dandelion, which comes together and then drifts off and gets picked up a little down the road and gets mixed in with something a little bit different which creates a new form in its new context.
What advice would you give young artists interested in working with textiles?
Textiles are having a really huge moment right now. They’re in all the group shows in galleries and the global conversation around sustainability, waste and the many other effects of the fast-fashion business and the textile industry at large is all over the news. And, as ever, we still all wake up cocooned in textiles, we wash, dry ourselves with one and then dress in several.
Textiles are as relevant and intimate a medium as ever, so I would say that it's really exciting and fertile ground for anyone who feels drawn to it. I feel that the most important agenda for this medium and really everything right now is sustainability, so I would really urge anyone interested in exploring the medium to really interrogate the materials and supply chain that you want to work in. It’s important to ask what impact your work is having on the environment, the conversation and the collective psyche.
What’s up next for Crosspolynations?
Big things! We’re just about to move into a bigger studio space and I’m very excited to start working on a bigger scale. I’m hoping to play around with textiles in some three-dimensional forms soon, which will hopefully be an opportunity to collaborate with other makers and new spaces. I'm also very interested to explore more with materials, which will inform a collection that I'm working towards in a more fine art direction, which feels like a perfect full-circle trajectory.