Studio Visit: Lichen & Leaf


I first met Cynthia at the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock, Cape Town, a few months ago. It was pretty much one of the stormiest days ever when I met Cynthia again, at her studio in Salt River for a cup of tea and a bit of an interview. We recorded everything on a cellphone and I transcribed it into this written interview with a bit of light editing here and there for easy reading (hover over the photos to read the captions).

Warm and welcoming, Cynthia made us each a cup of tea and introduced me to the beautiful dog she was looking after while her friend was away.

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So, Cynthia, what inspired you to start doing more block-printing?

I studied Fine Art at Michaelis and majored in printmaking. After graduating I spent a year thinking about what I wanted to do and couldn't quite decide. Being an art graduate means you really need to grab the bull by the horns as it’s pretty much like starting your own business. I didn’t feel like I was quite ready for that just yet. My mom went over to Taiwan to teach English when I left school and my dad joined her a year later. So, I decided to go over to teach English and travel. While there I began doing woodblock printing, teaching myself and experimenting with woods and techniques. I subsequently I saw a William Morris exhibition at a gallery space in a small coastal town just outside of Taipei. William Morris does wood-block printed wallpaper, textile design; very old fashioned but beautiful patterns and very intricate. His stuff is so, so lovely; very nature-based and with incredible execution. On the way back home to South Africa I went to visit my sister in England and I discovered the beautiful permanent collection of his at the Victoria & Albert Museum. They even have a room for which he did all the surface design - it’s a café so you can go and have lunch in this “William Morris Room”.

I think he was the original spark that inspired me to do block-printing in combination with surface design.

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Can you tell me about your experience of launching your business at the Neighbourgoods Market?

I launched on 20 December last year, my first market day. Everything was really, really quick. I got some money from my sister and that had taken a long time to come through and I’d already set a start date at the market. It was a huge amount of pressure to make what I needed for the first day. At that time I was also doing all the sewing myself and all the designs were new. I started really small with cushion covers, tote bags and tea towels; simple and keep it easy. My best friend came and helped me out. The first day was crazy and just because it was the week before Christmas I sold out everything that I had. Then for the second week I had to build up stock all over again. Luckily I managed to find a seamstress in my studio building - it took me months to find her after asking around. Printing is enough work as it is. So, I managed to find her and then all I had to do was print. What’s funny is that now that I’ve found her I've been getting back into sewing after borrowing a friend’s machine.

So, I got a chance to see that people like my products. As it progressed into winter I found the market to be very quiet, especially for home-ware products. Food stalls don't experience it as harshly as people go there to eat all the time. I’m still doing this part time and two and a half days in the week wasn't quite enough to sustain the market as well as wholesale (I’ve started getting wholesale which is very cool). The moment I got my first wholesale order, I said: “Look guys, I’m too busy for this right now. Would you leave the door open to me for when I can be self-sufficient and am doing this full time?” (that's the big dream). I was exhausted after six months. It was all so incredibly labour intensive. I stand for hours and hours in the studio and then at the market it was frustrating when I wasn’t doing as well as I was in season. I discovered that I need a bit of a break, some time off.

What I miss about the market is the feedback and people coming up and saying “Whoa! This so cool!”, “Whoa, I love your stuff.” and “Do you sell online?” So I also got a lot of ideas from people saying “Can you do this? or “Can you do that?” and it encouraged me to get an on-line shop so that they can say they that they want this product but with a different print, customers have more choice!

The market was fun. It was a huge scary step when you invest all this money and time and then you think “Is anybody going to actually like this?”. About a month or so before the launch I started to print and I just did a few swatches of the first designs I had made; mieles, red onions, artichoke, Piet-my-Vrou or Red-chested Cuckoo... The bigger prints like the delicious monster and the banana leaf came later. I got such great feedback which was really encouraging and propelled my persual of the idea.

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Can you tell me a bit about your printing process?

I hand draw everything. What I originally did was I hand drew the designs and then I scanned them in and I edited them in Photoshop and then printed them out after which I discovered that carbon paper or transfer paper didn’t work on the lino, so I went back to pre-school vibes and rubbed the back of the print out with pencil in order to transfer the drawing. Then I realised it's easier just to draw straight onto the lino and be done with it!

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I use a sponge roller because it creates a nice consistency on the block and it’s all about getting it saturated so that you get enough ink on the block to actually print a nice solid print onto the fabric.

