When Jo Nathan was a child combing fleeces alongside her grandmother as she sat at her spinning wheel, or trawling through earthy bushland collecting various artefacts to make coloured dyes, she didn’t ever imagine that the experience would eventually lead to her rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s leading fashion designers.
Sitting in her beautiful studio space on a 3000 acre cattle property overlooking the banks of the Wakool River at Deniliquin, Jo, who owns fashion label Woolliwoolli, reminisces about her earliest experiences with textiles and wool.
“The natural dyeing process always fascinated me, especially the colours created. As a teenager I loved to sew, mum taught me my sewing skills, and I made a lot of clothing, but I wasn’t particularly thinking I’d be a fashion designer – that seemed like a crazy dream for a kid growing up on a dairy farm at Cobram,” Jo says.
However, fast forward a number of years and Jo was literally travelling the world.
It was an experience that came after her visual arts teacher had encouraged her to study textile design, and Jo completed the course at RMIT University. She was then employed as a designer for Cleakheaton (Australian Country Spinners), designing yarns, working in the mill creating colours, undertaking editorial roles for various magazines (Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Women’s Weekly), and being a part of fashion photo shoots for the knitting publications, before she returned to RMIT to teach the next generation of designers.
After 12 months of nurturing upcoming designers, it became apparent that relocating to the family farm was a dream for her husband Matt, and her new journey in Australia’s wool growing heartland began.
Whilst the Riverina is renowned as a thriving wool growing region, (its origins with Merino wool dating back to the mid 1800s), and Jo had always appreciated the beautiful fibre, it wasn’t until she was directly meeting woolgrowers and shearers from the region, that she felt there was an opportunity to reinvigorate the perception of wool as wearable fashion. And that’s when she decided to establish Woolliwoolli.
Jo won the Australian Wool Fashion Awards most marketable collection in 2003 which led to her involvement in the New Generation Fashion Show in Melbourne as part of a trade show involvement and she was invited to attend the Fashion Week event in Hong Kong.
Through Australian Wool Innovation sponsorship Jo attended further Fashion Week events in 2005 and 2006, and she started showcasing her garments around the world – Shanghai, New Delhi, Milan, London and Paris.
“It was pretty incredible to have the opportunity to do a runway show in the fashion world and work with other designers, mostly from Asia, building relationships. I also worked with beautiful models from all of the world. It was a highlight to see production wise how a real fashion show works at that end of the market.”
After travelling to Paris, Jo realised that there was endless travel involved in being involved in the international fashion industry, and the farm life and relationships in Deniliquin had become more important to her, so she focused on a more ‘local’ market.
And she’s realised that even Deniliquin can stage its own runway show.
Jo was involved in the introduction of a fashion show five years ago to raise money for the local hospital auxiliary and guiding local girls into modelling the locally designed garments.
“To see shy teenage girls walk on a catwalk and blossom into gorgeous models, I love the fact that something like that can happen in Deni.
“Life in the country is just fantastic and just because you’re in the country doesn’t mean you can’t be in touch with the fashion world. Anything is possible.”
When Jo first started designing under her Woolliwoolli label, the garments were vibrant, colourful and featured textured detail.
After exploring more neutral and darker tones, this year’s winter collection featured designs that emulated the roots of the label.
And Jo has been excited by the revival in wool being considered a versatile and fashionable fibre.
“Australian Wool Innovation has really done a lot in promoting it as a contemporary fashion fibre and I’ve watched that and been a part of that encouraging young designers to work with wool again.
“There are really so many ways wool can be used – from a traditional standard knitted jumper to evening gowns, suits, performance wear, sports wear. Wool breathes, it drapes, it can be manipulated by felting it, spinning it in different ways for different effects, it can be used to create anything really.”
From wholesaling to various retailers through trade show appearances, the Woolliwoolli label is now exclusively available through the website and Facebook page. Jo uses woollen yarns she’s collected from various sources over 20 years and predominantly uses those spun by Nick Bradford of Nundle Woollen Mills at Tamworth. Jo is passionate about a slow fashion movement, creating all her garments herself, using 1960s/70s domestic knitting machines and hand knitting techniques using fine ply wools to embark on designing the new pieces for next year’s collection expected to be launched in May.
“I just focused on scarves this year and I’m hoping to do a homewares range as well to take it in a different direction. I’m not chasing the fashion world to the extent that I used to.”
Jo has also developed a series of workshops and is taking expressions of interest for involvement over spring/summer so others can explore the woollen fibre and learn knitting techniques, and is especially passionate in educating children.
“If we can put wool into the hands of kids it can be influential in their future in learning about the fibre.
“I was taken to a world I never dreamed of because I learnt to knit as a child.”
Words: Rosie O’Keeffe
Pictures: Sophie Loft (models in scarves), others supplied by Woolliwoolli