When she was growing up, Athens-born weaver Maria Sigma would spend the school holidays with her maternal grandparents on the island of Andros. Nowadays, she draws boundless inspiration from the island’s smiling coves, with their clear waters and clusters of white-washed Cycladic houses, but at the time she was “quite bored, and always looking for ways to pass the time, like drawing, painting and crochet.”
Her grandmother was deft at crochet and taught Maria how to make classic Greek white lace such as intricately detailed tablecloths and fine curtains, which she put to work all over the house. “Doing these traditional crochets was my first experience of craft,” says Maria, “it’s a hands-on technique that takes practise, but all you need is a crochet hook and some yarn, so I was able to learn a lot without much equipment.”
Making work with few materials is as integral to Maria’s practice now as it was then; she is known for her zero-waste philosophy and slow approach to textiles. She hand weaves blankets, rugs and clothes from a muted palette of natural fibres; sometimes they’ll be accented with a border of, say, Klein blue, which is gently reminiscent, I think, of a Greek island. She gives each unique piece a name, “because each has a personality of its own”. Some are named after beaches in Andros; others, like Hydra, after monsters in Greek mythology; others still from other characters in those myths – Ariadne, Acacallis, Xenodice.
Maria and I meet to discuss her latest project, a collaboration with TOAST for the Autumn Winter collection, on Zoom. (The large loom in the background and chunky reels of yellow and red yarn in front of her – beautifully functional, romantically utilitarian – go some way to offset the dullness of the virtual space). Together with leather worker Candice Lau, who also joins us, Maria has created a tufted bag and pouch for the collection. “I had worked with TOAST before, holding workshops on how to weave using waste yarn,” she says. This project takes that premise a step further, putting to work leftover yarn – from her own rug remnants to cotton, wool and cashmere remaining from TOAST knitwear production – to make the whole collection as economical and low-waste as possible.
“I knew that in order to make this a really elegant bag, it would need to have a leather structure,” says Maria, “otherwise it was going to be at risk of being too crafty, not very solid.” She approached Candice, whom she met when they were both based at Cockpit Arts (a social enterprise and business incubator for craftspeople in Deptford, south-east London) and whose work she had admired for a while, and together they conceived not only of the bag’s structure and materials, but of an extra piece, a half-moon-shaped pouch made from the leather leftover from producing the bag.
“The leather for the circular bag wasn’t in itself a waste material,” says Candice, “I had sourced an Italian cowhide, and putting the remains to work on the pouch meant that the zero-waste idea could run through the whole project, not just the fabric part.” Working with leather more ethically is an ongoing effort for Lau. While she almost always works with leather that’s vegetable-tanned (rather than tanned with chrome, which can be harmful to the environment), it’s a challenge to use offcuts of leather, when making bags. “Piecing little bits of leather together is very hard,” she says, “and the fashion industry is full of rules for how leather bags should be made – like you can only make a bag from a single piece of leather. It isn’t very receptive to this kind of experimentation.”
Candice is also working towards slowing down her processes and the quantities of bags she produces. “I don’t like all the excess of the fashion industry; bags take time and skill, they shouldn’t be cheap or a throwaway item, but built to last. So I suppose I’m moving into a more experimental space, where I can use the material more how I want – where a bag made with waste can be beautiful.” With that in mind, only 50 each of the bag and the purse have been made.
Maria’s practice is evolving, too. Tufting, for example, is a relatively new technique for her, and one she decided to use to help use up her waste yarns. When TOAST approached her to make a bag like this, it offered a golden opportunity to experiment with her tufting gun, which she holds up, explaining how it connects to an air compressor, shooting through the fabric to pull yarn outwards and create piling.
“In the beginning, we talked about the bag having a pile or fringing, but ended up with these looped tufts,” she says, holding up a sample. It is gorgeously ’70s– voluptuous loops of yarn, black, white and orange colour blocks, slightly curved, are arranged in what might be the shape of a landscape.
Do I see, in those curves, a hint of Andros? Possibly yes, but Maria is never literal. “All the connections are very abstract in my work,” she says. “Memories, images and emotions are woven together, also the light when I’m working, my mood at the time, and the materials and their interactions. It’s never just one thing – but Andros is always there, continuously inspiring my weaving in weird ways.”
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Suzie Howell.
Our Hand Tufted Bag will be available to buy online in September 2021 and our Hand Tufted Remnants Pouch in November 2021.