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I have an assortment of carving tools. Taiwan was amazing. It was the perfect place to buy stuff. Wood-block printing is not as rare there as it is here. My parents have a friend who’s been in the art world for a while and she’s Taiwanese so she referred me to this place, so off I went. I rocked up there and felt I was surely confused; it was on the ground floor with curtains pulled closed and no signage (or if there was I couldn't read it!). So I knocked on the door and someone peered through the curtains and let me in. They had everything, it was such a treasure trove! So, I invested in some nice carving tools.

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What’s the most time-consuming part of the process?

I like using various techniques and approaches to my pattern designs and blocks. A more obvious hand carved block print has a bit more of a flow and you can see the carving and movement of the hand in it, for example my Banana Leaf design. But some of them could very well be screen printed, for example the flatter designs such as Artichoke and Red Onion. I think this is something I will start to think more and more about especially when I eventually invest in the screen printing equipment and wish to differentiate clearly between my block printing and screen printed designs.

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So the carving takes a bit of time but once you’ve done it, you can just keep using it. One day I’ll probably re-make them. It takes a lot of testing but with experience you get to see whether it’s working or not and where to cut. And with the printing there’s a lot of testing involved.

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I've tried some dip-dyeing, but what a mission! This is an Australian Fire Tree. I saw this tree in Malmesbury, it had these beautiful red berries, little flower-kind-of-berry things, and seed pods which I collected. I also brought a leaf home with me.

I like working that way, looking around and I take a lot of photographs. I like drawing inspiration from the world around me and turning it into a pattern.

This is very instantaneous (more so than screen printing). I can just see something I like, carve a block and then print it. It’s fun and feels more spontaneous.

To make my life easier, sometimes I make more than one of the same block and then stick it to perspex. For example this prickly pear flower which originally started as a prickly pear. And then I thought the flowers are really pretty and florals sell well so I made a few of them and stuck them on a block.

The prints are very free form, I can make them larger or smaller. If I confine myself to a strict pattern, it’s a bit more static.

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You mentioned that you source your fabric from Southern Africa?

When I started I experimented with using hemp, but it’s shipped in from China and at the time I thought, , "If you’re going to have the environmental benefit of hemp, then why not try and just go for something local?". The hemp was a lot courser which I didn’t really like. It meant using a lot more ink and a lot more pressure to make a nice print. I like it when they’re nice and punchy.

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I mix some orange and gold together for the pineapple paint. If you look at it, it’s not very obvious but it has a bit of a glittery look to it. I love the colour combination of the bronze and green.

The base-fabric I use is produced in Zimbabwe for which I have a local supplier that I buy most of my stuff from. They have nice fabric for bed linens and stuff like that. So I can say that it’s a proudly Southern African product!

This Bull-Denim is really lovely, it has a really lovely off-white colour and it’s also available in different colours as well as black and white. It’s extremely flexible so I use it for everything: tea towels, bed throws, table cloths. It’s beautifully soft and when it’s washed it gets even softer.

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I’m excited to see this (protea print) as a curtain. This is another example of someone saying to me, “Oh can you make curtains?”, and I’m like “No, but I could, I guess.”

I really like getting orders like that from people for things that I’ve never made before. It gives me that excuse to say, “Ok, I’m going to make something new.” For example I've had interest in duvet covers and bedding which is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while but it’s a whole 'nother spiel, you know, so making that order is a great way of getting those ideas done and out there.

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I’ve been doing all the sewing for these little pouches, right from from printing. They have a different patterned print on the inside. I really like the idea of putting a lot of time and a lot of effort into products made with care and they have a very hands-on feel, I really appreciate that when I see that elsewhere.

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Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to start something?

So what I get told a lot is: “Quit your day job.”, which is the scariest thing to do. I work part-time, half days every day. Its helped me to have stability and a reliable income. I’d like to set a deadline to quit but it’s still a bit terrifying. I’m basically waiting for the time when I feel like I have enough money to support myself as well as the business and then just go for it.

Other than that I guess using social media has been a very important step for me. I get a lot of inspiration from other people all over the world. There’s a lot of textile design in Africa but not a lot of block printing, so it's a great way to broaden your horizons and see what’s out there. Getting feedback from all over the world is also very encouraging.

We can always be scared or afraid of what people are going to say or think but I'd say just take that risk and do what you feel you're best at.

You'll be amazed at the feedback you get. I know, this is what I can do, this is what makes me really happy and I can’t wait to do it full time.

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We'll keep you posted as to when Cynthia's creations can be found at the Neighbourgoods Market? again (hopefully in summer). In the meantime you can visit Lichen & Leaf's on-line shop to get your hands on some of her awesome products.

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If you're a vendor and you'd like us to visit you at your studio or creative space (this includes food), please send us a mail: freshlocamarkets@gmail.com !