Sister Act: Melbourne textile studio Frankie & Swiss

Craft-loving siblings take customised textiles to a new level with the help of local artists and a digital printing machine named Florence.

The name Frankie & Swiss may seem more suited to a delicatessen sandwich board than a company capable of turning your favourite images into fabric, but who cares, when they can nuance textiles to your own distinct character, colour preference, context and odd coincidence (this morning’s smartphone catch of a passing butterfly could be this evening’s linen cushion)? “It’s a mix and mess of our married names,” explains Michelle Francis, one half of the sister act who ditched their lucrative day jobs to research the market and machinery for digital printing textiles that would print larger than A4. “I’m a keen sewer and remember wanting to make an apron pocket out of a vintage chocolate poster, but was totally frustrated in the attempt,” says Francis.

“So I began thinking, looking, costing equipment and eventually said to my sister Jacqui, ‘You’re coming with me; we’re just going to do this.’” Jacqui Swies, the other half of the sibling start-up venture, laughs when recalling the carpe diem decision that quickly translated into a business plan, a lease on a large South Yarra space, the financing of a “serious” two-tonne digital printer (named Florence, as in Broadhurst) and the rapid rescheduling of childcare.

“Sounds scary, and it was,” Francis says, standing in the cavernous ex-office that now multi-purposes as a boutique printer (today turning out patterned repeats of illustrator Dawn Tan’s plates of lemon spaghetti); a laboratory for print experimentation (microorganisms drawn by the late German scientist Ernst Haeckel are being magnified and multiplied across lengths of cream hemp); a venue for creative workshopping (Tess McCabe’s Creative Women’s Circle regularly co-hosts events) and a child-minding centre. “We built our kids into the business model,” says Swies.

A custom-printed teepee in the corner and lots of crayon-scattered tables attest to this ‘best practice’. “We think small in order to think big,” continues Swies, showing samples of the new ‘Leaf’ series – the result of collaborations with select Australian artists. “Florence has dropped millions of tiny ink dots to make these. She’s amazing.”

You could call this enterprise a super-future sewing circle – the latest technology leveraged by ‘local ladies’ (Frankie & Swiss stand in the centre of multiple craft networks) able to hyper-customise personalised print into soft furnishings and fashion. Such labels understate this company’s reach and relevance. With their commitment to supporting both artisans and the isolated craft-maker, Frankie & Swiss are stitching a big ‘C’ back into community.

This story was first published in Vogue Living May/June 2012, on news stands and Zinio now.

Text: Annemarie Kiely
Photographs: Alicia Taylor

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